mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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A Challenge to Enviros

America’s environmental movement has failed and should die as soon as
possible so something better can take its place. Or at least so argues
a provocative insider essay that has set tongues wagging and tempers
flaring at the movement’s highest levels. Titled The Death of
Environmentalism, the 12,000-word essay was written by Michael
Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a publicist and a pollster who boast a
combined twenty years of experience working for some of the movement’s
most prominent organizations and donors. The essay was released at the
October meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, whose
250 members provide much of the movement’s operating funds. A lot of
people are talking about it, says Philip Clapp, president of the
National Environmental Trust and a critic of the essay. But the last
way to influence people is to start by saying everything you’re doing
is wrong.

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In an interview, Shellenberger and Nordhaus retreat somewhat from the
death rhetoric that even some supporters think was over the top. Do
NRDC and the other big groups need to close their doors? No, says
Shellenberger. But they desperately need to rethink how they do their
work. Not only has the movement been unable to prevent George W.
Bush’s rollback of existing environmental protections, the writers
argue; it is not making fast enough progress against the overarching
threat of our era, global climate change. The reason, the authors
assert, is environmentalism’s allegiance to single-issue politics and
technical-fix solutions.

We wrote this essay after years of being hired by environmental
groups to sell their solutions to the American public, says
Shellenberger. And we got tired of promoting ten-point plans for
emissions caps and fuel efficiency that may appeal to policy wonks but
don’t engage the ordinary citizens you have to reach to effect real
change. Technical fixes simply aren’t sufficient to deal with climate
change, species loss, deforestation or other major environmental
threats, says Nordhaus. The entire global economy has to be
transformed, he says, which is a much bigger problem than
environmentalism has faced in the past. Meanwhile, Shellenberger
adds, we’ve lost all three branches of government to the hard right,
which is hostile to the entire environmental project.

The only way forward, the authors argue, is for environmentalists to
abandon their small-bore, politically neutral approach. What’s needed
is a more expansive strategy aimed at building a political majority in
the United States that will support not only environmental but other
progressive values. You could write a similar report about all the
single-issue constituencies—labor, women, civil rights,
Shellenberger says. They’re all faltering now. They all need to think
of themselves as part of a larger political movement, figure out what
vision and values they share, and find ways to frame their messages
and organize accordingly.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus, who interviewed twenty-five leading
advocates and funders, say their intention was to start a discussion
about the limits of the environmental movement as it’s currently
conceived. In response, they claim to have gotten hundreds of e-mails
from mid-level staffers of environmental groups, university students
and teachers, and a few funders. Bill McKibben, who has followed the
climate-change issue since his classic The End of Nature was published
in 1989, applauds the authors for trying to figure out how
environmentalists can do better and says their essay will be a focus
of discussion at a conference on climate-change solutions he’s helping
to organize in January at Middlebury College.

But Shellenberger and Nordhaus say they’ve gotten little formal
response from their main targets: the environmental movement’s largest
organizations and the foundations that support them. Peter Teague,
environmental programs director at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and
a sponsor of the essay, says the Environmental Grantmakers Association
considered devoting a session of its December meeting to the essay but
my understanding is that scheduling conflicts prevented it. Josh
Reichert, who as head of the Pew Charitable Trust’s environmental
program is one of the major funders of climate-change activism,
declined to comment for this article. Nor has the Green Group, a
coalition of large environmental organizations working in Washington,
DC, had any particular conversations about the essay, says Rebecca
Wodder, president of American Rivers, whose one-year term as Green
Group chair expired in December.

One prominent exception to the silence is Carl Pope, who issued a
blistering critique in a 6,650-word counter-essay that he sent to
funders. Declaring himself deeply disappointed and angered, the
Sierra Club’s executive director called Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s
essay unfair, unclear and divisive and said it would make the
essential task of rethinking the movement’s strategy more difficult.
Pope accepts that fundamental changes are needed in how the movement
approaches climate change but says that dying does not seem a
particularly helpful form of that work. And he complains that the
authors construct a straw man when they say environmentalists must
broaden their political alliances on the basis of progressive
values—that’s something the Sierra Club and others have long
recognized, and practiced. But this is a case for modernizing the
left, not for killing environmentalism, Pope writes.

We were excited to get Carl Pope’s response because it represented a
dialogue, replies Shellenberger. He agrees with us that we’re losing
and we need to rethink things. But he ends his paper by suggesting the
same kind of solutions environmentalists have proposed for forty
years: pollution controls and a series of NIMBY [not in my backyard]
campaigns to stop global warming.

In interviews, other environmental leaders echoed Pope’s claim that
they already practice what Shellenberger and Nordhaus preach. It was
unfortunate Michael and Ted framed it the way they do [because] much
of the movement already agrees that we have to speak in positive
economic language and focus on values that connect us to the American
people, says Bracken Hendricks, executive director of the Apollo
Alliance. (Ironically, Shellenberger and Nordhaus repeatedly invoke
the Apollo Alliance—a two-year effort to align environmentalists,
unions, state and local governments and businesses behind a green jobs
and growth strategy—as an example of the new thinking that’s
necessary.) Hal Harvey, who heads the Hewlett Foundation’s
environmental program, says that if Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s
strategies were five times stronger and their invective five times
weaker, they would have much more effect.

The implication is that had we tried nicely to have this debate,
everything would have gone fine, responds Nordhaus. Bullshit! This
was the only way to get their attention. We’re saying there’s a dead
body in the room, and it’s starting to stink. They’re saying it’s not
dead. Did we stir things up? Yes. And we’re proud of it.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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