This is the first in a series of pieces reflecting on the Death of Environmentalism after 20 years.
On rereading the seminal 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” (DoE) after many years I was struck even more strongly by how much its authors’ perspective overlapped with mine although I had some years before them explored a quite different part of the environmental forest. That is doubtless why our paths would eventually cross and remain durably connected. Nordhaus and Shellenberger directed critical attention at establishment environmentalism and failures of Washington legislative strategy anchored in its dearth of vision. Examining the more recent, insurgent environmental-justice advocacy occurring mostly far from Washington, I too was struck by a mismatch between goals and methods. Both crews were allowing a misguided focus on “pollution” to run their respective ships aground.
Interestingly present-day ecomodernists and EJ activists have both yearned mightily for the “death” of conventional environmentalism. The challenge for both, of course, is that they arose in the wake of strong processes, layered over many years, of institution-building and narrative-creation. Transactions created toxins and harmful exposures via air, water and land, and it was environmentalism’s assigned task, using the duly-created official apparatus of government, to inhibit them. But this Whack-a-Mole “banishing of bad molecules” brand of environmentalism is ill-suited to achieving what either of these orientations wants. Even if we allow that carbon dioxide is in a purely technical sense an “emitted chemical compound” any similarity to conventional toxic exposures as a regulatory matter mostly ends there. “Toxic to the climate” was not a “thing” at the original 1970 Earth Day or in that year’s Clean Air Act.
EJ advocacy revved up in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s with a focus on local siting battles, allegations of exposure disparity, and a supposed “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana. And if one merely reads media accounts of these events, or the research claims attached to them, one naturally derives that these are what motivate activists and local residents. But as I quickly discovered when I began exploring EJ and attending meetings at which citizen passions were often searingly on display, underlying grievances and aspirations went far beyond emissions and risk assessments. EJ advocacy turned out to be a platform for a variety of yearnings for community repair and empowerment, racial uplift, and quality-of-life improvements. This sounds at least consistent with what DoE had in mind in positing a transition to a “clean energy economy” that would pull mainstream environmental advocacy away from politically debilitating predictions of climate doom. When I was examining it, at least, EJ advocacy was stuck mining community fear of pollutants, often trying awkwardly to speak the technical language of risk assessment because those things defined the parameters of the environmental policy world in which activists believed they had to work. One didn’t have to listen very hard to hear a language and agenda of opportunity struggling to emerge but exposure assessments, environmental impact statements, and protest marches did not prove very effective in the pursuit of these underlying goals. EJ activism can, and has, derailed “locally unwanted land uses” (LULUs) and helped to stir the pot of a broader social-justice discourse. That’s fine as far as it goes but not far enough.
The year after DoE appeared prominent EJ activists responded with “The Soul of Environmentalism” (SoE), an essay unbounded by priorities or by any sense of opportunity cost, that lauded Nordhaus and Shellenberger “for jump-starting a debate” and echoing concerns that EJ enthusiasts had “been working on for well over two decades” but nevertheless taking them to task for a supposed blindness to matters of race and class and the lessons of the civil rights movement. One finds SoE a baffling critique in suggesting that the civil rights movement ran aground chiefly due to a blend of government harassment, assassinations, and the waning of protest in favor of litigation along with a broader capitulation to America’s privileging of individualism over a communitarian ethos. All of these challenges operated, to be sure, but so did a disruptive rise of black nationalism, urban uprisings (aka “riots”), grassroots resistance (manifested as “segregation academies” in the South and “white flight” in the North), creeping deindustrialization and a decidedly conservative turn in national politics. Only days after President Johnson signed the 1965 Voting Rights Act the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted. My point here is simply that the lessons civil rights advocates of the 1960s and 1970s had to teach their distant cousins fighting the 21st century climate wars may not have been as clear as the “Soul” folk imagined.
And their potted history of civil rights is not the only questionable portrayal in “SoE.” In fairness I rather doubt that the authors would today be so eager, as they were then, to pitch their tent of broad and unifying progressive change on a bed of “pollution charges and deep property tax reform.” But we can be charitable here. They were writing, shaping the public discourse, in ignorance of the world to come, as must we all.
I emphasize again that discourse creation is vital work. You can’t get somewhere if you don’t first talk about going there. Let’s be honest however: environmentalism is not dead or dying and the authors of DoE surely knew that they would not literally kill it or oversee its demise. But launching their essay with its provocative title at the dawn of the social-media era was a brilliant stroke. The Nordhaus and Shellenberger disruptive “bad boy” act irritated a lot of people, but usefully so. The EJ folks did the same in their own way, as did I in turn in challenging them. (The deputy director of the EPA office of environmental justice once said to me quite plainly: “Yes, Chris, they hate you.” I knew then that I had been useful.)
Consider “health policy” which, well within the memory of many of us, was a far more constrained set of understandings regarding what government should and could do for its citizens and what it should prompt them to do for themselves. We still get lousy outcomes on many fronts for reasons that need not concern us here. But we have a far richer conversation, more expansive access to care and a more robust “politics of possibility” (to borrow from the subtitle of the DoE follow-on volume). People had to disrupt the status quo to make that happen. It was not easy.
From my current perch on the board of the Breakthrough Institute, and as a follower of political developments in the environment and beyond, I see cause for (cautious) hope. When people ask me why I’m with Breakthrough my “elevator speech” runs this way: “I’m for low-cost, low-carbon energy for low-income people,” a formulation that blends the EJ and ecomodernist impulses. Extend that suggestion to food, housing and other matters either currently or legitimately of interest to Breakthrough. People of color should care what happens at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and not just because they worry about the vanishingly small probability of local radiation exposure from an adjacent power plant. In place of NIMBY I now hear a lot of refreshing YIMBY talk, motivated by the need for growth generally and affordable housing in particular. Presumably people of color will be among the candidates for that housing. And if you want to help the global poor there are few better bets to place than on reliable low-cost electricity. (Should it be solar, wind, nuclear power, even the dreaded natural gas where needed, at least in the interim, that generates the required wattage? We can discuss them all.) Even in this budget-constrained and absurdly polarized era there are opportunities to be had and deals to be done.
If environmentalism is dying it is also being simultaneously reborn, a delivery to which the twenty years that encompass what I will dare to label here the “Breakthrough Insurgency” have contributed. And today, 30 years on from the December 1993 New York Times article where I first read the words “environmental justice,” I too have been transformed into my own kind of EJ advocate, via Breakthough.
I have no idea what sociologist Robert Bullard, renowned “father of EJ,” would say to that. Perhaps we should ask him.