Environmentalism's EKG: A Survey of Recent Articles

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Environmentalism's EKG: A Survey of Recent Articles


The environmental movement has suffered death by a thousand agendas. That was the message delivered last fall by environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in a manifesto called "The Death of Environmentalism," and they have ignited a continuing debate in a community that had always considered itself united.

Bogged down in promoting shortsighted, narrow policy fixes for a miscellany of environmental problems, the movement's leaders have lost their inspiring vision, contend Shellenberger, the executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and Nordhaus, a pollster with Evans/McDonough. The two base their critique (available at www. thebreakthrough.org) on interviews with two dozen leading environmentalists.

America's voters have become more conservative--and environmentalists' tendency to frame their issues in negative, apocalyptic terms just isn't selling. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream' speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it," Shellenberger and Nordhaus write. "Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an 'I have a nightmare' speech instead."

They conclude that environmentalism has become just another narrow special interest. Now it must forge a new, visionary identity, embrace a wider spectrum of progressive concerns, and expand its notion of what its issues are, looking beyond the traditional "environmental" label to labor, the economy, and health care.

Environmentalists' lack of--and even distaste for--politicking helped scuttle the Senate's ratification of the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases and allowed a deal for higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards to slip through their fingers, Shellenberger and Nordhaus say. Confronting the calamity of global warming, environmental leaders have been woefully ineffective at building political support, believing that the rightness of their cause is all they need, that "selling technical solutions like fluorescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars will be sufficient to muster the necessary political strength to overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C."

American environmental leaders today pattern their tactics after those of Silent Spring author Rachel Carson and other activist pioneers, according to Shellenberger and Nordhaus. They define a narrow problem and then pursue a technical solution. They're like "generals fighting the last war--in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago."

That accusation has stung leaders of some of the country's largest environmental organizations.

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