America’s environmental movement has failed and should die as soon as possible so something better can take its place. Or at least so argues a provocative insider essay that has set tongues wagging and tempers flaring at the movement’s highest levels. Titled “The Death of Environmentalism” (available at www.thebreakthrough.org), the 12,000-word essay was written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a publicist and a pollster who boast a combined twenty years of experience working for some of the movement’s most prominent organizations and donors. The essay was released at the October meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, whose 250 members provide much of the movement’s operating funds. “A lot of people are talking about it,” says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust and a critic of the essay. “But the last way to influence people is to start by saying everything you’re doing is wrong.”
In an interview, Shellenberger and Nordhaus retreat somewhat from the death rhetoric that even some supporters think was over the top. “Do NRDC and the other big groups need to close their doors? No,” says Shellenberger. “But they desperately need to rethink how they do their work.” Not only has the movement been unable to prevent George W. Bush’s rollback of existing environmental protections, the writers argue; it is not making fast enough progress against the overarching threat of our era, global climate change. The reason, the authors assert, is environmentalism’s allegiance to single-issue politics and technical-fix solutions.
“We wrote this essay after years of being hired by environmental groups to sell their solutions to the American public,” says Shellenberger. “And we got tired of promoting ten-point plans for emissions caps and fuel efficiency that may appeal to policy wonks but don’t engage the ordinary citizens you have to reach to effect real change.” Technical fixes simply aren’t sufficient to deal with climate change, species loss, deforestation or other major environmental threats, says Nordhaus. “The entire global economy has to be transformed,” he says, “which is a much bigger problem than environmentalism has faced in the past.” Meanwhile, Shellenberger adds, “we’ve lost all three branches of government to the hard right, which is hostile to the entire environmental project.”
The only way forward, the authors argue, is for environmentalists to abandon their small-bore, politically neutral approach. What’s needed is a more expansive strategy aimed at building a political majority in the United States that will support not only environmental but other progressive values. “You could write a similar report about all the single-issue constituencies–labor, women, civil rights,” Shellenberger says. “They’re all faltering now. They all need to think of themselves as part of a larger political movement, figure out what vision and values they share, and find ways to frame their messages and organize accordingly.”
Shellenberger and Nordhaus, who interviewed twenty-five leading advocates and funders, say their intention was “to start a discussion about the limits of the environmental movement as it’s currently conceived.” In response, they claim to have gotten hundreds of e-mails from mid-level staffers of environmental groups, university students and teachers, and a few funders. Bill McKibben, who has followed the climate-change issue since his classic The End of Nature was published in 1989, applauds the authors for “trying to figure out how environmentalists can do better” and says their essay will be a focus of discussion at a conference on climate-change solutions he’s helping to organize in January at Middlebury College.
But Shellenberger and Nordhaus say they’ve gotten little formal response from their main targets: the environmental movement’s largest organizations and the foundations that support them. Peter Teague, environmental programs director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a sponsor of the essay, says the Environmental Grantmakers Association considered devoting a session of its December meeting to the essay but “my understanding is that scheduling conflicts prevented it.” Josh Reichert, who as head of the Pew Charitable Trust’s environmental program is one of the major funders of climate-change activism, declined to comment for this article. Nor has the Green Group, a coalition of large environmental organizations working in Washington, DC, “had any particular conversations about the essay,” says Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, whose one-year term as Green Group chair expired in December.
One prominent exception to the silence is Carl Pope, who issued a blistering critique in a 6,650-word counter-essay that he sent to funders (available at www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/messages/2004december_pope.asp). Declaring himself “deeply disappointed and angered,” the Sierra Club’s executive director called Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s essay “unfair, unclear and divisive” and said it would make the essential task of rethinking the movement’s strategy more difficult. Pope accepts that “fundamental changes are needed” in how the movement approaches climate change but says that “dying does not seem a particularly helpful form of that work.” And he complains that the authors construct a straw man when they say environmentalists must broaden their political alliances on the basis of progressive values–that’s something the Sierra Club and others have long recognized, and practiced. “But this is a case for modernizing the left, not for killing environmentalism,” Pope writes.
“We were excited to get Carl Pope’s response because it represented a dialogue,” replies Shellenberger. “He agrees with us that we’re losing and we need to rethink things. But he ends his paper by suggesting the same kind of solutions environmentalists have proposed for forty years: pollution controls and a series of NIMBY [“not in my backyard”] campaigns to stop global warming.”
In interviews, other environmental leaders echoed Pope’s claim that they already practice what Shellenberger and Nordhaus preach. “It was unfortunate Michael and Ted framed it the way they do [because] much of the movement already agrees that we have to speak in positive economic language and focus on values that connect us to the American people,” says Bracken Hendricks, executive director of the Apollo Alliance. (Ironically, Shellenberger and Nordhaus repeatedly invoke the Apollo Alliance–a two-year effort to align environmentalists, unions, state and local governments and businesses behind a green jobs and growth strategy–as an example of the new thinking that’s necessary.) Hal Harvey, who heads the Hewlett Foundation’s environmental program, says that if Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s “strategies were five times stronger and their invective five times weaker, they would have much more effect.”
“The implication is that had we tried nicely to have this debate, everything would have gone fine,” responds Nordhaus. “Bullshit! This was the only way to get their attention. We’re saying there’s a dead body in the room, and it’s starting to stink. They’re saying it’s not dead. Did we stir things up? Yes. And we’re proud of it.”