Death of a Movement

Worth A Look, Environment, Frontier Centre

Environmentalists were once inspired agents of change. They invented and popularized novel technologies such as the renewable energy and recycling systems that have so captured the public’s imagination. They developed theories about the merits of small-scale, decentralized systems — E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful of 1973 was only one of hundreds of titles that advanced our understanding of the nature of economies.

Environmentalists once scored startling successes. They stopped the spread of civilian nuclear power reactors — a technology that once seemed inevitable and once had overwhelming public support, as well as lavish backing by government and industry. They fostered a doing-more-with-less conservation ethic that countered the planned obsolescence of the 1950s and 1960s. Their arguments about the potential of conservation have been brilliantly borne out – we now need only half as much energy to create a dollar of GDP as in the 1970s.

These big-thinking environmentalists with their magnificent movements then gave way to small-minded tacticians who were focused on policy nuances and all-too-willing to abandon their principles to cut pragmatic deals with their adversaries. In the process, environmentalists became big-time losers.

This fall from grace is now the subject of great debate among professional environmentalists throughout the continent, and great angst, too. At a gathering earlier this month in San Francisco of 200 activists, organizers and funders of environmental causes, every hand in the room shot up when a past president of the Sierra Club asked: “Who here thinks the environmental movement needs to change dramatically over the next years?”

The soul-searching began with “The Death of Environmentalism,” a 12,000-word critique delivered in Hawaii last October at the annual conference of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, an organization whose 250 members provide some $500-million a year in funding to North America’s environmental groups. With Bush’s re-election in November, despite an all-out effort by environmental groups to defeat him, the environmentalists’ soul-searching deepened.

“Those of us who were children during the birth of the modern environmental movement have no idea what it feels like to really win big,” wrote environmental consultants Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the 30-something authors of the critique. “We believe that the environmental movement’s foundational concepts, its methods for framing legislative proposals and its very institutions are exhausted. Today environmentalism is just another special interest … 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.”

The authors relied on interviews with environmentalists and findings from the Toronto polling firm, Environics, to demonstrate the modern environmental movement’s abject failure. When Americans were asked if they agreed with the statement, “To preserve people’s jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future,” the number of Americans who agreed rose from 17% in 1996 to 26% in 2000. When asked if they agreed that “Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people,” the number rose from 32% to 41%.

With numbers like these, and the environmentalists’ utter failure to make progress on global warming, the issue they consider the most important of all — the U.S. Congress voted 99 to 5 against the Kyoto treaty — it became impossible for environmentalists and their funders to continue to remain complacent. Environmentalists now accomplish little.

The authors correctly identify one great cause of environmentalists’ failure — “as a community, environmentalists suffer from a bad case of groupthink.” Speaking from my own experiences, where once environmentalists challenged orthodoxy and accepted free markets, privatization, property rights and other approaches that would accomplish their goals, today’s environmentalists are no longer free-thinking — they have become ideologues who care more about socialism and political correctness than getting to the nub of problems, and who dismiss contrary opinions out of hand. As Shellenberger told Grist, an activist magazine, “There is no place for public debate in the environmental movement. Even librarians have much fiercer public debates and dialogues than the environmental community.”

But the authors are otherwise off the mark. The great strength of the environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s was its advocacy of small-scale, decentralized solutions to environmental problems, an advocacy that questioned big government and big unions, as well as big corporations. The solution that the authors propose — a more unified, inclusive effort that links traditional environmentalists with labour unions and other “progressive” communities — would only centralize power and make everything that much worse.