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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Environmental Movement: Dead? Or Alive?

Air Date: Week of

Living on Earth host Steve Curwood talks with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the authors of the controversial essay "The Death of Environmentalism." Shellenberger and Nordhaus say the environmental movement is outmoded and ineffective and must make way for "new, bold visions". Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope also joins the conversation. Pope disagrees with the authors. He says the environmental movement is diverse and robust.and working hard to meet the challenges of these times.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

"The environmental movement is outmoded and needs to be buried." So say the authors of a controversial essay called, "The Death of Environmentalism." Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus interviewed more than two dozen U.S. environmental leaders about the past thirty years of environmental politics.

Those interviews, along with polling data on how Americans view the environment, helped shape the ideas of Messrs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus, which they presented to a meeting of environmental funders. Their message has angered some environmentalists but is also gaining fans with its call for "a bold new politics" based on a new vision and a core set of values.

We invited Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus to discuss their ideas. Mr. Shellenberger is a political activist and strategist. Hello, sir.


CURWOOD: Ted Nordhaus is vice president of the opinion research firm Evans McDonough. Hello, Ted.

NORDHAUS: How's it going, Steve?

CURWOOD: We're also joined by Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club. Hello, Carl.

POPE: It's great to be with you again.

CURWOOD: I want to start with you, Michael. In your paper, you pay tribute to the environmental movement of the 1960's and 70's that helped pass laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the Endangered Species Act. But, you say that the concepts and institutions that were effective then are no longer working. Why is that?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, environmentalism did a very good job of dealing with the environmental problems as they were defined, 30 and 40 years ago. Did a very good job at cleaning up the air. Our waterways are much cleaner today. We have a lot more wilderness protected and for that we can thank environmentalism and acknowledge the successes. What we're arguing now is that the ecological crises that we face, namely the big ones, global warming, global habitat destruction, the extinction of species, the destruction of the world's oceans, are significantly, are such different problems than the ones that we've dealt with in the past. They're global, they're more complex and global warming, for example, demands that we remake the global energy economy in a very fundamental way. And environmentalism as it's currently conceived, as it's currently being practiced, is not up to the job. Environmentalists continue to put forward the same proposals that they've been putting forward for the last 20 or 30 years - pollution control, higher fuel efficiency standards, caps on greenhouse gas emissions. They're failing to innovate because they're failing to recognize that what they've been doing for the last 30 years is no longer working.

CURWOOD: Ted Nordhaus, clarify for me, in your article you say that the environmental movement has become a special interest. What do you mean by that?

NORDHAUS: Well, what we mean is that the environmental movement has so narrowly defined its scope and so narrowly defined the category of what's considered an environmental problem and what's not considered an environmental problem. And then on top of that, you know, continues to, what we call, ‘thingafy the environment' so that the environmental movement purports to literally speak for a thing called the environment. And so the environmental movement largely has created a special interest ghetto for itself that never breaks through and becomes a top concern for most Americans and never animates political debate at the national level in a particularly significant way. And we're left sort of lobbying for small, narrowly defined technical policy solutions to big, challenging problems that require a much more expansive vision and a much more expansive politics to address.

CURWOOD: Where has the environmental movement failed in addressing global warming and what do you think can be done differently? Ted?

NORDHAUS: Well, I think we've defined this problem as this narrow, relatively narrowly defined environmental problem. So, we say climate change is an environmental problem, we tell sort of an apocalyptic story about what's wrong, about what's going to go wrong, about all of the horrors that are going to descend on the American public if we fail to do something. We have largely failed to articulate any kind of clear vision in terms of a post global warming world that Americans actually might want to be a part of. So we tell an apocalyptic narrative and then we start talking about compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid vehicles as the solution. And we've really sort of failed to articulate a solution that is either on a scale of the problem we're trying to address, or that can effectively inspire the American people affirmatively to want to take action.

CURWOOD: Alright, I want to turn to you Carl Pope. You wrote a response to Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus' essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," and you also, of course, are executive director of the Sierra Club. What do you think of their argument that the environmental movement is simply failing here in the area of global warming and that the movement itself is dying, if not dead?

POPE: Well, to misquote Mark Twain, "rumors of our impending demise are greatly exaggerated." If you were to go around the United States this evening you would find thousands of environmentalists working in a whole host of ways, only a tiny number of which Ted and Michael seem to be aware of, to solve problems at every scale from the very small – people out there protecting a wetland in their neighborhood – to the very large – environmentalists working with union guys in California to make sure that we accelerate the solar transition in this state, which is going to be a big part of the solution to the challenge of global warming. Environmentalism is broad, it's diverse, it's vibrant, it's growing. Environmentalism is not a category - it's people. And to suggest that the solution to the problems of global warming and the impending collapse of a lot of our marine fisheries, the over-exploitation of the oceans, the fragmentation of global habitat, to suggest that the solution to those problems is to kill a movement of millions of people who are pouring their hearts out and working in a whole host of creative ways to solve it, strikes me as clinically insane.

Now, this is a very tough time. This is a very dark time. It's not just a dark time environmentally; it's a dark time in American public life. No progressive social movement has managed to handle the challenges thrown by the hard right and the radical right as effectively as we needed to. There's a lot of new thinking and a lot of new learning we all need to do, but the idea that the problem is a category and that the solution is to kill one of America's most vibrant social movements just doesn't make any sense.

CURWOOD: What about the statement that the environmental movement has particularly failed to get action on climate change, global warming, which is arguably, perhaps, the greatest environmental threat out there right now?

POPE: Global warming is a very tough challenge particularly here in the United States. The interesting thing is the solution to global warming is things like compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars only it's lots and lots and lots of them very fast. And we clearly have failed to get speed and scale. If you look, though, at our dilemma, the United States is unique. It's the only industrial nation that still has a large, domestic carbon industry; we have a lot of oil companies, we have a lot of coal companies, we have a lot of natural gas companies. And it is more difficult when you have a huge domestic carbon lobby to oppose you to deal with the fact that you need to reduce the carbon intensivity of the global economy, which I agree with Michael and Ted totally; we need to completely rethink energy. We need to completely rethink energy. But that's an old environmental idea. That's an idea that Amory Lovins first piloted in an article on foreign policy in 1974. That's not an idea that's too big for the environmental movement; that's an idea the environmental movement invented.

Yes, we have not yet put it into place and this country is lagging and we face some very tough challenges. I like to think of this a little bit like the winter of 1776 during the American Revolution. After a couple of years in which the Americans did pretty well against the British at places like Bunker Hill, Washington took a series of bad defeats and he had to retreat across the Delaware. We've taken a series of bad defeats in the last couple of years and we need to regroup. We need to train ourselves to fight more effectively and we need to get back on the offensive. But, the solution to the winter of 1776 was not to disband the colonial army and send Washington back to Mount Vernon. It was to learn and to struggle and to do better and I think that's the right solution to the environmental movement, not to talk about it as a category which ought to die.

CURWOOD: Let's get some definitions straight here. Michael Shellenberger, tell me, how do you define environmentalist?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, I think the really important question is how does the American people define environmentalism and on that account we're losing ground and I'll give you one indicator of that. That's that in 1996, just 17 percent of Americans believed, agreed with the statement that to preserve people's jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future. In 2004, 29 percent of the public agreed with that; so that number has been going up. You also have increasing numbers of Americans who believe that people involved in environmental groups are extremists and not reasonable people. So this is, you know the Bush presidency, the loss of all three branches of government, anti-environmental extremists who weave their fundamentalist, apocalyptic worldview into their politics. That's not a temporary setback; that's a major shift at the core level of how people perceive and understand their world at a values level.
And so trends are going in the opposite direction where we want them to go culturally and that's reflected politically.

And I'll give you an example about why we keep raising concerns around environmentalism as a category. And that's that if you ask people in an open-ended question as we did in Pennsylvania which is a key battle ground state, a state that the Sierra Club cares very much about, we asked an open-ended question, ‘what is the biggest issue facing your community?' We found only two percent of respondents saying the environment, but we found 68 percent saying either jobs or the economy. The other ten or more issues after that were all non-environmental issues. So the question is, can you get to where you want to get, can we achieve what we need to achieve, in terms of the changes we need to make politically and in the economy, by inspiring people about a new vision for the economy, for the society, for their country? And what's so frustrating around environmentalism and environmentalists is that they keep insisting that the American people support the kind of changes that we need to make for environmentalist reasons. We think that we can actually make them excited about this new country and this new world for reasons more related to their community, their economy, their job, their livelihood. And, yet, the environmental community keeps insisting that the American people support what they support for their reasons.

CURWOOD: Carl Pope?

POPE: We do have a major challenge which is American social attitudes have been moving in a direction that makes any kind of social progressive policy more difficult. They haven't been moving in that direction because the environmental movement defined the environment as a thing or because environmentalists over relied on technical policy expertise. The reasons why Americans are moving in a rightward direction are complex. I don't pretend to understand them fully, but they certainly have a great deal to do with the fact that the radical right has spent 30 years trying to move things in that direction. They've been well funded, they've been well organized and they've been smart about some of the things they've done.

The fact is that the public will always, any public, will always be more concerned about immediate, local and intense problems as opposed to distant, non-immediate and diffuse problems. We're not going to get people to clean up the sewers in Columbus, Ohio, by talking about the environment. We're going to get them to clean up the sewers in Columbus, Ohio, by talking about the fact that it's not fair for people to have sewage in their basements; it's not smart and it's not necessary. And global warming, while it's more challenging, is the same kind of problem. We need to sell people on the solutions; we need to say to people, by having a new energy economy, we can do a whole lot of things at the same time. We can reduce the chances of sending our young men and women to the oil fields in the Middle East, we can reduce our trade deficit, we can generate jobs, we can clean-up air pollution in your community and we can deal with our international obligations to do something about global warming. We're not going to get people to adopt these solutions just by talking about the environment. The environment is part of a broad range of human concerns. I completely agree with Ted and Michael about that, but that doesn't mean the environmental movement needs to die.

CURWOOD: Michael or Ted, how to move forward from here? Are you saying environmental groups really need to start from scratch? Are you essentially calling for the demise of existing groups or what are you saying is necessary to move forward from here?

NORDHAUS: Well, I think the first thing we need to do is to come to terms with the desperate straits we've arrived at. I am much less sanguine than is Carl that this is just a temporary retreat and that the forces of environmental good are about to steal a new march on the British here. When we look at both the culture, the values environment, and the politics of this country, we are convinced that we need to take a step back and take a hard look at what we're doing. And whether you get tied up in a debate about "is the environmental movement dead or not," well, look, no one is going to come out and take its pulse and render a judgement. But what we do need to recognize is that the strategies that we've been pursuing at the national level, the institutions we've built and our concepts about what counts as an environmental problem and what doesn't, are all getting in the way of doing the work that we need to do.

And in terms of moving forward, I'm not here to offer a laundry list of prescriptions; we were very, very careful not to do so in our paper. The intent of the paper was to begin a discussion, a discourse, a debate, and to begin it publicly. But I think that we do need to take a hard look at those institutions. We need to take a hard look at where the hundreds of millions of dollars annually that the movement is spending, are being spent, how they're being spent, where those resources are going. And I think we need to devise a clear sense of how we get from here to a politics that can make the kind of changes that we need to make.

CURWOOD: Ted Nordhaus is a pollster and vice president of Evans McDonough, an opinion research firm. He's the co-author along with Michael Shellenberger of the "Death of Environmentalism." Thanks for joining us, Ted.

NORDHAUS: Thanks Steve.

CURWOOD: And, Michael Shellenberger is a political strategist and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute. Thanks, Michael.

NORDHAUS: Thanks for having me, Steve.

CURWOOD: And we were also joined by Carl Pope, who is the executive director of the Sierra Club. Thanks, Carl.

POPE: Good to be with you, Steve.

CURWOOD: To read the "Death of Environmentalism" essay and Carl Pope's response, go to our Web site at www dot living on earth dot o-r-g. That's www dot living on earth dot org.

[MUSIC: Spcncer Lewis "Symphony of the Arch" In the Bosom of the Green Mountains (Quartz Recordings, 1989)]



"Death of Environmentalism"

Carl Pope Response

"The Death of Environmentalism"

Apollo Alliance


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