Friday, February 09, 2007

What's wrong with environmentalists?

Just over two years ago now, two California activists shook up the environmentalism field a fair amount with an essay entitled "The Death of Environmentalism." (32-page PDF file here; interview with the authors here.) Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued basically that American environmentalists have spent the last 30 years trying to re-fight their successful battles of the 1960s and 1970s, as if nothing had changed socially or politically since then. The new news is that they've expanded the essay into a book which will be published shortly.

Meanwhile at the practical-politics level, a prominent Republican pollster and messaging consultant (the guy who coined the phrase "death tax" for the inheritance tax) recently told the online green magazine Grist that green activists have repeatedly "taken a very important issue and undermined their own case for it." Frank Luntz thinks that the fact that steady strong public support for green issues hasn't lately translated into political victories is largely because environmental non-profits behave as professional scolds, communicating a vibe that "anyone who doesn't believe what they believe is not only wrong but evil." At last year's Environmental Grantmakers Association annual meeting I heard this communications consultant make much the same point in a more-friendly, but still pretty blunt, way.

(This stuff is fairly personal for me since a large fraction of who I am intellectually, professionally and even genetically falls in this issue realm.)

Luntz's remarks ring true, indeed remind me of comments I've heard in recent years from friends and family members -- I recall the generally-sympathetic voter who when I mentioned the "smart-growth" groups that my foundation funds, sighed and said, "Oh yes, the people who think we should all be ashamed that we don't live in little boxes." An analogy comes to mind with feminism, where even by the time I graduated college over two decades ago it was striking how many smart young women were completely supportive of feminist positions and goals while rolling their eyes at the attitudes and political hyperbole of actual feminist activists.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus, from my experience, have a strong point with regard to public-policy environmentalism, the heroes who got the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act established back in the day but in recent years have had so much less success in Washington. Their argument holds up much less well with regard to conservationists, who over the last quarter-century have intellectually reinvented their own field and who are now realizing astounding successes.

[P.S. I only just recently noticed that Shellenberger and Nordhaus expanded their diagnosis to modern liberalism as a whole. On that point they get a big "hear, hear" from me but currently I try to save that particular rant for commenting in other people's blogs, for which I'm sure readers here are just as grateful as is my immediate family...]