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.)
Before this paper came out, there was a debate going on in the environmental community about how we could more effectively organize ourselves, how we can build a broader progressive community, how we can deal with the reality of the radical right, and how we can deal with different kinds of emerging, grand-scale problems like global warming. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have set that debate back, not moved it forward. The memo they wrote was actually counterproductive to this effort and shoddy in its analysis.
They suggested that failing environmentalism should submerge itself in successful progressivism, but I would argue that the environmental community is one of the more successful parts of the progressive movement. You know, the last decade has been a very rough time for all progressive social movements that are focused on justice. The areas where we are failing and the areas where labor is failing and the areas where the civil-rights movement is failing and the areas where the anti-war movement is failing are all the same, so the problem cannot be the way we define the environment.
I am on the board of a number of organizations that constitute exactly the kinds of linkages between the environment and other parts of the progressive movement that they advocate. I’m co-chair of the Apollo Alliance, treasurer of America Votes and America Coming Together and America’s Families United. I obviously believe that we need to build a broader progressive movement, but I don’t believe that because I think that there’s something wrong with the definition of the environment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger said a number of very true things — that we are making inadequate progress on global warming, that we haven’t adequately mobilized public values to create political pressure, and all this is happening in the context of a reinvigorated right. But they make these points inside the very false frame that we have to die to be reborn. That’s pathetic. It smacks a bit of the strategic errors we made in the Iraq invasion, where we didn’t have a reconstruction plan, but we just went in and blew the place up.
When I read those quotes about how dying is part of living, it was like a bad dream. I was alive in the 1960s, and in the 1960s everybody said liberalism needed to die so that something more real could take its place, and what took its place was Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Nihilism doesn’t lead us anywhere I want to go. Dying is not part of living, it is dying.
Sure, this is a healthy debate. After an election like this one, I do think environmentalists have to sit down and reassess their strategy. Any movement that isn’t conscious of examining what it’s doing on a regular basis is in trouble. But even though substantively there were some good points in the paper, the exaggerated rhetoric is really preventing it from being a constructive contribution. People simply can’t hear what you’re saying when you engage in an enormous amount of rhetoric and diatribe.
Moreover, efforts to forge coalitions with other parts of the progressive movement have been underway for decades. You would think from reading this paper that no one in the environmental community had ever talked to the United Auto Workers about CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards], or to the United Mine Workers about global warming. These conversations have been ongoing for many years, and we’ve been making progress in fits and starts toward reaching common ground. Also, keep in mind that a majority of the proposals put forward by the Apollo Alliance, which they’re calling next-wave environmentalism, first saw the light of day as the renewable-energy job-creation component of Carter’s energy program in 1979, so most of them are hardly novel ideas.
Having been involved in environmental legislation for 30 years, my biggest concern about the paper is the assertion that global-warming efforts have been a total failure. The Kyoto Protocol will come into force on Feb. 16, and the U.S. played a leading role in designing that agreement despite the current administration’s position on it. Domestic global-warming legislation is following exactly the same trajectory as all the other major environmental statutes of the last three decades.
What you have on global warming is the same dynamic that we had on acid rain protections in the 1980s — the public broadly supported them long before they passed on the Hill because of an administration that disputed the science and a partisan and industry stranglehold that lasted for almost 10 years. Same deal with global warming: Large public support and recognition of the problem, an intransigent administration, a partisan and industry stranglehold on the Hill. I believe we’ll have McCain-Lieberman [aka, the Climate Stewardship Act] in under five years, and it was first brought to a vote only a year and a half ago.
The big change going forward isn’t to reinvent the movement ideologically but geographically. We need to concentrate our efforts on the Rocky Mountain region, the Plains, and the South, where we have to build a stronger constituency for federal environmental protections.
Shortly after the election we sent out an email to nearly half a million people saying a second term for the Bush administration presents an enormous threat to the environment. We received an overwhelming response from thousands of people who wanted to take action. That doesn’t reflect a dead movement.
The paper by Shellenberger and Nordhaus has painted us in the policy box. You could have done that 10 years ago, before the 104th Congress, but you can’t do that now. The mid-’90s were a major turning point for NRDC and the movement at large. We’re policy experts at our core, but we realized that you can’t get the policy right without the politics. That’s when we began facing the challenge of conducting a broader conversation with the public about why these issues are important. The movement’s use of strategy has since changed dramatically. Just looking at NRDC over the last 10 years, we’ve built a core of 1 million members and activists who are engaging on these issues and had enormous growth in both communications and outreach.
On climate, I agree that it’s a huge issue that needs a large-scale response, a new kind of strategy, and that we haven’t been effective at getting policy results yet. But I don’t agree that we aren’t making progress. On a global scale, on a corporate scale in the U.S. and abroad, and on Capitol Hill, climate is a much more present, obvious, and unavoidable issue today than it was five years ago. We’ve been there at every turn forcing it on the table.
I do think we can do a better job at presenting the broader picture of why we’re engaged in these issues in the first place, of the values side of our issue. We’re all in this because we believe a clean environment is a fundamental human right. We have to put more energy into framing this as a human issue.
It goes without saying that we should be working with people from the labor community, from the religious community, from the corporate world, and from every other community that has similar goals. No one would argue with that. We’ve been building those ties for 10 years and we will continue to build them. OK, we have plenty more work to do in this area, but the paper implies that these strategies are not underway, which isn’t the case.
The notion that the existing membership of established environmental groups — collectively over 10 million members strong — is moot, or that the ongoing policy work of these groups is a waste of time, is preposterous, and distracting from the real work ahead.
Though Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s paper refers extensively to the Apollo Alliance, it by no means represents our views. We believe that labor, environmentalists, government, and community leaders need each other now more than ever if we are to choose the right pathway toward energy independence and rebuilding our economy. The challenges ahead are too great to be nitpicking with our friends. The alliance does not do push-off politics, meaning we don’t define ourselves or our vision by defining others’ shortcomings. We try to evangelize and model new frameworks, and we’re making good headway nationally and in 22 states. But our success is hardly contingent on the movement’s demise. It depends on the movement’s success.
The “debate” really comes down to a difference in philosophy about how to catalyze change: Do you catalyze change by creating destruction, or by showing the way? Do you want to highlight failure or do you want to highlight success? I think this paper is essentially a provocative device, but in my opinion you can’t be both a provocateur and a movement builder.
Historically there has been a parallel between rethinking the environmental movement and rethinking the Democratic Party — there’s a degree to which this is a cyclical hand-wringing that always occurs at a time of loss, when screechy, angry complaints connect with disappointed people. We can’t let our passion for what we think is right undermine our patience in building reforms and partnerships that last.
What the paper fails to recognize is the progress that’s going on in terms of winning state, local, regional, and binational campaigns, and other emerging strategies beyond Washington. When you focus on national environmental legislation, you could argue we’ve hit a wall, given the Republican-dominated Beltway, but that’s no reason to believe we don’t have a solid foundation to build on.