Don’t Fear the Reapers: On the alleged “Death of Environmentalism”
Environmental leaders were rather dismayed late last year when upstarts began offering high-profile obituaries of their beloved movement.
We are reminded of a scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a wizened old man is offered to the collector of dead bodies in plague-ridden London.
“I’m not dead,” the geezer wheezes. “I’m getting better!”
Replies the hulking young man trying to give him away, “You’re not fooling anyone, you know. You’ll be stone dead in a moment.”
Is environmentalism ready for interment?
That’s the none-too-subtle conclusion of “The Death of Environmentalism,” an essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a pair of strategists and organizers who’ve worked with a number of environmental groups over the last decade. As if the title were not provocative enough, the authors added injury to insult by releasing the paper at an October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, a group with lots of hands on lots of purse strings.
The paper — based on interviews with 25 leaders in the mainstream environmental movement (nearly all of them, like S&N, white men) — argues that environmentalism is ill-equipped to face the massive global challenges of our day, particularly climate change. The movement has become a relic and a failure, the authors say, coasting on decades-old successes, bereft of new ideas, made fat and complacent by easy funding, narrowly defining “environmental” problems, and relying almost exclusively on short-sighted technical solutions.
Mainstream green organizations’ varied legislative and legal victories — and their cumulative membership rolls of some 10 million-plus — don’t cut it for S&N. These achievements, they claim, take place against the backdrop of a broader failure to offer the American people an expansive, inspiring, values-based vision.
They conclude that the environmental movement should meet its re-maker, as it were, and give way to a more cohesive, coordinated, and ambitious progressive movement.
Naturally, the paper kicked up some dust.
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope wrote a long and scathing reply, pointedly addressed, “Dear environmental grant-maker.” The kerfuffle got covered in The Nation and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Several blogs have weighed in, and debate over the issue continues to spread around the web faster than that Paris Hilton home movie.
Fanning the flames, enviro wunderkind Adam Werbach gave an impassioned speech in early December to San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club entitled “Is Environmentalism Dead?” making a similar argument with even more emotional fervor — or histrionics, depending on whom you ask.
Of all the points made by S&N, perhaps the most telling is in a follow-up post on the Breakthrough Institute blog: “Nearly every profession, from public health to business to law, has research studies, conferences, and peer-review journals dedicated to evaluating what’s working and what’s not. … The environmental community has nothing like this.”
Indeed. Here at Grist, we hope to create a space where these kinds of evaluations, debates, and dialogues can take place. We plan for this to be an ongoing discussion, with more voices chiming in over the coming weeks and months. Dig in:
- An interview with Shellenberger and Nordhaus about their controversial essay
- Rebuttals to the essay from four mainstream environmental leaders: Carl Pope, Phil Clapp, Frances Beinecke, and Dan Carol
- A Grist editorial on the whole melee and the big issues underlying it
- Dispatches from Bill McKibben, who ponders whether environmentalism really is kaput [added 25 Jan 2005]
- An email chat between four emerging environmental leaders on the future of their field [added 22 Feb 2005]
- A dispatch from enviro-justice advocates attending a panel with the reapers [added 04 Mar 2005]
- An argument that dramatizing “death” doesn’t help urban people of color, from Adrienne Maree Brown [added 15 Mar 2005]
- A plea to foundations to revitalize the environmental movement with smart giving, from Ken Ward [added 17 Mar 2005]
- An email discussion between four green funders on where environmentalism should go from here [added 28 Mar 2005]
- A speech contending that the reapers are giving up way too soon, by Martin S. Kaplan [added 01 Apr 2005]
- A call for race and class to be given their due in discussions of life and death, by Michel Gelobter, et al. [added 27 May 2005]
- A critique of the reapers’ essay by environmental-justice advocate Ludovic Blain [added 31 May 2005]
- An entreaty for the environmental movement to address economic development in low-income communities, by Orson Aguilar [added 31 May 2005]
We’d like you to join the discussion — please stop by Gristmill and let us know what you think.
Stories in this series:
Where the environmental movement can and should go from here
Adam Werbach presented this speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on Dec. 8, 2004. Further discussion of the issues he raises can be found on 3Nov.com. And read more on the debate over environmentalism’s prospects here. Adam Werbach. I am here to perform an autopsy. Autopsies begin with these words. Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae Translated from Latin, this means: “This is the place where death rejoices to teach those who live.” I tremble at them, because this is not an easy speech for me to give. I know in my mind that to forego …
The death of environmentalism: Global warming politics in a post-environmental world
This essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus was released at an October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and it’s been ruffling feathers ever since. Get the backstory here. Foreword By Peter Teague, Environment Program Director, Nathan Cummings Foundation As I write this, the fourth in a series of violent hurricanes has just bombarded the Caribbean and Florida. In Florida, more than 30 are dead and thousands are homeless. More than 2,000 Haitians are dead. And ninety percent of the homes in Grenada are destroyed. As Jon Stewart deadpanned on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, “God, you’ve made …
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 …
Green leaders say rumors of environmentalism’s death are greatly exaggerated
The leadership of the U.S. environmental movement took quite a beating in Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s “The Death of Environmentalism.” We invited four mainstream green leaders to respond: Carl Pope of the Sierra Club Phil Clapp of National Environmental Trust Frances Beinecke of the Natural Resources Defense Council Dan Carol of the Apollo Alliance Here they share their opinions on the essay and their thoughts on the future of environmentalism. (Get the backstory here.) Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club Before this paper came out, there was a debate going on in the environmental community about how …
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? Michael …
Bill McKibben sends dispatches from a conference on winning the climate-change fight
Tuesday, 25 Jan 2005 MIDDLEBURY, Vt. A crisp, cold, blue-sky New England day, fresh snow on the ground, and everything right with the world. Except that last night, as I was preparing to attend a three-day conference on climate change here in Middlebury, Vt., yet another disturbing report on global warming drifted across the net. This one comes from the International Climate Change Taskforce, co-chaired by Stephen Byers, a Tony Blair confidant from the U.K., and Olympia Snowe, the Republican senator from Maine. In one sense, it’s nothing new: yet another document from moderate world leaders calling for urgent action …
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 EstradaTo: Stephen Moret, Swati Prakash, Thompson SmithSubject: Getting the ball rollingTuesday, Feb. 22, 2005, …
Enviro-justice activists send a dispatch from a panel with The Reapers
Thursday, 3 Mar 2005 SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network was invited to speak on a panel yesterday with “Death of Environmentalism” coauthor Michael Shellenberger, Taj James, executive director of the Movement Strategy Center, and Adam Werbach, past president of the Sierra Club. The goal was to broaden the debate about the future of the environmental movement that was ignited by Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ recent paper. The room at the World Affairs Council was packed with a couple hundred people, primarily activists, organizers, and funders whose question was, “Now what?” In contrast to the eruption at the …
Dramatizing the “death” of environmentalism doesn’t help urban people of color, or anyone else
“Death” is such a harsh term — can’t we say “transition to a happier place”? Adrienne Maree Brown. Photo: Sophia Wallace. Or, how else can I put this … You don’t have to fall out of the tree. Just climb down and join us on the ground. Let’s talk. If you work on environmental issues, chances are you don’t know me. I represent the other other side. The one outside the greenhouse. I’m young, I’m colored, I’m female, I’m urban — and environmentalism isn’t reaching me like it needs to. So I want to add a few thoughts to the …
Environmental funders share blame for movement’s weak pulse
In responding to “The Death of Environmentalism,” activist Ken Ward writes, “If the future toward which we rush is folly, the solution proposed by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus is foolishness.” In this excerpt from his full rebuttal to the essay, Ward describes the role environmental foundations play in frustrating effective campaigning, and suggests that if they intelligently directed their funding toward a coordinated climate-change campaign, they could catapult the issue to the top of the national agenda. “The necessary decisions could be made in a weekend conference with less than 100 people attending,” he writes. Foundations should be smarter …
Four environmental funders join the debate over the movement’s future
When Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus delivered the talk that has everyone talking, they chose an influential audience: environmental grantmakers. Although the now (in)famous pair focused on mainstream advocacy organizations in their discussion of the death of environmentalism, others have contended that new thinking by the folks who write the checks is key to revitalizing the movement. We’ve invited four representatives from foundations around the U.S. to discuss the issue. Most recent post of the day. From: Hooper BrooksTo: Stuart Clarke, Enrique Salmón, Rhea SuhSubject: Not dead, just differentMonday, March 28, 2005, 9:30 a.m. PST The “Death of Environmentalism” has …
Civil-rights, suffrage activists didn’t give up, and neither should environmentalists
This piece is adapted from a speech given before the Alliance for Global Sustainability last month at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The full speech — “Reflections on Sustainability and Universities and Whether Environmentalism Has Died” — can be found here. Are the reapers quitting too soon? The environmental community is in turmoil over “The Death of Environmentalism,” the challenging essay released by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus last fall. Their thesis is that the environmental community has “strikingly little to show” for its efforts over the last 15 years and that environmental leaders are not articulating …
Why race and class matter to the environmental movement
This piece is excerpted from the essay “The Soul of Environmentalism: Rediscovering Transformational Politics in the 21st Century.” The full essay can be found here. Elvis was a hero to most,but he never meant shit to me …– Public Enemy, 1989 Activists of color may not want to stand on John Muir’s shoulders. Environmentalism in the United States has always been as diverse as our country itself. In the 19th century, for example, African-American abolitionists fought slavery as well as the use of arsenic in tobacco fields. Later, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. were only two of thousands …
The environmental movement won’t thrive till it tackles economic development in low-income districts
Growing up in east Los Angeles as the son of Central American immigrants, the everyday challenges faced by the people in my community seemed far removed from the American dream: the lack of good housing and jobs, failing schools, scraping together money for groceries, and all-too-common police brutality. If you had asked us, we would have told you we were concerned about the days when the air pollution was especially thick, or when the smells coming from the incinerator directly south of our housing complex were particularly bad. We would have told you we were concerned — but that these …
An environmental-justice advocate insists he’s not dead yet
Ludovic Blain. “The Death of Environmentalism” should be called “The Death of Elite, White, American Environmentalism.” A critique of the environmental movement that draws on neither the perspectives nor achievements of the environmental-justice (EJ) movement is, at very best, incomplete. That the DOE interviews and recommendations only focused on white, American male-led environmentalism meant that the fatal flaws of that part of the environmental movement infected the critique itself. These omissions inspire me to paraphrase Sojourner Truth and ask, “Ain’t I an environmentalist?” I was struck by how the piece echoed the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summits of …