Bursting the Green Bubble

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The environmental movement has always needed constructive criticism. When Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” was published in 2004, I suspect many people read it, as I did, hoping for insightful analysis and direction. I was intrigued by the garish overstatement of the title and hoped at least for an iconoclastic rant in the vein of the ever-entertaining and occasionally visionary James Kunstler (The Geography of NowhereThe Long Emergency, et al.). Instead, “The Death . . .” delivered a warmed-over and poorly organized rehash of earlier, legitimate criticisms. The environmental movement is not inclusive enough. It views the issues in a balkanized manner. It has no unifying vision. Its language is overly technical. It has not sought out powerful political allies. It has not framed issues in terms of common American values. All of this was fair enough, but it was nothing that hasn’t been said at conferences over the past twenty years.

What was largely missing was Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s prescription for success. Instead of providing game-changing insight about a new environmentalism risen from the ashes of the old, “The Death of Environmentalism” was simply a pretentious gripe session.

With “The Green Bubble” (New Republic, May 20, 2009), Nordhaus and Shellenberger continue the franchise, taking environmentalists to task for limousine-liberal hypocrisy, “cheery utopianism,” Ludditism, anti-modernism, ingratitude, and just being a lot dumber than the article’s authors are.

The title is, of course, a play on the recently burst economic bubble. The authors report, to no one’s surprise except apparently their own, that enthusiasm for environmental causes ebbs and flows in loose correlation with economic conditions. In “The Green Bubble” we are once again given a selective history of the environmental movement, the beginning of which the authors peg as the 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. Most historians would probably consider 1962 a better date, with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But since Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s goal is to trivialize environmentalism, the Cuyahoga River fire reaction provides a more compatible beginning than the publication of Carson’s masterpiece.

The history is rife with logical slights of hand. A favorite of the authors is post hoc, ergo propter hoc—“after this, therefore because of this.” To wit, they note that in 2008 polling numbers indicated weakening support for environmental initiatives and, “Soon thereafter, Shell announced it would halt its investments in solar and wind power.” This is convenient to their thesis, but a more reasonable explanation is that falling energy prices made solar and wind less attractive investments than when prices were higher. In fact, as is the case with any social phenomenon, public interest in, and media coverage of, environmentalism waxes and wanes. Take Britney Spears, for example. The history “The Green Bubble” presents is not of environmentalism, but, at best, of popular media coverage of environmental issues.

An honest and rigorous review would reveal that for the past forty years, environmental activity and affiliation have trended upward and outward. In the 1970s, national groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and others established a solid presence in Washington, buoyed by millions of members nationwide. They focused primarily on passing, improving, and defending federal environmental laws protecting clean water and air, recovering endangered species, handling hazardous waste, and managing change on the coast.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, state and regional environmental groups formed around issues that were closer to home, including forest and river protection, local agriculture, environmental impacts on human health, land use, environmental justice, and transportation. A few of these groups, like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, exceeded some of the nationals in membership and budget. Collectively, they represent tens of millions of people encompassing virtually every facet of America, from rural farmers opposing factory hog operations to urban families fighting municipal garbage incinerators.

The land trust movement, in particular, exploded as the fastest growing sector of conservation, with more than one thousand new organizations launched over the course of a few decades. By the late 1990s, the movement had so grown in size and scope that it was difficult to tell exactly where the constituency started or stopped. Consider, for example, the Chicago Metropolitan Planning Council, the Sierra Business Council, or the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Program. Are these environmental initiatives with a business and planning component, or business agendas with environmental planning components? Would the Urban Land Institute’s smart growth program, inspired by the smart growth movement, be considered an environmental or a planning effort? Are Van Jones’ efforts to put the unemployed to work on energy efficiency economic development or environmentalism? The answer is that these all represent a more fully realized environmental movement that has now converged with, absorbed, and been transformed by other disciplines and constituencies.

The first sentence in “The Green Bubble” reductively states, “Sometime after the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, environmentalism crossed from political movement to cultural movement.” The “more complicated story” that Nordhaus and Shellenberger promise, but fail to tell, is that environmentalism has been a cultural movement for forty years. Today it is a mature, diverse, pervasive, deeply ingrained part of American society. Its successes and failures are far more interesting, and important, than the stereotype-laden critique of hypocritical, upper-middle-class professionals in “The Green Bubble.”

Nordhaus and Shellenberger don’t, or can’t, distinguish between fads (Sports Illustrated’s Green Edition), political negotiation (on cap-and-trade legislation), and broad social trends. The authors are, however, adept at rhetorical subterfuge. In both “The Death of Environmentalism” and “The Green Bubble,” they construct a straw man representing the green movement and then beat him to a bloody pulp.

They define “greens” as “liberal upper-middle-class professionals,” a group for whom they have particular disdain. The article takes as a proxy for the green movement “urban hipsters,” “suburban matrons,” “liberal professionals,” “American elites,” “upper-middle-class liberals,” and the ever-appealing target, “Prius owners.” (So determined are they to prove their point about the vacuity of green culture that they cite a survey proving that Prius owners are motivated more by status than by fuel savings. The survey company, CNW Marketing Research, is the same organization that argued that a Prius consumes more energy over its life than a Hummer H3.)

This critique is neither enlightening nor accurate, but about one third of the way into the article the authors entice us with the prospect of an earth-shattering revelation, on the order of, say the latest piece from Malcolm Gladwell. The retrenchment of environmental attitudes, they pronounce, is not caused by “economic pressures alone. . . . It is a more complicated story . . . about modern American life itself.”

What profound insight have they discovered? Documented by a string of carefully selected factoids and anecdotes, the authors lead us to the following conclusions: (1) the poor are not happier with less; (2) some people derive personal satisfaction from environmentally responsible consumption, but (3) individual efforts to conserve, such as switching light bulbs and growing home gardens, will not by themselves curb climate change; (4) higher fossil fuel prices will hurt some people more than they will hurt others, particularly in areas that rely more heavily on coal, and, (5) “politics will always involved conflict, contradiction, and compromise.” Gladwell this is definitely not.

The authors deploy a similar reductionist approach to the current environmental debate. Echoing Dick Cheney, they spend a fair amount of ink demolishing “personal virtue” as a motivation for environmental behavior. They belittle the “grand significance” and “fresh urgency” of “screwing in light bulbs inflating tires, and weatherizing windows.” Green consumption, epitomized by the Prius buyer, is “positional consumption,” undertaken to distinguish “one as elite.” The burst bubble, they argue, has flushed out the hypocrisy and fickleness of those who must now make “virtue of necessity” (saving money), instead of “necessity of virtue” (saving the planet). Environmentalism has now become little more than frugality.

They smugly rip writers Colin Beavan and Michael Pollan who, they claim, previously touted environmentalism as offering “not just a smaller carbon footprint but a better life” but, in the post-boom economy, sell it as simply as a “thrifty way to make ends meet in a difficult economy.” Nordhaus and Shellenburger excel at presenting false choices. “It is easy,” they write, “to point out the insignificance of planting a garden, buying fewer clothes, or using fluorescent bulbs . . . but the ecological irrelevance of these practices was beside the point. What downscalers offered was not a better way to reduce emissions, but rather, a way to reduce guilt.”

It is apparently inconceivable that downscalers, gardeners, CFL buyers, and the like were interested in both reducing emissions and reducing guilt. And it is a testament to the author’s naivete that they have no inkling that guilt, or ethical responsibility, or personal virtue, or whatever we call the array of human emotions that underlie action, is a prerequisite for change, both individually and collectively.

The most ridiculous pronouncements the authors save for last. “The problem,” they reveal, “is not that most greens are elites, per se, but rather that too few of them acknowledge the material basis for their ecological concern and that too many reject the modern project of expanding prosperity altogether.”

Perhaps the authors are not reading the same national news the rest of us are. Virtually the entire conversation about energy has emphasized putting people back to work through green jobs, increasing disposable income by reducing household energy bills, creating new economic development opportunities through new energy technologies. It is, in short, almost entirely about “expanding prosperity altogether.”

“The Green Bubble” hits a low point in journalistic integrity with the assertion, “It has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development—never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies and grinding agrarian poverty.” The authors provide no evidence, no citations, not even a single tortured anecdote, to defend the statement, simply “proof by assertion.”

If this article and its predecessor were just a flash on a blog, they would not warrant a response. But at least one national pundit, George Will, has taken their pronouncements to heart and given them, if not credibility, at least broad editorial coverage. When he is not writing rhapsodically about our national pastime, baseball, Will issues Tourettian diatribes against action on climate change. It is unfortunate that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have given Will and others like him fresh grist. They could do so much more, because there is room for improvement in the “green movement,” and there has never been a more urgent time for rigorous examination and course correction.

The authors’ web site, www.thebreakthrough.org, contains substantive and timely commentary on the current climate proposals pending in Congress. This kind of constructive engagement (in spite of the blustery self-importance of the organization’s name) is particularly helpful as we chart a course toward a more responsible energy future. In contrast, “The Green Bubble” is an unfortunate distraction from that work.

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  • Dana Beach

    Dana Beach serves as the Founder and Director Emeritus of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, an organization that works with citizens and government to develop policies that promote sustainable patterns of development for people and the environment.

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