The Death of Environmentalism

windmillSome of you are probably wondering why I didn’t follow through with my promise to publish my Green Movement Manifesto on ChangeThis!, the new and wildly popular site for the posting of manifestos and other lengthy and provocative ‘thought pieces’ on urgent and fundamental issues. There are two reasons:

  1. When I ran the Green Movement Manifesto by a number of people, the ‘environmentalists’ liked it, the progressives who don’t have the environment at the top of their agenda were neutral to it, and the conservatives didn’t like it at all. So I worried I was just preaching to the choir.
  2. When I went to ChangeThis! I found another manifesto called The Death of Environmentalism already there. As much as the title infuriated me, I read it and I basically agree with the authors. In light of their arguments, which I summarize below, the Green Movement Manifesto needs some serious work.

The authors of The Death of Environmentalism, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, have worked for various environmental organizations most of their lives, and featured prominently in some of the environmental movement’s greatest successes in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought in legislation that is only now being seriously undermined by Bush and others. They have taken a candid look at the almost uninterrupted history of failure of the movement since the mid-1970s — thirty years — and its increasing marginalization and inability to galvanize public opinion. Though you should read the whole 50-page manifesto, here’s the gist of it:

  • Support for environmental protection is broad but shallow — the large majority believe it’s a good thing to do, but very few list it in their ‘top 10’ priorities for needed change.
  • The movement has erred by defining, in people’s minds, the ‘environment’ as a thing, separate and apart from the human world.
  • Framing problems as ‘environmental’ problems doesn’t work since in most people’s minds it has the effect of trivializing them, making them abstract and impersonal.
  • Focusing political effort on technical remedies and tactics doesn’t work — it fails to engage people, provide a sense of urgency and immediacy to the problems, or define them as political, ‘people’ problems.
  • As a result, the three mainstay activities of environmental organizations — analysis, organization and PR — are increasingly ineffective: In a world that is in a moral war over core values, our rational appeal to be good stewards of this ‘other’ thing called the environment just gets lost.
  • The media therefore have largely stopped covering the movement, so radical environmentalists (PETA, ELF) have used anti-social acts as a means to get attention, and garnered some (mostly unfavourable) media coverage, while mainstream environmentalists have been unable to get any media coverage at all.
  • While the environmental movement therefore blames the media (unfairly — if the people don’t care about the issue, why should the media?), the consequence of the invisibility of the mainstream movement has been that nearly half of Americans surveyed now agree that “most people active in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.”
  • Environmentalists, who are rationalists at heart, have a propensity to be reductionist and stop their analysis at root causes: “The global warming problem is at root a carbon emissions problem, so we must have legislation to reduce these emissions”, when what they should be doing is identifying the practical, real-world obstacles to achieving such legislation, and how to overcome these obstacles, such as:
    • the control of all three branches of government in the US by the extreme right
    • trade policies that undermine environmental protections
    • their own failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision
    • overpopulation
    • the influence of money in US politics
    • failure to craft ‘environmental’ legislation that shapes the debate around core values
    • poverty
    • acceptance of dubious assumptions about what the real problem is, and isn’t
  • In 1991, the environmental movement stupidly agreed to withdraw its drive for a much-needed US fuel efficiency standard in return for an auto industry agreement to oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (which is now likely to be drilled anyway) — this was because of short-range, tactical thinking and mis-framing the debate as about ‘protecting the environment’ when it should have been framed as about salvaging the viability of the US auto industry.
  • The movement has been too short-sighted and idealistic to form practical alliances: The #1 reason the US auto industry is less profitable than the Japanese industry is the exploding cost of health care, which in the US is paid for by the industry ($5B/year by GM alone), yet environmentalists have never considered helping the auto industry lobby for universal public health care in return for an agreement to raise fuel efficiency, because “health care isn’t an environmental issue”.
  • So the movement is now in a quandary: It’s focusing its effort on short-term, tactical efforts and technical solutions that it believes could be politically successful even in the current US political climate, while at the same time acknowledging that even if these quick fixes and incremental improvements succeed they will be far short of the change that is needed immediately to avert ecological catastrophe.
  • The authors co-founded the New Apollo Project (which my fellow environmental blogger Richard Kahn criticized as idealistic) which they say provides an “inclusive and hopeful vision” and is at least an intelligent first step to get environmentalists out of the ‘special interest’ mold and into the practice of building win-win alliances — and not just with other environmentalists and progressives. “It is our contention”, they say, “that the strength of any given political proposal turns more on its vision for the future and the values it carries within it than on its technical policy specifications”.
  • The best way to achieve significant change in the environment is to focus less on regulation and more on investment: Encouraging planet-friendly investments siphons dollars away from polluting and wasteful investments.
  • What especially backfires is environmentalists’ PR focus on raising awareness of the problem: Bombarding the public with bleak news when they are desperately seeking reassurance and less to worry about (that’s why I rarely report environmental set-backs and other bad news on this blog — it doesn’t accomplish anything).

So: Vision and values first, and then build the movement and its agenda on that. In my Green Movement Manifesto I really started with the agenda for what I described as a coalition of the disenfranchised. That agenda was about communicating, teaching, recruiting, political (proportional representation), social (boycotts, think-tanks, demonstrations) and economic (tax shifts, new measures of well-being) activities, and creating Model Intentional Communities, new progressive media and Natural Enterprises. I used the term ‘Green’ instead of Environmental or Ecology because I thought it was more inclusive, more about us than just about it.

Suppose we take a step back and describe the vision and values of the Green Movement first, and then review the agenda and see if it fits?

Yesterday I produced what I believe to be a statement of universal human values: Happiness as a product of good Health, Home (including Environment, Belonging, Self-Sufficiency), Connection (Community, Relationships, Family, Love), Discovery (Learning, Creating, Forming Beliefs), Work, Peace (Freedom, Justice, Absence of Stress), Play, Awareness and Self-Esteem. I freely admit that these may not be the best terms, which, along with their organization have an implicit progressive ‘frame’ to them. But whether you want to combine Home and Connection into one core value (as environmentalists are wont to do), or elevate Family from an aspect of Home and Connection to a core value in its own right, I think you’ll agree that this is a reasonable broad-brush summary of human values (and, if you’re an environmentalist, of the values of all life on Earth).

If we’re going to build a Green Movement on values and vision, do we need to focus on or emphasize certain values, the ones that are currently least fulfilled by today’s non-sustainable and devastating culture? The New Apollo Project report focuses on two values: good jobs (Work) and energy self-sufficiency (Self-Sufficiency being an aspect of Home). Its thesis is that two massive current problems in the US — a lousy job market and energy dependence — can be solved by a single set of solutions, a single agenda. That agenda is about encouraging investment in renewable energy innovation and development. Its side-benefits include Health, a better Environment, and greater security (Peace).

But New Apollo is a project, not a movement. It seems to me a movement needs to be built on a strong and cohesive, relatively complete set of values. So I’m tempted to keep the entire set. We need of course to go beyond the ‘shorthand’ of these one-word terms and explain exactly what these values mean. So the first part of the Green Movement Manifesto should be about these values. We need to try to articulate their meaning and reinforce their universality by expressing them in new ‘frames’ that are compelling to all — progressive and conservative, libertarian, environmentalist, fundamentalist and agnostic alike. No easy task.

The next part, the Vision, will be easier. The vision is ultimately an achievable story in which the Values are realized and fully manifest. Hence, Manifesto. The key challenge here is to create a sense of urgency. The Vision needs to transport us into the realm of the possible, and make us long for its realization, ready and eager to be part of making it happen.

Another challenge will be ensuring that a wide variety of people perceive the Vision to be achievable. We live in such a cynical society that it’s become easy to shrug off our responsibility, and our lack of courage, by simply saying “It can’t be done, so there’s no point trying.” An unachievable Vision is worse than no Vision, because it merely raises anxiety and brands its authors as hopeless idealists. The line between a vision that is too incremental, and one that is perceived to be impossible, is often a fine one.

Is that enough for the Manifesto? While setting out the Agenda would certainly be beneficial — it would show How the vision could be achieved — it would also be controversial because, as I mentioned yesterday, the ‘How’ is extremely frame-dependent. My sense is that we’re over-burdening the Manifesto by putting the Agenda in it. The Agenda is Stage Two. Besides, stories are subversive — we may be able to use the Vision as a tool to allow people with different frames to see the ‘Value(s)’ of achieving the Vision — and that Vision alone may be enough to get them thinking about other, imaginative ways to realize it — changing their own frames.

And there remains the problem of the name — Green Movement. I like the name, because it’s simple, visual, positive, instinctively resonant. It’s also tailor-made as a brand, something people can associate with, call themselves, belong to, talk about, even wear (a woman I know makes unisex bracelets, and is intrigued by the idea of making something that Green Movement members could wear, give, share — a conversation piece). And what’s more, Green is neither Red nor Blue.

But it does have associations with the Green Party, which, in North America at least, is associated with the left, with fringe thinking, and with single-issue politics. We need to think about whether on balance it’s an asset or a liability, and if it’s the latter we need another name. We also probably need a logo and a catchphrase.

Why am I saying ‘we’? Because tomorrow I’m going to present a draft of a new Green Movement Manifesto, with a Value statement, a Vision, and possibly a new name, logo and catchphrase. And no Agenda, at least yet. But I wouldn’t presume that my draft will be more than something for the rest of us — you — to shoot at. If the Green Movement Manifesto is going to be enough to galvanize a billion or two people into thinking about, believing in, and striving for, a better, sustainable way to live, it’s going to need an enormous amount of collaborative effort — the Wisdom of Crowds, the Power of Many, and the Magic of the Collective Mind and Soul. From the ashes of Environmentalism we will build something new. So sharpen your critical and creative thinking, here we go!

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9 Responses to The Death of Environmentalism

  1. mrG says:

    I totally agree with the DOE thesis, but for an additional reason that your post here maybe also illustrates:

    in 60-some years of trying, the environmental movement has yet to state their case in less than 3 points

    This is a serious’s not that the media love soundbytes; I’ve worked in the media and worked with journalists and they all loath soundbytes, but they have learned the hard way that soundbytes is what the people want. William Lyon Mackenzie King knew that, William Randolf Hearst knew that. It’s not out of ignorance or ill-will or even a desire to avoid critical thought. It’s because most people have other things on their mind, they live in a world complicated by things beyond environmentalism, and we know this is the case because, if it were otherwise, they would be in the environmental movement.btw, I was serious about that 60 years thing — I had a swing-era magazine once upon a time with an article about environmentalists and their booth at a big-band festival; in the picture, they were very definately hippies, and the year was very definately pre-WW2 America. I have reason to believe the environmental lobby stretches back to the Old Country, back to the deforestation of Scotland for example, or that of the Black Forest, but I digress.The pro-Industrialization people excell at expressing their goal in a way no one can fault: Jobs. EOT — Nobody can argue for losing jobs, especially when Alvin Toffler’s Leisure Society turned into a Walmart Nightmare. Being against jobs means being against children, against mothers and children, and puppies and sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. You won’t win. What is “Environmentalism“? Most equate it to closed mines, closed mills, closed power plants, closed factories, higher operating costs …

    wait a sec … how can this be? how can the best path for humanity be the most expensive path?

    and that’s where I began to thing that the first issue to address is that mis-assumption. I know the environmental path is the more sustainable-equals-profitable, and I know because I live this way. So why can’t the Environmental Movement articulate solutions that are optimal?One reason is because their demographic makes them reach first for high-technology (read: expensive) instead of asking their Grandparents, but don’t get me started on I start with that point: Ecological co-operation is the optimal path. — I don’t want to save the whales because they are intelligent or beautiful or graceful or because my best friend is a whale, I want to save them because it is my most optimal path, because maintaining the web of nature has demonstrated darwinian ecological validity. Solar-powered homes aren’t much use if (a) you need an investment larger than most mortgages and (b) you have to live as long as a sea tortoise to get any ROI. Ecological co-existance with the planet must be the more profitable path if only because it removes the expense of our fighting nature, and nearly all the non-Western cultures swim daily in a sea of solutions by which they’ve come to live peacefully with whatever godforsaken wilderness the Imperial Western Culture has evicted them to :) There are methods and skills, our call to action must be to find them and then use them. Somehow we need to translate all that into “… and it creates high-paying sustainable local employment“and truth is, we have. years ago I did some work translating old Fortran code for people working on sewage reclamation systems. Not as glamourous as a windmill, but eminently important, a “growth industry” and very ecological. Our own Sauble Beach needs some hefty water and sewage solutions, which probably have solutions out there, sitting in someone’s great-great-grandmother’s diary, and I’ll bet, if it works, it’s more than a career for more than one of us. There are oodles of other examples, but they don’t get press attention, only the back-pages of a few investment guides and academic journals.Point is, we’re going nowhere by spinning more rhetoric, we need to demonstrate not by marches and protests but by, putting into practice the ways and means that are ecologically valid and profitable.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Outstanding arguments — thank you for this.

  3. Derek says:

    > It seems to me a movement needs to be built on a strong and cohesive, relatively complete set of values.My history is bad enough that I can’t really name any movements that I’d consider “successful”. What are your models for “movements”? I’m all for learning from the mistakes of the past, but would love to learn from previous successes.

  4. Syzygy says:

    Interesting. I just got Losing Ground by Mark Dowie from the library, after having read this article: My sense from the article was that Shellenberger and Nordhaus put things too much in black and white, dead or alive.1. Things seem to be going better for environmentalists in Europe. Perhaps some of them could analyze our situation.I don’t think that the majority of people are willing to work hard for an ideal. They will, however, work to avoid something unpleasant. Global warming, although it’s becoming more prominent, is still too abstract for people to fit into this category. Deformed babies are too rare. Expensive gas isn’t that motivating yet. So what fear can get people going? Cancer. Dementia. Harnass the power of the bogeyman. And these are real issues, of course. Though if we could blame obesity on pollution too, that’d be even better.

  5. Syzygy says:

    Again, I rewrote my response into a more coherent form on my blog:

  6. Sarah Nagy says:

    RE: your hangups with the ‘green’ label – You might check out the mountains of info online about green building, which has looped environmental practices together with saving money on utility bills, indoor air quality, and anti-allergenic design. These three carrots are balanced by the sticks of rising energy costs, rising healthcare costs, rising incidences of asthma/allergies, and mold/moisture liability. A good place to start is National Home Builder’s Association’s technical site at Not until environmental impacts are personalized, will people change behavior.

  7. Cyndy says:

    When Mr. G mentioned ‘grandmother remedies’ it made me think of the movement of quite a few conservatives toward homesteading. There is definitely some untapped energy when it comes to conservative values and sustainability. Family farmers in the red states care about the land but have themselves been marginilized. If we could tap into some of their knowledge I think we could accomplish two-fold, getting them involved, and learning some almost-lost skills. Crops, renewable energy and related employment, costs of fuel, supply of fuel, health, all are areas to concentrate on because they are beginning to affect people more and more on a personal level. Great suggestion to have some European environmentalists take a look at our situation. I find many resources online but I’m always struck by the fact that they are very often European sites. ‘Green’ may not be that big of an obstacle. It’s simple and recognisable enough especially when tied into the world view. There will be some backlash in the US but it could very well be outweighed if people saw personal benefits. (selfish lot we are)I absolutely agree that demonstration by practice is where we need to go, even pointing out small things like a friend of mine who has a small solar unit that powers his home theater system 2-3 hours a day. His neighbors are very interested and word spreads, hopefully the practice spreads as well and creates a demand.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Derek: Good point. Most movements in past have been very focused, often even one-issue. The labour movement, the women’s sufferage movement, and the anti-slavery movement were all successes. The animal rights movement has failed. Not sure how useful these are as models, though all of them seriously threatened the corporatist hegemony of the day.Syzygy: I’d forgotten about the Salon article on this — thanks for the reminder. I’ve added Losing Ground to my ‘to read’ list. You’re right that people respond better to threats than opportunities, but the purpose of s Vision is to take the high road and get them to see the Current State as so suboptimal that they’re prepared to grasp the opportunity to create something better. Although the bogeyman can work, people are very willing to believe the bogeyman doesn’t exist (hence the popularity of Lomborgians) — and if you raise the spectre of a bogeyman (sorry, mixing metaphors) and then he doesn’t show up — a la Ehrlich and the Population Bomb in the 1970s — the damage to your cause is irreparable.Sarah: Thanks, that’s helpful. The Vision desperately has to be personal, ground level, not 30,000 feet.Cyndy: Yes, absolutely. We need to be careful not to ‘frame’ this global movement in a North-America-centric way.

  9. J.S. says:

    Here’s environmentalism summarized:Protect the earth’s resources in order to promote human health, a sustainable economy, and to enrich all of our lives. The DOE thesis completely underestimates what has been accomplished in a relatively short period and also misconstrues the challenges going forward.J.S.

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