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Diagnosing the Green Giant
Debate on the environmental movement's health raises the Pythonesque question, Is the creature resting? stunned? Or has it joined the Choir Invisible?

| 23 February 2005


Shellenberger, left, published the obituary, but professors Harte (right) and Norgaard (second from right) and activist Gelobter insist rumors of the environmental movement's death are premature. (Jonathan King photo)
If last week's lively Mulford Hall debate on "The Death of Environmentalism" proved anything, it was the proposition that nothing gets the blood racing like reading one's own obituary.

Just such vascular stimulation, in fact, may well lie at the heart of an essay bearing that name, which was subtitled "Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World" and which has earned a measure of notoriety within, and to some extent beyond, activist circles. The manifesto, published by a pair of thirty-something movement fixtures in the fall, proclaimed that modern environmentalism has devolved into "just another special interest" that "is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis."

To read the original essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," Carl Pope's response, and other related materials, see Grist magazine.
Not surprisingly, the treatise has roiled the mainstream green establishment, and - largely on the strength of an irresistible food-fight story line - bushwhacked its way into media ranging from the backwoods of the online Grist to the prime real estate of The New York Times.

At Berkeley, as elsewhere, the paper's subtext - that is, the authors' motives for writing it in the first place - loomed as large as its message of green extinction. "I don't think any of you would be here if we'd called it something else," Michael Shellenberger, one of its authors, candidly told the standing-room-only crowd of 200-plus on Wednesday, Feb. 16. By coincidence, that was the day the Kyoto treaty on global warming took effect, despite the refusal of the United States to join most of the rest of the industrialized world in promising to reduce heat-trapping carbon-dioxide emissions.

Shellenberger, a veteran media consultant, and his co-author, pollster and former Cal undergrad Ted Nordhaus, addressed both text and subtext during their campus appearance. Billed as "the first debate between the essay's authors and environmental scientists," the 90-minute panel discussion featured professors John Harte and Richard Norgaard, both with the university's Energy and Resources Group, and Michel Gelobter, an ERG alum who now heads Redefining Progress, a nonprofit that promotes environmental sustainability.

Borrowing heavily from Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff's acclaimed analysis of progressives' failures, "The Death of Environmentalism" contends that "the environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded." Environmentalists, the authors assert, "are in a culture war whether we like it or not. It's a war over our core values as Americans and over our vision for the future, and it won't be won by appealing to the rational consideration of our collective self-interest."

Shellenberger and Nordhaus offer no specific policy recommendations. They do, however, offer up their own "New Apollo Project" - an effort, they say, "aimed at freeing the U.S. from oil and creating millions of good new jobs over 10 years" - as a less wonkish, more inspirational model for winning Americans to the cause.

In the view of Carl Pope, the Sierra Club's executive director, the authors of the 36-page death notice had less lofty aims than reviving a sleeping giant. Noting that the paper was first delivered to environmental grantmakers, Pope wrote in a widely circulated rejoinder to "Death..." that "it will be hard for many readers to avoid the suspicion that the not-so-hidden message was 'fund us instead.'"

"Boldness and hubris are closely related," declared Pope, whose pointed response to the pamphlet, like Brer Rabbit's assault on the Tar Baby, could be scored, in part, as a tactical victory for its creators. His own essay, in the form of a letter to those same grantmakers, calls the original paper's research "shoddy," its arguments "internally contradictory," and its conclusions "fundamentally flawed."

Similar objections, and some new ones, were leveled Wednesday.

Harte, who conducts research into the ecological impacts of climate change, objected primarily to the first half of the essay, "Environmentalism as a Special Interest." That section, in Harte's assessment, was "deficient in its logic" and "laden with what I would call postmodern gibberish" and "overly broad generalizations" about environmentalists. The authors, he added, provided "no analysis" of why Europe is moving aggressively to address global warming, while the United States is dragging its heels.

Norgaard took a dimmer view. "I didn't like Part 1 or Part 2," he said, adding that he found the entire critique "quite shallow." Norgaard, an "ecological economist," faulted the paper's authors for, among other things, bemoaning the movement's alleged failure to frame the issue in moral terms while relying heavily on polling data and focus groups in support of their arguments.

Gelobter was a bit more charitable, observing that "as a movement-building piece," at least, "the report has a lot going for it." Nonetheless, he was sharply critical of the authors' "denial" of activists who have gone before, and their refusal to build on earlier movement successes. "They are obsessed in their piece with ancestors," he said, "the better to kill them, I think."

Gelobter also took issue with the authors' methodology, which focused on interviews with some two dozen environmentalists from large, mainstream organizations. But those leaders, he said, do not reflect the full spectrum of environmental activists.

A politics smaller than the cause?

When the authors disparaged the environmental-justice movement - which tends to be more grassroots-based and racially diverse than most mainstream groups, and seeks to build coalitions around issues of health, racism, and poverty - Gelobter went on the attack.

"Wow, something I can really disagree with. Jeez Louise: Is Bjorn Lonborg in the house?" he asked, referring to the contrarian author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. "Dick Cheney, maybe?" The dismissal of efforts to broaden the movement's base, he said, "makes suspect the entire agenda of your piece."

Nordhaus, however, insisted on the need to "challenge the category of environmentalism," asserting that "by hewing to that category so slavishly, by failing to challenge it, [the movement] constructed a politics that was in fact smaller than environmentalism, rather than larger."

Shellenberger, picking up the theme, condemned "what we call complaint-based activism," calling instead for "a movement that's driven by vision and values." He noted that Carly Fiorina, the just-deposed CEO of Hewlett-Packard, had been fired "after six years of a pretty mixed record," whereas "none of the environmental leaders have been fired after 20 or 30 years of a terrible record. So what the hell?"

Dubbing environmentalism "a movement in complete disarray," Shellenberger declared, "The moral and intellectual framework of environmentalism is dying, and it needs to die so that something more powerful and expansive can be born that carries the values that animate our lives and our policies forward."

Nordhaus echoed his partner's call for a movement that is "transformational," and added, "If we had to be divisive to say that, so be it." They wrote the piece, he acknowledged, "with the intention of being provocative, perhaps even divisive."

And though one observer likened the often-fractious debate to "the Monty Python episode about whether the parrot is dead or not," they seemed to have succeeded wildly on both counts.