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December 10, 2004

Death of Environmentalism?

Right after the election, SEIU set off a passionate debate over the future of the labor movement (see the latest from CWA and the Teamsters). Now Adam Werbach and others are trying to spark a similar debate in the environmental movement.

The day after Bush was re-elected, Adam Werbach -- the former president of the Sierra Club and a co-founder of the Apollo Alliance -- published the November 3rd Theses, where he argued that we're going to keep getting our asses kicked if we don't rethink the progrtessive movement from top to bottom. This week, in a speech entitled "The Death of Environmentalism," he laid out how environmentalists have contributed to our disfunction. The speech hasn't been published yet, but you can get a pretty good idea of his argument from an Alternet interview:

What you really have is power in the Democratic Party decentralized into these interest group institutions -- Sierra Club, NAACP, NARAL, ACLU -- which organize people in what we might call stove pipes rather than towards a single end, which is to build political power....
What would enviros do if they were trying to build political power?
For example, I've been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about -- much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That's a skirmish along the way that's not strategic. It's way off to the side.
Along the same lines, in late September Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published a manifesto, also called The Death of Environmentalism. They interviewed 25 of the top enviro leaders and thinkers and came to the conclusion that the environmental movement is in serious denial:
Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming.

We have strikingly little to show for it.

From the battles over higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks to the attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation that would reduce the threat of global warming. As a result, people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago.

Yet in lengthy conversations, the vast majority of leaders from the largest environmental organizations and foundations in the country insisted to us that we are on the right track.

Why? In part because:
The institutions that define what environmentalism means boast large professional staffs and receive tens of millions of dollars every year from foundations and individuals. Given these rewards, it’s no surprise that most environmental leaders neither craft nor support proposals that could be tagged “non-environmental.” Doing otherwise would do more than threaten their status; it would undermine their brand.
But by treating the environment so narrowly, they've shot themselves in the head:
Global Environmentalists are particularly upbeat about the direction of public opinion thanks in large part to the polling they conduct that shows wide support for their proposals. Yet America is a vastly more right-wing country than it was three decades ago. The domination of American politics by the far-right is a central obstacle to achieving action on global warming. Yet almost none of the environmentalists we interviewed thought to mention it....

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections.

Where do we go from here? Learn from the Right:
Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time....

The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

Take the issue of fuel efficiency.
There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor.

By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies...

Today, with global competition and the United States health care system putting the burden largely from himon employers, retiree medical costs are one reason Toyota’s $10.2 billion profit in its most recent fiscal year was more than double the combined profit of the Big Three.”

Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”

The health care cost disadvantage for US producers is a threat that won’t be overcome with tax incentives for capital investments into new factories, or consumer rebates for hybrids. The problem isn’t just that tax credits and rebates won’t achieve what we need them to achieve, which is save the American auto industry by helping it build better, more efficient cars. The problem is also that these policies, which the environmental community only agreed to after more than two decades of failure, have been thrown into the old CAFE proposal like so many trimmings for a turkey.

Along the same lines, they cite an example from Hal Harvey about how we can take on global warming by focusing on economic development.
Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it.
But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn't going to be easy.
For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.
Clearly enviros, like labor unions, have their work cut out for them. But if there's any small silver lining in Bush's re-election, it's that finally our folks seem to be ready to take a hard look in the mirror.

Posted by RalphTaylor at December 10, 2004 09:32 AM