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The Death of ____ism

I've begun to doubt my own comments on Peter Beinart a couple days ago, when I said that I thought subtle distinctions on policy questions, or efforts to redefine debates, whether on Iraq, Social Security, or taxes, were irrelevant in the current political context. Am I really that nihilistic? And my thoughts were further fueled by reading the "Leninist Strategy" on Social Security from 1983, referred to in my last post, which advocated giving up on the "nuances of policy" to pursue a long term "political strategy" to phase out Social Security.

Now I want to turn to a more recent essay that has not received much attention outside of the circle it was originally directed to, although it's caused huge turmoil within it: "The Death of Environmentalism." Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (now known as "The Reapers") presented this at the Environmental Grantmakers Association, commissioned by my friend Peter Teague of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. The essay, lengthy responses, an interview with the authors, and other background is available at www.grist.org, the online environmental magazine.

There's a lot in this essay, and in the responses, some of it right on, some of it a bit crazy, some of it vacuous and new-agey (particularly the epigraphs about death opening each section, and of course that insufferable management-consultant aphorism that the Chinese ideogram for "crisis" is a combination of danger and opportunity), some of it beyond my capacity to evaluate, but all very much worth reading. (If you don't have time to read the 27-page essay, the interview with the Reapers is a start.) It's written to provoke, and provoke it did.

(All the more so because it was presented at a conference of foundation program officers and donors. One of the rules of the non-profit world, one that I am painfully aware of from the other side, is Thou Shalt Not Air a Movement's Dirty Laundry In Front of the Funders. Never mind that funders already know the dirty laundry, and probably are responsible for two-thirds of it, and that it's in no one's interest to keep them ignorant, it Just Isn't Done. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club quite pointedly started his fierce reply to The Reapers, "Dear Environmental Grantmaker," and charged that "the not so hidden agenda is 'fund us instead.'")

Those of us who aren't environmentalists by profession or priority might be able to read the essay with some perspective and get more out of it, because we're not the targets of its venom. Yet as Nordhaus says in the interview, "A critique similar to the one we've made on environmentalism could be made of many other movements -- women's rights, abortion rights, anti-war, criminal justice, labor, and so on. Each of those so-called movements has turned itself into a special interest in defining the problem narrowly and offering technical policy solutions instead of an inspiring vision."

The Reapers' basic argument is this: "The environmental community's narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power... Environmentalists closely scrutinize the policies without giving much thought to the politics that made the policies possible." They argue that the movement as it exists, filled with technical experts, must "die in order to be reborn."

In the interview, Nordaus says, "The very DNA of these institutions was constructed around a particular idea and model of doing politics, largely based on successes that the environmental movement had in the early '70s. They were developed to use scientific and legal expertise to identify a problem, craft a very specific technical policy solution to address that problem, and then go hire communications specialists and lobbyists and organizers to go sell that technical policy solution."

That approach no longer works, they argue, because the current problems, especially global warming, are bigger and more complicated than the classic Clean Air/Clean Water/Endangered Species problems that were addressed by technical policy solutions and legislation in the 1970s. And it also no longer works because the underlying political climate is massively unfriendly, and the system of policymaking in which the environmental movement leaders worked -- litigation under the Clean Air/Water and Endangered Species Acts, or lobbying in Congress for incremental improvements -- is gone. Both these points are surely true, and correspond to what environmentalists I know have been saying for years.

The alternatives The Reapers propose are basically three:

1. To confront the politics more directly. They suggest that instead of defining the problem of global warming as "too much carbon in the atmosphere," we identify it as, "The radical right's control of all three branches of the U.S. government...overpopulation...The influence of money in politics...poverty." They ask author Ross Gelbspan about what it would take to enact his sweeping plan to reduce worldwide carbon emissions by 70%: "I don't see any answer short of real campaign finance reform...the alternative is massive climate change."

Well that's interesting. Having spent a lot of time working on campaign finance reform, I appreciate the plug, but it's a pretty big promise, and I've always been very doubtful of statements that promise that after campaign finance reform, we find ourselves in a liberal paradise. And you can be sure that everything the Reapers say about environmentalists as pursuing small-bore technical fixes, letting themselves be defined as special interests, etc. is equally true of 95% of the campaign finance reform movement. This is exciting, but it also feels a little bit like redefining the problem into someone else's box. The day you can enact "real campaign finance reform" might just be the day when you can also enact the Kyoto Agreement -- a lot would have to change for either one to happen.

2. To define bigger, more visionary solutions. Here they contrast the small-bore, technical legislative approach to global warming -- the McCain/Lieberman bill -- with the Apollo Alliance, a major plan for job creation in new technology to reduce dependence on imported energy, with a labor/enviro partnership.

I like the Apollo project, which I've mentioned before, and Pope actually co-chairs it, so the generational distinction the Reapers implicitly draw is a little awkward. More importantly, it's a stretch to portray Apollo as if it is an example of a success and McCain-Lieberman or other incremental approaches as failures. Apollo is not well known outside of DC progressive circles, and it has nothing to show for itself yet. It may turn out to be a great success, and I'd put money on it, but the Reapers claim too much for it.

3. To form more productive alliances with labor and other constituencies. This is hardly an original thought. Yesterday I was meeting with a veteran, very respected leader in progressive circles, who mentioned that earlier in her career she had organized "community/labor energy coalitions," a dated phrase but a staple of progressive politics in the Northeast and Midwest in the late 1970s. Many of the responses to the Reapers point out that the enviros have been "meeting with" labor leaders for years, that the old tensions over Clean Air legislation have eased, and that the major efforts in the election year -- Americans Coming Together, America's Families United, National Voice, and other collaborations both partisan and nonpartisan -- were basically labor-environmentalist partnerships with other constituency groups supporting them.

But the Reapers are not looking for meetings or traditional coalitions around particular shared interests. They want something bigger. In the course of a recondite discussion of the politics of CAFE standards for automobile mileage, they suggest that instead of thinking of it as purely an environmental issue, with the auto industry and its unions as targets, one should think more broadly about the health of the auto industry. "The high cost of health care [and pensions] for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies...Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren't stuck with the bill...And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups have a 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...because 'Health care is not an environmental issue.'"

That gets to the outlines of the Grand Bargain that I've always been interested in. The problem is, who is in the position to cut such a deal? The auto companies aren't going to make a deal with environmental groups, or a minority of Senators, about health care that the enviros can't deliver on anyway. And why should an environmental group, whose members joined for a reason, suddenly devote a lot of energy and resources to health care?

That's where I find the best argument for blowing up the whole "movement," along with the others. We can't possibly find ways to move society forward as long as everything is put neatly into boxes labeled "environment," "health care," "campaign finance reform," "low-income programs," "pro-choice," etc., and the coalitions that exist are made up of representatives from those movements. Trying to force environmentalists to think about health care doesn't solve the problem either. We need a whole new structure, built around a convincing narrative about society and the economy, and a new way to fit these pieces together.

We'll come back to that, often, but this is long enough as it is. What's true in "The Death of Environmentalism" is true for all of progressive politics, and I mainly wanted to make sure that the essay was better known outside of the limited circle it was addressed to since that's the whole point of it.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 10, 2005 | Permalink


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Ah, Enviros and Auto Workers. Oh, the comedy. Separate or together, neither of them has a pot to piss in.

Progressive causes are always in the minority and usually, in the extreme minority. When their proponents are added to a major party to make it a majority party, their programs get a hearing.

As long as the Democrats are out of power, progressive causes are so much pie-in-the-sky.

But hey, if you can't get results, you can always write an essay.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | Feb 10, 2005 11:55:49 PM

May I suggest basing a lefty majority ideology on Community, Opportunity, and Responsibility?

Since these issues were grappled with over a decade ago, we have some archival documents we can use as a basis for proceeding.

And if warmed over Clintonism wrongheadedly strikes people as no longer relevant, may I suggest John Edwards' theme of Valuing Work instead of Wealth as a root ideological base all other lefty agendas can branch out from?

Posted by: Petey | Feb 11, 2005 5:53:38 AM

60 minutes did a piece this week on ranchers in Montana being trampled by companies drilling for natural gas. The drilling is muddying their water and clogging traffic.

When Rather asked the rancher, who was irate at what the new drilling was doing to his land, if he was an environmentlist, the rancher replied "I ain't no tree hugger, if that's what you mean." Then Rather rephrased the question, and asked if he was a conservationist. The rancher was a little more comfortable with that term, but said "I just think it's about respect" about what "the man upstairs designed and gave us".

Quotes are inexact, but you get the idea. The word Environmentalist is seen as a fringe leftist. Pragmatic, mainstream, moderate conservationists do not see themselves as one of us.

Posted by: Alison | Feb 11, 2005 5:46:15 PM

"We need a whole new structure, built around a convincing narrative about society and the economy, and a new way to fit these pieces together."

Yes, and to get that right you need to do a real, serious social philosophy that analyses the various aspects of society and how they interact, including how things go right or wrong.

I don't think the left has even tried to do this for many decades. In particular, starting with the New Left of the 1960's, the left abandoned trying to develop a plan for how society should work. The assumption was that if capitalism was overthrown, then everything would magically go right.

One reason the right has been so successful is that it has an analysis and a plan for society, right or wrong, while the left has only complaints, slogans, and fragmentary analyses.

Posted by: Les B | Feb 11, 2005 8:06:41 PM

While I basically agree that the environmental movement cannot operate in a political vacuum and would profit from being integrated within a larger progressive grouping, there are problems with doing this in practice that I don't think are shared by other progressive movements. Right from the start, over 100 years ago, environmental organizations were a blend of all party affiliations and even those who were not interested in a broader politics. Those who call themselves environmentalists (not just conservationists) are so diverse that it is hard to generalize about them. I don't think this is true of other interest groups on the left. Whatever successes enviros have had in the last 10 years are as a result of alliances that included (and sometimes were led by)Republicans. This would be hard to give up in the name of a larger politics unless there was a guarantee that whatever replaced these fragile coalitions would have more success.

Posted by: ruth fleischer | Feb 12, 2005 10:06:34 PM

Well, it's not like it hasn't been tried. In 68 and 72 the Democratic presidential campaigns were challenged and then run by a "one big union" umbrella of social radicals. It might even be fair to characterize this experience as the LEAST successful effort at change over the past 40 years.

In any case,the basis of pluralism is the concept that one person belongs to many groups, some of which at times conflict in their goals. Concurrently this one person, as a member of the groups, finds themselves acting in concert on one issue with people they disagree with on other issues.

Without highly focused and technical group advocacy, we have little chance of creating effective social controls of a complex nd technocratic society.

Unless, of course, a large enough majority could demand that social managers figure out how to do something and then JUST DO IT. However, as the past amply illustrates, this approach has many pitfalls for the unwary.

Posted by: serial catowner | Feb 13, 2005 1:42:11 PM

Man, am I tired of being ruled by these wankers. Who would have thought at this point in our history we would have rule by bozos...a bozocrasy.

Posted by: jwberrie | Mar 1, 2005 12:25:44 AM