The Death of Environmentalism

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June 16, 2010 | Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus,

In the fall of 2004, Breakthrough co-founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born.

The essay received front-page coverage in The New York Times, The Economist, Salon, and publications around the world. The essay can be downloaded by clicking here.

In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger revisited the essay with a major speech at Yale University on "The Long Death of Environmentalism."

Reactions and Reviews

“When environmentalists are writing tracts like "The Death of Environmentalism," you know the movement is in deep trouble. That essay by two young environmentalists has been whirling around the Internet since last fall, provoking a civil war among tree-huggers for its assertion that 'modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.' Sad to say, the authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, are right."

— Nicholas Kristof, "I Have a Nightmare," The New York Times

“Influential.”

Columbia Journalism Review, May 2006 / June 2006

“The bad boys of American environmentalism made their case this morning, and they made it well. By the time Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus had finished presenting the data that led to their famous 'Death of Environmentalism' paper, most of the large crowd gathered for the "What Works?" conference here in Vermont were convinced that they had seen where the future lay for the climate-change movement — or at the very least, where it didn't…. There's something almost exhilarating in knowing how bad a situation really is. Spared the false hope that maybe things will get better on their own, at least you have permission to think expansively about what to do differently.”

— Bill McKibben, Grist.org, January 26, 2005

“Anyone who is interested in the future of environmentalism… must read this…”

— Gregg Easterbrook, author of The Progress Paradox

“’The environmental movement's foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest.’ Those damning words come not from any industry lobby or right-wing think-tank. They are drawn from ‘The Death of Environmentalism’, an influential essay published recently by two greens with impeccable credentials. They claim that environmental groups are politically adrift and dreadfully out of touch. They are right.”

The Economist magazine, April 23, 2005

“It’s a heartfelt, sweeping, even anguished J'accuse, urging a dark night of the soul for environmentalists, challenging them to reckon with both how bad and how urgent their predicament really is.” — Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon.com

“Almost a year later, I am still periodically sent a copy, along with a breathless ‘Have you read this?’ note. Not only did I read it, I point out; I tried to call attention to it outside the environmental community back in March, predicting that ‘it may be the most powerful and lasting of the very many ‘What’s wrong with the left?’ documents of the George W. Bush era.’”

— Mark Schmitt, American Prospect, October 2005

“These young environmentalists are unafraid to answer a question many have been reluctant to ask: Why has the environmental movement failed to win American hearts and change American habits? Understanding the challenge as a "culture war" instead of an alarmist public education campaign shows that Shellenberger and Nordhaus get it. They understand that effective environmentalism requires vision and values, not alarmism and sentimentalist nature-love.”

— Jane Eisner, Philadelphia Inquirer, September 8, 2005

“Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, recently declared "the death of environmentalism," generating quite a buzz… Whether or not environmentalism is dead, dying, or in some kind of undead zombie state, new voices within the environmental and conservation movements are arguing for a wholly new kind of movement that entails recovering values of another, more conservative America. They point to a reinvention of environmentalism which might garner the support of both Red and Blue America.”

— G. Tracy Mehan III, National Review, June 9, 2005

“Greens are buzzing: They're defending old strategies, reaching out to new partners, challenging big-budget fundraising, questioning the wisdom of lawsuits--and breathing life into the movement. We think it's more rallying cry than obituary, but see for yourself; read the paper and join the fray at www.backpacker.com/greendebate. You don't have to like this idea--or even believe it--to recognize its power.”

Backpacker Magazine in naming “The Death of Environmentalism” the  “Best Idea of 2005”

“There was "The Death of Environmentalism" with its bold declarations: Environmentalism had defined itself as a special interest, its message was too negative, and it presented narrow technical solutions instead of an inspiring vision tied to values voters hold dear. Commentators quickly pointed out that all these criticisms could just as easily be leveled at other segments of the left. What was the movement besides a collection of special-interest campaigns? Just like that, the paper became a mirror reflecting back the fears of a disenfranchised movement.”

— Eliza Strickland, East Bay Express, November 2, 2005

“Several months ago, two bright U.S. activists set tongues wagging with a testy essay called The Death of Environmentalism. The passionate missive accused environmentalists of digging themselves into special-interest holes where technical policy fixes ruled the day. It also blasted tree-huggers for completely blowing the climate-change debate by asking "not what we can do for non-environmental constituencies but what non-environmental constituencies can do for environmentalists." Enviros, in short, had failed to break out of their unique, university-educated ghettos with a hopeful message that engaged desperate housewives, let alone frantic soccer moms. The essay hammered home many truths and may mark an important turning point for greens.”

— Andrew Nikiforuk, Globe and Mail

“Our cover story this issue was inspired by a paper that began circulating in environmental circles back in September entitled "The Death Of Environmentalism?" It laments the increasing lack of public, political and media attention to environmental issues, especially at a time when some very crucial ones, like global warming, need urgent action. "Death" has been both praised and attacked by green leaders of all stripes, and has even gotten some mainstream media play. It has forced some useful introspection. Ben Franklin once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

— Doug Moss, Earth Action, May 2005

"Environmentalists should reduce their over-reliance on apocalyptic scenarios "that tend to create feelings of helplessness and isolation among would-be supporters," Shellenberger advises. "Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an 'I Have a Nightmare' speech instead.” Indeed, the key to a revitalized environmental movement will be the application of a belief King often expressed: Warnings of impending catastrophe, along with shame, protests and lawsuits, all have a role to play, but any movement will fail if it cannot paint an intensely attractive vision of the future, one that appeals to the mind and to the spirit."

— Richard Louv, The Oregonian, March 28, 2005