Soul Searching

When Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus lobbed a cherry bomb from inside the movement with “The Death of Environmentalism,” critics charged they forgot to include environmental justice and grassroots groups.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus “have a giant blind spot,” says Redefining Progress’ Michel Gelobter whose Oakland-based nonprofit challenges traditional measurements of economic, social, and ecological impact. “The sad part of the omission is that they pitched the essay to those they thought had power. In doing so, they negated the power of those who have the answers. They missed the chance to open up a winning dialogue.”

In “The Soul of Environmentalism,” a rebuttal published by Redefining Progress this May, nine economic, environmental, and social policy leaders respond to the criticisms leveled in “Death” and map out the things that are keeping us from defining and communicating a vision for the future. “The problem is not just about ‘frames’ or what people think,” says Gelobter. “It is about conservatism of philanthropy, it is about the individual-rights focus of the American discourse.”

The problems faced by environmentalism today are “eerily similar” to those faced by the Civil Rights movement 20 years ago, say the authors, who suggest that elitism hamstrings the movement today. Citing the fact that mainstream environmentalism has been unable to racially integrate its senior leaders, the authors suggest that by uniting with groups fighting for sexual and reproductive rights—and environmental justice—environmentalists could end a cycle of elitism. “Environmental justice has created a base for kids who don’t cast themselves in the Grateful Dead-crunchy-granola mold,” Gelobter says. “They can mold their own environmentalism in a way that’s vital to their community and to their identity.” He notes that many more young men and women are in leadership roles now.

Gelobter says criticisms of “Death” shouldn’t stop the discussion: “By all means, ask the hard questions, but ask them of enough people to get the right answers,” urges Gelobter, who thinks the time to rally across class and race lines has never been better.

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