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?

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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 a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis facing us.

Remarkably, the two charge that environmentalism is “just another special interest.”

Former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach has contributed his own indictment of environmentalism, calling for the end of a separate environmental movement and the creation of a new progressive movement uniting all of those who can agree on a broad set of progressive values, only one of which is the environment. And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently joined the attack, asserting that Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right that “modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts, and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”

I suggest that these four individuals are arrogant, self-indulgent, and wrong in blaming perceived failure on those who have sought change, rather than on those who have opposed it.

Given their philosophy of causation and responsibility, I suppose in the 1850s, these four would have blamed the failure to abolish slavery on the abolition movement rather than the slaveholders and the economic interests tied to them. Perhaps around 1900, they would have blamed the failure to achieve women’s voting rights on the strategy and tactics of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rather than on men who controlled the society.

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Not one of these denunciations of the environmental movement includes any equivalent attack on the entrenched opposition of the economic interests that sell oil and whose outputs include mercury and arsenic. And I find it quite outrageous that the phrase special interest has been transmuted from reflecting those who have a financial benefit at stake to those who are pursuing a goal of benefiting the entire society rather than themselves individually. This misuse of the phrase flies in the face of the way in which it was used during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century.

Their thinking provides no recognition of the tipping-point paradigm. Remember that after many years of little progress, the civil-rights movement in America blasted through the crises of the early 1960s to success, and we have also seen remarkable social change in relatively short time frames on issues relating to women, gays, and culture.

The conservation movement is only 100 years old and the environmental movement perhaps 50 years old. We are fortunate indeed that Shellenberger, Nordhaus, et al. did not evaluate the status of other historical movements midway in their terms. Perhaps these four individuals, lacking a historical perspective, have given up too early.