No More of the Same

Adam Werbach

The Death of Environmentalism – Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, excerpted on the left, was released at the October 2004 Environmental Grantmakers Association conference in Hawaii. It has been discussed in publications ranging from the New York Times to The Economist.

The two are founding partners of American Environics, a research and strategy company. Their book, The Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of a New Aspirational Politics, will be published by Houghton Mifflin in Fall 2006. In early June, I interviewed Nordhaus and Shellenberger via e-mail about what has happened since its release. Our discussion follows:

Let’s start with the generational politics that seem to be just below the surface of much of the death of environmentalism debate. Do you believe that baby boomers bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the dearth of leadership in the environmental movement? What should these leaders do now? Die?

Shellenberger: Honestly, we didn’t give much thought to generational politics until Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope accused us of patricide” in his response to The Death of Environmentalism.” But the more we thought about it, the more we’re inclined to agree that there is a generational divide. Those of our generation, particularly on the left, grew up in the shadow of the baby boom and its politics. Unfortunately, the single-interest, complaint-based model of social change invented by the baby boomers in the early 70s is outmoded. We recognize and are grateful for their contribution – and we’re ready to move on. 

Look where we’re at: The ecological crises we face today – global warming, species extinction, habitat destruction, to name a few – are far more complex, global, and requiring of deeper changes in the economy than the issues the environmental movement was created to address 40 years ago. And yet environmentalists haven’t reconceptualized these problems nor revamped their politics. As a consequence, environmentalists are weaker today than at any point in recent American history.

What has happened to America since the defeat of Barry Goldwater?

If your social values data your new company is working from is correct, the conservative political trend we’re experiencing reflects a conservative trend in American social values. Wasn’t the implication of Abraham Maslow’s work that once a society’s basic material needs are achieved it grows to be increasingly open and liberal?

Nordhaus: Remember that real income for a huge number of American households has been declining since the early 70s. The shift toward survival oriented values that we see in our research partly reflects dramatic structural changes in the economy – changes that began with the oil shocks of the early 70s, have continued with the rise of the global economy, and have been aided and abetted by conservative ideas about regulation and taxation – ideas that have been largely implemented at a policy level over the last 25 years as conservatives consolidated their political power. We suspect that a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog economy begets dog-eat-dog, survival-oriented values. 

What lessons do you think that Democrats learned from the 2004 election defeat?

Nordhaus: Sadly, very little. Most Democrats and progressives think we just need to do more of the same. With better strategies, better tactics, a few more religious leaders and movie stars here, another $100 million for ACT there, some better words and frames in our press releases they hope to muddle through. 

But we all know that the old ways in which we measured success are not sufficient. We have spent 20 years, and enormous resources, fighting a rear guard battle to protect the successes of liberalism and environmentalism. How much proof will we require that we’re losing before we take a hard look at what we are doing and, as importantly, who we are, and dramatically transform our politics and our movement?

The arguments that you’ve made for environmentalism are largely applicable to the other social movements of liberalism. How does a women’s movement that’s now focused on defending access to abortions turn on its heels and start fighting the underlying social values trends that are making them stumble?

Shellenberger: 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. 

We need to ask some hard questions of our politics. What is the alternative to complaint-based politics? How do we decide what gets counted as an environmental” or a women’s” or a foreign policy” issue? What gets left out of those categories – and what political opportunities might exist in what’s been left out?

Is access to abortion really the central reproductive issue facing the country? Why does abortion dominate the discussion? 

Why, for instance, has no progressive group succeeded in injecting the idea of a motherhood bill of rights – where we literally pay women to stay home to raise their children, or get tax credits for day care – into contested political space? How did progressive groups allow the right to kill comprehensive sex-ed and replace it with abstinence-only?

As soon as you start thinking outside of the abortion” or environment” or peace” boxes a whole world of political opportunity opens up.

There’s a cottage industry in trying to build a replica of the conservative media and political infrastructure for progressives. Do you think we need to be looking at other models, like corporate turnarounds?

Shellenberger: There are certainly very important lessons we can draw from the corporate world, especially from the few great corporations that are vision and values-focused rather than product- and market-focused.

The talk of progressives since the November defeat has been about the need to build a progressive infrastructure” to match the conservative message machine.” That’s fine as far as it goes – but our problems go way beyond message, framing and mechanics. 

All this talk about infrastructure” risks fetishizing the conservative movement and missing the important intellectual work that conservatives started doing in the 50s and 60s to create a values-based politics. It also misses the way conservatives exploited race as a fault line in the culture, marginalized the old, integrationist elements of the GOP and weaved together economic fundamentalism with religious fundamentalism.

We have yet to see progressives and Democrats really grappling with cultural and political realignment. Instead, what you see is the same old tug-of-war within the party between those who want to see the party move to the left” and those who want it to move to the center.” These debates operate along a largely irrelevant political fault line, which is not very interesting intellectually and certainly won’t result in any political breakthroughs.

Do you get tired of being derided and dismissed by many mainstream environmental leaders?

Nordhaus: We didn’t expect to be embraced with open arms. Of course, it’s never easy to have people angry with you or question your intentions, but we felt that what we said had to be said. 

I think much of the distress over Death of” is emblematic of how unaccustomed the left has become to public debate. There was a time in America when you looked to the left, not the right, for vigorous debate over ideas. That’s no longer the case. One of the great myths among progressives is that conservatives are monolithic and unified. It’s simply not the case. There are important differences – fought out publicly – among religious conservatives, free market-libertarians, blue-blood Republicans and neocons. We ignore their differences – and try to shut down debate on our side – at our peril.

I also think it’s a sign of the intellectual flabbiness among progressives that the central criticism being directed at us for writing Death of” is that some people’s feelings were hurt. Never mind the ecological, cultural and political crises we’re facing – people’s feelings were hurt! 

One of the most positive things that happened since we wrote Death of” is the huge number of young people – from junior staff in environmental and conservation organizations to college students – who have contacted us, asking to be involved in building a post-environmental movement. We’re hosting a retreat for a small group of these young people to come together next November.

The readers of In These Times are a discerning crowd. What are the questions they should be asking to discover if the social movement they care about needs to die and be reborn?

Shellenberger: To get back to the generational question, America in 2005 looks quite different from 1975, yet the way progressives do politics is essentially unchanged. We need to challenge ourselves to renovate our thinking and our politics.

What kind of country do we want? What is America great at – and how do we build on that to overcome our challenges? How can we work with other countries to build on our collective strengths? How is globalization a good thing, and how do we make it more so?

The big question we need to ask ourselves is, what vision and values and program should animate a new progressive infrastructure? To answer these questions we have to stop conflating values with programs. Social Security, universal health care, reducing global warming emissions, ending poverty – these are programs, not values.

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.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.