There is a paradox at the heart of contemporary American environmentalism. On the one hand, its organizations are generally larger, stronger, better funded, and more knowledgeable than ever before. Membership has grown in recent years; there are now more than eight million dues-paying members of the major national organizations-and many more in local and statewide organizations-compared to about two million in 1980. Moreover, polls consistently show very high levels of public support for environmental protection, levels that would be the envy of many progressive movements.
And yet: environmentalists find themselves playing defense far more than offense, devoting time and resources to fighting proposals such as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rather than forging new responses to crises such as climate change. Indeed, nothing that these large and expert organizations accomplished during the Clinton-Gore years-to say nothing of the present Bush years-compares to such landmark victories as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, which a much more inchoate movement won a generation ago. The same polls that regularly show high levels of public support also reveal this support to be quite shallow. The environment rarely rises to the upper levels of concern. This may help explain why, despite the gulf between George W. Bush’s and John Kerry’s policy proposals, environmental issues generated almost no attention during the presidential campaign.
Toward the end of that campaign season, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus attended the annual national gathering of environmental grant makers-the people who allocate the foundation money that keeps most nongovernmental organizations afloat-and fired a broadside against the movement. In a thirteen-thousand-word white paper with the provocative title “The Death of Environmentalism,” they contend that modern environmentalism rests upon “unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts, and exhausted strategies.” Environmentalists have accrued their share of enemies over the years, but these two are not among them. They have serious résumés in the movement. With expertise in campaign strategy and public opinion polling, both have served as consultants to and directors of environmental organizations. In early December of last year, at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Adam Werbach-one-time environmental wunderkind who at age twenty-three was president of the Sierra Club-echoed Shellenberger and Nordhaus by proclaiming, “I am here to perform an autopsy.” The speech was delivered with the title “The Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of the Commons Movement,” although the print version is titled “Is Environmentalism Dead?” Outrage and accolades have followed. Clearly,...
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