A Critique of the Shellenberger-Nordhaus report, "The Death of Environmentalism"

by Lorna Salzman

"The Death of Environmentalism" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus is available at: http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-reprint


In October 2004, at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus released "The Death of Environmentalism - Global warming politics in a post-environmental world". The news reports that I read about it, primarily the New York Times, did not and probably could not accurately convey the contents or intent of the report, which is long and covers many different topics. As a long-time environmentalist, I went to the internet for a copy and read it twice in recent days.

I suspect that many people will not fully grasp what it is about or will misunderstand it or will take offense, possibly at the wrong things. For one thing, it is a result of interviews with 25 environmental leaders, of whom I recognized about one-third by name. For another,it is hard to tell whether the report is conveying the opinions of the interviewees or of the authors. It is probably both but it is hard to tell which is which at any given point in the document. For another, and not least, the authors do not define their terms.

When they refer to "the death" of environmentalism, it seems at first glance that they mean of either the movement or of the public concern for the environment. A closer reading reveals (at least I think so) that they are referring to a very small (but important) and rarified part of the environmental community/constituency, namely the prominent national organizations based in Washington DC, several of whose spokesmen were among the interviewees (and so much the worse, considering what some of them said). Reference is made to public opinion polls, followed by broad generalizations about what the public thinks about environmental issues.

It is undeniable that environmentalism has faded into the background since Earth Day 1970, at least relative to other pressing concerns like the Iraq war, health care, corporate corruption, and the loss of jobs. Intellectually, we are back at square one, as we were prior to 1970, regarding the environment. Environmental activists and educators literally have to go back and reiterate environmental history, re-inventing the wheel as it were. It is as if the 1970s never happened.

But this in no way should be taken as a loss of interest in or concern over the environment. Nor is it the sole fault, as the report authors contend, of the environmental organizations who have, they believe, become stuck in a technological/lobbying groove or are supposedly responsible for the movement being regarded as a special interest group.

This is not to relieve these large organizations and their funders of responsibility for destroying what was a vigorous successful movement, but rather to indict a combination of factors such as biased media that suppress environmental news stories, a general lack of mandatory environmental studies in most public educational systems, leftist groups and leaders who are for the most part indifferent to ecology and environment except insofar as they can be used to promote their ideology, and to leftist-influenced movements, such as the peace and civil rights movements, not to mention animal rights, feminist and gay rights activists, who focus on social and economic justice issues in an ecological vacuum. The foundations who have funded environmental groups have, obviously, been subject to similar influences and pressure, and as my comments bear out, fund those groups who are politically in sync with American society and values...who dont rock the boat.

Very little of the actual history and intellectual foundations of ecological thought and environmental strategy appears in this report, and I am of the opinion that the authors not only know nothing of it themselves firsthand but have consulted with a very narrow segment of the environmental movement and have accepted those views and opinions as authoritative if not complete. But they are neither. In fact, they reveal more about those individuals and their organizations than about what really happened and why. It appears that none of those interviewed themselves had any strong opinions or recommendations on just what values and vision are needed, even though one of the main points of the report is the complaint over the lack of such values and vision.

The report was introduced by Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Shellenberger directs the Breakthrough Institute which advances"strategic initiatives to build a progressive majority" and is also a foundation and political consultant, and president of Lumina Strategies, a political consulting firm. He cofounded the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, environment, business and civil rights leaders working to pass a New Apollo Project to create jobs in the energy sector and free Americans from foreign oil in ten years. He also cofounded the Business Ethics Network and Communication Works, a public interest communications firm.

Nordhaus is vice-president of Evans/McDonough, a opinion research firm, which crafts "strategic initiatives aimed at reframing old debates in ways that build power for his clients".

Needless to say, the affinities of the authors undoubtedly lie close to the Democratic Party, which has hopes of building its own '"progressive majority" that will elect Democratic candidates. As for Nordhaus, one wonders who his clients are. The interesting point that these consultants may not understand is that environmentalism is not limited to those they regard as "progressives" but cuts across all classes and sectors, thus benefitting through broad support but hampered by the difficulty of making unified coalitions. My personal observation has been that the working class is in many ways more sympathetic to environmental issues because it inherently distrusts elites and government, whereas the middle class has aligned itself with power and decision-makers and resists the unpleasant truth about its cohorts.

You are urged to read the entire report carefully. Many of its claims are not addressed in my comments, simply for the sake of length, but I have attempted to address what I saw as the crucial points of the report. I would welcome comments from anyone (respond to esalzman@aba.org).

As many of you know, I founded the Green Party's informal Ecology Committee in 2001 in response to the ongoing indifference of the national Green Party to placing ecology and environmental issues (primarily global warming) at the center of their concerns and campaigns. Since then little has changed within the Green Party and it has become quite clear to me that its focus on state and national election campaigns has taken priority over saving the earth. This will come as news to many people but it is my considered judgment that this is so. Maybe now we need yet another party focusing on ecology. But we only have about ten years to do the job.



My critique of this report is probably quite different from the other critiques and responses that have met the release of this report, presented at a conference of environmental funders in the fall of 2004. It has special interest for me with regard to the national Green Party, whose response to global warming and the environment in general has been no better than the environmental "leaders" and groups referred to in the report. I want to point out the general deficiencies of the report, whose authors interviewed 25 environmental "leaders"; the authors themselves are consultants and function peripherally to the environmental movement rather than as immersed, hands-on activists.

The first and arguably main deficiency is the total absence of any ecological sensibility or awareness. I do not recall seeing the word "ecology" anywhere in the report. So the authors have differentiated between the terms ecology and environment --or have mistaken one for the other. Either way, this failure to understand the differences has produced a fatal flaw in their report.

They blame environmentalism for its failure to seek and articulate core values and vision, which is certainly true of both the US Green Party and of the big, Washington DC-based environmental groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense, National Wildlife Federation, etc., as well as membership groups like the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society. But even as they reach their own conclusions about what must be done to find such values and vision, they operate in an ecological vacuum.

It is therefore quite clear that they have had no contact with deep ecologists, bioregionalists, groups like Earth First, and others such as Dave Brower, Dave Foreman, Kirkpatrick Sale, David Ehrenfeld, George Sessions, and whole slews of people in California, who have been thinking, writing and acting upon, to one degree or another, very profound ecological values and vision since the 1960s, if not before. Indeed, many followers of these people have often excoriated the instrumentalist-oriented environmentalists for focusing on discrete problems and issues without having a broader comprehensive ecological understanding and underpinning.

The report's authors have fallen into this same category and the best they came up with was a plea to put jobs (saving the US auto industry), the economy, unions and workers at the center of environmental work. Needless to say, none of these possess any deeper ecological sensibility than the report's authors, nor do they possess any adequate (adequate in the sense of being commensurate with the ecological threats facing the planet) vision or values themselves. Indeed, many of these are either seriously uninformed at best or openly hostile at worst to any environmental OR ecological consciousness. And unlike the report's authors, I do not believe that environmentalists deserve most of the blame for this. If anything, one could more justly blame the Marxists, the left, the media and educators, especially in the liberal middle class, where it has been Politically Correct to put economic and social justice issues first, and environmental/ecological issues on the back burner (if anywhere).

The other major error of the report is the assumption that the large, major environmental organizations represent the broader environmental constituency in the US. While they may be correct that today's public has put environmental concerns lower on their list of priorities, they have not abolished it from their list by any stretch of the imagination. The support for environmental issues, especially the backyard ones, remains strong.

But it is also in the history of environmentalism where the authors fall short. They explictly say the foundations of today's problems in the movement were laid down at the movement's inception and that the views of those times still prevail. This is utter nonsense, to put it mildly. The beginning of the movement - let's name it Earth Day 1970 - produced an incredible grassroots groundswell of support and activism that was spread widely across the country, into all communities, states and regions. The success of the national groups in these early days was due to the fact that this broad new constituency joined these groups, sent them money, and in effect authorized them to lobby for them on major issues.

What happened, starting around 1980, radically changed the character and purpose of the national groups. Besides the election of Ronald Reagan, there now existed about a dozen prominent successful national groups based in Washington DC, whose mandate for action grew bigger day by day. And as their mandate grew, so did their budget needs, forcing them to rely not just on membership dues but foundations and large funders. These same foundations, of course, had their own boards of directors, many of whom (surprise!) were leaders in the corporate, financial, commercial and media worlds. These people not only donated money themselves but were expected to raise more money among their friends and colleagues, who not surprisingly came from the same corporate and financial worlds and organizations. Needless to say, these large groups dismissed any accountability to their members and to the broader constituency that had empowered them in the first place.

Not least among these funders were the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. But, like any astute businessman, if you are giving money to activist groups, you arent about to give a grant to a group that questions capitalism or economic growth or any of the other fundamental characteristics of modern American society. You will give to those groups who dont rock the boat. And who were these groups? The same ones that the report's authors excoriate: the groups that presently dominate the Washington and funding scene today. These werent the Clamshell Alliance, who wanted to shut down all nuclear reactors. They were, primarily, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense (ED; formerly Environmental Defense Fund), and similar groups.

Well, what happens when you get big bucks? You not only expand your programs, which then creates a need for more money the next year, but you are now in a position to represent yourself as the voice of the whole movement. You then get called on the phone by reporters doing environmental stories. You also of course need to maintain good relations with elected officials - access to congressional committees, government agencies and the White House. You now have a lot at stake: status, credibility, access, influence and finances. And you find yourself at the pinnacle of power - even while knowing fully the seriousness of the environmental problems and crises. What do you do? You are faced with the facts and the knowledge of what needs to be done. But you pull back. You HAVE to pull back, because your whole organization's future is at stake. You pull back, play it safe, and play it even safer by playing footsie with corporations and by sticking to technical fixes such as fuel efficiency and hybrid cars.

But the same omission made by these groups - a refusal to face up to the unsustainability and threats of continued economic growth and consumption - is made by this report. The authors talk about the crisis of global warming and the need to reduce CO2 emissions. But they never mention renewable energy. They never mention that Americans consume 25% of the world's oil production. They never mention full-cost pricing. They never mention the need to curtail consumption. They never mention the obvious solution of higher fossil fuel prices. They never mention how population growth in undeveloped countries, combined with economic inequality, is forcing people to destroy forests and fisheries. In fact, there is no discussion of globalization, neo-liberal policies in undeveloped countries pushed by the WTO, IMF and World Bank, or the role of the US in undermining the capabilities of poor countries to support themselves. Yet one of the main points of the report, perhaps the main point, is the accusation that environmentalism lacks values and vision! This report didnt even TRY to suggest some possible values and vision, even for discussion purposes.

The report says that progressives need "new institutions and proposals around a big vision and core set of values", and should be "truly open to embracing a better model". Yet it is totally unaware of the fact that myriad authors, activists, economists, energy analysts, philosophers and academics have dedicated themselves for DECADES to articulating different models and institutions. Some of these are bioregionalism, political decentralization, local economies, subsistence organic agriculture, a broad renewable energy system replacing fossil and nuclear power plants, revival of urban areas to prevent suburban sprawl, enhanced public transportation to minimize private auto use, labor-intensive industries, ending subsidies to industry (a neo-conservative position!), and of course full-cost pricing so that sales prices reflect the full costs - environmental, health, social - of production.

On top of all of these, or rather underneath, lies a philosophy of conservatism, not radical change: conserving of communities, individual liberty, natural resources, and above all an Eco-philosophy of balance and sustainability based on the understanding that the preservation of the natural world, its creatures, ecosystems and natural ecosystem services is the first requirement of a civilized sustainable society. Yet despite the considerable archives of such beliefs and writings, both the environmental groups criticized by the report as well as that grouping they describe as unions/labor (and the US Green Party as well) prefer to substitute their OWN values and vision. For labor, the vision is simply more, better and safer jobs, no matter what is produced or how. For the big enviros, technological solutions are the only safe ones. Goddess forbid that we have higher fuel prices. For the US Green Party and many on the left, the answer is focusing not on such esoteric concerns as ecosystems but on social and economic justice - which may be necessary for a sustainable society but far from sufficient.

The report also accuses environmentalists of narrowly defining what environmental means. Here their confused thinking, or rather inadequate analysis, prevails. ALL -and I make no qualification here - environmental problems have an impact, somewhere and somehow, on humans, whether small or large, present or future. That activists may not adequately explain how these problems affect people, not just non-human nature, is certainly true. But the report's authors seem no more informed themselves. Is it possible that they themselves have failed to do an adequate analysis of environmental problems, to the point where they can accuse activists of not being concerned with "real" human needs?

Another accusation is that environmentalism is a "special interest". If they are referring to the entrenched Washington DC groups, I will give no argument here, because these groups do indeed act as such, and act to protect themselves first and foremost. Unlike the grassroots environmentalists, they are in the business as a profession, not as a cause. But to say that all the rest of us out in the boondocks are a "special interest" is absurd. Of all causes and movements, environmentalism comes closest to being the single movement that defends the public interest above all. Regrettably there are still individuals and groups who act to the contrary. But they do not represent or resemble the rest of us.

JThe authors accuse environmentalists of "arrogance" for asking "not what we can do for non-environmental constituencies but what non-environmental constituencies can do for environmentalists". This is an easy accusation to make but unjustified, because the authors and people in other movements have not only failed to understand the public interest nature of environmental battles but have failed to educate THEMSELVES. It has been 35 years since the first Earth Day. Battles have been won and lost on many fronts; laws and regulations have been enacted everywhere; whole agencies have appeared; academic courses on the environment are no longer uncommon; reams of paper have been published on all manner of environmental, ecological and scientific issues and are available in libraries and on the web. Yet the response from unions, the left, and middle-class liberals devoted to civil rights and peace and little else has been pathetic. The educated sector of the US prefers to discuss real estate, diets, surgery, and occasionally war.

The media and government must take the major blame, but we cannot exonerate citizens from responsibility for learning about what is arguably the most crucial discussion of our day: saving the earth. Yet I myself within the Green Party have been told flatly that poor blacks in inner cities dont give a damn about saving wildlife. The Green Party itself has refused to assume a role as public voice and warrior for the environment or on the issue of global warming. The vast public is in stoic denial about the state of the planet.

Interestingly, it is not the educated middle class in industrial society that understands what is going on but the peasants and workers in less developed countries, who instinctively recognize that ecologically based struggles ARE social justice struggles. Environmentalism is likely to be written up in history books as the most important social justice movement of the 20th century, at least on a par with civil rights and labor, but with more far-reaching consequences.

So obviously we do need, as the authors say, a vision and values. But nowhere in their report do they give a hint as to what this vision might include. Nor do they give a hint that they recognize the underlying problem -untrammeled economic growth and consumption in the US and industrial nations -that such a vision should address. Instead, in contradiction to their own exhortation, they make a plea for putting jobs and the economy first.

This is the ultimate in deadly denial. And it wont lead to a vision or values but rather will simply reinforce the prevalent belief of Americans that the earth can be saved by having enough jobs and a sound economy - in other words by technical fixes, the position for which the authors criticize environmentalists! If anything, the exact opposite is true. Revive the American auto industry, as they urge, and we will have runaway climate change in the blink of an eye. Was there not one person, consulted for this report, who provided any alternative vision to this one?

To consider the "needs of industry" and unions first would be catastrophic - in the absence, that is, of any comprehension of the real character, extent and causes of the global ecological crises. I am not suggesting that the big enviros in Washington are any better of course. The fact is that those who point out that the emperor has no clothes, that the ice sheets are melting, and that we have maybe ten years to save civilization as we know it, are called alarmists. And the report's authors make the same accusation. But: how do you arrive at a vision and new model unless you acknowledge the real state of affairs? Or unless you articulate what that new model should contain? Or NOT contain?

As for the authors of this report, that new model would contain some improvements in the field of jobs and the economy, but little else, and apparently nothing in the field of ecosystem protection and restoration, sustainable agriculture, renewable energy technologies, and the rescue (if possible) of ocean fisheries.When the authors say flatly that what we need to do is "save the American auto industry by helping it build better, more efficient cars", why is this not a technological fix like fuel efficiency, for which the authors excoriate the major environmental organizations? Why do they say that "investments into cleaner coal technologies and sequestration (are) an urgent priority"? Is this their concept of a new model? What kind of vision and values do these proposals involve?

Furthermore, the report makes no distinction, in its broad-brush claims about unions and workers, between urban dwellers, suburban ones, and rural ones. If you went into Harlem in NYC you would find concern about clean air, waste disposal, transportation, toxic chemicals and related issues. If you went into a community in the rural south, you would find concerns about pollution in local streams or lakes (where poor people fish), about the loss of wildlife habitat (local folk hunt, often for subsistence), etc. The organized labor that the report refers to is mainly that of the American auto industry, now on its last legs (or wheels) due to foreign competition, and in fact the authors make a plea for REVIVING this industry!...even as they concede the need to reduce CO2 emissions by 70% and even as they recognize the role of Americans in energy consumption.

One area of naivete in the report is its assessment of neo-conservatives, whom they say have succeeded in promoting their vision and values such as smaller government, fewer taxes, a large military, traditional families, and more power to big business. But these are not values; they are strategies and proposals. The values, if that is the proper term, are carefully concealed by nice-sounding buzz words. When you analyze the strategies, however, the values get revealed as greed, authoritarianism, unaccountability, hypocrisy, inequality and aggression. Which do the authors prefer? They damn environmentalists for having "laundry lists" of individual issues, and then attack them for giving the public the bad news about the world. Then they attack them for a lack of values and vision, which - were it the same as what the neo-cons say - would be precisely what the Democratic Party is now contemplating: religion, family values, in essence the same as the neo-conservative homilies spouted by the Republican Party and fundamentalist religions.

In the end, the report is a puzzling compendium that contains a hodgepodge of diverse intellectual concepts, that contradicts itself, that misreads history, that avoids dealing with the exigencies of ecology and how it underlies environmentalism, and above all which utterly fails to recognize, much less articulate, the real causes of the global ecological crises.

Whether this is the fault of those 25 people interviewed for the report, or of the authors, I do not know. I do know that they have misdefined the word environmentalism. The report deals with environmental institutions, not with the movement or individual activists, and not with the pervasive pro-environmental sensibility that is manifest in tens of millions of Americans in diverse ways.

Their critique of the major environmental organizations is deserved; these groups have pre-empted the money, media and membership that once went to communities and regions and grassroots alliances such as the anti-nuclear power movement. Their presence is no longer a help but a hindrance and a way for anti-environmental forces to discredit legitimate environmentalism and legitimate issues. We do need new institutions but ones with an ecological, not a technological or instrumental purpose and vision. Sadly, such new institutions are not in view. Until they are, funders should cut off the big enviros and fund small community groups, or demonstrably effective groups with a broad vision such as Earth Island Institute, the legacy of the late great Dave Brower.

(See this website for a separate critique of Natural Resources Defense Council co-authored with Bernardo Issel. Lorna Salzman can be reached at lsalzman@rcn.com)

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.