Environmentalism is dead. Whats next?

Adam Werbach

When the U.S. Sen­ate vot­ed to allow drilling in the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge this past March, a casu­al observ­er might have expect­ed the lead­ers of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment to curl up into the fetal posi­tion and start mak­ing plans to build their own per­son­al arks. Instead, with­in hours, e‑mails from the lead­ers of the nation’s envi­ron­men­tal groups quick­ly spread out to their mem­bers, announc­ing their defeat. 

I am not going to soft-ped­al today’s defeat,” wrote John Adams to the Nat­ur­al Resource Defense Council’s mail­ing list. It is dis­tress­ing that pro-oil forces, sig­nif­i­cant­ly strength­ened by last November’s elec­tion, were able to pass this ter­ri­ble bill in the Sen­ate, where we’ve blocked them before.” Sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment was echoed by John Flick­er, pres­i­dent of the Nation­al Audubon Soci­ety, who wrote this to his staff and board: Over the last sev­er­al years we have faced one chal­lenge after anoth­er defend­ing the Refuge, includ­ing a sim­i­lar vote in the last Con­gress which we won.” 

Decid­ed­ly miss­ing from envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers’ post-defeat e‑mails, how­ev­er, was any admis­sion that it was time to go back to the draw­ing board.

A vague­ly post-coital glow emanat­ed from con­ser­v­a­tives in the wake of their 2004 elec­toral vic­to­ries, which had giv­en them the lever­age to trounce the great­est sym­bol of America’s uncom­plet­ed envi­ron­men­tal agen­da. Since the 1980 pas­sage of the Alas­ka Nation­al Inter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act, the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge – the 1.5 mil­lion acre area that com­pris­es the breed­ing ground of the Por­cu­pine Cari­bou Herd – had been left in lim­bo. With the high­ly sym­bol­ic bat­tle over the Arc­tic Refuge won, con­ser­v­a­tives are now free to kick-start America’s nuclear pow­er binge, expand coal-bed methane min­ing in the Rocky Moun­tain West and ensure that no seri­ous efforts to com­bat glob­al warm­ing will ever see the light of day.

The loss of the Arc­tic Nation­al Wildlife Refuge is yet one more piece of evi­dence that envi­ron­men­tal­ism, as a polit­i­cal move­ment, is exhaust­ed. The signs of environmentalism’s death are all around us. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists speak in terms of tech­ni­cal poli­cies, not vision and val­ues. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists pro­pose 20th cen­tu­ry solu­tions to 21st cen­tu­ry prob­lems. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists are fail­ing to attract young peo­ple, the phys­i­cal embod­i­ment of the future, to our cause. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists are fail­ing to attract the dis­en­fran­chised, the dis­em­pow­ered, the dis­pos­sessed and the dis­en­gaged. Envi­ron­men­tal­ists treat our rigid men­tal cat­e­gories of what is envi­ron­men­tal” and what is not as things rather than as social and polit­i­cal tools to orga­nize the pub­lic. Most of all, envi­ron­men­tal­ism is no longer capa­ble of gen­er­at­ing the pow­er it needs to deal with the world’s most seri­ous eco­log­i­cal prob­lem – name­ly, glob­al warming.

Over the past year, I, along with Michael Shel­len­berg­er, Ted Nord­haus and Peter Teague, whose work appears on these pages, have made the argu­ment that envi­ron­men­tal­ism is dead in Amer­i­ca. The pur­pose of describ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as dead is to allow the space for a new move­ment to grow – a new move­ment that does not set arbi­trary lim­i­ta­tions for what is con­sid­ered an envi­ron­men­tal issue,” in ser­vice of build­ing a larg­er pro­gres­sive movement.

It’s time for envi­ron­men­tal­ists to step out­side the lim­its of an arti­fi­cial­ly nar­row dis­course to artic­u­late a more expan­sive, more inclu­sive and more com­pelling vision for the future. In doing so, they will cease to be envi­ron­men­tal­ists and start to become Amer­i­can progressives.

The prob­lems fac­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ists are not unique to envi­ron­men­tal­ism. The fail­ure of the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment is symp­to­matic of the fail­ure of most lib­er­al social move­ments, includ­ing the labor, civ­il rights and women’s move­ments. All have failed to build an aspi­ra­tional nar­ra­tive for America. 

For at least the last 25 years, envi­ron­men­tal­ists have joined Amer­i­can lib­er­als in defin­ing them­selves accord­ing to a set of prob­lems, whether they be class, race, gen­der or the envi­ron­ment. We have spent far less time defin­ing our­selves accord­ing to the val­ues that unite us, such as shared pros­per­i­ty, social progress, inter­de­pen­dence, fair­ness, increas­ing equal­i­ty and eco­log­i­cal restora­tion. We can no longer afford to allow the laun­dry list of lib­er­al “-isms” to divide our world. I have come to believe that our future suc­cess­es will come not from our abil­i­ty to shock, but to inspire.

The moth­er of all environmentalists 

Mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal­ism was born in the ear­ly 60s in the form of sci­en­tist and writer Rachel Car­son. Car­son offered what was at the time an astound­ing the­sis: The chem­i­cals that were sup­posed to be pro­tect­ing us were in fact threat­en­ing to kill us. Car­son iden­ti­fied the chem­i­cal pes­ti­cide DDT in weak­ened egg shells of arc­tic birds, and used this evi­dence to pro­mote remov­ing inju­ri­ous chem­i­cals from our world. Her strat­e­gy was to awak­en the pub­lic by con­trast­ing a dream of the present to a night­mare of the future, and her solu­tions were framed in the neg­a­tive – a world with­out pes­ti­cides, with­out life-killing sub­stances. The pro­pos­als that fol­lowed were tech­ni­cal pol­i­cy fix­es for reg­u­lat­ing poi­sons and pol­lu­tants, but they lacked an over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive ground­ed in core Amer­i­can val­ues. This tech­ni­cal tra­di­tion, which was pow­er­ful­ly suc­cess­ful in the ear­ly days of envi­ron­men­tal­ism, formed the basis for mod­ern environmentalism. 

Instead of sup­port­ing a broad-based move­ment that employed the key lessons of ecol­o­gy – that all things are con­nect­ed – envi­ron­men­tal­ists chose to define their field of vision nar­row­ly. Birds were an envi­ron­men­tal issue, air qual­i­ty was an envi­ron­men­tal issue, but eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy was not. 

Envi­ron­men­tal­ists pro­mot­ed a reg­u­la­to­ry par­a­digm, not a nar­ra­tive for the country’s suc­cess. While lib­er­als were defin­ing them­selves in oppo­si­tion to the prob­lems that were beset­ting a mod­ern­iz­ing Amer­i­ca, con­ser­v­a­tives began to con­struct a move­ment that envi­sioned an opti­mistic Amer­i­ca that would appear bet­ter and stronger than ever. 

Unrav­el­ing the struc­tur­al weak­ness­es of envi­ron­men­tal­ism requires an under­stand­ing of the lan­guage and cat­e­gories that envi­ron­men­tal­ists, and there­fore the Amer­i­can peo­ple, use to describe the envi­ron­ment. If envi­ron­men­tal­ism stress­es inter­de­pen­dence on the one hand and things,” on the oth­er, there’s lit­tle doubt that it’s the things that the Amer­i­can peo­ple have been taught to asso­ciate with the words the envi­ron­ment”: baby seals, red­woods, Yel­low­stone and nuclear waste.

Some of the things they have been taught not to think of when they think of the envi­ron­ment are AIDS in Africa, tax­es, high­ways, home­less peo­ple, asth­ma, good jobs and the war in Iraq. Each of those things – envi­ron­men­tal” or not – are stripped by Amer­i­can envi­ron­men­tal­ism of their native habi­tat, their con­text and their web of con­nec­tions. They are sin­gle issues,” each requir­ing its own move­ment, its own experts and its own fund­ing source.

All cat­e­gories and words should be under­stood as tools, not as sym­bols of real things. This was the sim­ple point made by Fer­di­nand de Saus­sure at the dawn of the semi­otics move­ment. Cat­e­gories – indeed, all of lan­guage – should be eval­u­at­ed not for their time­less abil­i­ty to rep­re­sent a truth that, like the fic­tion of nature, is out there,” but rather for their abil­i­ty to meet our present needs. 

A rea­son­able case can be made that envi­ron­men­tal activists need­ed to put baby seals, red­woods, Yel­low­stone and nuclear waste under the brand of envi­ron­men­tal­ism” in order to pass a raft of envi­ron­men­tal laws in the 70s. With the sup­port of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, the Con­gress and even Richard Nixon, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment was able to pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Endan­gered Species Act, and the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act, which cre­at­ed the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

But for at least 25 years, and maybe longer, the basic cat­e­gor­i­cal assump­tions that under­lie envi­ron­men­tal­ism have inhib­it­ed the movement’s abil­i­ty to con­sid­er oppor­tu­ni­ties out­side envi­ron­men­tal bound­aries that would allow Amer­i­can pro­gres­sives to com­pete more effec­tive­ly with conservatives.

Con­sid­er that the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment achieved its great­est suc­cess­es before it had hun­dreds of lob­by­ists, com­mu­ni­ca­tions experts and pol­i­cy wonks, before orga­ni­za­tions had paid mem­ber­ships of mil­lions of peo­ple. The idea of clean­ing the smoky skies and clean­ing the water was pow­er­ful, imme­di­ate and achiev­able. In ret­ro­spect, the deci­sion to fund sewage sys­tems in America’s cities and to pro­tect America’s rare wildlife seems obvi­ous. But along with the vic­to­ries of the 70s, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment learned lessons that it has failed to unlearn as the polit­i­cal con­text changed over the years. 

Michael Shel­len­berg­er and Ted Nord­haus described the process of envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy-mak­ing in the Octo­ber 2004 paper, The Death of Envi­ron­men­tal­ism:

The three-part strate­gic frame­work for envi­ron­men­tal pol­i­cy-mak­ing hasn’t changed in 40 years: first, define a prob­lem (e.g. glob­al warm­ing) as envi­ron­men­tal.” Sec­ond, craft a tech­ni­cal rem­e­dy (e.g., cap-and-trade). Third, sell the tech­ni­cal pro­pos­al to leg­is­la­tors through a vari­ety of tac­tics, such as lob­by­ing, third-par­ty allies, research reports, adver­tis­ing and pub­lic relations.

By the Amer­i­can bicen­ten­ni­al, this kind of envi­ron­men­tal­ism had tri­umphed. Sweep­ing pro­tec­tions were put in place, and the focus was now as much on imple­men­ta­tion through the courts as it was on new leg­is­la­tion in Congress.

But while envi­ron­men­tal­ists turned their atten­tion toward the courts, the Amer­i­can peo­ple no longer relat­ed to environmentalism’s goals. Sup­port for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion since the 70s has been noto­ri­ous­ly shal­low. Although rough­ly three-quar­ters of all Amer­i­cans cur­rent­ly iden­ti­fy as envi­ron­men­tal­ists, or pledge sup­port for envi­ron­men­tal goals and laws, envi­ron­men­tal issues rarely make it into the top 10 list of things vot­ers wor­ry about the most. 

It’s not sur­pris­ing; the envi­ron­men­tal­ism that most Amer­i­cans under­stand – the pro­tec­tion of things like clean air and bald eagles – has been absorbed by Amer­i­can cul­ture. In 1970, envi­ron­men­tal­ism was a rad­i­cal issue. Today, Exxon-Mobil touts their pro­tec­tion of sea crea­tures, Pres­i­dent Bush dons jeans and a plaid shirt on Earth Day and recy­cling is taught to chil­dren soon after pot­ty train­ing. Envi­ron­men­tal­ism has failed to explain how recy­cling and species pro­tec­tion are only the begin­ning of a new mode of inte­grat­ed think­ing. The key les­son of envi­ron­men­tal­ism, instead of the pro­tec­tion of things, is the prac­tice of ecol­o­gy – the study of inter­de­pen­dence. When the Sier­ra Club boy­cotted Shell Oil because of its human rights record in Nige­ria, not because of its pol­lu­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion demon­strat­ed this type of inte­grat­ed think­ing. When envi­ron­men­tal­ists advo­cate immi­gra­tion con­trol as a means of pro­tect­ing” America’s envi­ron­ment, they demon­strate their loy­al­ty to thing-ori­ent­ed” envi­ron­men­tal­ism. This type of envi­ron­men­tal­ism has now run its course, and the Amer­i­can peo­ple have found oth­er issues to care about.

Envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers freely acknowl­edge that their issue” – this thing we call the envi­ron­ment” – is not a major pri­or­i­ty for Amer­i­cans. When pressed to choose between two can­di­dates, envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns are rarely a decid­ing fac­tor. This was espe­cial­ly appar­ent in the cam­paign lead­ing up to last November’s elec­tions. Only a few envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions even entered the polit­i­cal arena. 

The envi­ron­men­tal groups that did enter the polit­i­cal debate spent mil­lions of dol­lars on TV ads and grass­roots mobi­liza­tion. Yet they had lit­tle effect on the out­come of the elec­tion. Why? They large­ly focused on their issues” rather than on tech­niques that would have had a greater effect. The Nation­al Rifle Asso­ci­a­tion, on the oth­er hand, ran ads in pro-gun-con­trol dis­tricts in Col­orado on the issue of taxes. 

Despite these fail­ures, the les­son many envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers are tak­ing from the elec­tion is that we must talk loud­er and fight hard­er – with the same words and the same tools.

Com­pet­ing iden­ti­ties and issues

Envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t the only ones cling­ing to an iden­ti­ty sep­a­rate from pro­gres­sivism. Each of liberalism’s spe­cial inter­ests has its own experts, its own pro­fes­sion­als, its own lob­by­ists, its own lawyers, its own fun­ders, its own mail­ing lists and its jour­nal­is­tic beat. The more that each fights to estab­lish itself as above pol­i­tics,” the more each rein­forces its spe­cial-inter­est sta­tus. In seek­ing to dis­tin­guish the inter­est cat­e­gories, each group looks askance at the oth­er, as though any asso­ci­a­tion – any inter­con­nect­ed­ness – with oth­er pro­gres­sives would dimin­ish their spe­cial powers. 

The pic­ture for pro­gres­sives, in this con­text, seems grim. But if there’s one les­son to learn from con­ser­v­a­tives, it’s that moments of defeat are an oppor­tu­ni­ty for a turn­around. Forty years ago, things also looked grim for con­ser­v­a­tives. Their debates over con­ser­vatism fore­shad­owed our debates today over lib­er­al­ism. Should con­ser­v­a­tives mod­er­ate their views and become Demo­c­rat-lite? Should they embrace a kinder, gen­tler New Deal? Or did they need to declare the death of con­ser­vatism so they could build a neo-con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment? Like lib­er­als today, con­ser­v­a­tives wrung their hands over these debates, fret­ting that the cir­cu­lar fir­ing squads” would lead to per­ma­nent minor­i­ty status.

It’s been months since the elec­tions, and there is still no real debate among lib­er­als and Democ­rats about what went wrong, not just with Kerry’s cam­paign, but with lib­er­al­ism and all of its sis­ter-isms. Lib­er­als pulled out all of the stops in their elec­tion efforts, yet it was not near­ly enough to counter the grow­ing trend in America’s con­ser­v­a­tive social val­ues. In order to start win­ning elec­tions, we need to con­struct an aspi­ra­tional ide­ol­o­gy as pow­er­ful as lib­er­al­ism once was, and as pow­er­ful as fun­da­men­tal­ism is today. We need to accept that the needs of most Amer­i­cans have changed since the dawn of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism. Tech­no­log­i­cal change, cred­it debt, depres­sion and time-stress are the mod­ern Amer­i­can plagues. Life is still not easy in Amer­i­ca, and peo­ple still suf­fer, but the optics have changed. We need to con­struct a new pro­gres­sive ide­ol­o­gy that rec­og­nizes that Amer­i­cans yearn for an ide­ol­o­gy that pro­vides a deep­er ful­fill­ment, instead of focus­ing sole­ly on enhanc­ing our polit­i­cal tactics.

Many in our move­ments preach the val­ue of free speech, open dia­logue and debate, yet as soon as some­body chal­lenges our most basic assump­tions, or dares to lev­el a pub­lic crit­i­cism at the lib­er­al pow­ers-that-be, they are barked down. When we’re simul­ta­ne­ous­ly los­ing on near­ly every one of our so-called issues” – abor­tion, civ­il rights, the envi­ron­ment, the econ­o­my, for­eign pol­i­cy – ques­tion­ing every­thing should no longer be our right, it should be our responsibility.

The prob­lem is not that envi­ron­men­tal­ism and the moral intel­lec­tu­al frame­work we call lib­er­al­ism are dead. The prob­lem is that we have been in denial about it for more than 20 years. The soon­er we acknowl­edge these deaths, the soon­er we can give birth to some­thing more pow­er­ful and relevant.

Parts of this arti­cle were adapt­ed from Werbach’s Com­mon­wealth Club speech, Is Envi­ron­men­tal­ism Dead?”

Adam Wer­bach is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Com­mon Assets Defense Fund and a mem­ber of the San Fran­cis­co Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion. He is a for­mer pres­i­dent of the Sier­ra Club, a posi­tion to which he was elect­ed at the age of 23.
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