Politics & Policy

Is Environmentalism Dead?

Some are calling for a new kind of movement.

Two California environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, recently declared “the death of environmentalism,” generating quite a buzz. “We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live,” they declared.

The failure of the movement to make progress, most notably in addressing global climate change–”the greatest calamity in modern history”–has led these fellows to call for a broad-based alliance, a progressive movement made up of labor and business types who support comprehensive investments, not just regulation, in energy, health, and technology to transform society. They are pretty vague on specifics, but you get the impression they are looking for an environmentalist version of industrial planning.

A 2004 survey by Environics revealed that 43 percent of the public agreed that “most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people.” This figure was 32 percent in 1996. The shift may be due to the movement’s lack of a compelling, positive message. In one of their better lines, Shellenberger and Nordhaus note that Martin Luther King Jr. gave America “I have a dream,” but “environmental leaders are effectively giving the ‘I have a nightmare’ speech instead.”

According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against “conservative values” such as cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade. “Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the right’s values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way. Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from the ‘real issues’–environmental problems like global warming.” They urge environmentalists to start framing proposals around core American values.

There are other voices out there, many coming from the conservation community, more closely aligned with hunting, fishing, and birding interests, who counsel approaches consistent with mainstream America’s view of the world. Paul W. Hansen, executive director of the Izaak Walton League of America, acknowledges real political differences between Democrats and Republicans. But he insists that “the environment is not a ‘liberal’ cause; it is everyone’s cause.” Moreover, “the polarizing tactics and strategies of some environmentalists are part of the problem as well.”

Hansen points out that voters in 121 communities in 24 states passed ballot measures to create $3.24 billion in public funding to protect land as parks and open space. Since 1996, 1,065 out of 1,376 conservation ballot measures have passed in 43 states, raising more than $27 billion in funding for land conservation. “If you look at the campaign materials for these initiatives, you see little strident rhetoric and a lot of practical solutions,” he says. He might also have noted that in the U.S. today, private citizens support 1,300 private land trusts, which have collectively protected an area twice the size of Connecticut.

“‘Mandate, regulate, litigate.’ That has been the green mantra,” opined the Economist in a recent editorial. No doubt, there is a time for everything; but modern environmentalism’s over-reliance on adversarial politics and litigation has contributed to its banishment to the political wilderness for the moment.

The latest contribution to this debate is a provocative essay by Mark Van Putten, former president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), “America’s largest membership-based environmental group.” His opinion piece, “Rebuilding a Mainstream Consensus for Environmentalism,” appears in the June issue of BioScience. It is, literally and figuratively, an admonition by a Dutch Uncle to his colleagues in the environmental movement: “…[T]hey have the politics wrong and are reaping the consequences of having had them wrong for a long time. Although it is convenient to blame the anti-environment bent of the Bush Administration and hostile congressional leadership, environmental groups have significantly contributed to their own marginalization.”

Van Putten is from western Michigan–GOP territory in the midst of a Blue State–and of Dutch stock. He grew up within a stone’s throw of Lake Michigan, attended Calvin College and the University of Michigan’s law school. For many years he ran the Ann Arbor office of NWF. Those of us who knew him “back when” recall that he was no slouch at advocacy politics or litigation. Yet he was always focused on public education and intense grassroots mobilization, specifically targeting hunting and fishing constituencies, which formed the core of NWF’s membership. NWF is unique among environmental groups in having one foot in traditional conservation and one in the environmental movement.

Like Paul Hansen, Van Putten argues that environmental values are not necessarily “liberal” or “progressive,” as those terms are presently understood. “In fact, they are inherently conservative, involving individuals’ responsibilities to others.” He proceeds to survey the entire conservative coalition with a view toward demonstrating common ground. Religious conservatives advocate stewardship of creation. Fiscal conservatives oppose environmentally damaging agricultural and energy subsidies, not to mention water development projects. Free-market conservatives support innovative market-based, cost-effective solutions to environmental challenges. Pro-life conservatives embrace a comprehensive culture of life, throughout the life cycle, and appreciate non-human life, too.

Conceding that the current debate is polarized, he recognizes that “Republicans see little political gain in leading (or even supporting) environmental initiatives, and Democrats seek primarily partisan advantage, putting posturing over policy progress.” He cites the “complicity” of some environmental groups in the shadow Democratic party, i.e., the Section 527 organizations raising soft money to defeat President Bush. “Their tactics further undermined the bipartisan foundation of conservation dating back a century or more.”

One of Van Putten’s more interesting insights pertains to environmentalism’s abandonment of the volunteerism that was typical of both its early days and the original conservation movement as embodied in the Boone and Crockett Clubs promoted by Theodore Roosevelt for fishermen and hunters. Today, national environmental groups, tethered to Washington and New York, have become professionalized and increasingly focused on legislative and regulatory esoterica that do not resonate with many Americans skeptical of big government and command-and-control strategies.

While environmentalists achieved some successes in the short term, “these tactics were pursued largely at the expense of developing a positive message and effective strategies for mobilizing mainstream Americans into a bipartisan constituency for environmental protection,” according to Van Putten. With the emergence of Republican congressional majorities in 1994, the consequences of this omission became evident.

Van Putten’s essay strongly urges environmental groups to reach out to conservatives in order to rebuild “a bipartisan grassroots consensus for conservation.” But such a dialogue must be a genuine conversation, not a focus group to massage a predetermined message for the same regulatory solutions. “Too little attention has been paid to developing an open-ended, values-based dialogue with conservatives that does not presuppose specific policy outcomes.”

Van Putten proposes breaking the social isolation of the environmental movement as well. He points out that the leadership of environmental organizations remain largely white. He argues that this was due to a misperception that African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other ethnic groups have other priorities. He does not say it, but he presumably means economic or civil-rights priorities.

Like Karl Rove on the political front, Van Putten challenges these stereotypes on the environment: “Historically, the members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been among the most reliable proenvironment votes, although this support has waned in recent years.” He cites recent research findings “that African Americans’ concern for the environment approximates and in some instances exceeds whites’.” In southwestern states Hispanic Americans vote in higher percentages for land, water, and environmental protection.

Whether or not environmentalism is dead, dying, or in some kind of undead zombie state, new voices within the environmental and conservation movements are arguing for a wholly new kind of movement that entails recovering values of another, more conservative America. They point to a reinvention of environmentalism which might garner the support of both Red and Blue America.

G. Tracy Mehan, III, was assistant administrator for water at the U.S. E.P.A. in President Bush’s first term. Presently, he is principal with The Cadmus Group, Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Arlington, Virginia. The views expressed here are entirely his own.


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