A kick in the pants for environmentalism


I was late for Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’ (the authors of “The Death of Environmentalism”) keynote at Lewis & Clark College last night. I had spent an hour getting ready, dressing myself in my best funeral clothes. When my friend came to pick me up, exasperated with my naivete and our inevitable tardiness, he told me I couldn’t wear that: we needed to wear hemp and bring plenty of organic tomatoes to hurl at the speakers. Frustrated by now but also feeling a touch of the Halloween spirit, I decided to go as a CO2 molecule (maybe my hated presence would take some of the heat off these poor guys) and we hurried out the door.

But the occasion was really more of an unmasking than a dressing-up. A public stripping of the old codger Environmentalism, and an examination of his every lump, crevice and unsightly age spot.

Shellenberger reexamined the birth of the modern environmental movement, which occurred in the 1960s, somewhere between the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the first Earth Day. He pointed out that a lot of the pollution problems that supposedly spurred people to action had been around since the Industrial Revolution. So why didn’t environmentalism emerge until the 1960s? Affluence, he proclaimed. Americans were wealthier than ever before, and with material needs taken care of, the timing was right for people to start thinking about postmaterialist needs like quality of life, beauty, and outdoor recreation.

But even though prosperity gave rise to the environmentalist worldview, he went on, environmentalists consistently bite the hand that feeds them by bucking against prosperity and economic growth. They do not understand the nature or origin of their own movement, believing that they came to their opinions through rational thinking. Nor do they understand what drives ordinary Americans or citizens of developing countries, so they are not able to create a political strategy built around the values of those people.

Nordhaus began by trying to bust the myths of humans’ separation from nature, and of calm, balanced nature as the “right” or “normal” state of the earth. He stressed that we need to let go of politics based on resentment, grievance, and apocalypse, that a politics based on these things can be nothing but conservative. To create a progressive environmental politics we need to focus on the positive and innovative and align it with the values of ordinary people. Environmentalism is associated with the words “restrict,” “preserve,” “stop,” “limit,” etc., and that is never going to inspire people.

There’s too much to talk about here for one post. But here are some of the questions that came to my mind during the speech: How do you reconcile the idea of environmentalism as a postmaterialist concern with the fact that the ‘environment’ is what provides all our material needs (food, water, clothes, shelter, air)? Environmentalism is not all about preserving pretty places and bizarre-looking bugs; much of it is about sustaining the ecosystem services that allow us (humans!) to stay alive.

Also, resentment, fear, and all that negative crap is at the heart of the war on terror, and that has been pretty damn popular. Restriction, apocalypse, and resentment are at also the heart of all the major religions, and those are pretty damn popular! Restricting carbon emissions; restricting sins. A promise of a clean and safe world for our grandchildren in the inconceivable future; a promise of treasures in heaven in the inconceivable future. Melting ice caps; the second coming. What are we doing wrong? Maybe we need a charismatic front man.

Really, I am excited about the debate that these two thoughtful and passionate men have incited. The “Death” debate should breathe new life into the movement. And maybe in our reinventing of envromnetalsim, we can replace it with an easier-to-type-and-say word.

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