Environmental leaders were rather dismayed late last year when upstarts began offering high-profile obituaries of their beloved movement.

Is environmentalism dead?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

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]


Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.