Home | - none - this is a feature | The Green Emperor Gets Naked, Part II

The Green Emperor Gets Naked, Part II

The Death of Environmentalism: Murder, Suicide, Slow Death, Benign Neglect, or Exaggeration?

In Part I of this essay, a controversial paper called  "The Death of Environmentalism"  was examined. The lack of urgency the United States has demonstrated in the face of global warming is the central reason the authors—Michael Shellengerger and Ted Nordhaus—give for the death of environmentalism. Mainstream environmental groups have not been able to muster the appropriate political response to this massive threat to all life on earth. Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s antidote is to use George Lakoff’s principles of “framing” to re-invent environmentalism’s problem solving strategy, incorporating technology advancement, labor, capital investment, civil rights, and other issues into a new frame about clean energy and economic development. To this end, they offer their  Apollo Alliance as an example of what can be done.

Part II:  Murder, Suicide, Slow Death, Benign Neglect, or Exaggeration?

It’s actually not easy to know which group is more entertaining and thought provoking to watch—The Reapers (Shellenberger and Nordhaus) and their supporters, or the old guard/mainstream greenies that are offended by the idea that environmentalism has been declared dead. There also seems now to be a bit of necrophilia going on. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have been spotted around the country debating their supposedly dead colleagues.

With just a few rhetorical flourishes, these two have forced those who take environmental politics seriously to spend some time thinking and discussing exactly what they are doing—particularly in the face of the reality of global warming. Many policy analysts and scientists now feel that the clock is ticking and we may only have twenty years or so to turn things around.

But for environmentalists the issue of global warming needs to be very carefully examined. This is the most massive, complex, and potentially devastating problem human beings have ever had to face. Yes, we need to invest a great deal of money in “clean energy” and new technology development. We need an Apollo-type project that will do something like the computer-chip industry did, creating a virtually magical transformation of society. Perhaps it will be a hydrogen fuel cell that fits in a car but that can also power your house overnight. Perhaps it will be some sort of bio-engine that runs on common household garbage. Perhaps it will be a mixture of seventy-five technologies and systems out there on the market right now.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus call for a multi-billion dollar investment in clean energy and American jobs to combat greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. But do we really want to see a continuation of a centralized system of technologies like we already have? Can change on the scale of climate management simply come about through big-scale, political programming and massive investment? We’re not looking to send a few souls to the moon here. We’re not tinkering with electronic technology and communications devices. We’re looking to reinvent human society, which by most standards is already out of control and mired in chaos and ineptitude. 

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do know that if the fight to stop global warming means changing how this society—this global society—does everything, then first we need to frame this moment in history as an opportunity to create a livable future and not a struggle to hang on to the past. And then we need to get it right.

Framing isn’t just about controlling the language to win political power, it’s about telling a story with a broad, moral theme that can, according to George Lakoff, literally trigger synaptic responses in people’s brains. What we’re talking about here, in part, is making up a new story, one that will not just appeal to the American people in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, but one that will work for the next several hundred years, one that will allow us to feel like it’s possible to walk off in search of a new world, toward a new sunrise. But we’re also talking about re-examining an old story told back in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Framing a New World Order (for liberals only?)

Let’s return to Wangari Maathai and her Nobel Peace Prize. Her Green Belt Movement began in 1977 as a program to address firewood scarcity in rural Kenya. A shortage of fuel meant that women—whose traditional duties include collecting wood—were spending more and more time looking for wood and less time being productive members of their villages. Green Belt organized women in the countryside to earn a living planting trees and selling seedlings.

A biologist by training and a professor of zoology, Maathai knew that trees soak up rain, are an important habitat for wildlife, and help preserve topsoil. As one of the first true woman activists in Africa, Maathai has been beaten by police, reviled in the press, and jailed for leading protests. At Nobelprize.org, her web page says, simply: "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."

The seventies were an amazing time for environmentalism. There were hundreds of people throughout the world like Wangari Maathai. Back then, and trailing into the early part of Ronald Reagan's 1980s, the mainstream environmental movement was part of a broad, diverse and truly revolutionary approach to technology and economy in both the Western World and the developing world. Spawned in part by E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Amory Lovins' Soft Energy Paths, The Whole Earth Catalog, and Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos' Only One Earth, what slowly came to be known as sustainable development challenged the centralized, mega-industrial, approach to production on every front imaginable. Alternative energy, appropriate technology, build-your-own-home, living on less, organic farming, worker-owned co-ops, recycling, democratic economies, solar design, micro-hydroelectricity, grow your own food, it was all there alongside the Clean Water and Air acts, hazardous waste laws, sanitary landfill regulations, SuperFund, and the Endangered Species Act.

Yes, sustainable development started out partly as the domain of what was left of hippies and flower children, but by the 1980s the leading lights in this group were serious forces to be reckoned with: Murray Bookchin, Ivan Illich, Hazel Henderson, Amory and Hunter Lovins, George McRobie, Denis Hayes, Barry Bluestone, Barry Commoner, Stewart Brand, Lester Brown, David Brower, Edward Abbey. Some of America may have been more interested in Ronald Reagan's promise to put gas-guzzlers in every garage and return the country to a 70 mph speed limit, but there were brilliant, provocative thinkers making headlines and presenting the rest of us with a vision of a positive, meaningful future. The story they were telling, the frame, appealed to a deep sense of community and independence in many Americans: choose your technology wisely; limit control of local economies to local decision makers; be efficient with energy use; eat healthy foods; do things for yourself; think globally, act locally; strive for local self-reliance. The scale of cities was an issue. People were intensely creative in how they thought about the world around them.

Those were invigorating and wonderful times. A profound frame for telling the story of man and nature was in place. It was the story of sustainability and conviviality. The ethic that gave birth to all of this came out of the insanity of the Cold War and Vietnam. Millions of Americans were tired of the throw-away society, smog, polluted water, and the growing sense of helplessness that they felt living in a mass consumer culture where the terms of existence seemed to be dictated by corporate greed and government bureaucracy. The frame of sustainability and ecology sought to reconnect humanity to the meaning of life. It was an appeal to reason, intelligence, and human creativity. Everything was linked: technology choice, jobs, community, nature, human rights, and quality of life. The idea was to move into the future in a way that would be positive and life affirming. This frame was remarkable, alluring, and attractive to more than just progressives. It spoke directly to the pioneer, explorer, and individualist in many Americans. Most importantly, it depended on the notion that we can build a future that is better than the world from which we come.

The environmental movement was growing bigger somewhere in the midst of all this intellectual chatter; so were personal computers, the World Wide Web, and green businesses on every scale imaginable. Then things went crazy. The environmental movement we think of today took off like gangbusters. According to Kirkpatrick Sale, in his 1993 book, The Green Revolution, by 1991 major national environmental groups (what were then called the Group of Ten--from the Audubon Society to the Wilderness Society) claimed 7,790,000 members and an aggregate budget of $250 million. And this was just ten groups! There were another 315 national groups back then with an estimated total annual budget of roughly $600 million. Sale also points out that there were very possibly as many as 12,000 local and regional organizations. This all came about as things do in the United States: at the confluence of media hype, institutional promotion, and disasters like the 1988 drought in the Midwest, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, the Mobro Garbage barge floating around without a home, and medical waste washing up on the nation's vacation beaches.

Today the Group of Ten has morphed into the Group of Thirty. Billions of dollars a year are bestowed upon these organizations by corporate donors, general members, government agencies, and philanthropists. These groups have had numerous successes saving forests, endangered species, open space, turning recycling into a habit for at least some Americans, and doing hand to hand combat with corporations and the federal government over everything from air and water pollution to ocean liner sewage dumping, corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ) standards, and computer scrap management. They are also masterful at providing information to the public—both basic and scientific.

The successes of national environmental groups are prodigious, to say the least. But what happened to the notion of a sustainable society? Where is appropriate technology today? These concepts are often paid lip service by environmental leaders, and certainly the ethic is still there for individual programs and businesses, but what of actualizing a grander vision of society?

Until just a few years ago, no one in mainstream media and politics was talking very loudly about alternative fuels and clean energy anymore. By the mid-1980s crude oil prices had dropped by roughly 50%, leveling out at $12 a barrel. Solar, wind, and biomass technologies continued to develop, but the American people lost interest. Renewable energy and appropriate technology just couldn’t compete with cheap oil and coal.

Environmentalists seem to have lost their grip on the big picture, too. Recycling was sold to the American public as a way to "protect nature" (presumably by saving landfill space, limiting the incineration of trash, and reducing energy required to mine virgin resources). You can still find this at web sites for major national organizations. But the truth is, recycling was, and is, about altering the economy of this country. Groups like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have worked hard to keep that vision at the forefront of the equation, but they've almost been drowned out by the hot, dark, wet maw of green attorneys, scientists, PR specialists, and activists seeking funding for other causes of import—the Apollo Alliance included.

Renewable energy for power and transportation was the same thing. The idea wasn't to eliminate the American Way of Life, it was to enhance it, to grow it, to secure and sustain it. It’s not that environmental leaders don’t understand this, but they aren’t making that message clear enough. It’s almost like there’s a fear of telling the American people to think big, to take responsibility for building a future worth living. The Apollo Alliance is moving in the right direction, but the story it tells seems in many ways at least in part just an end in itself.


The next ten years are a turning point for the world. We need to think very carefully about how we got into this mess in the first place and where we want to go. The environmental movement is not run by the leaders of the Group of Thirty. It is not run by their funders—no matter how much money we’re talking about. And it is not run by George Lakoff, Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and all the folks at the Apollo Alliance and The Breakthrough Institute. The environmental movement, indeed, is part of something much deeper and more important than a new form of politically correct speech and even the fate of wilderness areas, clean air, clean water, zero waste, control of lead, sulfur dioxide emissions, mercury, and other deadly heavy metals.

There is no question that a healthy natural world and prudent use of resources is essential if humankind is to survive into the 22nd century. There is also no question that this country needs strong leadership and political will to move us forward into a future beyond centralized, fossil fuels. Tackling global warming must become a major challenge to every single politician, businessperson, and citizen on the planet within the next few years. But it’s not just about choosing a new technology or creating a new “movement.”

Right now, our economic lives are not connected to our aesthetic and spiritual lives. Our values are still rooted in the mass culture 20th century where nation-states and industrial capital held sway. But this is a global society now. We act as if there’s nothing wrong with the fact that the world’s population has more than doubled since 1960; that people in countries of limited technology with high poverty rates continue to struggle with daily existence while Americans and other Westerners own multiple cars, TVs, computers, and homes. We act surprised that others hate the United States. Is the object of this American society really to just keep growing and growing, producing more and more wealth for a limited few, while the rest of us watch those wealthy people smiling on TV? Do we want new forms of energy and power production that support and maintain the dependence each of us has on a monstrous, uncontrollable industrial marketplace, or should we be seeking more independent, flexible, and manageable technologies? Wangari Maathai did not get her Nobel Prize because she brought a solar electric power plant to the women of the Kenyan bush.

It’s time to talk about all of this again, to debate within individual environmental groups and between groups exactly what the purpose is to winning small victories in court or compromising on legislation while the country and the world continue to require more and more fossil fuel and people from New Orleans and Port Arthur to Niger, Kenya and Saudi Arabia suffer in poverty.

Utopia or Die

For all its warts and deficiencies, what characterizes the essence of the so-called environmental movement of the last thirty years is the same thing that brought about the transcendental movement and the pastoral movements of the 19th century, utopian schemes of the early 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt’s pioneering conservation policies, and the sustainable movement of the 1970s: human society exists both as a part of nature and as an exploiter of nature. The human mind is a product of nature and nature is part of the human mind. This is all part of the process Western culture must continually go through in order to place itself in the Universe. More importantly, however, this is all about trying to create a future world where humanity and nature are balanced and functioning reciprocally. The Environment is where romantic idealism and science meet to work through the place of humanity on earth. None of this is easy. The solutions we seek are not technological, economic, or political—they are social and cultural.

Each of us who is concerned about these issues is connected to Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Audubon, Ansel Adams, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Things can be better. We dream of a world with less struggle, more hope, more control over life for each individual, each village, each city, and each region. We don’t just want to wish that it was possible for our grandchildren to have a better world, we want to ensure it. These hopes are beyond politics and beyond the left and the right. They are common sense. They are part of the foundation of American history. They are in our blood.

Context and Cognitive Dissonance

America is made up of a very strange collection of people. We are all operating simultaneously on two levels. Part of us is altruistic and civic minded, concerned with “doing the right thing.” And part of us is avaricious and self-centered, fearful, and shortsighted. We want a better world, but we won’t change until it is clear that we have no choice. This is the way it’s always been. This dual existence is what has driven us forward and made us, as they say, “the greatest nation in the world.” We are noble and we are narcissistic; we are, each of us, philosopher and savage. 

America is the land of cognitive dissonance. People say they believe in one thing, but do another. Everyone is clamoring right now for more fuel-efficient cars and complaining about hybrids that don’t get the advertised gas mileage, but if you go out on the highway anywhere, everyone’s driving ten to twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. Which, as every one of us fools knows, is not how to conserve $3.00 per gallon gas.

Or look at the notion of telecommuting. The average American worker spends over ten hours a week going to and from the office. This is ten hours of lost time if that commuter is driving. It is also roughly $2500 a year in gasoline and another $1500 of wear and tear on the family car. With today’s communication and computer technologies, many service and knowledge workers only need to go into the office once a month at most. With a cell phone, laptop, and mini-cam, virtually all cubicle work can be done from a home office—or the local Starbucks. Study after study shows that with the proper system in place productivity for workers can skyrocket and corporate costs can be reduced dramatically. Is this happening in any big way in America? No. Not yet. Everyone believes in telecommunicating, few want to make it a structured part of doing business day by day.

And in states with de-regulated, open competition utility systems, families choose to buy power from their conventional local utility company because it will save them a couple hundred dollars a year over “green” power, but mom and dad drive to work in mini-vans and SUVs which cost them thousands of dollars a year in excess gas prices.

These phenomena are manifestations of what we are really up against with global warming. We can create cleaner energy and new businesses for working people, but we also need to overcome the confused side of our national identity.

Hope and the American Way

Cognitive dissonance aside, in reality, environmentalism will continue to die and be reborn over and over again. The Environment is a fluid concept, both in history and in every single mind in this country today. Large environmental groups and their funders are only a small part of the equation. The beauty of this movement is that it means something different to each and every one of us.

Environmentalism is actually at sway in four different major contexts in this country. Besides the environmental community (by which I do not mean solely the mainstream national environmental movement), government, the corporate world, and consumers are all clamoring to be heard in the debate that is beginning.

Over the past year or so it has become obvious that many American institutions outside of the federal government and beyond The Group of Thirty are ready to address oil and global warming in their own ways. State and local governments are passing legislation and resolutions to begin the oil weaning process and to foster green industries and business. Large corporations are investing in more sustainable, long-term technologies and buildings. Local and regional environmental groups are becoming more political (over the next few years I predict there will be a resurgence of militancy at the grassroots level). And at least some of the American people are beginning to vote with their pocketbooks—hybrid cars, green utilities, efficient appliances, public transportation, organic food, which will be more fully examined in parts III through VI of this essay.

There’s hope. That hope is slim to some of us in the face of the havoc Katrina and Rita have caused our society. But it’s hope all the same.

Next: Part III-Government and Sustainable Development: Stumbling Towards Bethlehem


SHARE: DIGG Add to Facebook Add To Any Service! Reddit this
All Comments require admin approval.
Image gallery
  • email Email to a friend
  • print Print version