The Death of (Liberal) Environmentalism

by Michael G. Livingston


It is rare for someone in the capitalist media to report on a debate within the environmental movement, so you can imagine my surprise when I opened the Saturday, March 12 New York Times to find an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof on “The Death of Environmentalism.” Kristof’s piece was commenting on the controversial essay of that same name by two young environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. Shellenberger and Nordhaus released their essay in October 2004, and it has been making waves within the environmental movement ever since. If you want to read the essay itself, and some of the criticisms of it by such leading environmentalists as Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, visit Grist Magazine, the on-line environmental magazine, at www.grist.org. Check it out—you will learn a lot about what is wrong with the environmental movement and some suggestions for how to fix it.

It’s difficult to summarize Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s critique of the current environmental movement. In a few words, they provide a political critique of the goals and approach of the mainstream environmental movement toward the problem of global warming. In terms of goals, the policy goals such as the Kyoto Protocol and improved CAFÉ standards are inadequate to solve the global crisis we face. In terms of approach, the movement acts as a special interest that narrowly defines what constitutes an environmental issue while pursuing technical fixes. Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue for a political approach (similar to the approach that has brought such success to the right) that combines a broad social vision, basic values, and political solutions that unite a broad base of people while dividing the opposition.

There is much of value in “The Death of Environmentalism.” It should be widely read and discussed by activists. As an example of their approach, they cite the Apollo Alliance (see www.apolloalliance.org), a project they have both worked on. The Apollo Alliance is made up of environmental groups, civil rights and social justice groups, labor unions, and business groups who call for investment in alternative energy to create jobs, break America’s dependence on oil, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Curiously, Kristof’s op-ed piece in the New York Times has very little to do with the essay itself. Other than his title (“I Have a Nightmare”) taken from a reference in the essay that contrasted King’s “I Have a Dream” speech with typical environmental rhetoric and a few quotes, Kristof mostly ignores or misconstrues the arguments of the controversial essay. Instead, Kristof uses his column to launch an attack on the environmental movement from the right, arguing that environmental groups are too alarmist. After establishing his bona fides as an environmentalist (the essay “resonated” with him because he “was once an environmental groupie, and…still share(s) the movement’s broad aims”), he cites a couple of weak examples from the 1970s to show how the environmental movement is alarmist, and then delivers his coup de grace, the urgent call for “reasonable environmentalists.” Kristof concludes by calling for a “credible, nuanced, highly respected environmental movement.”

Kristof’s position is far from the ideas presented by Shellenberger and Nordhaus. The latter are absolutely opposed to the small-bore, special-interest politics currently practiced in the environmental movement, an approach that Kristof finds too radical. Kristof’s New York Times op-ed piece provides us with a wonderful example of attacking someone while pretending to agree with them. Unfortunately, millions of people will have read Kristof’s piece while only a few thousand have read “The Death of Environmentalism.” Don’t be manipulated by the capitalist press: Read Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s “The Death of Environmentalism” yourself. Then we can start a real grass roots debate on program and strategy within the environmental movement on how to resolve the global environmental crisis we face.

The author can be reached at livingstonmiguel@hotmail.com