January 21, 2005


The Death of Environmentalism: Global warming politics in a post-environmental world (Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, 13 Jan 2005, Grist)

Those of us who are children of the environmental movement must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us.

The clean water we drink, the clean air we breathe, and the protected wilderness we treasure are all, in no small part, thanks to them. The two of us have worked for most of the country's leading environmental organizations as staff or consultants. We hold a sincere and abiding respect for our parents and elders in the environmental community. They have worked hard and accomplished a great deal. For that we are deeply grateful.

At the same time, we believe that the best way to honor their achievements is to acknowledge that modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis.

Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming.

We have strikingly little to show for it.

From the battles over higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks to the attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation that would reduce the threat of global warming. As a result, people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago.

Yet in lengthy conversations, the vast majority of leaders from the largest environmental organizations and foundations in the country insisted to us that we are on the right track.

Nearly all of the more than two-dozen environmentalists we interviewed underscored that climate change demands that we remake the global economy in ways that will transform the lives of six billion people. All recognize that it's an undertaking of monumental size and complexity. And all acknowledged that we must reduce emissions by up to 70 percent as soon as possible.

But in their public campaigns, not one of America's environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards -- proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.

By failing to question their most basic assumptions about the problem and the solution, environmental leaders are like generals fighting the last war -- in particular the war they fought and won for basic environmental protections more than 30 years ago. It was then that the community's political strategy became defined around using science to define the problem as "environmental" and crafting technical policy proposals as solutions.

The greatest achievements to reduce global warming are today happening in Europe. Britain has agreed to cut carbon emissions by 60 percent over 50 years, Holland by 80 percent in 40 years, and Germany by 50 percent in 50 years. Russia may soon ratify Kyoto. And even China -- which is seen fearfully for the amount of dirty coal it intends to burn -- recently established fuel economy standards for its cars and trucks that are much tougher than ours in the US.

Environmentalists are learning all the wrong lessons from Europe. We closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible.

Our thesis is this: the environmental community's narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement's approach to problems and policies hasn't worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything. We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially technical.

In Part II we make the case for what could happen if progressives created new institutions and proposals around a big vision and a core set of values. Much of this section is aimed at showing how a more powerful movement depends on letting go of old identities, categories and assumptions, so that we can be truly open to embracing a better model.

We resisted the exhortations from early reviewers of this report to say more about what we think must now be done because we believe that the most important next steps will emerge from teams, not individuals. Over the coming months we will be meeting with existing and emerging teams of practitioners and funders to develop a common vision and strategy for moving forward.

One tool we have to offer to that process is the research we are doing as part of our Strategic Values Project, which is adapting corporate marketing research for use by the progressive community. This project draws on a 600 question, 2,500-person survey done in the U.S. and Canada every four years since 1992. In contrast to conventional opinion research, this research identifies the core values and beliefs that inform how individuals develop a range of opinions on everything from the economy to abortion to what's the best SUV on the market. This research both shows a clear conservative shift in America's values since 1992 and illuminates many positive openings for progressives and environmentalists.

We believe that this new values science will prove to be invaluable in creating a road map to guide the development of a set of proposals that simultaneously energizes our base, wins over new allies, divides our opponents, achieves policy victories and makes America's values environment more progressive. Readers of this report who are interested in learning more about the Strategic Values Project -- and want to engage in a dialogue about the future of environmentalism and progressive politics -- should feel welcome to contact us. [...]

The marriage between vision, values, and policy has proved elusive for environmentalists. Most environmental leaders, even the most vision-oriented, are struggling to articulate proposals that have coherence. This is a crisis because environmentalism will never be able to muster the strength it needs to deal with the global warming problem as long as it is seen as a "special interest." And it will continue to be seen as a special interest as long as it narrowly identifies the problem as "environmental" and the solutions as technical.

In early 2003 we joined with the Carol/Trevelyan Strategy Group, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the Common Assets Defense Fund, and the Institute for America's Future to create a proposal for a "New Apollo Project" aimed at freeing the US from oil and creating millions of good new jobs over 10 years. Our strategy was to create something inspiring. Something that would remind people of the American dream: that we are a can-do people capable of achieving great things when we put our minds to it.

Apollo's focus on big investments into clean energy, transportation and efficiency is part of a hopeful and patriotic story that we are all in this economy together. It allows politicians to inject big ideas into contested political spaces, define the debate, attract allies, and legislate. And it uses big solutions to frame the problem -- not the other way around.

Until now the Apollo Alliance has focused not on crafting legislative solutions but rather on building a coalition of environmental, labor, business, and community allies who share a common vision for the future and a common set of values. The Apollo vision was endorsed by 17 of the country's leading labor unions and environmental groups ranging from NRDC to Rainforest Action Network.

Whether or not you believe that the New Apollo Project is on the mark, it is at the very least a sincere attempt to undermine the assumptions beneath special interest environmentalism. Just two years old, Apollo offers a vision that can set the context for a myriad of national and local Apollo proposals, all of which will aim to treat labor unions, civil rights groups, and businesses not simply as means to an end but as true allies whose interests in economic development can be aligned with strong action on global warming.

Van Jones, the up-and-coming civil rights leader and co-founder of the California Apollo Project, likens these four groups to the four wheels on the car needed to make "an ecological U-turn." Van has extended the metaphor elegantly: "We need all four wheels to be turning at the same time and at the same speed. Otherwise the car won't go anywhere."

Our point is not that Apollo is the answer to the environmental movement's losing streak on global warming. Rather we are arguing that all proposals aimed at dealing with global warming -- Kyoto, McCain-Lieberman, CAFE, carbon taxes, WEMP, and Apollo -- must be evaluated not only for whether they will get us the environmental protections we need but also whether they will define the debate, divide our opponents and build our political power over time.

It is our contention 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. What's so powerful about Apollo is not its 10-point plan or its detailed set of policies but rather its inclusive and hopeful vision for America's future.

"There was a brief period of time when my colleagues thought I was crazy to grab onto Apollo," said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, a co-chair of the Apollo Alliance. "They kept looking at Apollo as a policy outcome and I viewed it as a way of reframing the issue. They kept asking, "How do you know [Teamsters President] Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. is going to get the issue?' I answered, 'Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. isn't! I'm not doing policy mark-up here, I'm trying to get the people that work for Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. to do something different.'"

Getting labor to do something different is no easier than getting environmentalists to. Its problems are similar to those of the environmental movement: lack of a vision, a coherent set of values, and policy proposals that build its power. There's no guarantee that the environmental movement can fix labor's woes or vice versa. But if we would focus on how our interests are aligned we might craft something more creative together than apart. By signifying a unified concern for people and the climate, Apollo aims to deconstruct the assumptions underneath the categories "labor" and "the environment."

Apollo was created differently from proposals like McCain-Lieberman. We started by getting clear about our vision and values and then created a coalition of environmentalists, unions, and civil rights groups before reaching out to Reagan Democrats and other blue-collar constituents who have been financially wrecked by the last 20 years of economic and trade policies. These working families were a key part of the New Deal coalition that governed America through the middle of the last century. Though ostensibly liberal on economic issues, Reagan Democrats have become increasingly suspicious of American government and conservative on social issues, including environmentalism, due in no small part to the success of conservatives in consistently targeting this group with strategic initiatives. And yet more than 80 percent of Reagan Democrats, our polling discovered, support Apollo -- higher rates even than college-educated Democrats.

Irrespective of its short-term impact on US energy policy, Apollo will be successful if it elevates the key progressive values noted above among this critical constituency of opportunity. Viewed as part of a larger effort to build a true, values-based progressive majority in the United States, Apollo should be conceived of as one among several initiatives designed to create bridge values for this constituency to move, over time, toward holding consistent and coherent views that look more and more like those of America's progressive and environmental base.

Despite Apollo's political strengths, it irked many environmental leaders who believe that if we don't talk about regulation we won't get regulation. Nowhere does policy literalism rear its head more than in arguments against Apollo's focus on investment. That's because instead of emphasizing the need for command-and-control regulations, Apollo stresses the need for greater public-private investments to establish American leadership in the clean energy revolution -- investments like those America made in the railroads, the highways, the electronics industry and the Internet. "We've been positive publicly about Apollo," Hawkins said, "but not positive policy-wise because it doesn't have binding limits, either on CAFE or carbon."

Van Jones believes Apollo represents a third wave of environmentalism.

"The first wave of environmentalism was framed around conservation and the second around regulation," Jones said. "We believe the third wave will be framed around investment."

The New Apollo Project recognizes that we can no longer afford to address the world's problems separately. Most people wake up in the morning trying to reduce what they have to worry about. Environmentalists wake up trying to increase it. We want the public to care about and focus not only on global warming and rainforests but also species extinction, non-native plant invasives, agribusiness, overfishing, mercury, and toxic dumps.

Talking at the public about this laundry lists of concerns is what environmentalists refer to as "public education." The assumption here is that the American electorate consists of 100 million policy wonks eager to digest the bleak news we have to deliver.

Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time. We come together only around elections when our candidates run on our issue lists and technical policy solutions. The problem, of course, isn't just that environmentalism has become a special interest. The problem is that all liberal politics have become special interests. And whether or not you agree that Apollo is a step in the right direction, it has, we believed, challenged old ways of thinking about the problem. [...]

While it's obvious that conservatives control all three branches of government and the terms of most political debates, it's not obvious why. This is because environmentalists and other liberals have convinced themselves that, in politics, "the issues" matter and that the public is with us on categories such as "the environment" and "jobs" and "heath care." What explains how we can simultaneously be "winning on the issues" and losing so badly politically?

One explanation is that environmentalists simply can't build coalitions well because of turf battles. Another says that environmentalists just don't have enough money to effectively do battle with polluting industries. Another says that we environmentalists are just too nice. These statements all may be true. What's not clear is whether they are truly causes or rather symptoms of something far deeper.

Issues only matter to the extent that they are positioned in ways linking them to proposals carrying within them a set of core beliefs, principles, or values. The role of issues and proposals is to activate and sometimes change those deeply held values. And the job of global warming strategists should be to determine which values we need to activate to bring various constituencies into a political majority.

For social scientists, values are those core beliefs and principles that motivate behavior -- from who you vote for to which movie to see. These values determine political positions and political identities (e.g., environmentalist or not, Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive).

The scientists who study values understand that some values are traditional, like so-called "family values," others are modern, like "liberal" enlightenment values, and others (like consumer values) fit into neither category. These values inform how individuals develop a range of opinions, on everything from global warming to the war in Iraq to what kind of SUV to buy.

Conservative foundations and think tanks have spent 40 years getting clear about what they want (their vision) and what they stand for (their values). The values of smaller government, fewer taxes, a large military, traditional families, and more power for big business are only today, after 40 years of being stitched together by conservative intellectuals and strategists, coherent enough to be listed in a "contract with America." After they got clearer about their vision and values, conservatives started crafting proposals that would activate conservative values among their base and swing voters.

Once in power, conservatives govern on all of their issues -- no matter whether their solutions have majority support. Liberals tend to approach politics with an eye toward winning one issue campaign at a time -- a Sisyphean task that has contributed to today's neoconservative hegemony.

Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the right's values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way. Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from "the real issues" -- environmental problems like global warming.

If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics. Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum -- a sustaining movement -- to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues.

So conservatives dominate the institutions of American government and the discussion of our values but environmentalists should segregate themselves off on the Left and forge alliances only with special interest groups that pursue liberal causes? Is the point here liberalism or the environment? If you care about the environment why not forge alliances with the Right which can actually get things done?

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 21, 2005 8:17 PM

It's always the message, never the messenger.

Posted by: Sandy P at January 21, 2005 8:59 PM

It's a tribal identity thing.

Posted by: Abe Nacky at January 21, 2005 9:22 PM

"If you care about the environment why not forge alliances with the Right which can actually get things done?"

. . . because it's not the issue. SOCIALISM is the issue!

Posted by: Oswald Booth Czologosz at January 21, 2005 9:29 PM

"What explains how we can simultaneously be "winning on the issues" and losing so badly politically?
... These statements all may be true. What's not clear is whether they are truly causes or rather symptoms of something far deeper."

They need to read a little-bitty bit of Ayn Rand. The bit that goes: "Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong."

Their problem is that they are *not* "winning on the issues."

Posted by: ray at January 21, 2005 9:44 PM

funny how the liberals never get around to making the changes they are always yapping about, when they are in power.

Posted by: chris markle at January 21, 2005 9:56 PM

He's also cleverly confusing European promises to cut emissions with what will actually happen. Note that all those countries are massively off-target.

Posted by: John Thacker at January 22, 2005 11:05 AM

Because plenty of so-called environmentalists are in the movement because it gives them a good excuse to do what they really wish to accomplish: regulate industry almost out of existence.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 22, 2005 1:30 PM

Decades ago, when some friends and I discovered that some geothermal power companies were not following their leasing agreements with the BLM, and causing the destruction of surface features, we tried to get the Sierra Club interested. After all, the "Steamboat Buckwheat", which depended on those features, was a listed "Threatened Species." The response we got was, "Unless this can help defeat Reagan and Watt, we're not interested."

Since then, even though I've spent years as a volunteer and researcher in a National Park, more than most "Friends of the Earth" tourists ever will, I've prefered to be called a "conservationist" or "preservationist". Because I actually cared about those places, and not thought of them as merely routes to power.

"funny how the liberals never get around to making the changes they are always yapping about, when they are in power. "

You can't believe how disappointed NPS staff I knew were in 1993-94. After 12 years of Reagan-Bush running things, "neglecting our National Treasures", the Dems are finally in charge, and the budgets look just the same.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 22, 2005 1:40 PM