Web Only / Features » August 15, 2005
Addressing the State of the Movement
Three perspectives on our ‘Environmentalism is Dead’ package
In These Times’ July 11 issue, “Environmentalism is Dead. What’s Next?” generated a number of passionate replies from a variety of different perspectives. To expand the debate, we’ve highlighted three responses, below. The first, “Where’s the Race?” from a set of environmental justice activists, argues that the “ecomorticians” ignore both the relationship of environmental issues to race and the contribution that groups devoted to addressing this issue have made to expanding environmental initiatives. The second, “Youthful Hubris,” by In These Times contributor and freelance writer Kelly Kleiman, suggests that progressives are ill-served by generational politics. And the third, by feminist writer and activist Amy Richards, “Show us the Solutions,” suggests that younger activists are more motivated by tangible problem-solving than ideology.
In These Times invites open dialogue on our discussion boards; we hope that these responses from informed and impassioned readers will motivate you to join the debate.
In These Times’ cover story on Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ essay “The Death of Environmentalism-Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World” reflected little of the extensive debate that’s gone on since the release of the commentary. Adam Werbach’s interview with Shellenberger and Nordhaus was no exception.
While Nordhaus and Shellenberger call for a multi-issue, inclusive movement, they don’t look past their own agenda to acknowledge a collaborative movement that has its roots in communities of color and has been growing since the early ’70s-the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement. EJ addresses the relationship between poverty; discrimination; varying access to food, clothing and shelter; and the disproportionate environmental degradation and pollution in low-income communities and communities of color. The movement has demonstrated that such communities bear a greater burden of environmental risk and has successfully lobbied and litigated against such discriminatory practices.
The systems approach Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate is supported by the idea that structure creates behavior. Yet in his interview, Werbach limited the dialogue by restricting his inquiry to the lessons social movements can learn from corporations, ignoring domestic social movements like the multiracial, environmental justice movement, and multiple international movements that have achieved greater success over the last several decades. It is ironic that Nordhaus, Shellenberger and Werbach direct social movements to corporations for models of success, while corporations are monitoring the success of and collaborating with the environmental organizations the authors denounce. The interview, and the commentary it lauds, incorrectly pretends that the environmental movement is not shaped by a legacy of race and class relations.
This historical amnesia and race blindness extends beyond the environmental movement. Shellenberger says, “All the liberal single-issue movements need to challenge their basic assumptions about what the problem is that they’re trying to address, and develop a relevant vision for America and the world.” This is not new information. The critique parrots the focus of people of color in almost every social justice movement, from domestic violence to labor, transportation, foreign policy and criminal justice. Yet Nordhaus and Shellenberger don’t acknowledge this or place “their” solution in any historical context. When Shellenberger asks if abortion is the central reproductive issue facing the country, he seems completely unaware that women of color have had the very same struggle with disproportionately white women’s groups such as N.O.W., and were, in large part, responsible for ensuring that the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004 was inclusive and not solely focused on choice.
The “Death” discussions of expansive approaches to achieving environmental ends–which focus almost solely on the new Apollo Alliance (a group co-founded by Shellenberger)–ignores numerous innovative and successful efforts led by people of color and a few progressive white allies to engage in dialogues and affect change across populations and issues. For example, Smart Growth America–a coalition of national, state and local organizations working to improve the urban development, preserve natural areas, and reduce sprawl and auto-dependency–focuses on the issues people actually care about: being able to get to work without too much traffic, living in areas that are affordable and naturally beautiful, having access to safe footpaths so their kids can walk to school. The organization has redeveloped land, advocated for an increase in conservation funding and spearheaded the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (H.R. 2869), a major federal legislative victory for smart growth. Union groups such as The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, United Farm Workers and Farm Labor Organizing Committee have helped workers secure health benefits and collective bargaining agreements. And EJ groups, ranging from Alternatives for Community and Environment in Boston to the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, have protected coastal wetlands, developed cost-efficient and effective pollution prevention initiatives, and worked directly with community residents to advocate for cleaner fuel alternatives.
“Death” completely ignores such success and saves its praise for their Apollo Alliance: an organization that has generated significant media attention, editorials, and Capitol Hill rhetoric, yet no tangible results.
A better-reasoned report than “Death” would not only better capture the values and issues surrounding the current crises in our country, but would address the reasons for social and environmental inequity, including questions of accountability and access to housing, health care, and jobs, as well as the legacy of American apartheid. If the authors believe, as they say, that “a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog economy begets dog-eat-dog, survival-oriented values,” then their oversight is not only short-sighted, it is irresponsible.
An approach without an explicitly anti-racist analysis that seeks to dismantle the racist framework of laws and attitudes that underpin declining American public and private institutions is not viable. Clearly, if such institutional problems were caused by white supremacy and the apartheid system it generated, an approach that does not take into account racial justice will not bring about needed change-despite any claims to the contrary. We are left to wonder: Do Nordhaus, Shellenberger and Werbach truly believe in the Heritage Foundation and Dinesh D’Souza’s race-blind approach to social change?
We are also moved to ask-do the authors have a search engine that brings up the principles and strategies of people of color, but strips them of their sources? If the eco-morticians think our ideas are good, why don’t they cite us and a host of colleagues, that we have repeatedly discussed with them? If the authors and their funders are interested in solutions, why don’t they examine or fund organizations that add a diversity of opinion to this important discussion? We welcome the fact that, after months of sustained criticism (from a coalition of scholars and activists, led in part by the Executive Director of Redefining Progress, Michel Gelobter), Nordhaus and Shellenberger have begun to acknowledge some of their shortcomings. They took a big step to broadening their approach in a recent conference, co-sponsored by the California-based Greenlining Institute, called “Beyond Environmentalism.” However, this interview demonstrates there is much more to be done and many more conversations to be had. We suggest the authors take their own advice, and engage in an authentic, informed and inclusive public debate.
Ludovic J. Blain III, Movement Building Consultant
Dr. Michael K. Dorsey, former Board member Sierra Club
Simran Sethi, Ethical Markets Media
Max Weintraub, Environmental Justice Health Union
Launa Wilson, Progressive Alliance for Nevada
I found puzzling Jessica Clark’s June 21 commentary “Move Over, Boomers,” as well as Joel Bleifuss’s proud observation that the average age of In These Times’ staff is 28. Such attention to generational issues demonstrates that the left is in the process of making a mistake it has made repeatedly this century, that of deciding that its internecine struggles are more important than the needs and concerns of the wider society. If we doddering Boomers can teach the young Turks anything, it should be the limits of generational analysis.
The last time the young fought the old for primacy in progressive politics was the early ’70s, when the terms “Old Left” and “New Left” were used to represent various stripes and degrees of ideological purity. What’s important today is not the substance of the dispute but its consequence: a rift that elected Richard Nixon and began the long slide of the Democratic party, and progressive ideals, from the mainstream of American political life to its margins. How many times do we have to learn the same lesson? Conservatives are winning at least in part because they haven’t wasted any time playing “purer than thou” (or “younger than thou”), instead concentrating their attention on shaping and communicating their positions and getting people elected.
Generational politics are certainly as divisive as any of the identity politics condemned by Clark, and a lot less useful; for what unites any generation is a lot less meaningful than what divides it. I have much more in common with a person fifteen years my junior who cares about social justice than with a person my age who espouses repeal of the estate tax. Progressives should take a break from wondering “What’s the matter with Kansas?”-why people vote against their economic self-interest-and spend time instead noticing what’s wrong with us, why we work against our ideological self-interest with such self-destructive fervor.
If the young leaders Clark styles “practivists” truly “prefer to emphasize similarities rather than dwell in the ‘silos’ of various ‘isms,’” then perhaps they should resist the urge to indulge in the ageism showcased in her piece and devote themselves instead to articulating what they have to offer. Clark’s own evocation of these youthful white knights left me mystified. What does it mean that they’re “steeped in systems thinking”? That “they see politics as a fluid field of choice rather than a hard-and-fast test of their own radical identities?” Does that mean they have no principles? I find it difficult to applaud that for, as a generation even earlier than mine was fond of remarking, you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
And why does a call for small-donor support of the Democratic party apply “more to middle-class voters with cable modems and time for meet-ups than to workers struggling to raise children”? Lower-income people give, and always have given, more generously than rich people to charity. If we want them also to give money to politics, the obstacle is not that they’re incapable of doing so but that the Democratic Party has thus far failed to make a persuasive case that it’s a worthwhile investment.
Finally, how can the women leaders among the “practivists” have been “trained and inspired by feminism [but] have explored the limitations of that movement and seek wider horizons”? Feminism’s only genuine limitation was that it wasn’t, by itself, able to solve all the problems it identified-that the upbringing of children and other socially valuable enterprises rest on the unwaged labor of women; that replacing that labor costs money the powerful are reluctant to spend; that the assertion of female rights will be discomfiting to male partners. But feminism promised, and delivered, an analysis of how society is organized to the disadvantage of women, and a roadmap for its reorganization. If Clark thinks that what unites women is less important than what divides us-as I think about people my age-that’s certainly an intellectually respectable view; but I find it hard to imagine a “wider horizon” than the effort to empower 51% of the world. Nor can I imagine the parochial struggles of progressivism offer the breadth she seeks.
Now I must rest my arthritic fingers, twisted with the hard labor of my 50 years. But if younger activists want me to move over, they’ll have to offer something more than mere belligerence.
Kelly Kleiman, Freelance Writer
I absolutely appreciate the perspective of Adam Werbach and others in your July 11th issue on the current state of environmental activism. However, the authors themselves are guilty of the same criticism they unleash on others. They blame others for narrowly defining activism as conventional political reform and organizations for not offering specific suggestions. As my co-author and I offer in our book Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism, we have to move beyond the generic three–sending money, volunteering and signing petitions–but, as we do in our book, we have to do that by offering specific suggestions. Perhaps the authors can devote as much verbiage to solutions and with that they can legitimately distinguish themselves from the staid leadership they critique.
The narrowness of this discussion was all the more alarming to me since the issue began with Jessica Clark’s fresh, smart and thought provoking editorial, “Move Over, Boomers.” Instead of naively blaming young people for being apathetic or disingenuously attempting to engage young people simply by creating something along the lines of a youth advisory committee, Clark actually articulates why young people aren’t participating in political reform (or revolt) in a way that mimics their predecessors. Politics is more broadly defined for this generation; in the past thirty years young people have watched the same approaches be tried and tested, all to little or no avail; people aren’t motivated by large, sweeping change but the tangible problems and thus solutions that exist in their own backyards. Clark demystifies what would motivate more people to get involved and her argument is consistent with what I hear as I travel to college campuses. For any organization legitimately trying to involve people of any age and more importantly, to solve the larger issues at hand, the ultimate conclusion is that we need to take more risks and truly offer practical tools that go beyond propping up dated organizations and ideas.
Amy Richards, Soapbox, Inc.