What we talk about when we talk about the future of environmentalism
This is the first in a series of editorials Grist will publish over the coming months to address the issues raised by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s essay “The Death of Environmentalism” and Adam Werbach’s speech “Is Environmentalism Dead?” Get the backstory here.
Whatever the merits of their arguments, we think it all to the good that Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Adam Werbach (henceforth known as “the reapers,” to save on syllables and to amuse ourselves) are attempting to spark an open, public debate over the future of environmentalism — if it has one, that is.
It’s not enough for the leaders of the environmental movement to discuss these issues in closed-door meetings and the privacy of their offices, or via email and listservs. The debate over environmentalism’s current health and future prospects deserves a wide airing, open to voices rarely heard in the boardrooms of big green organizations. Environmental leaders remain an overwhelmingly white, male, wonky bunch. We’ve got nothing against white male wonks — we’ve got a couple on staff — but it’s quite possible that the homogeneity is influencing the agenda more than said leaders recognize.
We’ll be bringing an array of perspectives on the movement’s future to the pages of Grist in coming weeks and months. In this editorial, we clarify what we see as the most salient issues and constructive questions emerging as part of this debate. Some of these issues are implicit, but have not been stated clearly. Some have been muddled together when they should be considered separately. Some have been glossed over or left out, but we think they deserve attention.
The Vision Thing
Enviros, say the reapers, have become myopic technocrats. They focus on a well-worn, narrowly defined set of issues and advocate almost exclusively for piecemeal procedural solutions (generally involving legislation, regulation, or litigation). Whether they win or lose their narrow tactical battles (see: stricter CAFE standards), greens gain little ground in the larger strategic war, which is fought over the values and vision of the American people. They will continue to lose that war until they develop a comprehensive, inspiring vision that gains adherents and momentum even when a particular lawsuit or piece of legislation fails, the reapers argue.
Questions: Has the green movement relied too much on fear and guilt and too little on inspiration? If a compelling vision is lacking, what should that vision be, and how can greens communicate it more effectively?
No Clan Is an Island
When the reapers call for the “death” of environmentalism, what they have in mind is its dissolution into the larger progressive movement. The green movement, they say, has become a special interest. It’s got its own narrowly focused organizations with teams of lobbyists, lawyers, and tacticians. The reapers compare it to other “stovepiped” progressive caucuses like those advocating for minority rights and abortion rights. It has become insular, isolated from the rest of the progressive movement, and thus inadequate to address today’s broad global threats. The result, the reapers argue, is not only weak environmental advocacy but a weaker progressive movement.
Questions: Are environmental leaders putting enough effort into making common cause with other factions within (or even outside of) the progressive movement? Will stronger ties with other factions suffice, or should environmentalism be merged into the broader progressive movement? Is the progressive movement any stronger or better off than the green movement anyway?
It’s My Party and I’ll Admit It if I Want To
Werbach is unequivocal: “It’s time for us to drop our veil of bipartisanship and fight to fix the deeply broken Democratic Party.”
After the recent election, there was much talk among enviros about how to “reach out” and appeal to possible red-state allies like hunters, anglers, and religious folk. The reapers reject this notion and say, instead, that environmentalists should join with fellow progressives in building a political party that shares their values, not just their aims on a few narrow issues like land preservation. People who are fond of nature but in favor of tax cuts for the rich, an eroding social safety net, corporate-dominated policy making, and preemptive wars are not “us” — they are “them.” Enviros are Democrats, say the reapers. It’s time to admit it.
Questions (this raises quite a few): Should greens jettison the veil of bipartisanship and hitch their wagon to the Democratic Party? To what extent is there such a veil? What would it look like to abandon the already-wan efforts at reaching out to conservatives, and what would be gained by it? Is the Republican Party a lost cause — and if so how did we lose it, given the conservative roots of conservationism stretching from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon, who signed into law our landmark environmental statutes?
My Way or the Beltway
According to the reapers, the Beltway-centered environmental establishment has developed a set of rhetorical and tactical habits that often leaves it out of touch with Joe and Jane Average Citizen. Most people just aren’t that absorbed by political strategery, regulatory jostling, and legislative maneuvering. Nor do most people spend a great deal of time pondering the beauty of Nature, the intrinsic value of Wilderness, or the fortunes of the lesser southwestern mottled prairie vole. Most people are concerned with doing right by their families, paying their bills, and having a little fun. Mainstream enviros would do well to pull their heads out of their, uh, wonks, and speak to these workaday concerns and aspirations.
Question: What can environmentalism do to connect with the “kitchen-table issues” of ordinary folk?
Non-White: The Choice of a New Generation
Here’s one way to connect to kitchen-table issues: give everyone a seat at the table. At a time when the nation’s ethnic and gender balance of power is shifting, the environmental establishment remains composed largely of middle- and upper-class white dudes, and focused mainly on issues they deem important. An environmental agenda set by a more diverse constituency might give greater voice to class and race issues, urban issues, and regional and local issues. In short, it might revive and remake the environmental movement.
Question: How can the environmental movement expand its membership and agenda beyond the current racial and socioeconomic profile?
There’s Green and Then There’s Green
Though it’s rarely discussed openly, the elephant in the room is funding. Yes, money — how it’s spent, where it comes from, and what is demanded in exchange. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year are poured into environmental causes by foundations, corporations, and individual donors. That’s a lot of dough-re-mi.
The reapers say that it may be time for foundations that fund environmental organizations to shut off the spigot, that a steady flow of money only makes it easier for greens to hobble along with their same failed strategies. Presumably they’d prefer that funding go to other (perhaps, ahem, their) projects and initiatives.
Questions: Is good money being thrown after bad, propping up a failed movement? Should foundations shutter their environmental programs and invest more strategically in coalition-building progressive initiatives? How should green greenbacks be spent?