Four emerging environmental leaders discuss the future of their field
To continue the conversation about the ostensible “death of environmentalism,” we invited four next-generation leaders to discuss the issue with one another via email. Herewith, in almost real time, we are publishing their thoughts in our pages. All the participants are fellows with the Environmental Leadership Program, which works with emerging activists and professionals to inspire social and political change. So is environmentalism bound for the morgue, or alive and kicking? Stay tuned this week to find out. Most recent post of the day.
From: Torri Estrada
To: Stephen Moret, Swati Prakash, Thompson Smith
Subject: Getting the ball rolling
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005, at 7:56 a.m. PST
Dear Stephen, Swati, and Thompson,
There has been too little debate within the environmental movement about who we are and where we are going, and too few reflections on our strategy for environmental and social change. In fact, sometimes I feel like the “environmental movement” is less of a coherent movement and more like a bunch of residents in an apartment complex; we all live together, but we probably do not know many of the people in the building — and maybe not even the people on our floor. Therefore, I have to applaud the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism” for fanning the flames of debate. Their arguments have some merit, and there are parts of the paper that I agree with. I would like to step back and highlight a couple of key points I have taken away from it.
First, I think we need to define what the environmental movement is. The DOE paper defined the environmental movement in fairly narrow terms, partly due to its primary subject matter (global climate change) and its intended audience (mainstream environmentalists and foundations working on global warming). But the DOE paper itself, as well as subsequent debates about it, left out many important parts of the environmental movement and their contributions to keeping environmentalism alive: environmental-health advocates, the environmental-justice movement, the international “sustainability” movement, and the dozens of other grassroots efforts related to the environment.
While DOE critiques the narrow frame of environmentalism (for excluding the “human environment” and failing to connect to larger social, economic, and political issues and dynamics), the paper and ensuing debate suffer from a lack of diverse voices in this ostensible autopsy of the environmental movement. In this debate and others, it is very important that we bring together a broad range of voices to evaluate our environmental work and figure out what we need to do to either revive it or build something new.
While I agree with the DOE authors that we need to connect environmentalism (narrowly defined) to larger movements for economic and social justice (and a broader, richer set of progressive values), we also need to address the issues that divide us: race, class, strategy, and power (or our tendency to confuse having power with rubbing up against it but not having it). In the United States, these dynamics divide the movement(s). How can we expect to develop a proactive vision and a common set of values when we are so divided along these lines? The environmental movement needs to refocus on building a broad grassroots constituency to build long-term political power. In this effort, we need to be able to speak with a wide range of people, from the inner city to the farm, from the working class to CEOs, and to people of color, immigrants, and everyone in between.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts,
From: Swati Prakash
To: Torri Estrada, Stephen Moret, Thompson Smith
Subject: The things that matter
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005, at 11:40 a.m. PST
As an environmental-justice activist, I must confess that I read “The Death of Environmentalism” article with the mild interest I might exhibit overhearing distant cousins arguing at a family gathering; I found it interesting, insightful, and even entertaining, but not compelling or new enough to draw my attention away from figuring out what’s for dinner. (Can you tell I’m writing this just before lunch?) By no means do I intend to trivialize the important insights communicated by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, nor do I underestimate the transformative potential of the article for a movement that often does seem mired in its own tactics. But for many frontline environmental-justice activists and organizers, these insights are neither new nor particularly profound.
To summarize three of the authors’ main critiques of the environmental movement:
- The environmental movement suffers from a myopic obsession with legislative and other technocratic policy “fixes” for environmental problems.
- The movement has failed to articulate a compelling and attractive vision for environmental progress, and fails to communicate in the language of values rather than obligations.
- The movement has grown increasingly isolated over the years, ultimately amounting to a self-replicating (and stubbornly homogenous) community that cannot forge long-lasting or effective alliances with other interest groups.
My perspective is that many people of color and indigenous people who have been disproportionately affected by pollution, and by the exploitative relationship human beings have to our natural resources, learned these lessons and were often arguing them years ago. The article would have greatly benefited from at least acknowledging that these critiques have been made before, and that many who fall at least under the broadly defined umbrella of “environmentalist” are already working with these lessons in mind. (Of course, as Torri points out, this raises the equally hairy question of what exactly “environmentalism” is, and whether environmental justice is indeed a separate movement.)
I’m going to focus on the second critique, and leave the other two for later discussion. One of the strengths of the environmental-justice (EJ) movement, which very broadly defines the environment as “where we live, work, play, learn, and worship,” has been its ability to articulate a powerful and compelling vision of human health, justice, and sustainability. As a movement that has put human beings at the center of our struggles and says that we all matter, EJ resonates among many who find themselves alienated by the message inadvertently sent by the environmental movement that we only matter inasmuch as we are the problem.
At the first National People of Color Environmental Summit held in Washington, D.C., in 1991, over 600 delegates from across the nation gathered and, over the course of five days, crafted 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. The principles are a combination of visionary statements such as those affirming “the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction,” and more pragmatic philosophies about how we do our work (“the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision making”). Although it’s a bit of a running joke within the environmental-justice movement that we’ve been able to agree on almost nothing since then, the stabilizing force of these principles has been a crucial anchor for the far-flung reaches of environmental-justice struggles. The powerful vision and values communicated in the principles are the foundation upon which all EJ strategies, goals, and tactics are built, and they confer a strength of conviction and integrity that I’ve always seen as a tremendous strength of the movement (the EJ movement, that is)
This point was also made, by the way, by Peggy Shepard, WE ACT’s executive director, at the Future of Transportation conference organized in Los Angeles this past weekend by the Labor Community Strategy Center. I’ll share more later about this amazing gathering of community activists from across the nation who came together to discuss strategies for addressing transportation’s undue impact on climate change, and on historically marginalized communities. Now that’s the future not only of transportation, but perhaps of the very idea of what we consider to be “environmentalism.”
OK, I spent way more time ranting than I intended to. Believe it or not I’ve got some nice stuff to say about the article … but back to work for now.
From: Thompson Smith
To: Torri Estrada, Stephen Moret, Swati Prakash
Subject: Re: Getting the ball rolling
Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005, at 11:52 a.m. PST
Dear ELPers and Gristers,
Thanks to Torri for kicking off this discussion of the Shellenberger-Nordhaus piece with his usual incisiveness, and also his knack for doing it in a way that invites conversation rather than armed battle.
Certainly, Torri is right that the DOE piece defined environmentalism too narrowly, and that a wider vision of what constitutes the movement would have led S&N to more complicated conclusions. The environmental-justice movement is all about bringing together the usual green concerns with the imperative for social and economic justice. One of the central problems (which Torri was getting at) is that the various segments of the movement remain too segregated from one another, too unaware of what each is doing, too divided by the very barriers of race and class and gender we are working to overcome, too uncoordinated to really make effective use of the ideas and power that we might have in a more unified effort. I think the bridging of those divides is the most important contribution that ELP is making to the movement as a whole.
But I also think the problem runs even deeper. It is that too many of us fail to build into our work and our organizations a consciousness that the roots of our ecological crisis and the roots of our social inequities and injustices are deeply intertwined. The project of building a more sustainable society is ultimately inseparable from the project of building a more just society. This isn’t just a matter of philosophy. It is also about the concrete problems we must overcome and the strategy we must use to get there.
This is arguably less true in dealing with the narrower issues that the “big greens” have traditionally addressed: regulation of pollution, preservation of land, etc. It is perhaps more true when we are dealing with the bigger issues that now threaten the entire globe, such as global warming, mass extinctions, the collapse of ocean fisheries, soil loss, and freshwater scarcity.
In my work in Montana for local and statewide groups, I have often found myself struggling against the cramped vision that S&N so forcefully critique. In a number of interesting ways, I think that poses one of the bigger ideological barriers to getting these groups to develop broader and more diverse alliances and memberships. The grandest hope extended by staffs and boards was simply to slow down the pace of environmental destruction. Few if any were interested in a bigger strategy to create a sustainable society. They wanted to declare more areas off limits to development or resource extraction. Fewer were interested in challenging the way we live where we live. Most hoped to be a fly in the ointment, to stop bad things from happening. Fewer were interested in putting as much energy into making positive things happen. The standard M.O. was purely reactive. Whenever the occasional board member would advocate better planning, a more long-term vision, and proactive efforts, the old guard usually responded with angry, cynical sneers. They commonly defined their duty as “putting out fires,” and regarded anything less pessimistic as dangerously unrealistic, a waste of precious money and time.
But what we need to be doing is setting fires, so to speak. (Or in some cases literally, when it comes to the restoration of a healthy fire regime in the Rocky Mountain West. But that’s another debate!) As Shellenberger and Nordhaus imply, there are two ultimately unrealistic aspects to the old approach. First, a defensive strategy can never win a war. And second, we are dooming any chance of creating a sustainable society by never really trying to create one. We need an offensive program, aimed not just at slowing the pace of destruction, but at creating a sustainable society.
I have the greatest admiration for the work of many of the older national groups. It would be foolish in the extreme for any environmentalist to think that those groups are anything but absolutely essential and deserving of our eternal gratitude (and continued support) for the astonishing accomplishments of the past several decades. To me, the implication of the points raised by Shellenberger and Nordhaus are not that the Sierra Club should no longer haul in millions of dollars to do its work. It should, and it should get even more money. (But it should, in the process, dramatically broaden the diversity of its staff and membership, and strengthen its connection to other groups.) There is a finite universe of funds available for environmental work. We need to expand that universe, and add to it new kinds of organizations that clearly link social justice and environmental sustainability in their core missions — organizations that argue bluntly and boldly for the fundamental changes we actually need if we are to become a sustainable society.
Sorry, this is too long already! And I have a grant deadline! I look forward to hearing more later.
– – – – – – – – – –
Torri Estrada is a program officer at the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, N.Y., and co-director of Environmental Justice Solutions, which provides support to community-based organizations, social-justice groups, and the public sector in the areas of environmental justice and policy.
Swati Prakash is the environmental-health director for West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT for Environmental Justice), a 16-year-old environmental-justice organization based in northern Manhattan.
Thompson Smith is director of tribal history and ethnogeography projects for the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, a department of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Until 2002, he was executive director of the Flathead Resource Organization.
Donate now to support our work.