The Afterlife of Environmentalism: Can We Tie Big Global Concerns to the Everyday Lives of Americans?

Article excerpt

A YEAR AGO, TWO COMMITTED activists with serious credentials in the environmental movement released a report proclaiming "the death of environmentalism." In so doing, they sparked a debate that continues to this day. While some have suggested that both the authors and their accusations emerged from nowhere, they in fact put a spotlight on some recurrent, yet seldom influential, criticisms leveled by minority voices within the movement. If these criticisms are correct (and in large measure I think that they are),the environmental movement, and the progressive left of which it is a part, will need to be remade in ways that go beyond a mere tinkering with policies, personnel, or priorities. This critique demands changes not only in what environmental organizations do but also in what they are.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus released "The Death of Environmentalism" in October 2004 at the annual gathering of environmental grant-makers (the people who allocate the foundation money that keeps most environmental groups afloat). It soon took on a life of its own, thrashing about widely on the Internet and garnering mainstream media attention earlier this year.

The title alone guaranteed attention, and releasing it at the big grant-makers' conference was enough to provoke many environmental leaders. Following the November election, the general malaise among American progressives also opened greater space for heterodox voices.

And yet in assessing the obstacles to a progressive majority, the environmental movement would seem to be an odd place to begin. Unlike organized labor, for instance, the membership rolls of the big national environmental organizations have grown--at least fourfold over the past 25 years. The result is bigger budgets and staff, plus more in-house expertise. New statewide and local organizations have also emerged during this period. Environmentalism has a further advantage: Unlike the reproductive-rights movement, for instance, it does not polarize public opinion. Despite some fluctuation, polls consistently show high levels of support for environmental protection--levels that would be the envy of many progressive movements. So what's the problem?

For one thing, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus make clear, the same polls that identify high levels of public support for environmental protection also reveal that support to be shallow. Americans care about "the environment," but when faced with competing demands on their time, money, and attention, they don't appear to care all that much. For another thing, membership and organizational growth are not tied--or sometimes seem inversely tied--to success in advancing an agenda that now includes halting climate change, protecting species diversity, reducing toxic exposure, and other awesome challenges. Indeed, landmark legislative victories such as the National Environmental Policy, the Clean Air and Water acts, and the Endangered Species acts were all accomplished more than a generation ago, at a time when the movement was much less institutionalized. While the shallowness of support for environmentalism is a key problem, it doesn't represent a change from the past. The increasing difficulty in advancing an agenda--despite growing movement sophistication--clearly does. It suggests that simply "more"--more money, more organizing, more experts--is unlikely to enable the movement to once again win big.

It might seem reassuring if we could pin the blame for this change on George W. Bush, or perhaps on the Republican takeover of Congress in the '90s. This partisan roadblock certainly makes even incremental progress more difficult. Yet the slowing of environmentalist progress predates both. Environmentalists were running into increasingly sophisticated opposition even during the Carter administration. Some has been from forthright opponents of environmentalism--for example, the "sagebrush rebellion" and later the "wise use" movement, which have fought government regulation and ownership of western lands. …