Between DoE and Breakthrough

American Environics and the Strategic Values Project

Between DoE and Breakthrough

This is the third in a series of pieces reflecting on the Death of Environmentalism after 20 years.

Author’s Note: This piece was informed by conversations with members of American Environics’ team (2005-2008) at all levels of the company. Much is drawn from a conversation between myself and Ted Nordhaus on Friday, Oct 27, 2023. Erin Malec, Kenton de Kirby, Peter Teague, Jeff Navin, and John Whaley also shared with me their recollections. I was employed at American Environics as a data analyst and information designer during nearly the duration of its existence. I do not claim to represent the views or opinions of my former colleagues, and leave the story to our collective memory.

There are lesser-known chapters between the Death of Environmentalism (DoE) and ecomodernism, the core idea underpinning the Breakthrough Institute. While DoE was arguably the flashiest, there was the Apollo Alliance, Break Through (2007), and more. These proto-Breakthrough projects were undergirded by commitment to a progressive policy agenda and consistent theory of social change, coupled with a virulent critique of mainstream politics, especially when it came to environmentalism.

This essay focuses on one of these projects, American Environics (AE). Founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in 2005, AE was an explicit attempt to fix the problems identified in DoE. DoE argued, “If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest, we must start framing our proposals around core American values.” American Environics sought to quantify a deeper and more profound understanding of those values. This experiment ultimately pointed to the way quantitative metrics are fundamentally limited in their ability to unpack the underlying values that shape how humans think, behave, and vote.

The DoE, AE, and similar projects must be understood in the context of the left’s self-reflection on their responsibility for George W. Bush’s victory in the 2004 presidential election. The intellectual class grappled with rural Republican voters who appeared, in their eyes, to be unaware that they were voting against their economic self-interest, and thus those of society as a whole (e.g., Thomas Frank’s 2004 “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”). One remedy, argued linguist George Lakoff, was to “reframe” political messages to appeal to the public’s underlying cognitive metaphors, which would tap into their core social values. By activating those values, the left could make connections across the political divide. George Lakoff, and others associated with the now-defunct Rockridge Institute, directly influenced American Environics.

Through working with public opinion researchers, American Environics wanted to turn values research into something politically actionable. With funding from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, AE took on two major projects—The Road Map for a Progressive Majority (2005) and the American Values Survey (2007). The former used data from the Canadian research firm Environics that measured demographics, consumer preferences, and positions on basic issues, which were used by AE to map the longitudinal trajectory of the country’s values.

The American Values Survey (AVS) was AE’s centerpiece, building upon and expanding the Roadmap for a Progressive Majority. The idea was to go beyond Environics’ market-based research and measure social psychological values, especially those associated with political orientations. In addition to quantifying social values—for example, belief in “openness to change”, “innate good and evil”, and the “American dream”—the survey measured constructs from political psychology such as status anxiety, social dominance orientation, and locus of control. From there, factoring algorithms, cluster analysis, linear regression, and other techniques were used to divide the population into segments based on their shared values. Many of these segments were further explored through cognitive linguistic methods via focus groups, including tools like prototype theory, metaphor, and experimental methods. Theoretically, with work these segments could be attached to voter files and used in political projects. In addition to the national segmentation, AE made custom segmentations for mostly non-profit clients, identifying “constituencies of opportunity” who were potential allies.

American Environics was an ambitious and unique experiment, and successful in many ways. First, it took the idea that DoE proposed and put it to the test. If a progressive majority, as DoE argued, must be based on values and not technocratic solutions and facts, AE measured those values and tried to direct them in service of the project. Thought leaders broadly lauded the findings from the cognitive linguistic focus groups, which ultimately influenced successful policy. More substantially, aspects of AE’s green jobs work can be seen in Obama’s 2009 Recovery Act in the form of investment in clean energy innovation and efficiency. The project leaves a legacy.

AE had intensive partnerships with political coalitions doing on-the-ground work, and the clients had a mixed experience with the deliverables. At the micro-scale, it proved difficult to pin down values at the voter level, thus the findings proved incompatible with their desired applied outcomes. AE’s findings provided vision-level guidance for clients, enabling them to find commonalities with seemingly-disparate groups. The findings thus challenged clients to reflect upon their core identity, and how much they were willing to change to reach new constituencies.

AE’s greatest contribution was shaking up the left’s concept-of-the-day, which was that if only right quantitative methodology were used, the general public would vote for progressive values. American Environics showed that even with the most rigorous quantitative methodologies, people are complicated, shifting, and difficult to predict, much less change. Every statistical decision-point pointed to a different outcome. Political psychology variables that were supposed to predict behavior were suggestive but inconsistent. Groups who—based on the math—should have cohered, needed to be shoehorned into segments to be a direct outcome of the methods. At the end of the day, many segments lacked face-value. Expert-level judgment proved equally, if not more. useful.

The experiment that was American Environics had run its course by 2008. The primary explanation is fairly straightforward—the housing crisis and economic downturn both reduced funding overall and made funders look for secure outcomes, not experimental cognitive linguistics. Additionally, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory contributed to the attitude that novel approaches to identifying and persuading voters were unnecessary. In some ways they were correct—demographics often proved equally predictive as social values. The personal data being collected was becoming increasingly offered up by social media users for free. Nordhaus said, “it didn’t succeed as a useful enough product for anyone to pay for.”

I interviewed a number of people who reflected on the end of American Environics. To this, Nordhaus stated, “I don’t know if it worked, and I am not sure it was right.” In terms of how “it worked”, AE conducted ambitious rigorous research that was not able to capture the underlying values of voters in a way that changed politics. AE showed that the quantitative tools of political psychology are fundamentally limited in making sense of the human experience. The way in which the general population voted was predictable by fragmenting the individual up into values-based metrics. In terms of being “not sure it was right”, the left’s project at the time was to operationalize values in a way that they could be used towards a particular end. This was not consciously elitist, but rather an honest attempt to show segments of the population who held progressive values that they were progressives, despite being unaware of it. But, upon reflection, who are progressives—who is anyone—to assume that they have the right answer for society? At core, the voting population wants to vote for what they feel is better, not what members of the post-industrial knowledge economy think they should want. That’s how democracy works.

Breakthrough did not replace AE, though as AE dimmed, Breakthrough (est. 2003) grew brighter. As the AE project came to its natural conclusion, there were a number of ideas germinating that would not be funded under the umbrella of traditional nonprofits. Breakthrough departed from mechanized, individualistic approaches to understanding human behavior. There was a recognition of the importance of enabling people to achieve “the good life” on their own terms, rather than those of a self-appointed group. Shadows of AE can be seen today; when unpacking the long road of ecomodernism, understanding experiments like AE better help us piece together the story.