Death of Environmentalism

May 2005

In lieu of the “liveblog” that obviously didn’t take place yesterday and which Laura found so amusing, I thought I’d attempt to distill the “Values in Nature” conference into this post instead, or at least the parts that I attended.

In my view, Shellenberger and Nordhaus have hit the nail on the head. Read their paper. It is seminal. Also read it because what I’m about to say probably isn’t quite an accurate representation of their views, so if you want to cite them, read the paper. Anyway. The challenge of climate change needs to be recast, and the usual suspects in the environmental world are not the ones to do it. This isn’t so much a reflection on these groups as it is a reflection of what gets across to people. As soon as people see that the source of a message is from one of the old school environmental groups, they tend to pigeonhole what the person is about to say. They also tend to make the assumption that in order to help the environment, we need to hurt the economy to do so. This is not true. I’ve pointed to them before, but I’ll do it again; The Apollo Alliance is helping to prove just the opposite. Regulation of the economy creates jobs since somebody has to, say, install scrubbers on smokestacks to catch SO2. The Apollo Alliance comes across really well in blue-collar areas of the country, ones that typically could not be bothered with the environment. But it’s not that these people don’t care about the environment. As soon as the idea is pitched and people realize it will create jobs, people start talking about the benefits that it will have for the local environment as well.

The assertion that environmentalism is dead comes out of this fact, that traditional environmental groups are not able to get their message across, primarily becuase they tend to insist on using the “louder and slower” technique. They say, “well, the American public just doesn’t understand the issues here, or the science. If we could just get them to understand that, then we’d be okay and they would change behavior.” Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that this is not the case. You need to cast things in an aspirational light, they say; there’s a reason that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave an “I Have a Dream” speech and not a “I Have a Nightmare” speech.

When asserting that environmentalism is dead, the paper naturally drew some criticism from those working in environmentalism. I think that the title served to draw much needed attention more than it was an actual pronouncement. The authors certainly don’t want to see people stop trying on the environment. After this flavor of environmentalism dies, there will of course be some new form that comes out of it. The people who were probably most upset initially were the ones who have already realized what the authors are asserting, the ones who were calling the paper, as Michael Oppenheimer put it, “obvious”; however, these people are the ones who are going forward and becoming the new face of environmentalism, the face of an environmentalism that actually works. One of these groups is The Breakthrough Institute, closely tied with Shellenberger and Nordhaus, as well as George Lakoff and the Apollo Alliance, who not surprisingly, also has it right, although I don’t really think they were upset at the publication of the paper.

The whole thing is very exciting. The environmental movement is in good hands. While the whole thing does seem fairly optimistic, I really think that it’s got good reason to be. If the framing that they are using can inspire optimism in everyone, we’ve got the game won, since the technology is not what is lacking here.