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The Green Emperor Gets Naked

Part I: Is Environmentalism Dead? Necrophilia and Giving Birth to the Future

During the first full week of October 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus made their paper,   "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-environmental World"   available at the 2004 Fall Retreat for the Environmental Grantsmakers Association. Later in the week the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Wangari Maathai of Kenya for nearly thirty years of work heading up the Green Belt Movement.


Shellenberger and Nordhaus, known now by some as "The Reapers," managed to get the attention of the environmental media, environmental grant makers, and many of the heads of the Big Green groups. “Environmentalism’s dead? Are they serious?”


Ms. Maathai, obviously, also got the attention of the media. Her efforts organizing poverty stricken women of East Africa have resulted in the planting of over 30 million trees, helping combat deforestation and desertification while also producing a more sustainable base of wood fuel. There was, oddly, a bit of grumbling about her award amongst peace activists. Some felt that environmental issues were not directly related to the effects of geo-political conflict and human rights that most mainstream activists fight. But the Nobel Peace Prize Committee was clear about what they were doing: "[she has taken] a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular."


So, near the beginning of the week of October 4, 2004 environmentalism had died, but by the end of the week it was reborn. 

Big Green Goes to the Morgue

Shellenberger and Nordhaus's environmental obituary could not have come at a better moment. Considering where we are as a nation, it is probably time for environmentalists to publicly take a look at themselves and figure out what they think they’re doing, so that the rest of the country can figure out where it stands too.


Shellenberger, as executive director of The Breakthrough Institute and a co-founder of the Apollo Alliance, and Nordhaus, vice president of a public opinion research company, were perhaps the perfect duo to create this stir. Both are under the age of forty, and while they are well-connected and have “movement” experience, they are not part of what you might call mainstream national environmental leadership—the folks in D.C. and California who get the lion’s share of philanthropic attention and strive everyday to sit at the table with the big boys and girls in government and business.


Although they are known now for being two guys looking to take out the folks who started No Nukes and Save the Whales, the truth is Shellenberger and Nordhaus didn’t so much kill a movement as strip away some of its important garments, letting us see it about as naked as environmentalism has ever been. Just what is being done with the hundreds of millions of dollars of grant money doled out to big environmental groups every year? Why is it so hard for environmentalists to debate and question themselves? What happened to energy and alternative fuels in the equation that was defined in the early 1990s? How much does the environmental movement interact with academic disciplines in their planning, implementation and evaluation processes? Why such a dependence on regulation and law to “solve” problems? How come “the environment” has become just another issue to the majority of Americans?


Sadly, naked or dead, except for mainstream environmentalists, green philanthropists, and a few fringy conservative commentators, most Americans and their beloved media outlets didn't seem to pay much attention to Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s proclamation. "What? Oh! Environmentalism's dead? No wonder John Kerry and Al Gore didn't bring it up in their campaigns. I thought it was because they were chickens, but this makes a lot more sense.”


Of course, out there in the global village--practically anywhere except the United States, at any rate--those involved in future-oriented, sustainable practices have a fighting chance to make a difference. The Kyoto Protocol, for instance, was signed by the European Union nations, Russia, Australia, Canada, Japan, China and another 145 or so countries, but not the United States. Will Kyoto make much difference in the fight against global warming? Probably not enough. But it was a first real step and it requires national economies to adjust and begin to seriously pay attention to carbon emissions over time.


We live in the belly of the beast. Everyone knows that we represent about 5% of the world’s population and consume roughly 25% of the world’s petroleum—20 million barrels a day (although China’s catching up). On practically all fronts, environmentalism in the U.S. has been under attack by conservative and libertarian think tanks, hard right politicians and media pundits, a schizophrenic auto industry, real estate developers, agribusiness, highway contractors, and the mining, forestry, and energy extraction industries. In the land of the world’s most accomplished oil addicts (that’s you and me, baby), the extreme right, and even the middle right, have managed to push environmental issues behind a curtain where it seems no one wants to look anymore.  

Metaphors and Literalism

It is very hard to imagine a more thorough drubbing of noble ideals, scientific fact, and enlightened economic thinking than what has happened to mainstream environmentalism in the last ten to twelve years. In part, this is what “The Death of Environmentalism” is addressing—not so much that environmentalism is dead, but that the politics of the 21st century are not being met effectively by the movement.


As I write, Hurricane Katrina has devastated the Gulf Coast and the price of oil has spiked over $70 a barrel (in 1985 the price was $24 and people were upset). Gasoline prices are being reported throughout the country in excess of $3.00 a gallon (in Philadelphia today the average price for regular is $3.29). There are predictions that this year will continue to be a particularly intensive hurricane season for the Gulf of Mexico, so the story is by no means over. Yet so far, even with high prices, demand for petroleum products has not decreased, especially for gasoline. Americans don't seem to really care (although Katrina may change this somewhat).


We have a President and a conservative Congress that is not interested in providing much leadership on our long-term energy issues. As most people know, the energy bill passed by Congress this summer provides the big energy industry with a fair amount of pork but does very little to move us out of the mess we're in. And the business world is still trying to figure out where it stands in the whole game. Transportation industries and consumers are paying higher prices to be sure, but the energy industry is setting record profits. We are at war in the Middle East, trying to stabilize a country with the second largest oil reserves on the planet. And while scientists and policy analysts--and now many politicians and business leaders--agree that global warming is a real phenomenon and a function of burning carbon-based fuels, the President of the United States continues to do a two-step on how best to deal with this problem.  

A Synonym for ”We’re Screwed!”

But "The Death of Environmentalism" has much bigger fish to fry than the malaise we face in the here and now. Global warming is at the heart of the paper’s argument. Shellenberger and Nordhaus see the battle over what to do about global warming as demanding, "that we remake the global economy in ways that will transform the lives of six billion people." The first part of their paper calls into question the effectiveness of the standard problem solving/regulatory focus of mainstream environmental groups in the face of global warming. They call this “policy literalism.” The second part focuses on the idea of integrating environmental concerns with other progressive issues like labor, civil rights, and economic development. This second part has also been heavily influenced by George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff has become quite a hot commodity in progressive America these days. Everyone wants him to help them “frame debates” and counter right wing propaganda with new liberalized linguistic prowess. More on Lakoff and framing later.


The Reapers have also clearly been inspired by the work of  Ross Gelbspan , author of The Heat Is On and Boiling Point, two highly respected works on the climate crisis. Gelbspan, a career journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984, has focused his work on climate change for the past ten years. Boiling Point, his latest, is subtitled How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis—and What We Can Do to Avert Disaster. As one of the more cogent and direct writers on the subject, Gelbspan is as critical of the environmental movement and progressive politics in general as he is of the energy industry:


Climate change is not just another issue. It is the overriding threat facing human civilization in the twenty-first century, and so far our institutions are doing dangerously little to address it. Americans in particular are still in denial, thanks largely to the efforts of the fossil-fuel industry and its allies in the Bush Administration. But the nation's biggest environmental organizations and opposition politicians have also displayed a disturbing lack of leadership on this crucial challenge. 


For their part, Shellenberger and Nordhaus seem to be taking much of Gelbspan’s criticism to heart—both with their death rhetoric and with their recommendations for what the environmental movement is up against with global warming. Describing the interviews with twenty-five environmental decision makers that was the basis for their paper, they write: "All recognize that [climate change is] an undertaking of monumental size and complexity. And all acknowledged that we must reduce emissions by up to 70 percent as soon as possible.” This is truly heady stuff and, coupled with Gelbspan’s work (and many others in the scientific community), which gives the world a timeline of twenty years at most before we pass a point of no return, is enough to make any sincere and thoughtful person willing to make brash statements like the movement is dead. The intent was obvious—get Big Green’s attention! There’s a lot of money at stake here and we need to make sure it’s being spent properly. 

Throwing Money at the Sky

No one can agree on how much money is bestowed upon environmental groups in this country but it is very likely over a billion dollars annually (there are over 500 registered national environmental non-profits and nearly 2,000 local and regional groups).


A study by the Marshall Institute shows that in 2002 twenty top national organizations received over $20 million to assess, evaluate and research global warming. During that same year, the top twenty foundations concerned with global warming funded roughly $33 million in projects. Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote in “The Death of Environmentalism”:


Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming.

We have strikingly little to show for it.

...as a result, people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago. 

In fact, it would seem that we have a considerable amount to show for this money. There is bona fide international scientific consensus that global warming is taking place and that a sizeable portion of it is created by human beings and the burning of fossil fuels. Anyone who wants access to the key data on carbon in the atmosphere, temperature changes in the ocean and atmosphere, just needs to go online to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Paleoclimatology web site  or their Paleo Perspective on Global Warming.


Going further, $20-$30 million dollars a year seems like peanuts when one considers the scale and scope of global warming and the complex set of scientific disciplines that need to be integrated in order to make sense of anything. Without question, work being performed by the The Energy Foundation, Natural Resource Defense Council, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has made impressive headway in providing everything from very basic information for the average citizen to hundreds of detailed scientific papers and studies. While the Energy Foundation specializes in regional and state initiatives, NRDC orients themselves to support political action, Pew provides the broadest spectrum of information and has a wealth of information on what the corporate world is doing, and the Union of Concerned Scientists has done an excellent job of amalgamating all the key scientific positions, including study methodologies and numerous one- and two-page summaries of what we know and don’t know about various aspects of climate change. The Union of Concerned Scientists has also developed the best “climate solution” documents out there using “common sense” as a key focal concept (framing?).


One thing to note, however, is that other than Pew’s web site, none of the other major environmental organizations put global warming at the top of their lists of programs on their home pages. This may seem like quibbling, but also illustrates Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s thesis. 

Fetishism of an Academic

By now--ten months after the November 2004 election--it has surely not been lost on the reader that many of the issues liberals and progressives hold dear are getting little play in Washington. Besides environmentalism, one can make the case that unions, feminism, affirmative action, gay rights, reproductive rights, free speech, poverty programs, healthcare reform, civil liberties, and consumer protection, to name just a few, have also died. For the progressive half of the country, right now it probably takes a great deal of energy to feel hope.


This is where George Lakoff comes in. Lakoff is viewed by many Democrats as the new weapon in the liberal holster. Up until the Kerry-Bush face off of 2004, he was a little known professor of cognitive linguistics at Berkeley. His book Don’t Think of an Elephant outlines his theories on the language of politics and value systems through the use of appropriate metaphors and the linking of specific issues to a broader frame or “story.” In fact, everyone in America is now “framing” their ideas all over the place. It’s actually a bit disturbing. Whereas once you simply needed to explain yourself, or put your ideas “into context,” now everyone expects you to frame things for them. “Could you please frame that a bit better? Oh, and would you like some more lemonade, dear?”


Lakoff and his staff at the Rockridge Institute have been lecturing at Democratic congressional gatherings and advising behind the scenes on political showdowns like Social Security and the right to filibuster federal judge nominees (some credit Lakoff for the Dems successes with both of these issues). The Rockridge folks seem right now to have their fingers in every single piece of progressive pie out there. It will certainly be very interesting to see whether Rockridge will have much effect on the next few election cycles—or if they are even around by this time next year.  

Picking a Green Frame

Surprisingly enough, Lakoff was privy to what Shellenberger and Nordhaus were up to as they wrote their paper. It has been reported that he urged them not to use the death title, but to be more uplifting with something like “The Rebirth of Environmentalism.” Clearly, their approach to framing has garnered them a significant amount of attention.


They did not, however, ignore the main thrust of Lakoff’s theories. The last third of “The Death of Environmentalism” presents the real case these two want to make, and explains why they have been willing to risk their professional credibility playing dangerously with metaphors and rhetoric. They want to tell a new story to America:


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. 

But Shellenberger and Nordhaus haven’t killed environmentalism simply to say we’ve got to be more positive. They want to link global warming and energy-related issues to other progressive causes like clean energy, transportation, energy efficiency, the labor movement, etc. The idea, then, is to frame the debate in positive terms and, by linking the global warming story to that of clean energy, union labor, etc., the political capital created will drive the solutions. Concretely, they offer a program partly founded by Michael Shellenberger called The Apollo Alliance that “…stresses the need for greater public-private investments to establish American leadership in the clean energy revolution—investments like those America made in the railroads, the highways, the electronics industry and the Internet."


The Apollo Alliance calls for “…a message of optimism and hope, framed around rejuvenating our nation’s economy by creating the next generation of American industrial jobs and treating clean energy as an economic and security mandate to rebuild America.” The steering committee for the group is composed of representatives of the environmental community, labor groups, and agriculture. At their web site they provide a long list of labor unions, environmental organizations, faith-based/social justice groups, and business partners. They also list over twenty funders.


As might be expected, the Apollo Alliance has a ten-point plan. This plan, “for jobs and energy independence” includes: promoting advanced technology and hybrid cars; investing in more efficient factories; encouraging high performance buildings; increasing use of energy efficient appliances; modernizing the electrical infrastructure; expanding renewable energy development; improving transportation options; reinvesting in smart urban growth; planning for a hydrogen future; preserving regulatory protections.


Nowhere easily discernible does the group talk about global warming, pollution, or the problem with highly structured, centralized energy systems. The goals are lofty, but doable with the right national leadership. But the question is whether they are the right goals. They address a number of complex technology issues—some of which are being dealt with by a number of other organizations (primarily in transportation, energy, and utility fields). But do they get at the heart of what people want to hear and what this society needs to do in order to move beyond what it is today? If environmentalism is dead, it looks like the Apollo Alliance wants to replace it with clean technology and a heavy investment in new capital, and new bricks and mortar.

But is it really worth killing the big green emperor over some giant new system of technology?  Is that what this is all about?  Is there really only this one frame to work with?

Part II of this essay will attempt to provide insight into these questions. Parts III through VI will examine environmentalism in its broader context in government, in business, in the environmental professions, and in the life of American consumers.


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