Post-2004, author Shellenberger focuses on the environmental movement's next move

Is the environmental movement dead? Or just suffering some temporary setbacks, as in the recent Senate vote to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Where does the movement stand now, and where does it go from here? Michael Shellenberger, co-author of the controversial "Death of Environmentalism," joins OnPoint to discuss the current and future state of the environmental movement.


Darren Samuelsohn: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington is Michael Shellenberger, the co-author of "The Death of Environmentalism" and also Ben Geman, reporter from E&E Daily and Greenwire. Thanks for being here guys.

Ben Geman: Sure.

Michael Shellenberger: Thanks for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let's start with you Mike. You wrote this "Death of Environmentalism" and it's caused quite a bit of a stir. Explain for us first off, what is "The Death of Environmentalism"?

Michael Shellenberger: Well, what we argue in our report is that environmentalism has actually been wildly successful, especially in the late '60s and early '70s. It's passed a series of laws to protect our water, to clean up the air. Los Angeles is a far cleaner city than it was 20, 30 years ago. We've protected huge amounts of wilderness areas, but that environmentalism is now stuck in the past and that the greatest ecological crises that we face, as a human species, are crises that environmentalism is not capable of addressing, namely global warming, global habitat destruction, species extinction, the destruction of the world's oceans. For that we need to really reconceive of what the problem is, redefine what the problem is and come up and start innovating a whole new set of solutions.

Darren Samuelsohn: You wrote a 20, I think it's a 27-page treatise, "Death of Environmentalism", we'll show to everyone here, you're focusing on climate change, global warming, one of the things you talk about is that over the course of 15 years environmental groups really haven't been able to accomplish what they set out for after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on this process. You're being critical of them. I mean, doesn't it take a little bit of time though for something as large as global warming to actually make it something that happens here in Washington, that has an effect on people who, I'm sorry, industries that emit carbon dioxide?

Michael Shellenberger: It does take time and it takes many years to achieve the kind of changes that one needs to achieve. Unfortunately, the environmental movement today is weaker than it's been in 40 years. Anti-environmentalist extremists run all through branches of the U.S. government. Environmental groups are really out of the loop in Washington. In fact, that was the cover story of the National Journal, a prominent publication here. Everybody knows that environmental concerns are not major concerns for the American people and it's a time to really rethink how we define what the problem is and start innovating a set of solutions to address it. That means a new kind of politics, a new kind of orientation to the political world.

Darren Samuelsohn: At the same time that you're making these points though stuff is happening here in Washington. Senators McCain and Lieberman have been trying to get another vote on their climate change bill and McCain, after the last vote, when they pulled together 44 senators, said, this is a long-term process. This is like campaign finance reform for me and we know what happened with campaign finance reform. At least it became a law, it's under challenge now, but this is a long-term process for Senator McCain. Are you questioning McCain and Lieberman and what they're trying to do?

Michael Shellenberger: Well I think both, I think Senators McCain and Lieberman deserve a lot of credit for taking on the issue. Our concern is that the way that they've formulated their solution, the way that they framed the problem is really in an older environmental framework. It really borrows a lot from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The problem with it is that we don't get a political benefit from the legislation when it's defeated or when it's voted down as it was last year in the Senate. Whereas, when the conservative movement puts forward a political proposal, even when they lose legislatively, they win in the culture by shifting and articulating a set of values. So it took partial-birth abortion, the ban on partial-birth abortion, many years to pass, but every time they lost they were able to link abortion in people's minds with a particular pro-life framework. What environmentalists have failed to do is introduce the kind of policy solutions, or what we call strategic initiatives, that would activate a set of values among the American people that would inspire these really major changes to the global economy that we need to make in order to deal with global warming.

Ben Geman: Staying on the Hill and in D.C. for a moment, have you spoken at all with say Howard Dean or John McCain or have you tried to sort of inject these ideas into the Dem or the Republican Party apparatus?

Michael Shellenberger: Well we're certainly having conversations with a number of very prominent progressive leaders about how to create a vision for America that people want to live in. I think that, we argue in here that Martin Luther King was right not to give the "I Have a Nightmare" speech. He gave the "I Have a Dream" speech. The nightmare of Southern racism was quite apparent to everybody who was paying attention. We think that the American culture is an aspirational culture. We're a people that like to achieve great things and what we're not seeing out of the environmental community is a set of political initiatives that excite and inspire people's imaginations. So what we feel like we need to see, not simply from environmentalists, but from all progressives, is a whole vision for the kind of world that we want to live in that's animated by core American values. We feel like there's been a fetishization, an over attention being paid to technical policy fixes and to the nightmare of ecological crisis.

Darren Samuelsohn: I want to ask you a lot of questions about this, but this is how things work in Washington, is probably the most cynical thing I can think of to say. I mean legislation gets introduced and it moves through, bills get enacted and the Clean Air Act 1990 Amendments is something people are holding up and looking at as they're talking about amending the Clean Air Act today. But that's how things work in Washington, I'm curious, you know if you want a mandatory cap-and-trade, or I'm sorry, mandatory controls on U.S. industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, then how else do you propose to do something like that?

Michael Shellenberger: Well, I think it's interesting, I think it was the way things got done in Washington in 1990. I think that we had a very different president, President Bush Sr., who was actually quite, much more sympathetic on environmental issues than his son is. Also the Republican Party is different. Senator Chafee, who is a liberal Republican from Rhode Island, is no longer running the environment policy for the Republicans. They have instead a set of Republicans who deny that global warming even exists. So, what we need is a kind of politics that creates a political movement that goes far beyond the movement that has been traditionally defined as environmental. If you look at global warming, how do you define what the problem is? Well, it's really a problem around where we get our energy, how we consume and how we've built our lived environment, our buildings, our houses and all of that. There's a whole set of different ways that you might be able to achieve the things that we need to achieve on global warming, for example, through investments in the new industries of the future. The industries that are currently being dominated by the Japanese and the Europeans around solar and wind and hydrogen fuel cells. These are the industries that America invested in early, technologies that we invested in early and now we're getting left behind by our foreign competitors. I think there might be a different way to approach global warming that taps into that sentiment than in all the gloom and doom.

Ben Geman: But, let me play devil's advocate for a moment here, what's really new here? I speak with a lot of environmental organizations, a lot of leaders in environmental organizations, the need to articulate their movement in terms of much broader American values and the need to reach out to other constituencies, I hear that a lot. I didn't hear that for the first time in your essay. I mean, aren't you sort of telling the environmental community to do something it's darn well aware of already?

Michael Shellenberger: It's aware of it only as marketing purposes. In other words, we have a line in a report where we say that environmentalists are constantly asking what non-environmentalists can do for them, not what environmentalists can do for non-environmental constituents. We need to not simply use third-party allies, whether it be religious leaders or minority leaders or celebrities. We need to really figure out what their major concerns are. What is driving the concerns of the labor movement, of industry, of the religious community? Then we need to be working on political proposals that address their concerns, that don't simply put a religious face on an environmental problem. It means really rethinking, reconceptualizing what the problem is, not just putting a difference spin on it.

Darren Samuelsohn: On the same point that he's trying to make, you're fundamentally questioning how environmental groups operate and you interviewed 25 environmentalists for this, a lot of the leaders in the movement in Washington, I think, around the country. One of the things Carl Pope from the Sierra Club responded, pretty quickly and he said, "They utterly ignore such leaders as Wendell Berry, Paul Shepherd, Thomas Berry, Terry Tempest Williams and Onda Leopold. They interviewed 25 policy people and then complain that they only got policy expertise from those interviewed. Environmentalists has both poets and walks, you don't go to you legislative council for a sonnet, nor to your troubadour for a reply brief." You only talked to policy people and you sort of passed judgment.

Michael Shellenberger: That's not, actually what we did is we talked to the people who decide how the hundreds of millions of dollars are going to be spent every year to advance the global warming agenda. We talked to the people that decide what the policy proposals are going to be, that get introduced in the Congress. We talked to the people that decide what the grassroots organizing is going to be on the ground. Terry Tempest Williams may be a fine poet, but she's not driving global warming strategy at a national level. Our point is not that the environmental movement lacks poets and dreamers, rather our point is the environmental movement lacks a strategy to achieve any sort of progress on what by all estimates is really the most serious ecological crisis to face the human species.

Ben Geman: You know I would imagine that that critique applies to some of the things, some very long-term issues, but also narrower short-term ones. What is the recent vote on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, say about the strengths or lack thereof of the environmental movement?

Michael Shellenberger: Well, I've worked on the, I've worked in the past, because I've worked for many of the environmental organizations, institutions, and I'm very sad about that defeat. I think that it's an indication, not simply of the loss that the environmental community suffered last fall when it lost a number of important environmental seats in the Congress and lost the presidency to George W. Bush, it's really an indication that the environmental community has become increasingly detached from the core values and the changing values held by the American people. That's why we're out of power. It's not a, it's not a Republican card trick. It's not a sleight-of-hand by the Republicans that they've achieve their majority. It's an organic reflection of what's been happening in the society and I think environmentalists have been increasingly divorced from some of those changes.

Ben Geman: So in order to sort of remedy that, I mean looking at some of the other battles coming up within this Congress, both the rest of the ANWR battle, but also the energy bill, what would you offer by way of advice in the short term to the environmental community as it gears up to again try and stop an energy bill that it sees as a disaster?

Michael Shellenberger: Well I think part of the problem is that the environmental community has been overly oriented towards the short term. There when we wrote this paper we went out and we talked to people and we said, "So what's, can we see the long-term gain plan? Could you send us a copy of it? What else has been written on this?" Nothing existed. There's really more debate within the American Librarian Association over the archival storage of newspapers than there is debate within the environmental community over the future of the human race. So really what we think needs to happen is that we feel that environmentalists and other progressives need to take a step back and assess the changes that have happened in American society over the last 40 years. We need to get clear about what we stand for, what kind of a country we want, and then we need to be, we need to adhere to our core values and be uncompromising about our core values, while being radically flexible and innovative around our strategies and proposals. Unfortunately, I think we've done just the opposite for the last 20 years.

Ben Geman: That strikes me as you suggest, as a very long-term project and if you listen to leading environmental organizations, they see proposal after proposal after proposal coming from the Bush administration that they see as very damaging in the near term. I mean how can this sort of long-term, soul-searching overhaul occur when they see themselves fighting defensive battles, one right after the other in the short term?

Michael Shellenberger: Right. Well, so first of all they need to acknowledge that it's a sign that the environmental community has really stopped innovating. That there's a whole set of Republican proposals out there and yet if you were to ask the average American what the big vision environmentalists have for the United States and for the world, I don't think they'd be able to tell you. I think that's another symptom of the problem. So I think that there is a short-term game plan to really get out there and articulate what the vision is. So far, since we've written "The Death of Environmentalism", we have yet to see environmental leaders stand up and give a major speech around the kind of America that they want and the way that they're going to achieve that. I think it's been a deafening silence really since November.

Darren Samuelsohn: I'm going to stick to the short term here because, it kind of keeps me interested as I'm covering these things on a day-to-day basis. I can't see environmental groups stepping out of the current debate that happening right now and enacting what you're talking about. I mean it seems like that has to be enacted in a vacuum in a sense. Environmental groups are fighting day to day battling things like the Arctic refuge, Clear Skies is moving in the Senate, or trying to move in the Senate. Do you expect environmental groups to kind of implement what you're talking about separately from what they're doing on a day-to-day basis right now?

Michael Shellenberger: Well I think we have to do both. I mean I think that they're obviously, you have to do your best to resist the really terrible anti-environmental proposals that, some of which are succeeding as we saw with the refuge vote and at the same time we need to have a long-term game plan and start to introduce what we're calling strategic initiatives that really elevates some core American values in a political way. What we're not seeing is, I mean we're, environmentalists are in the minority in Washington. They're out of power. This is precisely the moment that they could be introducing legislation without concern that it was going to pass anytime soon. This is the time to excite the American people around a new vision for their country and for the world. So I think that the two things can happen and must happen simultaneously.

Darren Samuelsohn: Are you copying out of the Republicans playbook in a sense in terms of their ability to get their message across? And the first thing that pops to my mind is sort of the litigation aspect and the things that the president and Republicans in Congress have been pushing for. It's been asbestos liability. It was medical liability. Environmental liability is sort of being thrown out there. Are you stealing something from the Republicans playbook here?

Michael Shellenberger: Well, I'd really like to think that we're stealing something from the conservative movement's playbook, and I think it really happened when they suffered a tremendous loss in 1964 when Barry Goldwater was defeated in a landslide by Johnson. I think what you saw is conservatives kind of taking a step back and getting clear about who they were and the kind of country they wanted. Then you see people like James Watt, who was President Reagan's Interior secretary, really beginning to marry a certain kind of free-market economic fundamentalism with a particular form of religious fundamentalism. At the time of course, Watt was widely ridiculed here in Washington as a kook and as a marginal person. Really I think what we see now is that he was a revolutionary and he was doing something quite important for the conservative movement, making investments in terms of infrastructure and ideas, but are finally being realized under George W. Bush.

Darren Samuelsohn: Politically, is this possible in the red state/blue state world that we live in where, particularly I guess in coal states. I mean, would a message like what you're trying to push help a Democrat or an environmentalist get elected in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio?

Michael Shellenberger: I think in the battleground states, especially now, we did a poll in Pennsylvania before the elections, a state that everyone has to care a lot about because it's a battleground state. We asked people an open-ended question, "What is the most important issue facing your community?" Just 2 percent named the environment. So while 70 percent of Americans say they support the environmental agenda, the dirty little secret is that they don't support it very strongly. But when you cast in economic terms and you ask people if they would support major shared investment in the strategic clean energy industries of the future to create millions of jobs, in the same way that we created the highways, the electronics industry, the Silicon Valley. They get very excited about it and then they end up coming to the environmental benefits after they get excited about this transition to a new economy.

Ben Geman: Again, not to be beat a dead horse here, but I see reports by groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists and many others, John Kerry talked a lot about the fact that when you invest in clean energy, that is not just a job, that's not just job neutral, that's job positive, it's a job creator. How do you respond to the criticism that, you know, frankly a lot of your message has been out there?

Michael Shellenberger: It actually hasn't. Our idea was to create a new Apollo project that invests $30 billion a year, a major investment program. That was not what Kerry was talking about. Kerry failed to articulate a story for America that would excite people, a vision for the country that people would want to be a part of. He talked about America's problems in a laundry list way and threw out technical policy solutions. So if you start to identify, oh, some support for clean energy here, some support for reproductive rights there. People don't really understand what the story is and they don't understand what you stand for. When you start to identify a big vision with a major investment that's Kennedy-esque in its ambition, then you get people excited. You put your opponents on the defensive and you attract people to you, including working-class Reagan Democrats in the battleground states.

Ben Geman: Do you see anybody out there right now who's either on the sort of presidential horizon or a Senate candidate or a sitting member of Congress, who's really sort of pulling all these strands together in the way that you feel is necessary, in a way that could excite people?

Michael Shellenberger: Honestly I don't. I think we're, we started to see John Edwards talk a lot about values during his primary run against John Kerry. I think we're seeing him now talking about economic issues in a way that is very interesting. So I have some hopes that there are some voices out there, but I think though the Democrats really taking their cues from, really a coterie of liberal special interests over the last 30 or 40 years, are intellectually in a tough spot. I think that Republicans have had this robust conservative infrastructure creating really innovative and intriguing ideas for them to represent. So there's a disadvantage at the ideas level.

Ben Geman: On a couple of last things, how are we doing for time?

Darren Samuelsohn: We're fine, I guess, we're just kind of curious, Carl Pope, one of the other things he said was you were trying to compete for funds, I guess, with the big mainstream environmental groups. Any thoughts on, is that what you're trying to do here?

Michael Shellenberger: I think what bothered us a little bit about the response from the environmental community is this was a moment where any number of environmental leaders could have stood up there and said, "Absolutely, we really need to rethink some of our basic assumptions and we don't necessarily agree with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhouse about everything, but we're glad they raised the discussion and here's my vision for how the movement should go forward." We haven't seen any of that. Instead it's been a lot of personal attacks, a lot of accusations. We don't claim to have all the answers, but we think that we're asking some of the questions that need to get asked. We're still waiting to see how the movement is going to evolve into something that is much more expansive and much more inspiring.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK, we're going to have to leave it at that. Mr. Shellenberger thank you for being here. Ben Geman thanks as well.

Michael Shellenberger: Thanks for having me.

Darren Samuelsohn: I'm Darren Samuelsohn, this is OnPoint. We'll see you again tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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