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The Death of Environmentalism: An introduction to the symposium

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Abstract

The American environmental movement has been struggling for more than a year to digest the strong critique offered by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their widely disseminated treatise "The Death of Environmentalism." Their essay accuses organized environmentalism of framing key issues in overly narrow terms, of failing to connect with everyday public concerns, and of inadequately responding to the challenges of conservative political interests. This article briefly summarizes the essay's key arguments, retraces some relevant history pertaining to the past decade of environmental policy making, and highlights some of the areas in which this work touches on topical issues within the environmental social sciences. The article ends with a brief overview of the other contributions that make up this symposium.
10.1177/1086026605285586ORGANIZATION & ENVIRONMENT / March 2006Cohen / THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
Symposium on “The Death of Environmentalism”
“THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM”
Introduction to the Symposium
MAURIE J. COHEN
New Jersey Institute of Technology
The American environmental movement has been struggling for more than a year to digest
the strong critique offered by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their widely dis
-
seminated treatise “The Death of Environmentalism. Their essay accuses organized envi
-
ronmentalism of framing key issues in overly narrow terms, of failing to connect with every
-
day public concerns, and of inadequately responding to the challenges of conservative
political interests. This article briefly summarizes the essay’s key arguments, retraces some
relevant history pertaining to the past decade of environmental policy making, and high
-
lights some of the areas in which this work touches on topical issues within the environmen
-
tal social sciences. The article ends with a brief overview of the other contributions that
make up this symposium.
Keywords: American environmentalism; environmental movement; transition manage-
ment; democratic expertise; public ecology; death of environmentalism
N
ewspaper obituaries occasionally report on a death that occurred several
months, or even years, earlier. These belated announcements may raise
fleeting suspicions about the timeliness of coverage, but there is ordinarily a plausi
-
ble explanation for the lapse. The news may have taken time to filter back from a
distant locale or a communication mishap among surviving family members may
have impeded the prompt conveyance of public information. Whatever the specific
reason, the point is that we are normally not surprised when formal declarations of
death lag a distance behind the actual event.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s (hereafter S&N; 2004) widely dis
-
seminated essay “The Death of Environmentalism” could easily be interpreted as
an instance of this phenomenon. Composed as a time bomb and released at the
2004 annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the authors’
essential thesis is that environmentalism, as institutionally created, is little more
than a special interest and its flagship organizations misguidedly pursue an overly
narrow policy agenda. At the same time, conservative politicians, commentators,
and think tanks have successfully managed to paint the environmental movement
Organization & Environment, Vol. 19 No. 1, March 2006 74-81
DOI: 10.1177/1086026605285586
© 2006 Sage Publications
74
Author’s Note: The author wishes to acknowledge David Pellow’s participation on the original panel that gave rise to this symposium.
Special thanks to Phil Brown for his guidance organizing the earlier event in Philadelphia, to Robert Brulle for handling the logistical
arrangements, and to the governing council of the Environment and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association for
institutional support.
as perilously out of touch with common concerns and as a danger to the well-being
of ordinary people. To back up their claims, S&N cite some provocative social sur
-
vey data to underscore the extent to which environmental values have lost ground
in the United States.
To reverse these trends, the essay argues that major environmental organiza
-
tions must become the vanguard of a new progressive wave of political action by
forging novel partnerships with perennial adversaries and dissolving certain sacro
-
sanct commitments. Central to their strategy is the New Apollo Project, a 2-year-
old initiative to launch a broad coalition to champion a national renewable energy
development program.
Response to the S&N essay, perhaps not surprising, has been polarized. Some
readers have celebrated the authors as prescient lion slayers whereas detractors
have pilloried them as impertinent dupes. The first question, invariably, is why the
clamor? Although the treatise has circulated extensively via the Internet over the
past year and received attention in the popular press, the faltering condition of
the American environmental movement can hardly be construed as newsworthy.
1
Most attentive observers have recognized that organized environmentalism was
ailing for some time. Numerous proponents have whispered among themselves for
a decade or more that demise was imminent. There were even frequent unsubstan-
tiated rumors that death had already come. If so, why the emotive outpouring of
grief—and denial—once the long-anticipated decree was nailed to the door?
Good forensic practice requires pathologists to first familiarize themselves with
the deceased. Sociologist Robert Brulle (2000) has conducted one of the most
exhaustive studies of the contemporary environmental movement and we can use-
fully draw on his characterization for guidance. After reviewing legally mandated
financial disclosure records, Brulle contends that institutional environmentalism in
the United States encompassed during the 1990s upward of 10,000 separate
groups. However, the vast majority of these entities exist in little more than name
and they command few resources. He identifies 87 organizations as making up the
active core of the contemporary environmental movement.
In terms of any reasonable measure of size and scope, The Nature Conservancy
(TNC), a behemoth land trust with vast holdings, towers over the rest of its peers.
Because of its distorting effect, it is first necessary to exclude TNC from any subse
-
quent analysis. Even absent TNC, the American environmental movement is over
-
whelmingly preoccupied with two interrelated sets of issues: wildlife protection
and landscape preservation. More than 90% of all so-called environmental organi
-
zations in the country are principally oriented around this pair of concerns (Cohen,
2006a). And herein lies the basis for the delayed pronouncement made by S&N.
The authors are, with good reason, primarily concerned with the ill effects of
industrial pollution and speak earnestly about the signal importance of the Clean
Air Act and other related pieces of landmark legislation. The regrettable truth,
however, is that human health has always been an understated concern of the coun
-
try’s environmental movement. Regardless of how one assesses institutional
activity—organization numbers, personnel, membership, income—it is difficult to
dispute the claim that the well-being of people has consistently been an under
-
emphasized facet of American environmental activism. A brief thought experi
-
ment helps to demonstrate the point. Try to envision major groups expending the
same energy and resources to reduce childhood asthma as they have spent on cam
-
paigns over the years to prevent oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Cohen / THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM 75
Given this particular set of priorities, it should not be surprising that environ
-
mentalism has fallen out of favor with the public. It is actually possible to trace the
movement’s slide into death back to the early 1990s. The leading environmental
organizations define their own effectiveness, at least in part, in terms of ability to
pass federal legislation. Using this metric, the last major victory came with passage
of the 1990 round of Clean Air Act amendments. This bill had been percolating for
more than a decade and it was no small accomplishment to finally get it signed into
law. Immediately afterward, however, the signs of pending death started to become
apparent to anyone who cared to look around Washington. The evidence was espe
-
cially palpable during the lead up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which brought cli
-
mate change and sustainable development to the fore. The American environmen
-
tal movement, because of its historic disinclination to talk about distributional
questions, proved completely unprepared for globalization and, to this day, has yet
to seriously grapple with its implications. Nonetheless, the signs of ill health went
into remission, at least for a time, after the election of President Clinton and the
resultant appointment of many of the leaders of the nation’s largest environmental
organizations to formal positions of power.
In one of their first forays into environmental politics, the Clintonites got burned
on a proposal to implement what was, in effect, a national carbon tax and so re-
treated rapidly from this arena. Vice President Al Gore, the environmental move-
ment’s chief political patron, was subsequently frozen out of the highest White
House councils and initiatives under his direction, such as the Partnership for a
New Generation of Vehicles, lost momentum. In the final days of Clinton’s first
term, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt reportedly marched into the Oval Office to
deliver a scorecard that creatively indexed the administration’s unremarkable envi-
ronmental record against that of Theodore Roosevelt (Jehl, 2001). This shrewd tac-
tic grabbed the president’s attention and motivated him to spearhead a large assort-
ment of preservation measures championed by the land-and-wildlife-protection
mainstream of the environmental movement. Although this infusion gave the im-
pression that environmentalist ideals had political traction, other key elements of
the agenda—most notably controlling industrial emissions—remained moribund.
During this time frame, the most prominent air quality strategy centered on a series
of lawsuits against large coal-burning electric utilities. Then, in another 11th-hour
reversal, this time at the end of his second term, Clinton was again propelled into
action by a fateful desire to leave a noble environmental legacy. During his last 2
weeks in office, he embarked on a frenzied push to codify by executive order a large
jumble of initiatives that had languished for nearly a decade.
The most conspicuous failure of this period—and the most glaring symptom of
the environmental movement’s atrophying political influence—was its inability to
make any progress on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Although the United
States was not alone in this regard, the voluntary provisions of the Framework Con
-
vention on Climate Change signed in Rio in 1992 proved to be utterly ineffective
and initial endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 was an unprecedented Pyr
-
rhic victory. The Senate repudiated the treaty and the White House evinced no
inclination to expend its dwindling supply of political capital to make the case for
ratification. For all of the high drama in which leading environmental organiza
-
tions had been enmeshed for more than a decade—from the momentous battle to
secure passage of new clean air legislation to campaigns to counter the Global Cli
-
mate Coalition—it is ironic that the nadir of their descent was brought on by indi
-
76 ORGANIZATION & ENVIRONMENT / March 2006
vidual acts of quiet contemplation. Unable to close ranks in support of Al Gore dur
-
ing the 2000 presidential campaign, a few thousand anonymous Floridians walked
into their respective polling stations, defiantly cast their ballots for Ralph Nader,
and ultimately dashed the vice president’s prospects for victory. When the history
of post-1970s environmentalism is written, it will likely be this event that will mark
the end of the era.
It ultimately took 4 years to prepare an obituary for the American environmental
movement and, through a peculiar turn of events, S&N have emerged as its unlikely
authors. I personally commend them for acknowledging the limits of the insipid
reform strategies that have been at the center of organized environmentalism in the
United States for the past few decades. Although a long and distinguished prehis
-
tory set the trajectory on which the environmental movement alighted during the
early 1970s, that particular way has come to an end. There is now quite a bit of for
-
aging going on to find a new path forward and it may take time to decide on how
best to proceed. My own ruminations are drawn from an emergent nexus develop
-
ing at the interface of science and technology studies, innovation management, and
environmental policy.
Surely, the most pressing requirement is to cast off strategies predicated exclu
-
sively on legalistic and technicized tactics that have, at best, the potential to achieve
unexceptional improvement at the margin. S&N are quite correct in insisting that
environmentalists must begin, as an unavoidable first step, to construct new, uplift-
ing visions of alternative futures. It is concomitantly essential to recognize that the
challenges of the next century are immense: a doubling of global population, a
massive increase in greenhouse gas production, an energy crisis of epochal propor-
tions, and a seemingly relentless march of all-encompassing consumerism. Such
problems cannot be adequately addressed by an uncoordinated array of small-bore
efforts to, say, reduce toxic releases by 20% or to double the recycled content in
toilet paper.
A newly invigorated environmental movement must chart a path that begins to
fundamentally change how contemporary societies use scarce materials while
simultaneously recognizing that we are in the midst of a process of global transfor
-
mation that likely cannot (or arguably should not) be reversed. To foster meaning
-
ful engagement, it is necessary to realign our conceptual categories so that they
more closely depict the complex sociotechnical systems that characterize prevalent
configurations of production and consumption. The existing notion that environ
-
mental problems are scientific conundrums that can ultimately be resolved through
the application of technicized expert knowledge ignores the incontrovertible real
-
ity that these issues are situated at the intersection of inseparable social and
technoscientific systems. Moreover, efforts to innovate toward more sustainable
systems of provision—what some scholars have begun to refer to as transition
management—will require a high degree of coordination among markets, gov
-
ernments, and civil society organizations and be cast as an ambitious task that will
extend over a time frame of a generation or more (Elzen, Geels, & Green, 2004;
Martens & Rotmans, 2002; Raskin et al., 2002).
Such an approach echoes some of the same themes that Luke (2005) outlines in
developing the notion of “public ecology.
2
This recommendation counters S&N’s
emphasis on “public-private partnerships” and Luke is skeptical of their claim that
political reinvigoration rests on emulating the tactics of conservative adversaries.
He is justifiably critical of unbridled markets and unchecked statist intervention
and advocates an arrangement in which civil society organizations articulate a pub
-
Cohen / THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM 77
lic understanding of ecology to cultivate novel forms of resistance knowledge that
can “harness together a new mixed ecological regime. Although scholarship on
transition management has not to date focused a great deal of attention on gover
-
nance per se (however, see Kemp, Parto, & Gibson, 2005), the pluralist system that
Luke advocates would seem to be a prerequisite for policy programs predicated on
such principles.
Whether any of these largely European-based discussions hold any relevance
for the United States is, of course, a very tricky question. The obstacles are
multifold. Industrial corporations operate in accordance with a heavily truncated,
and ultimately destructive, understanding of public responsibility. Many of the
country’s governance institutions lack democratic legitimacy and, as we have seen,
progressive civil society is fragmented and weak. Under these inauspicious cir
-
cumstances, it is difficult to muster much optimism. It may ultimately be that
movement toward transition management and public ecology is incompatible with
current capabilities and the most effective strides will be made elsewhere (Rifkin,
2004).
Taken in the round, part of the problem resides in concerted attempts over the
past few decades to stifle discussion about “the future” and, as a consequence,
Americans lack the cognitive skills and institutional capacity for thinking in such
terms (Brand, 1999). The reasons for this situation are easy to identify. Collective
consideration of where we are going and how we might get there conflicts with the
tenets underpinning neoliberalism: free-market enterprise, short-term gain, and
speculative opportunism. Careful consideration of the future requires respect for
public planning and critics, with remarkable success, have derided such pursuits as
pointless and worse. Within academic circles in recent years, serious study of the
future has had about the same standing as numerology.
Under this onslaught, we have lost much of our resolve for engaging with the
future. We tend to turn away from the temporal horizon rather than try to judi-
ciously peer over it. The last rigorous national initiative to take a measured and far-
sighted look was the Global 2000 Report undertaken during the Carter administra
-
tion, but this exercise was cast to the wind even before the ink was dry.
3
A walk through the Internet reveals that S&N have been subjected to plenty of
scorn for their purported audacity and impudence. Such an outcome was inevita
-
ble. By embarking on a mission to stridently challenge the perquisites of
entrenched environmentalism, they, perhaps purposefully, put themselves on a col
-
lision course with their colleagues. Nonetheless, it is probably true that institu
-
tional reinvention will not force all the organizations that carry on the workaday
tasks of ensuring some semblance of environmental integrity to close up shop.
Prominent groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense
Council will persevere, perhaps at substantially scaled-down size, providing im
-
portant public services. The process of normalization that has been ongoing for
some time will continue. These groups, for better or worse, will become more like
the National Parks and Conservation Association and gear themselves to work on
standard issue problems rather than represent the leading edge of a movement for
social and political change.
At this point, it may be useful to step back momentarily for some historical per
-
spective. The Boone and Crocket Club that inspired conservationism more than a
century ago probably strikes most contemporary readers as a quaint relic. Regard
-
less, the 19th-century aristocrats who made up its membership were emblematic of
a certain brand of reform politics and their activities were socially relevant in much
78 ORGANIZATION & ENVIRONMENT / March 2006
the same way that the National Wildlife Federation is representative of the more
recent era. To chart a new generation of environmentalism founded on robust inno
-
vation and political modernization, it will likely be necessary to create an entirely
different array of institutional resources.
The above interpretation is hardly the only way to tackle claims alleging the
death of environmentalism and I do not mean to implicate others in the approach I
have taken here. It is in this spirit of open dialogue that contributors to the current
symposium have assembled themselves. In an effort to elucidate some of the impli
-
cations of the S&N essay, a panel discussion was organized last summer in con
-
junction with the annual conference of the American Sociological Association. An
invited group of social scientists gathered in Philadelphia to consider the status of
the environmental movement in the United States in light of recent contentions
alleging its death. The panelists subsequently revised their original presentations to
take into consideration the views aired during the highly animated discussion that
followed. The remaining portion of the symposium makes up three other papers.
The second contribution in this collection, by Robert Brulle and Craig Jenkins,
begins with a review of the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff that heavily
informs “The Death of Environmentalism. This research contends that political
advantage is achieved by using a salient masterframe to structure constituent issues
into a coherent discourse. The success of conservative political interests, according
to Lakoff, is due to their effective deployment of this rhetorical strategy whereas
liberal politicians and organizations have relied on an incoherent grab-bag ap-
proach. Brulle and Jenkins interpret the New Apollo Project as an initiative that
seeks to restructure the rhetorical politics of environmentalism without substan-
tively altering the political economy of contemporary life. The authors also argue
that S&N fail to appreciate the diversity that characterizes the contemporary envi-
ronmental movement and underestimate the costs of adopting policies to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. The final point of their critique charges that “The Death
of Environmentalism” perversely advocates the same kind of arrogant elitism that
its instigators seek to overturn.
The symposium’s third piece by Riley Dunlap interrogates the public opinion
data on which “The Death of Environmentalism” is premised. Drawing on the re
-
sults of the Gallop Organization’s annual Earth Day survey, he contends that there
is reason to be skeptical of S&N’s allegations of a pattern of eroding civic support
for environmental protection. Dunlap demonstrates that it is problematic to view
environmental sensibilities in isolation of other political currents. Public opinion
polling has found that environmental commitments in the United States are consis
-
tently overwhelmed by other considerations and that expressions of support are
highly contingent on the specific format of survey questions. He argues moreover
that for a range of contemporary policy issues, it is necessary to interpret the results
of opinion polling within the context of large shifts in the post-9/11 political land
-
scape and the way in which the White House and Congress have pursued the “war
on terrorism. Dunlap proceeds to describe the complex web of organizational
linkages that makes up the intellectual foundation for S&N’s research on social
values and raises questions about the veracity of these methods. He concludes by
speculating that the weakening the Bush administration has experienced in recent
months due to scandal, flooding, and strategic errors in Iraq could precipitate
renewal of public environmental attentiveness.
The final offering by Lynnette Zelezny and Megan Bailey focuses on the failure
of “The Death of Environmentalism” to consider the gendered dimensions of en
-
Cohen / THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM 79
vironmentalism. By devoting attention exclusively to the large national organi
-
zations that embody the mainstream of the movement and advocating for public-
private partnerships as the basis of a reinvigorated environmental politics, they
maintain that S&N ignore an accomplished and distinguished tradition of female-
led activism. Zelezny and Bailey furthermore draw on an extensive body of empiri
-
cal research in environmental psychology to assert that women have an enhanced
sense of ecological responsibility and that political renewal should actively and
aggressively seek to harness the unique features of this ethic of care before turning
to untested alternatives.
The authors who have lent their voices to this symposium offer different views
and engage with tenets of the original essay in a variety of ways. This diversity of
perspectives is largely a result of the tremendous ambitiousness and importance of
the task that S&N have launched. Although all the contributors are in their own
ways critical of “The Death of Environmentalism, there is a palpable recognition
that sweeping change in how the environmental movement pursues its goals is both
necessary and inevitable. The specific paths to be pursued will likely emerge out of
a lengthy and spirited debate.
NOTES
1. Grist, an electronic environmental newsmagazine, has been the primary venue for
commentary about “The Death of Environmentalism” (http://www.grist.org). The Octo-
ber 2005 issue of American Prospect is also devoted in large part to discussion about the
Shellenberger and Nordhaus essay (http://www.prospect.org).
2. This notion of public ecology shares some similarities with what has been, in related
contexts, referred to as “democratic expertise” (Cohen, 2006b; Hoppe, 2005; Woodhouse &
Nieusma, 2001).
3. The Millennium Institute issued a revised version of the Global 2000 Report in 1993
that is available at http://www.millenniuminstitute.net/publications/G2R.html.
REFERENCES
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Books.
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critical theory perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Cohen, M. (2006a). Ecological modernization and its discontents: The American environ
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mental movement’s resistance to an innovation-driven future. Futures, 38(5).
Cohen, M. (2006b). Sustainable consumption research as democratic expertise. Journal of
Consumer Policy, 29(1).
Elzen, B., Geels, F., & Green, K. (2004). System innovation and the transition to
sustainability: Theory, evidence, and policy. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar.
Hoppe, R. (2005). Rethinking the science-policy nexus: From knowledge utilization and
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Jehl, D. (2001, January 18). How an interior secretary helped to encourage a presidential
“legacy.The New York Times, p. A31.
Kemp, R., Parto, S., & Gibson, R. (2005). Governance for sustainable development: Moving
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Luke, T. (2005). The death of environmentalism or the advent of public ecology? Organiza
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tion & Environment, 18, 489-494.
Martens, P., & Rotmans, J. (2002). Transitions in a globalizing world. Exton, PA: Swets and
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Raskin, P., Banuri, T., Gallopín, G., Gutman, P., Hammond, A., Kates, R., & Swart, R.
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Maurie J. Cohen is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science
and the Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology
(NJIT) in Newark, New Jersey. He also holds affiliations with the Division of Global Affairs at Rutgers
University and the Urban Systems Program jointly administered by NJIT, Rutgers, and the University of
Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. His most recent book (with Joseph Murphy) is Sustainable Con
-
sumption: Environmental Policy and the Social Sciences (Elsevier, 2001). His other books include Risk
in the Modern Age: Social Theory, Science, and Environmental Decision-Making (Palgrave, 1998) and
The Exxon Valdez Disaster: Readings on a Modern Social Problem (Kendall-Hunt, 1997). He is cur
-
rently the editor of the e-journal Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy (http://ejournal.nbii.org).
Cohen / THE DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM 81
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