January 17, 2006


When Environmentalism Overdoses / 6.4 Billion Romantic Idealists and

By David Biddle

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? Whoís got balls here and whoís 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 arenít 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
movementís history. The first stage came about 150 years ago with the
rise of the wilderness preservation ethic. Henry David Thoreauís
Walden was published in 1854. Two years before that Horace Greeley of
the New York Tribune brought to the nationís 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 Carlsonís 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 countryís 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. Schumacherís 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 Schumacherís work in the developing world (and Wangari Matthaiís
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, letís add the issue of global warming to David Morrisís 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

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 isnít going to get the job
done. The values of liberal Americans are as complicit in this
countryís 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

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). Schumacherís Practical Action group is also an exemplar of
what can happen in developing nations. Amory and Hunter Lovinsís Rocky
Mountain Institute is a longstanding center for creative and inventive
thinking about new energy. And Murray Bookchinís Institute for Social
Ecology, long a gadfly organization to the mainstream environmental
community, has spawned dozens of astute practitioners of sustainable
development. Bookchinís 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 nationís most
revered institutions in the field of local economies. ILSRís
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
grandchildrenís grandchildren a little more predictable and a lot more

Do we want to solve this problem or not?

Parts I through V of this essay call for the growth of a new global
social movement distinct from the environmental movement as the
vehicle for reframing the American debate on climate change. This
movement will focus on community and economic development through
sustainable business practices and appropriate technology. The goal is
to end the worldís dependence on fossil fuels and petroleum products
and, ultimately, to reverse the process of global warming. Issues of
economic scale, social justice, and opportunity are central to the
success of this movement.

The seeds for this kind of change are everywhere. Dozens of cities and
regional governments around the country are busy implementing
greenhouse gas reduction programs through sustainable development
strategies. Recycling activists and professionals in virtually every
major urban center are hard at work building local economies out of
waste. Architects and engineers are paying careful attention to
principles of green design and lifecycle costing. Investment in new
energy companies and other appropriate technology applications is
skyrocketing. A large portion of the country is beginning to figure
out that de-centralized, intermediate and small-scale businesses are
more manageable, more community oriented, and that they create more
sustainable employment opportunities. The only question is whether the
sustainable development and environmental justice movements will be
able to organize themselves into an entity that the American public as
a whole can recognize and embrace.

A Diffused Democracy of Ideas

The development of the environmental movement in America, beginning in
the mid-19th century, has been characterized by a diffusion of
creative ideas and a mixture of policy notions that often began with
specific local and regional conditions. The strength of the movement
was its ability to focus on solving real problems in a place-specific
manner and then to generalize those solutions outward to a broader
context. In his somewhat biting rebuttal to "The Death of
Environmentalism," Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club,

"Environmentalism has provided some of the deepest and most
questioning analysis of our ethical relationship to other species of
our era. It deploys a wide variety of advocacy paradigms -- policy
based interest group analysis is one, but there are also place-based,
values-driven and rights rooted traditions and models to draw upon."

The same sort of atomized, multi-dimensional, diffused problem solving
approach is already in place with sustainable development programs and
environmental justice projects. The difference is that more often than
not sustainable development and environmental justice address
economic, technical, and social institutions as much if not more than
environmental ones. Also, there is a gap in self-awareness for those
in this category, two missing components:

1.       The recognition that sustainable development and
environmental justice are indeed able to stand as a singular viable
movement (separate from environmentalism);

2.       At least a tacit understanding by the cultural elite (on both
sides of the political divide) that sustainable development and
environmental justice represent new economic opportunities and
technology choices, not the danger and pollution that is often
associated with "environmental" problems.

6.4 Million Romantic Idealists?

All of this supposes, of course, that the majority of the country
(indeed, the world) becomes informed romantic idealists. We need to be
informed because we need to understand the implications of global
warming and the options we have today (and tomorrow) to mitigate it.
We need to be romantic idealists because the way weíve been doing
things for the past several hundred years has created so much comfort
and opulence that cynicism, greed, and defensiveness have become the
standard methods of rationalizing and protecting the status quo.

None of what I propose here is easy. The first half of the first
decade of the 21st century has not been conducive to the growth of
informed romantic idealism in the world. But if you listen to the
rhetoric about why we canít make the necessary changes to avert
greenhouse gas production, thereís really only one thing of substance
being said: we canít afford to change.

Over the last year most of the other arguments against greenhouse gas
mitigation have slipped into peopleís back pocket. The so-called
conservative pundits are no longer saying we donít have the
technology; theyíre not saying itís too complicated (although it is
certainly a challenge); theyíre not saying itís impossible; and
theyíre not saying itís unfair to expect industrialized nations to
carry the burden of change first while developing nations (especially
China and India) arenít required to commit to anything.

Arguments about cost continue to find their way into the mainstream
media. Groups such as the Cooler Heads Coalition (a conservative,
anti-environmental organization) write things like: "A widely accepted
1999 study, for instance, found the cost of the Kyoto Protocol to be
$220 billion in 1990 dollars, while providing only $95 billion in
benefits. We are better off doing nothing."

Considering the fact that the cost of the Iraq War is verging on $250
billion, losses to the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricane season are
estimated at $200 billion (no one is even willing to guess on the
long-term costs), and the oil industry scored record profits in excess
of $25 billion for just one quarter last year, the costliness of
investing in a new energy economy seems to be an absurd argument. This
argument was made even more absurd this week when an American
Economics Association report authored by two respected Ivy League
economistsóone of whom is a Nobel laureateóestimated that the final
cost of the Iraq War may be as high as $2 trillion.

In "The Death of Environmentalism," Shellenberger and Nordhaus quote
Abraham Lincoln: "With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it,
nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who molds public sentiment goes
deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions."

And thatís what it comes down to -- sentiment -- not of politicians,
but of the people.

Everywhere All the Time Every Single One of Us

But, of course, nothing is easy, is it? In this age of fear and
loathing, it is no small irony that conservative Christian sects in
America are busy preaching an apocalyptic "End of Days," while at the
same time many of us who pay attention to the so-called liberal media
(Humanistas and Intelligent Religicoes alike) are deeply concerned
about the implications of global warming. When you couple those two
forms of Armageddon with the chaos and confusion wrought on the world
by Islamic fundamentalists and other terrorists, itís not too hard to
feel like The Abyss is everywhere and that the future is going to be a
scary place (there is more than one reason this on-line magazine is
called GetUnderground, after all). But the future is something that we
create. This is the secret to the 21st century -- pure and simple.

No one wants to think very long about all the negative stuff thatís
happening around us. "The End of Days," in fact, is actually a story
with a happy ending for all true believers. The current administration
in Washington has hired PR firms and convened meetings of its most
brilliant minds to figure out how to spin the war in Iraq as
patriotic, visionary, and moral. The function of the war also seems to
create a clear and visible enemy in order to reduce our focus on the
problem of an Unknown Evil lurking in America preparing for another
version of jets crashing into big buildings. We all know anythingís
possible every morning that we leave home, but weíre still more
comfortable fixated on the concrete issues surrounding the "war" in
Iraq. Theyíve done a pretty good job of confusing us, havenít they?

But global warming is not a myth (although itís been called a hoax),
and itís not a way to divert Jane and Joe Citizenís attention away
from the sense that this country is under siege. Unlike sleeper cells,
global warming isnít waiting for a specific moment to attack innocent
people. It will not strike just after 9:00 on a sunny blue Tuesday
morning. Global warming is happening everywhere all the time to every
single one of us. It is so minutely incremental a problem as to be
virtually incomprehensible when you attempt to study the science and
economics. It is the most amorphous and unspecific danger civilization
has ever created.

The poetry of global warming is profound. It is the result of economic
splendor, and as such it is something that can only be solved if each
and every person in the world is able to reduce their dependence on
fossil fuels by 70 to 80 percent. Or, maybe, whatís required is that
the major energy consuming sectors of our economy (transportation,
power production, industry, business, residential) simply shift away
from fossil fuels by 70 to 80 percent over the next two decades. Or,
perhaps, each community needs to establish a goal of 70 to 80 percent
reductions--or each state, or some combination thereof. How do we
approach all of this from a planning perspective?

Cognitive Dissonance Revisited

Our first task, though, if we wish to "get real," is to figure out how
to overcome our cognitive dissonance discussed earlier in this essay.
We are geniuses at saying we believe one thing and then acting in
complete opposition to that belief (this is masterfully discussed by
Thomas Franks in his book Whatís the Matter with Kansas?).

There can be no better example of cognitive dissonance than the
current brouhaha created by the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound
(led by Bobby Kennedy, Jr.) and a coalition of the climate protection
elite (150 activists, including Bill McKibben, Ross Gelbspan, Michael
Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, with Greenpeace doing much of the heavy
lifting) over a proposed wind farm off the coast of Nantucket. The
details of this feud are too thick and bloody to go into (see "The
Wind and the Willful," in Grist, January 12, 2006), but suffice it to
say that natureís grand beauty is facing off against a 420 megawatt
ocean wind farm that has the potential of offsetting 880,000 tons of
carbon dioxide annually (the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the
road). Kennedy says that 100 fishermen will lose their jobs, and Cape
Wind (the developer) says they will be able to create as many as 1,000
new jobs. Watching how this all plays out may tell us a thing or two
about our chances for a climate neutral future.

"The Futureís Not Here Yet, Man!"

In fact, a number of "experts" have already written off our ability to
avert the ensuing disasters that global warming will perpetuate. Other
"experts" say we have anywhere from 10-20 years to get things under
control before we hit the point of no return. Writers like Gelbspan
and McKibben, people who have effectively given their intellectual
lives over to the deep social, economic, political, and scientific
aspects of global warming, are convinced that we have little time and
that if we donít start immediately, thereís no hope. Last fall, in the
aftermath of Katrina, Bill McKibben wrote: "you can make a decent
argument that our hyper-individualism is terminal, and that the chaos
that will start to break out as the worldís climate comes unhinged
will only make it worse. But you could also make the argument that
this issue is one of the doors into a new and more interesting

I do not see any way around this call for a new and more interesting
politics. This politics will without doubt be about massive change.
Either we address global warming or we continue to play with the
cognitive dissonances that dangle in our minds. It is inevitable
either way that we will pay deep costs as a society for this change.
The question in the end is whether we wish this change to be positive,
whether we wish to seize the day. Sustainable development and
environmental justice can make this all possible -- that and the
sentiment of the people. So, whatís it going to be?