Interview with a Reaper

The environmental movement’s been in a tizzy since Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger presented their provocatively titled essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” at last October’s meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers’ Association. The two political strategists charge that modern environmentalism is “just another special interest” group that promotes wonky policies instead of crafting a vision, and the majority of eco-leaders (they interviewed over 30) are in denial about the movement’s decline in both cred and practice.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger use global warming as the string through the essay, and offer their own institute, Apollo Alliance—a project calling for a $300 billion public-private investment over the next decade—as a solution to transition from reliance on oil to an economy built on clean energy. I spoke with Shellenberger several times.

Katie Renz: You and Ted have thrown the environmental movement into a sort of identity crisis. What was your intention?

Michael Shellenberger: What we’re trying to do is undermine the assumption that in order to get something you have to talk about it. The Bush Administration doesn’t feel the need to be so literal. It doesn’t go out there and say, “We want to privatize Social Security because it’s part of our effort to destroy the federal government and create a situation where Republicans dominate American governance for the next fifty years.” They say, “There’s a crisis in Social Security and action must be taken now.” Environmentalists need to overcome their literalness around what the problem is and how to talk about it.

So with “Death Of,” we said, “What if we conceptualize this problem differently, as a problem of underinvestment in the clean energy industries of the future?” We need to create a post-environmental progressive movement that tells people what they can have and what they can be.

But can massive problems like global warming be addressed through visionary reframing and investment without passing legislation?

How the heck are you going to get action on global warming if all three branches of the government are in the hands of anti-environmental extremists? We need a wholesale transformation of the global energy economy. This is not like dealing with smog in Los Angeles. This is a global systemic problem. Even if the United States makes the transition, we need to have a politics that helps transfer the technology or increase technological assistance to places like China and India.

While there can be very powerful economic benefits to a regulatory approach, it just doesn’t really work politically anymore. There’s no constituency out there saying, “We want to see more regulation.” If you lead with investment, and you say, “Look, we need to make these strategic investments in the industries of the future,” then you’re in a position to say, “And we need to make sure the American people get a return on their investment.” That’s where the regulation comes in.

Have you been surprised by the response “Death of” continues to provoke?

We thought that it would cause a kerfluffle within the environmental activist community, but we didn’t know that it would become a projection screen for so many progressive hopes and fears. And we’re surprised how widely read it’s been outside environmental communities.

It seems your critique would be easy fodder for the anti-environmental right to say, “See, even environmentalists admit defeat.”

Well, there are really two responses. On the one hand, The Economist read it as an endorsement of free-market environmentalism, and various bloggers have read it as an endorsement of building a broader left-wing coalition, neither of which we actually said. But mostly the right has attacked it, because we describe global warming as one of the great ecological crises of our time, and for the deniers out there, it’s not something that fits into their worldview.

How has the essay affected the environmental community?

I think the effect has been overwhelmingly positive. Before we wrote that essay, there was more debate in the American Library Association over the archival storage of newspapers than there was in the environmental community over the future of the human race. Will the environmental community take this as a sign that it needs to evolve into something more expansive, powerful, and relevant? I don’t know, but there certainly is a very big desire to continue the conversation, especially among young people.

Some nonprofits are worried that this critique is going to affect their funding.

I’ve seen no evidence that anybody has stopped giving money to environmental causes because of our essay, and if it took our essay to get environmental funders and leaders to wake up to the fact that they are weaker today than they’ve been in 40 years, that’s great. We’re in a situation in the United States where 30 years ago Richard Nixon was signing environmental laws, and now the Bush Administration says global warming is not real. Pretending that we just need to tweak our message is a form of denial every bit as serious as denying that global warming exists.

If you want to make yourself look weak, tell people that the house is on fire and they just need to get a glass of water to put it out. Environmentalists tell people that global warming could mean the end of the human species and the way to prevent the end of the human species is to use fluorescent light bulbs and to buy a Prius? We need to tell people the truth. It’s going to require a transformation of the economy that’s also going to end up creating millions of jobs worldwide, creating economic development in countries that have been left behind.

The main solution you and Ted offer in “Death of” is the Apollo Alliance.

We deliberately shied away from offering a ten-point plan. There are a dozen ten-point plans that come out every year by this or that progressive or environmentalist. And it never adds up to anything because it never grapples with the fundamental assumptions. So we still have people coming back to us saying well, what should environmentalists do? Our point is we should stop being environmentalists and move on to something more powerful and expansive and less arbitrary. I mean, what is the environment? Why is AIDS in Africa not an environmental problem but global warming is? We have to ask ourselves, if what we include and exclude is totally arbitrary, then why is it even useful anymore? Better to step back and figure out what kind of country we want for ourselves and what kind of values will animate that politics. Apollo was offered as an alternative to the I-have-a-nightmare politics that’s dominated environmental and progressive politics for the last 40 years.

It sounds like you’re advocating not so much for environmentalism’s death as for putting it out of its misery so a more successful, solutions-based movement can be born.

We come from environmentalism; we were as trapped by the categories as everybody else in the movement. We’re deeply sympathetic to how hard it is to break out of that thinking. But we have to do it, for the future of the planet and—scratch that—really for the future of the human species; the planet’s gonna be just fine no matter what.

The death that needs to happen is the death of an identity as environmentalists. And that’s what freaks out the 1960 baby-boom generation so much. They’re so wrapped up in their environmentalist identity. Plus, the baby-boom generation, which is in power, is deeply tied up with their own sense of themselves as youth. To have these thirties-something guys come along and say that this isn’t working anymore and we need to change felt very threatening for them.

The one thing that both our supporters and our critics don’t focus on is that this is a really old problem in the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. While we all learn in grade school that human beings are animals, we forget it when we go about our daily lives. If we are truly part of the earth, then why are environmentalists so concerned about habitats for animals and not concerned about habitat for human beings? There’s a whole bunch of African-Americans and Latinos in California who don’t have adequate housing. At the very definitional level, those are environmental concerns.

Isn’t the environmental justice movement bringing the social and the ecological together?

The environmental justice movement raised everybody’s hopes that it was going to make the connections. But what we end up seeing is a focus on a very narrow set of concerns, namely refinery emissions, lead paint, toxic waste sites. It’s not considered an environmental justice concern, for the most part, to be advocating major economic development—a jobs program, housing, homelessness.

Would you identify more as a progressive then?

I consider myself a post-environmental progressive. “Environmental” simply to acknowledge where I came from; “post” because we’re moving on; and “progressive” because that’s what we want—progress.

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