April 1, 2005


Reflections on Sustainability and Universities and Whether
Environmentalism Has Died

By Martin S. Kaplan

This speech was given at the Alliance for Global Sustainability
annual meeting, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge,
Mass., March 22, 2005.

The environmental community in this country is presently in turmoil
over the challenging paper entitled "The Death of Environmentalism,"
an essay by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, which was released
at the October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers
Association. Their thesis is that the environmental community has
"strikingly little to show" for its efforts during the past 15 years,
and that environmental leaders do not articulate a vision of the
future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis. Looking at the
string of global-warming defeats under Presidents Clinton and Bush,
they conclude that the environmental movement's approach to problems
and policies hasn't worked, and they charge there is nothing about the
behavior of the environmental groups that indicates that they are
ready to think differently in the future.

They attribute the success of environmental legislation in the 1960s
and 1970s to concepts, methods, and institutions of that period that
are now outmoded. Remarkably, they charge that environmentalism is
"just another special interest."

Shellenberger and Nordhaus note the failure of others to join the
fight against global warming and they contend that "the arrogance here
is that environmentalists ask not what we can do for non-environmental
constituencies but what non-environmental constituencies can do for

They also ask the very good question: "why... is a human-made
phenomenon like global warming, which may kill hundreds of millions of
human beings over the next century, considered 'environmental'? Why
are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global
warming is?"

They state that "perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 1990s is that, in
the end, the environmental community had still not come up with an
inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal, that a majority of
Americans could get excited about."

Adam Werbach, the former president of the Sierra Club, then followed
up with a further attack in a speech in early December at the
Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled "Is Environmentalism
Dead?" His stated thesis: "the ability of environmentalism, as a
language, an ideology, a set of practices, and network of
institutions, can not deal with the most pressing ecological
challenges facing the planet ..." and calls for an end to a separate
environmental movement and the creation of a new progressive movement
uniting all of those who can agree on a broad set of progressive
values, only one of which is the environment.

These papers and many responses can be found at the website of Grist
Magazine, the online environmental news source.

I would note that the conservation movement is only 100 years old and
the environmental movement perhaps 50 years old. We are fortunate
indeed that these three writers did not evaluate the status of other
historical movements midway in their terms. For example, would they
have urged people to give up the fight to abolish slavery because it
took a couple of hundred years? Would they have urged giving up the
goal of women's suffrage, perhaps around 1900, nearly a quarter of a
century before women achieved the right to vote?

I don't dispute that Shellenberger and Nordhaus hoped to start a
serious debate within the environmental movement about its future. But
the mainstream media picked up the debate in a predictable manner. New
York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof joined the attack on March 12,
asserting that the authors are right: "modern environmentalism, with
all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted
strategies, must die so that something new can live."

Kristof states that "the fundamental problem... is that environmental
groups are too often alarmists" and have lost credibility with the
public, and states that he is "now skeptical of the movement's 'I Have
a Nightmare' speeches." After this attack, it is surprising that at
the end of his column he states "priority should go to avoiding
environmental damage that is irreversible, like extinctions, climate
change, and loss of wilderness." I guess that's not alarmist. Let's
not forget that in the 1930s Winston Churchill was derided for his "I
Have a Nightmare" speeches.

I suggest that those four writers are arrogant, self-indulgent, and
wrong in blaming perceived failure on those who have sought change,
rather than on those who have opposed it. Given their philosophy of
causation and responsibility, I suppose in the 1850s they would have
blamed the failure to abolish slavery on the abolition movement rather
than the slaveholders and the economic interests tied to them. Perhaps
around 1900 they would have blamed the failure to achieve the right to
vote for women on the strategy and tactics of Susan B. Anthony and
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, rather than on men who controlled the society.
And not one of those four denunciations of the environmental movement
includes any equivalent attack on the entrenched opposition of the
economic interests that sell oil, mercury, and even arsenic.

I find it quite outrageous, too, that the phrase "special interest"
has been transmuted from reflecting those who have a financial benefit
at stake to those who are pursuing a goal of benefiting the entire
society rather than themselves individually. This misuse of the phrase
"special interest" flies in the face of how that term was used during
the Progressive Movement at the beginning of the 20th century.

Furthermore, their thinking provides no recognition of the tipping-
point paradigm with which we are all familiar. Remember that after
many years of little progress, the civil-rights movement in America
blasted through the crises of the early 1960s to success, and we have
also seen remarkable social change in relatively short time periods on
issues relating to women, gays, and culture.

In science and commerce, we have also experienced change with
lightning speed, from the acceptance and proliferation of television,
to cable, to the computer, and to the internet.

Perhaps these writers, lacking a historical perspective, have given up
too early.

While criticism of environmental organizations is certainly
appropriate on many levels, I would have thought these writers would
have saved such truly damning criticism for those who, out of short-
term financial or political self-interest, or simple ignorance, oppose
every effort by our society to recognize the seriousness of
environmental problems.

During these past 15 years that Nordhaus and Shellenberger critique,
progress has been made on environmental issues in many countries,
important research has been launched, and the world has pretty much
come to accept as scientific fact that climate change is real and
poses significant problems for the future. Much of that is due to the
research and analysis of key scientists at many universities and
corporations. But thoughtful, tough warnings have been met with
corporate denial by many who should be leading the effort to protect
our society if they truly realized how serious are the problems we
face. The selfish response of many in industry has been matched or
exceeded by the purposeful ignorance of many in government who have
sought to delay any response on climate change by arguing that the
maintenance of current jobs is more important than anything else.

Their approach reminds me of the valiant resistance by most of the New
England fishing industry to any limitations on their fishing of the
Great Banks because limitations would mean lost profits and lost jobs.
They challenged scientific advice and proceeded to overfish the Great
Banks to the point where the New England fishing industry has
collapsed, causing the loss of many more jobs than would have been the
case if there had been responsible management of the problem.

In addition, the American press, abysmally ignorant of science, has
habitually included in any article on the dangers of climate change
the contrary viewpoint of an environmental skeptic. But I don't recall
the media requiring a balancing viewpoint to make the point that the
Soviet Union during the Cold War was not dangerous.

George Monbiot, in a Feb. 15 article in The Guardian, provided a
viewpoint the American press disregards:

" of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent
with, even necessary for, the outlook of almost all the world's
economists. Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or
Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite
capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure
to all ills is endless growth.

"Our economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists,
the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous
than, any religious fundamentalism.

"But if our political leaders are to save the people rather than the
people's fantasies, then the way we see ourselves must begin to

But of course, Monbiot was writing in the U.K. You won't find the
viewpoint he expressed in the mainstream American press.

Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis,
organized a series of colloquia from October 2003 to April 2004 on the
"Role of Research Universities in Addressing Environmental Issues,"
drawing on those leaders who had developed programs at Harvard,
Columbia, and MIT, including professor David Marks.

I believe Wrighton accurately summarized the current state of
universities and environmental studies as follows: "We have islands of
excellence... that collectively do not have the impact that we think
we could have ...-He expressed the belief that all those involved in
the colloquium effort "would probably agree that a major research
university... has a responsibility to prepare the next generation of
educated men and women to have at least an understanding of
environmental issues... it is our responsibility to do more to address
environmental issues, beginning with our educational programs and our

Several universities, including MIT, have clearly done more than
others, but as many universities, corporations, and communities make
progress in energy and product efficiency, reduction of waste, and
development of sustainable operations, the target has kept on moving.
Increasing worldwide population, increasing global commerce, and
increasing demands for energy and products will increasingly endanger
the entire fabric of life on this planet.

In his Millennium Report to the United Nations General Assembly,
Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated that "Freedom from want, freedom
from fear, and the freedom of future generations to sustain their
lives on this planet" are the three grand global challenges for the
21st century.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and former
executive vice provost of Columbia University, spoke at the Washington
University colloquium, and drew attention to the "Johannesburg
Declaration on Sustainable Development," which referred to "economic
development, social development, and environmental protection" as
"interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars of sustainable
development," and called for "collective responsibility to advance and
strengthen" them at "local, national, regional, and global levels."

Crow stated that it was "time for universities to accelerate movement
to integrated science" and "time to focus on outcomes as a new strong
driver of science," embracing complexity within education and
research, and noting the overriding need to get out of our
intellectual and academic silos, to focus on real problem solving
rather than the advancement of knowledge within each specific field,
and calling for education about the Earth, the environment, and its
interactions with human society, to help create an engaged citizenry
as well as skilled professionals who were able to integrate across

Professor Don Melnick, director of the Center for Environmental
Research and Conservation at Columbia University, has stated:
"Universities are the ultimate incubators of innovative solutions to
complex global problems, but they must be mobilized to engage these
global problems."

The gap between our achievements to date and the problems we must
address is not narrowing, but sadly, is widening. Economic growth and
resistance to change imperil our efforts to make the world more
sustainable. In addition, much of corporate America is simply not
focusing on the vast economic opportunities available to those who
become the drivers of environmental solutions rather than the
suppliers of continuing environmental degradation.

Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, points
out that China's new fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks
sold in China are significantly more stringent than our own fuel-
efficiency standards in this country, which have atrophied as a result
of fierce and stubborn lobbying by the domestic auto industry. UCS has
shown that most U.S. companies are missing out on the opportunities to
develop and deploy the next generation of technologies to reduce
energy usage and emissions, which will result in other countries
providing leadership and increasing market share in comparison to that
of U.S.- based companies even in the U.S. market.

This brings us back to the issue of climate change and sustainability.
I believe we must consider it at a different and higher level -- the
sustainability of planet Earth as a functioning biosphere able to
handle immense shocks to its system. In The New York Review of Books
from March 24, Princeton professor emeritus Clifford Geertz reviews
Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed and
Richard A. Posner's Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Diamond wonders
whether we are blundering into self-destruction, and sees the first
signs of overreach, waste, decline, and ruin. Geertz says Diamond and
Posner (and Posner is no radical environmentalist or radical anything
else) both ask, in somewhat different ways: "Is the modern way of life
globally sustainable?" Perhaps the globalization of commerce and
culture will be matched in the future by the globalization of collapse
in our biosphere. I would hardly define this as strictly an
"environmental" problem; nor should it be a worry only of

We humans seem to believe that our species will survive, even if
numerous other species around us expire. An analysis of the Earth over
eons, however, would suggest that we have no knowledge of which
species will survive future changes in the planet. I would suggest
that some other species have better chances than we do.

And what does it mean to promote sustainability within the United
Kingdom, as an example, if immense climatic changes terminate the
benevolence of the Gulf Stream on those islands? Which countries, now
livable, will become deserts and which will become frigid? When the
academic world analyzes sustainability, do you include in this the
sustainability of the entire system, or only parts of it? Are you
studying and teaching about changes that may affect the entire web of
life on Earth?

I spoke earlier of the suddenness with which change occurs in the
human experience, on the social, technological, and economic levels. I
would suggest that those who fear for the long-term future of human
life on Earth, as do I, and those who have lost faith in the
environmental movement should bear in mind the pattern of stasis
followed by extraordinary movement. Perhaps there is hope that we
humans will not sleepwalk into disaster.

At a December 2004 Harvard conference on the subject of climate
change, President Lawrence Summers, commenting on the lack of response
to climate change, said "going from the inconceivable to the
inevitable will take place in a remarkably short time." I hope he is
right, but I suggest two conditions are necessary for us to attain the
goal Secretary-General Kofi Annan enunciated, that future generations
shall have "the freedom... to sustain their lives on this planet."

The first condition relates to universities and all other institutions
and corporations that research and teach. They must focus on the
global problems and the larger goals of addressing climate change and
ensuring that future generations can sustain their lives on this
planet, and insist that society pay attention.

If we fail to address climate change in the manner in which humans are
capable, we are gambling with the future of human life on Earth. Joel
Tickner, a project director at the Lowell Center for Sustainable
Production at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, a leading
proponent of the application of the precautionary principle in
connection with chemicals and policy, points out that while the U.S.
government refuses to acknowledge the dangers of climate change and
refuses to consider precautionary responses to it, this same
government in effect justified the invasion of Iraq on the same
precautionary standards.

The second condition is recognition that technology solutions alone
cannot achieve these goals. Human beings of all societies, all
religions, and all cultures must find in their value systems the will
to face these challenges with commitment and resolution.

Harvard professor Michael McElroy, former director of the Harvard
University Center for the Environment, wrote in the fall 2001 issue of
Daedalus that we have the capacity to transform the Earth, to alter
the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale, to eliminate
species that took billions of years to evolve, and asks if we have a
moral obligation to preserve the diversity of life forms on Earth. He
also asks whether we have the right to alter the composition of the
global atmosphere if we are unable definitively to assess -- in
advance -- the consequences.

McElroy wrote: "Science alone cannot provide answers to these
questions. Nor can we expect a definitive response from our colleagues
in economics... The critical question is whether we have the wisdom
and ethical maturity to employ our scientific and technological skills
with discretion.... We need a moral compass: there are ethical as well
as technical issues to be addressed if we are to chart a responsible
course to the future."

This is not just a challenge to universities. It is a challenge to
governments and corporations and the media, and to people of all
countries, cultures, and religions. And it is not simply the
responsibility of "environmentalists."

I cannot put it any better than professor Mary Evelyn Tucker,
coordinator of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Harvard, who
places the responsibility clearly on all of us: "A sustainable future
requires a sustaining vision of that future. This vision needs to
evoke depths of empathy, compassion, and sacrifice that have the
welfare of future generations in mind. We are called, for the first
time in history, to a new intergenerational consciousness and
conscience -- and this extends to the entire Earth community."

I wish all of us much success.

- -- - -- - -- - -- - -

Martin S. Kaplan is an attorney in Boston and New York and an adviser
to environmental funders, including the V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation.
[Editor's note: The V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation is a supporter of

Copyright 2005. Grist Magazine, Inc.