Friday, September 16, 2005

"Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World"

Did you miss this? I did. Grist Magazine published a brilliant article in January of this year called “The Death of Environmentalism”. Written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, it examines the failures of the environmental movement over the past couple of decades. Rather than being a long condemnation of what’s gone wrong, however, they offer practical solutions for debate and issue framing that are likely to help the environmental movement gain the traction it so desperately needs. IMO, this is a MUST READ for anyone trying to navigate the quagmire of environmental politics and, as Kos points out, for anyone trying to build unity in a sea of single-issue groups.

This article is quite lengthy, as you may construe by how many quotes I pulled below. The passages cited are just a few among many that spoke to me:

We believe that the environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning. What stands out is how arbitrary environmental leaders are about what gets counted and what doesn't as "environmental." Most of the movement's leading thinkers, funders and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing.

...The environmental movement's incuriosity about the interests of potential allies depends on it never challenging the most basic assumptions about what does and doesn't get counted as "environmental." Because we define environmental problems so narrowly, environmental leaders come up with equally narrow solutions. In the face of perhaps the greatest calamity in modern history, environmental leaders are sanguine that selling technical solutions like florescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars will be sufficient to muster the necessary political strength to overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C.

...Environmentalists are particularly upbeat about the direction of public opinion thanks in large part to the polling they conduct that shows wide support for their proposals. Yet America is a vastly more right-wing country than it was three decades ago. The domination of American politics by the far-right is a central obstacle to achieving action on global warming. Yet almost none of the environmentalists we interviewed thought to mention it.

...Part of what's behind America's political turn to the right is the skill with which conservative think tanks, intellectuals and political leaders have crafted proposals that build their power through setting the terms of the debate. Their work has paid off. According to a survey of 1,500 Americans by the market research firm Environics, the number of Americans who agree with the statement, "To preserve people's jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future," increased from 17 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2000. The number of Americans who agreed that, "Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people," leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.

...By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don't concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with "the environment." The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies.

..."G.M. covers the health care costs of 1.1 million Americans, or close to half a percent of the total population," wrote the New York Times' Danny Hakim recently.5 "For G.M., which earned $1.2 billion [in profits] last year, annual health spending has risen to $4.8 billion from $3 billion since 1996 ... Today, with global competition and the United States health care system putting the burden largely on employers, retiree medical costs are one reason Toyota's $10.2 billion profit in its most recent fiscal year was more than double the combined profit of the Big Three."

...Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren't stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you'd likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, "Health care is not an environmental issue."

...Some in the environmental community are trying to learn from the failures of the last 25 years and think differently about the problem. Jason Mark of the Union of Concerned Scientists told us that he has begun the search for more carrots to the Pavley stick. "We need to negotiate from a position of strength. Now is the time for us to propose incentive policies that make sense. We've been working on tax credits for hybrids. Now we need to come up with tax credits for R&D into reduced emissions, and something to ease the industry's pension and health burdens. No one has yet put a big pension deal on the table for them. None of this has yet been explored."

...The challenge for American environmentalists is not just to get the US to dramatically overhaul its energy strategy but also to help developing countries like China, India, Russia and South Africa do so as well. That means environmental groups will need to advocate policies like technology transfer, ethical trade agreements, and win-win joint ventures. The carbon threat from China and other developing countries drives home the point that a whole series of major policies not traditionally defined as "environmental," from industrial policy to trade policy, will be needed to deal with global warming.

...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.

...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.

...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.

...When asked what excites him the most about the movement against global warming, Hal Harvey, too, pointed to economic development. "Let's go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest -- make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let's highlight the jobs and farmers behind it," he said.

...Talking about the millions of jobs that will be created by accelerating our transition to a clean energy economy offers more than a good defense against industry attacks: it's a frame that moves the environmental movement away from apocalyptic global warming scenarios that tend to create feelings of helplessness and isolation among would-be supporters.

...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.

...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.

...Environmental funders can take a page from the world of venture capitalists who routinely make and write-off failed investments, all while promoting an environment of vigorous debate over what worked and what didn't. Just as the craziest ideas in a brainstorming session often come just before a breakthrough, some of the business world's most spectacular failures (e.g. Apple's Newton handheld) come just before it's most stunning successes (e.g., the Palm Pilot). It is this mentality that inspired one prominent business strategist to suggest that the motto for CEOs should be, "Reward success and failure equally. Punish only inaction." Pew's Josh Reichert deserves credit for learning from the venture capitalist model. Pew commissions serious research, pays for top legal, public relations and advertising talent, and funds campaigns that achieve results. To no small extent, Reichert shares the credit for the public vigor of grantee Phil Clapp and the National Environmental Trust. But bringing in top talent is pointless if we are unwilling to critically examine the assumptions underneath our strategies.

...Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.

...Above all else, we need to take a hard look at the institutions the movement has built over the last 30 years. Are existing environmental institutions up to the task of imagining the post-global warming world? Or do we now need a set of new institutions founded around a more expansive vision and set of values?

...If, for example, environmentalists don't consider the high cost of health care, R&D tax credits, and the overall competitiveness of the American auto industry to be "environmental issues," then who will think creatively about a proposal that works for industry, workers, communities and the environment? If framing proposals around narrow technical solutions is an ingrained habit of the environmental movement, then who will craft proposals framed around vision and values?

...One thing is certain: if we hope to achieve our objectives around global warming and a myriad of intimately related problems then we need to take an urgent step backwards before we can take two steps forward.

Carve out some time today and read the whole thing. Having been suggesting since the 1980's, to a scoffing audience, that the Green movement needs to take some pages from the Corporate Playbook, I confess to feeling just a bit validated by some of the suggestions made.

And the importance of unifying multiple issues under a single umbrella of purpose can't be overstated -- for the environmental movement and for progressives on the whole.

Rarely has the potential for power gains been as rife as it is now. Even long-time conservatives are beginning to appreciate the chinks in the GOP armor, recognizing these flaws for the epistemic problem they are. Progressives have an open door directly in front of them. If we can effect the kind of fundmental change in our approach to comprehensive solutions, we can win back not just Washington, but the entire planet as well.


Lily said...

I agree on many levels BUT I also think that we can make a case for many things if we reframe the parameters to suit a desired conclusion- many critics of environmentalists do just that. As I recall there were some related stories several months ago, another being the emergence of the green 'niche industry'. Green marketing. Greens as either crazy hysterics or Starbuck sipping phonies...ok. Touche'.
But your article was not generous with its findings. What about business schools teaching eco-leadership? Coupling productivity and efficiency with profitable 'green' business ventures? New models? Minds CAN and DO meet. But this needs to become an academic thrust.
Some schools DO teach policy, social issues, statistics, research, labor, marketing, management, finance AND mediation and I was fortunate to drive myself the two+ hours into NYC to take advantage of that. We went home with a mixed bag- accounting, race relations, NGO management... and it was an essential blend. But much of the the training people get to pursue practical goals is not multi-faceted- people learn finance, but not social cost. People learn marketing, but not 'awareness' -type fundraising...people learn to make money for a shareholder but not so much for plovers and caribou. We can lament lost opportunities, or we can change academia to make it more responsive, to prepare these organizers and leaders better.
And hugging trees does neither.
There ARE groups borrowing from the corporate playbook, the problem is in the ways non profits raise money. They CANNOT behave in ways that churches or for-profits do. People do not give money for broadband solutions, sadly. People "save the Arctic" "save the owl" 'save the rainforest"...and sadly "Stop the gay agenda". Green groups need to package and sell a cause with simple instructions. So do the neocons. Look at the market!!! Its like breast cancer and the pink ribbons- SURE we can say "well why the hell don't you address hormone replacement and pesticides more, and force the FDA to stop having sex with pharmaceutical whores" BUT its not going to sell those ribbon magnets. They raise money on issues- and that should not be necessarily confused with only being CAPABLE of one issue thinking.
Alliances often need to exist along a bottom line- and it is a challenge when those are contradictory. The best example I can give you is the local Casino issue. The environmentalists naturally opposed the casino plan (predictable) and Labor went to battle (less predictable). They got busses and filled the hearings with union folks,packed the rooms- even from other states. Their bottom line was to get the construction bids and jobs to generate work for their rank and file. I am not judging that motivation and by many accounts they were not apologetic either. It was a matter of jobs. Social critics pointed out that they do not LIVE in the communities that would be impacted by the social problems. What occurred was the typical picture: social issue groups, green groups, labor groups, political groups- all throwing their hats into the ring. It was about a different bottom line for everyone. Jobs, economy, politics, settling the Native American land claims, the preservation of 'green' space, the claimed social ills...crime, traffic,garbage, every number was brought to bear. How do you split the difference?
America is about win-lose.
It isn't that groups are incapable of alliance. They just do not readily find sufficient motivation to do so. Different bottom lines. How can you take a struggling economy and tell people that quality of life and scenic beauty is of paramount importance? It might be to me. (who cares if I can shop at Pottery Barn if the world is at its end) BUT It reflects an economic comfort level that many don't have. Ditto with hybrids and geothermal heating. People are moved by survival, 'family feeding' issues, and the occasional fear of hell and damnation. Even when the jobs argument is a ruse, people react to their own circumstances, not a bigger picture. Apparently you go to hell for kissing another woman, NOT for poisoning kids anyway.
If I found consumerism as appealing as the forest, I might not care much either. But I also hate to make choices for the rest of the world, which is what a corporation dumping toxins is doing. They are determining what OUR children will value, they are destroying what is not theirs to destroy, they are being permitted to eliminate choices (ie to have an atmosphere) based on what THEY think is important. Money.
It would require a win-win that even Ghandi could never conceive of.
Im theory, pro choice can evolve to include choice about whether my fetus gets YOUR mercury. But who is going to scatter their devotees? Its a small pool, filled with egosharks, incompetence, and self promotion to begin with.

Cantankerous Bitch said...

I suspected you'd have much to say on this article, and will assume, for the most part, that your comments need little reply from me.

What I gleaned from this piece is something you touch upon: " It isn't that groups are incapable of alliance. They just do not readily find sufficient motivation to do so."

First, I didn't get the sense that the authors were suggesting any kind of incapability; rather observing the failure to date in that arena.

As for a means to solve that problem, I think "sufficient motivation" is what can be found when, as suggested, environmental and aucipiciously non-environmental advocates find common ground.

The same kind of divisiveness ("My sub-issue is more important than your sub-issue") that's present within the environmental movement is also rampant within the larger progressive movement. And it's certainly not limited to the "far left". How much to we hear about in-fighting among Democrats? It seems incessant some days.

So, I just think it's important to recognize that while the number of environmental issues worthy of urgent redress seems to grow every day, we absolutely MUST find a way to tie them all together in order to build any kind of measurable political capital. And the points raised by the authors are a good jumping off point for some new dialog...

Lily said...

Well, it seems to me that as long as we are brought up in a "win-lose" culture where I exist at the expense of you, we will not have sufficient skills to find common ground if indeed they are there. Often they are. In mediation and conflict resolution, which is all oddly applicable to these chats, there are two notions- what is the best alternative to losing, and what does everyone actually need. Like the argument over the oranges but one needs rinds, the other pulp- it is a matter of using certain skills to address getting a multitude of needs met at the same time. These are not skills reinforced by our culture-not in school, not in sports, not in the home. Americans are taught to look out for themselves, survivalism, grab what you can get and run. Money is overemphasized because in america it is the means toward prestige and power. Your degree doesn't count, your mind does not count-unless it makes you money!! That is how we qualify value.
Greens would say for example: create jobs with wind power industries, make profit for companies that own the turbines, decrease pollution and reliance on fossil fuels, and so on.... everyone gets a slice of what they want. It won't solve the dilemma of the almighty SUV society though- but CAFE standards would have helped. Better fuel efficiency decreases costs for business, costs for consumers- and both greens and soccer moms AND green soccer moms can be happier.