We're All Environmentalists Now: It Isn't Environmentalism That Died. What Expired Was Progressive Politics Based on Single-Issue Interest Groups

By Schmitt, Mark | The American Prospect, October 2005 | Go to article overview

We're All Environmentalists Now: It Isn't Environmentalism That Died. What Expired Was Progressive Politics Based on Single-Issue Interest Groups


Schmitt, Mark, The American Prospect


FOR THE ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNITY, "The Death of Environmentalism" hit last year with the force of a tsunami, leaving its audience so taken aback by its sweeping, cocksure condemnation of their decades of selfless struggle that they could barely think about it rationally, even when they accepted its basic truth.

On the other hand, among progressives who don't situate their lives primarily in the world of the greens, the essay crept to attention more slowly, rather like global warming itself. Almost a year later, I am still periodically sent a copy, along with a breathless "Have you read this?" note. Not only did I read it, I point out; I tried to call attention to it outside the environmental community back in March, predicting that "it may be the most powerful and lasting of the very many 'What's wrong with the left?' documents of the George W. Bush era."

Rereading the essay after a year, it seems even clearer that "The Death of Environmentalism" was less a condemnation of the environmental movement than a call to all progressives to think more like environmentalists--and for professional environmentalists to think less like Washington lobbyists. The essay's greatest gift was its critique of "policy literalism," the process by which activists identify a distinct problem, define it as an "environmental" one, seek the proximate cause, propose a solution, and then mobilize their experts, their lobbyists, and their public-relations machines around that solution.

In the most provocative section of their essay, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, proposed that rather than defining the problem of global warming as "too much carbon in the atmosphere." The problem should be redefined as:

* the radical right's control of all three branches of the U.S. government;

* trade policies that undermine environmental protections;

* our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision;

* overpopulation;

* the influence of money in American politics;

* our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values;

* poverty; and

* old assumptions about what the problem is and what it isn't

In my response this past spring [see "'Death' and Resurrection," TAP Online, March 30, 2005], I half-mocked this sweeping list, along with a suggestion from another expert quoted in the essay that the only solution for global warming is "real campaign-finance reform," as if the authors were offering to swap one hard political problem for a less familiar one. (If you've been working on global warming for a decade, campaign-finance reform looks simple and fun, but the reverse is also true.)

But in retrospect, I think I, too, missed the point. It wasn't to redefine one issue as another. That's just "policy literalism" with a new mask. Rather, it was a call to define all the circumstances that we face in a unitary, systemic way, because in fact they are integrally related. And only by seeing them in that way can we address them coherently as a movement.

SHELLENBERGER AND NORDHAUS revealed a death, but it was not that of environmentalism as an idea. Rather, it is interest-group pluralism, the model of liberal advocacy under which all of us over 30 were raised, that is finished. The environmental movement--much like groups that advocate for health policy or children or gun control or civil liberties or housing or campaign-finance reform--was created on the assumptions of pluralism: Democratic government, usually in some bipartisan fashion, would take the claims of advocates for individual causes, find balance where they conflicted, and allocate resources based on the power--electoral, moral, popular, financial, legal, or scientific--of competing claims. The mission for any individual issue-advocacy group in this game was to develop popular support, media visibility, or political clout to offset the strength of direct opponents. …

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