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.
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