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
...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
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. America
...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."
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." Japan
...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
USto dramatically overhaul its energy strategy but also to help developing countries like China, India, Russiaand 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 South Africa 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. China
...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