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The Green Emperor Gets Naked, Part V

Continuing observations on the implications of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s paper, “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.”

When Environmentalism Overdoses

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are really asking a simple question in their paper:

Why is it so hard for activists to gain social and political traction on global warming in America?

  
The answer may in fact be that mainstream environmental groups are overdosing on too many of the realities that America has to offer. Perhaps it is time for a new field of activism and problem solving to step into the breach—one more focused on social science and political economics; a field dedicated to community and neighborhood but with an awareness of global realities like climate change and human rights.
 
Two Truisms
 
“The Death of Environmentalism” makes two indisputable points:
 
1.       Despite the noble and extensive efforts of the environmental movement (and a huge funding base from philanthropy organizations), consumers in America essentially do not see global warming as anything other than one of numerous issues of concern (and their national government has effectively had a policy of "voluntary" greenhouse gas reduction since 1988).
 
2.       The massive, complex, and ambiguous nature of global warming should have catapulted climate change to a level of singular priority for all the major environmental groups in the country. After all, if they really believe what they are saying, then what's the point of protecting wilderness areas and endangered species if in the next fifty years Arctic ice has completely melted, hurricanes and typhoons are pounding shorelines everywhere, droughts have made huge swaths of continents uninhabitable and floods are doing the same in other parts of the world?
 
Whether one argues that the failure to get the nation to address climate change is the fault of environmental groups is beside the point. The politics of our day oozes with bizarre behavior and the fallacy of ideological thinking. And while once the mainstream media could be depended upon to act as the voice of commonsense and truth, now it is mind-numbingly shallow, built on a framework of sound bites and anecdote. In the face of what this country is becoming, then, it is essential that environmental groups and concerned citizens understand that a failure to debate and address the two issues above will continue to render them impotent in the face of a cynical media, distracted voters, and mercenary politicians. Do we want to address global climate change or not? Who’s got balls here and who’s just lazy and/or greedy?
 
Special Interests and Vegetables

When the media and opinion research groups ask Americans to rank The Environment along with Education, Health Care, National Security, Civil Rights, etc. it should be no wonder that it slides into a mid- to low-level priority. Asking someone about the environment compared to other issues is like asking someone whether they prefer vegetables to cheese, lemonade, chocolate cake, or hot dogs.

 
The inability of the current environmental mainstream to focus solely on global warming should not be surprising. The complexity of American life and all the implications of our dynamic, opulent, and magical material existence make for more than a few "externalities" with which to grapple. America is actively involved in polluting its air, water, and soil. Few citizens spend time in wilderness areas devastated by mining and logging so they aren’t personally confronted with the realities of their need for energy, metals, and wood. We are trashing and over-fishing the ocean, endangering habitats for numerous creatures, spreading our cities out into endless metropolitan monstrosities, consuming cows, chickens and pigs like never before, and downing millions of gallons of Coke, bottled water, beer, and coffee every day. There are so many consequences to our behavior that effect Mother Nature that environmental groups can barely keep up with the holes in the dike into which they must put their fingers.
 
The end result, then, is that the environmental groups we have all come to know and love (or not) are confronted with quite a daunting set of tasks. We have already pointed out in Part II of this essay that  few of them list "Global Warming" at the top of their program lists, but a brief glance at some of their web sites will also tell you what else they are dealing with:
 
Sierra Club lists “Priority Campaigns” which include: Arctic/Wildlands; Clean Water; Global Population; Human Rights; Forests; Responsible Trade; Stopping Sprawl; Global Warming and Energy.  They also list ”More Issues” which include Clean Air, Corporate Accountability Committee, Ecoregions, Environmental Education, Environmental Justice, Factory Farms, Genetic Engineering, Grazing, International Programs, Lands Protection Program, Marine Wildlife and Habitat, Species and Habitat, Nuclear Waste, Recreation Issues, Sustainable Consumption, Toxics, Trash Transfer, Transportation, Wetlands, and Wildlife
 
The Environmental Defense Fund has what they call programs and campaigns. Programs include: Climate and Air; Ecosystem Restoration; Environmental Alliances; Environmental Health; International (environmental and human rights issues in the developing world); and Living Cities (solutions to environmental challenges in urban areas). EDF campaigns include: “Global Warming—Undo It!;” “Back from the Brink” (a program addressing endangered species issues, especially the bald eagle); “Oceans Alive”; “Clean Air for Clean Life”; “Discover Hetch Hetchy” (a Yosemite National Park wilderness education program).
 
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) programs include: Clean Air & Energy; Global Warming; Clean Water & Oceans; Wildlife & Fish; Parks, Forests, and Wild Lands, Health & the Environment; Nuclear Weapons, Waste & Energy; Cities & Green Living; U.S. Law & Policy; and International Issues.
 
Greenpeace International lists “What we do” as: Stop climate change; Save our seas; Protect ancient forests; Say no to genetic engineering; Eliminate toxic chemicals; End the nuclear threat; Encourage sustainable design; and Abolish nuclear weapons.
 
Friends of the Earth has campaigns that include: Community Health & Environment; Economics for the Earth; International Programs; Legislative Programs; and Regional Programs. They also list “Specific Issues” that include: Biopharms, Climate Change, Cloning, Corporate Accountability; Dam Removal; Export Credit Agencies; Fisheries; Pesticides, River Restoration; Road Hog Reduction; Road to Ruin; Safer Food; Safer Farms; Salmon; Trade; Wall Street; and World Bank.
 
These configurations are typical of most national and international groups. It is, then, not hard to see why they might have difficulty getting the country to focus on global warming.
 
A Brief History of Environmentalism

In a paper entitled, “The Four Stages of Environmentalism,” David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, defines the movement’s history. The first stage came about 150 years ago with the rise of the wilderness preservation ethic. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was published in 1854. Two years before that Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune brought to the nation’s attention the fact that a 2,500 year-old Sequoia, measuring over 90-feet in circumference, was being carted around the country for display at carnivals. Slowly, over the next hundred years, the movement expanded to concern itself as well with issues having to do with pollution and public health. This was mostly a function of developments in medicine, biology and chemistry. The modern environmental movement, according to Morris, came into existence with the publication of Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring in 1962. At the same time Murray Bookchin published Our Synthetic Environment.

 
By the 1980s the third stage of environmentalism was fully formed. This is the sustainable development movement that we have already discussed extensively in this series. This movement got its start in the 1970s with publications by E.F. Schumacher, Amory Lovins, Paul Ehrlich, and Ivan Illich. Finally, Morris posits a fourth stage—the environmental justice movement, which expands environmental causes into the realm of civil rights, social justice, and poverty.
 
What this historical perspective points to is four different functional aspects of the field of environmentalism as it is commonly understood: conservation; public health; technology choice; and social justice. Over the last forty to fifty years, mainstream environmental groups have excelled at addressing the areas of conservation (wilderness protection, wetlands preservation, open space planning, animal rights and endangered species protection, river keeping, etc.) and public health (pollution prevention, air/water quality management, environmental epidemiology, etc.). Although the current administration and its supporters are fighting hard to limit wilderness and pollution regulations, they are up against committed, competent, veterans of the environmental sciences and legal professions. And the voting public is essentially supportive of the main issues that conservation and public health environmentalists are addressing. No one wants to drink heavy metals in their water; no one wants their children suffering from smog-induced asthma; and most Americans feel a deep connection to the grandeur of this country’s vast wilderness areas. At best, conservative, shortsighted, big business-oriented politics can temporarily stunt rules and regulations, but in the end the reality of pollution and environmental degradation will prove conservative notions of “free market” voluntary solutions flawed and misguided. The majority of the country does not support the end result of trivializing environmental protection. Given focused, thoughtful and creative problem solving, groups like Sierra Club, NRDC, and Greenpeace will continue to make headway with their conservation and public health causes.
 
What Frame Are You From?

Sustainable development and environmental justice, however, are much more complex subjects for environmental groups to deal with. These are first and foremost social and economic development issues. They are primarily urban in nature (by urban I include suburban and exurban as well as inner cities). Most importantly, they are based on a different Lakoffian frame than conservation and public health. This frame has been discussed in detail already in this essay.  It does not orient itself to regulations, limitations, and confrontation; rather, it talks about empowerment, inventiveness, creativity, and human dignity.

 
I am not calling here for the invention of a new environmentalism. I am calling for the differentiation of what environmental groups do well from sustainable development and environmental justice. We have already discussed in this essay numerous government and business related programs that address systemic responsible social and economic change. From E.F. Schumacher’s Intermediate Technology Development Group (recently renamed Practical Action) to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction coalition of nine eastern states, and sustainable communities like Burlington VT, Portland, OR, Berkeley CA, and the work of the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the worldwide sustainability movement has been thriving for over thirty years. Similarly, environmental justice issues have been part of the war on poverty, the civil rights movement, and the community development revolution that all began in the 1950s. In fact, the basis for Schumacher’s work in the developing world (and Wangari Matthai’s work in Kenya for that matter) was environmental justice. Sustainability and environmental justice are intimately linked. But it has never been clear why they have been moved under the umbrella of environmentalism. The conservation and public health issues that are the core of mainstream environmentalism are diluted by sustainability and environmental justice. And sustainability and environmental justice become less effective in public and political discourse because they have the taint of environmentalism attached to them. The frame of conservation and public health is completely different from the frame of sustainability and justice.
 
The Fifth Protocol

Now, let’s add the issue of global warming to David Morris’s story of environmental stages. Global warming presents a fifth stage in what is currently thought of as the environmental movement. Through the sophistication of science and computer modeling, we are learning almost on a daily basis now how our fossil fuel based global economy is increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the upper atmosphere. These greenhouse gases trap more and more heat, causing the global average annual temperature to rise, thereby altering climate patterns around the world. Science also tells us that our current way of life will inevitably lead to continuing temperature increases (as much as 5-10 degrees over the next century) and will result in any number of climate-related problems with the equivalent seriousness of Hurricane Katrina.

 
Solving the global warming problem requires a complete conversion of the world economy. It requires a transformation not only of business and industry, but of consumer expectations, religious ideology, and intellectual endeavor in general. For this reason, global warming is bringing into existence a fifth stage of the “environmental movement.”
 
And for this reason it seems time that the “environmental movement” disengage as best it can from sustainable development, environmental justice, and global warming and allow a new movement to take on these issues. This movement needs to go far beyond the values of traditional environmental groups. Shellenberger and Nordhaus have made an excellent first stab at this process, but by no means have they come close to the level of sophistication and creativity needed to create this next realm of social change. Simply calling for a fusion of labor unions, civil rights groups, and other progressives interested in “clean energy” and public transportation isn’t going to get the job done. The values of liberal Americans are as complicit in this country’s inability to solve its fossil fuel addiction as the values of conservatives. All conventional wisdom and values need to be re-examined. There are no magic solutions here, only hard work and tough choices.
 
The seeds for this movement are already doing much of the hard work. In Part IV we identified BALLE (the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) and CERES (the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies). Schumacher’s Practical Action group is also an exemplar of what can happen in developing nations. Amory and Hunter Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute is a longstanding center for creative and inventive thinking about new energy. And Murray Bookchin’s Institute for Social Ecology, long a gadfly organization to the mainstream environmental community, has spawned dozens of astute practitioners of sustainable development. Bookchin’s theories on “communalism,” in fact, may well be the basis for establishing this new movement. Defining the practical scale of democratic economics on the level of municipalities, Bookchin calls for the establishment of “face-to-face” citizen governments—almost like shadow governments, doppelganger politics--creating real, lasting, human-scale change outside existing power structures
and economic systems.
 
There are numerous other groups and organizations directing their efforts at sustainable development and environmental justice. The Apollo Alliance and The Breakthrough Institute, both connected to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, are exercising greater influence over both large-scale and intermediate-scale programs. Work by The Greenlining Institute in California demonstrates how a social justice activist organization can come at principles of sustainable development from the angle of meeting the needs of low income communities. And The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) is one of the nation’s most revered institutions in the field of local economies. ILSR’s president, Neil Seldman, has written a two-part essay called “The New Recyling Movement,” which is a case study in the history and development of sustainable economics, providing concrete examples of environmental justice through recycling.
 
The biggest problem with sustainable development and environmental justice is that since the most appropriate orientation of practitioners is on small- and intermediate-scale community levels, it has never been easy to amalgamate all the various groups into a recognizable movement per se. In fact, the strength of these groups is indeed their disunity and devotion to neighborhoods and community over broader policies and allegiances. This is where global warming comes in. In fact, this is where the entire global economy comes in. Those in the movement I am proposing – what for want of a better term I will call Global Community Development – understand that everything is integrated. They have chosen their fields because they took the idea of Think Globally, Act Locally to heart. They understand the butterfly effect. They have made it real.
 
Adding to the cause of these groups the task of becoming the primary combatants in the war on global climate change converts them from a ragtag confederation of idealists and keepers of the flame of enlightened economy into a major force to be reckoned with. If such an orientation could be achieved, and the philanthropic community currently doling millions of dollars into the bank accounts of environmental groups could rewrite their portfolios under the heading of Global Community Development (could someone please give me a better name?), it is just possible that we can make the lives of our grandchildren’s grandchildren a little more predictable and a lot more manageable.
 
Do we want to solve this problem or not?

 

 

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