An interview with authors of the controversial essay “The Death of Environmentalism”
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus stirred up quite a fuss when they unveiled their essay “The Death of Environmentalism” last fall, declaring the environmental movement kaput and calling for a more visionary and inspiring progressive movement to take its place. In an interview with Grist, Shellenberger and Nordhaus talk about their ideas, the responses they’ve gotten (or haven’t), and what comes next. Get the backstory here.
What exactly do you mean by the death of environmentalism? Are you proposing that all existing environmental organizations should be shuttered, or that they should just nudge their strategies in a new direction?
Shellenberger: Neither. We need to create a set of very different institutions and, at the same time, not just nudge but transform existing environmental institutions into something more powerful. We are not saying that Natural Resources Defense Council or any of the big national environmental groups need to close their doors. We’re saying that the environmental identity should be updated into something more relevant. What needs to die is a particular conception of what environmentalism is and how environmental advocacy and campaigns are organized and run.
In other words, you believe the current strategies are archaic, but the groups that built the movement will survive?
Nordhaus: They could, but they need to be radically reconceptualized. The very DNA of these institutions was constructed around a particular idea and model of doing politics, largely based on successes that the environmental movement had in the early ’70s. They were developed to use scientific and legal expertise to identify a problem, craft a very specific technical policy solution to address that problem, and then go hire communications specialists and lobbyists and organizers to go sell that technical policy solution.
Shellenberger: That approach is failing for two reasons: First, the values, mindsets, frames of reference, and belief systems Americans use to make sense of the world have changed dramatically over the last 12 years, but the strategies of the environmental movement have not. Second, we’re faced with a set of massive ecological challenges — global warming, global habitat destruction, global species destruction, deterioration of the world’s oceans, the ozone hole — that are fundamentally different from the kind of problems the environmental movement was constructed 30 years ago to address. On every one of these emerging issues, our national environmental movement has been strikingly ineffectual.
Your criticisms echo those we’re hearing about the progressive movement at large — criticism that liberals focus too much on precise policy prescriptions rather than communicating a broader values message.
Shellenberger: A critique similar to the one we’ve made on environmentalism could be made of many other single-issue movements — women’s rights, abortion rights, anti-war, criminal justice, labor, and so on. Each of those so-called movements has turned itself into a special interest in defining the problem so narrowly and offering technical policy solutions instead of an inspiring vision.
Nordhaus: The challenges environmentalists face are very similar to the challenges progressives in general face. Everything environmentalists do going forward needs to be driven not by individual policies, but by the politics — capital P — we want to build: the vision and values, the broader political coalition we need to accomplish our long-term social objectives.
Are you saying the environmental movement needs to team up with the other progressive factions to work together on a more holistic vision?
Shellenberger: Well, the issue movements did unite around the effort to get rid of Bush. They came together around a particular political strategy, but they didn’t come together around a common vision for the country that’s inspirational and aspirational, nor around a common set of core values.
What’s an example of a device that could create the right political context?
Shellenberger: Take the proposal for a new Apollo Project. We cofounded the Apollo Alliance by starting first with core values to unify labor, community, civil-rights, and environmental movements around a vision of a new American future based on revitalizing our economic competitiveness and creating good jobs for millions of Americans. And whether or not it passes Congress right away doesn’t matter — Apollo can be used to put anti-environmentalist, anti-labor forces on the defensive. Those who vote against it will confront public scrutiny: “You voted against a program to create 3 million jobs?”
By contrast, McCain-Lieberman [aka, the Climate Stewardship Act] doesn’t have nearly the same kind of resonance: “You voted against a cap on carbon?” No senator is going to lose reelection for voting against McCain-Lieberman. Even if McCain-Lieberman passes, it will do nothing to strengthen the progressive movement or make a big difference in the debate over advancing our values.
Nordhaus: Apollo changes the categories we use to discuss global warming in that it forces us to take off our environmentalist hat. We’ve got to stop talking about global warming narrowly in terms of carbon emissions and talk about a whole set of very different things — the economy, people’s futures, global trade, and competitiveness.
Shellenberger: The usefulness of any legislative proposal should be determined not just by whether it’s going to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere, but also whether it’s going to create a cultural environment where much more dramatic and sweeping transformations can take place in the future.
When the Republicans fought partial-birth abortion, every time they lost legislatively, they gained power in the court of public opinion and in Congress. They got the message out there, they changed people’s thinking around abortion. We need to fight political battles that even if we lost for several years running, we may be in a stronger position than we are now.
Nordhaus: We need to start winning even when we lose. Right now, the environmental movement loses when it loses and even loses when it wins.
Interesting point, but the Apollo Alliance example doesn’t convince me that environmentalism is dead. Apollo was founded almost entirely by old-guard environmentalists, which means the traditionalists are themselves generating a new vision.
Shellenberger: Of course! Both of us are born of the traditional environmental movement. Ted and I gave the last decade of our lives working as consultants to most of the big environmental organizations and many medium and smaller ones as well. We’re not like Bjorn Lomborg or whatever. Still, Apollo isn’t a panacea, and we took pains to make that point in “Death of Environmentalism.” Apollo was a good start. Now the movement as a whole needs to transcend the moral and intellectual framework that defines modern environmentalism.
Can you give another example of the kind of device or initiative that would move the environmental movement beyond its current framework?
Nordhaus: What if we introduced a constitutional amendment that said that no state shall pay more in taxes to the federal government than it receives in expenditures from the federal government? What does that have to do with global warming? Well, it would tackle the subsidies dilemma that we’ve been trying to address for years: the federal highway subsidies, the energy subsidies, the coal and oil subsidies. New York and California, for instance, pay vastly more in federal taxes than they receive in federal expenditures and places like Alaska, Alabama, a whole raft of mostly rural and particularly Western and Southern states receive vastly more in federal expenditures than they pay in federal taxes. So this constitutional-amendment approach would take it out of an environmental context and create a political debate that problematizes the politics of subsidies. It recontextualizes the subsidy debate around fairness.
Shellenberger: You could poke a hundred holes in it, but it shows that if you get out of your single-issue mindset, if you shake the kind of technical policy approach to this stuff, you can start coming up with creative solutions and campaigns that are both more interesting and, potentially, more powerful politically.
I see your point. Still it doesn’t discount the fact that enviros are winning important victories at local levels, waging lawsuits over factory farming and endangered species and pollution that have very real meaning at the grassroots, if not the national, level.
Nordhaus: Consider this: Most of those local lawsuits are litigating the Endangered Species Act or the National Environmental Policy Act. Meanwhile, under the new Republican-dominated Congress, it’s not inconceivable that we’re going to lose the ESA and NEPA. So while we may win a few more local lawsuits, the entire regulatory framework could get repealed.
Shellenberger: Our argument is that you could win all your little lawsuits, we could pass all the legislation we have on the table locally and nationally, but we would be no closer to achieving our larger objectives. Think about how devastating of a critique that is: If we got everything we wanted right now, we would still be hurtling toward global-warming crisis. We would still be destroying the Amazon, the lungs of the planet. Environmentalists offer no inspiring vision for the world or for the country that speaks in any way to the magnitude of the crisis or to the potential of the American people to really make this transformation.
So you’re not necessarily opposed to policy proposals like tighter Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards and McCain-Lieberman, but you believe they are only baby steps?
Shellenberger: If we could pass McCain-Lieberman tomorrow, should we pass McCain-Lieberman tomorrow? Of course, why not? Do I think that McCain-Lieberman and CAFE on their own are sufficient? No. Would I support passing CAFE if, in the process of doing so, we poisoned the ground for building the alliance with labor and business we desperately need to substantially reduce carbon emissions in the United States? No.
How old are you guys?
Nordhaus: Michael’s 33, I’m 39.
Do you consider yourselves next-gen environmentalists?
Nordhaus: No. There are 22-year-olds who think like Carl Pope and there are 60-year-olds who think like we do. We were criticizing a set of institutions and an intellectual framework, not a generation.
Shellenberger: I consider myself a progressive, not an environmentalist. I’m done with “ists” and “isms” generally. I thought the most bizarre part of Carl’s response to our paper was the accusation of patricide. Both of our parents have been involved in environmental policy. Ted’s dad wrote significant sections of the Clean Air Act and CAFE. We love our parents and we love what they’ve done. In order to honor their legacy, we have to update it. Environmentalism is outmoded. Death is a part of the process of life. The idea that somehow the environmental movement is, or should be, immortal goes against everything that it claims to believe.
Are you saying that environmentalism has become a tradition, not a movement?
Nordhaus: Exactly. Movement implies going forward and making progress, tradition implies holding on to the past. After the 2004 [election] defeat there was no admission by environmental leaders that we got our asses handed to us on a platter and that we must rethink everything. Instead what we heard from environmental leaders was that they succeeded in the states and districts they targeted. In his response to our paper, Carl Pope agreed that we’re facing a crisis and that enviros are politically weaker than they were 15 years ago, but then he went on to propose the same damn policies and politics that enviros have been pushing for 30 years.
So I take it you didn’t find Pope’s response to your paper convincing?
Shellenberger: We were baffled by it. Of all environmental leaders, we thought Carl would embrace this. He’s the guy that reaches out the most to labor unions, he’s the guy that fights anti-immigrant forces. He gave us the most extraordinary interview [when we were conducting research for the paper]. He, more than any other environmental leader, inspired the thesis of this paper.
Nordhaus: Carl Pope is the first and, thus far, only major person in the environmental movement to have publicly engaged this discourse at all and for that, if nothing else, we commend him. We emailed all these guys after the article came out and asked if they’d be willing to have a dialogue and the silence has been deafening.
Shellenberger: Yeah, it’s like, God, please disagree with us. We would be honored.
Would you say that for the sake of creating debate and making your argument, you made exaggerations and generalizations?
Shellenberger: No way. I didn’t say anything in there that I regret. Not a single sentence. And we didn’t say anything in there that was designed to provoke. Our intention was not to make people angry, it was to start a debate.
Why, then, did you address your complaints directly to funders rather than to the leaders themselves? That seems inherently provocative.
Shellenberger: There is no place for public debate in the environmental movement. Even librarians have much fiercer public debates and dialogues than the environmental community. Or look at the AIDS movement, where public-health organizations and government agencies have fantastic debates every year. They have peer-reviewed journals and panel discussions at international conferences. Look at the intense debates over how to stem the flow of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The environmental movement needs a national or international forum to debate strategy.
Nordhaus: We definitely wrote this to be provocative and get their attention. But [the Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting] was the only conference, the only place to really talk to the leaders of the movement. Where else should we have gone? There’s no place to go.
What do you say to criticisms that in researching your paper you only interviewed the movement’s technicians and not other leaders, like Wendell Berry?
Nordhaus: We interviewed the people in the environmental movement who are deciding how to spend tens of millions of dollars annually. Hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade have been spent to address global warming. I’m sorry, Wendell Berry isn’t the person deciding how the enviro movement is going to construct its campaigns to address global warming. The people we talked to are. They are deciding where this movement is going, where the resources are going. They need to rethink their politics to make it morally compelling. They need to start talking about a future people want to be a part of.
Some detractors are saying your paper is nihilistic — that it offers only criticisms and no real proposals for a rehabilitation plan.
Nordhaus: We know, we’ve said repeatedly, that our ideas are partially baked and that we need some help in reconstructing a viable political movement. This is not something that we can do in a 30-page pamphlet. We resisted suggestions from early reviewers of the paper to provide specific prescriptions because we wanted to begin a discussion and dialogue, not suggest that we had all the answers.
Shellenberger: This paper is about coming to terms with change. Our message is that it’s time to acknowledge both an end and a new beginning and not fear it. As the Taoist saying goes, “If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve.”