The Death of Environmentalism, Prescient and a Portent

Ecomodernism and Technological Realism After Two Decades

The Death of Environmentalism, Prescient and a Portent

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

The incisive critique of the environmental movement offered in The Death of Environmentalism (DoE) is both timely and enduring. The 2004 document argues that the successes of the environmental movement in the 1970s and early 1980s in regulating air and water pollution and solid waste led to a command-and-control model focused on technology solutions of the kind that were mandated during the period but had already proved ineffective by the 1990s. DoE argues for a more comprehensive policy approach that avoids narrowly focusing on particular substances and that better appreciates the social and industrial context for introducing new technologies. The report also encourages the environmental movement to take positions on public policy concerns, such as health care, that lie outside the narrowly defined environmental space, and to seek broader political coalitions, specifically mentioning labor as a natural and valuable political ally. The DoE foreshadowed changes in the environmental movement, but many of those changes have sidestepped rather than responded to its critical assessments.

In the years since the publication of DoE the environmental movement has ostensibly broadened both its approach to policy and the political coalition it is a part of. In 2004, the DoE drew attention to the New Apollo program that promoted “big investments into clean energy, transportation and efficiency” and “uses big solutions to frame the problem — not the other way around.” Arguably, the legislative bills of the early 2020’s, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), have adopted this view by not promoting only a small set of remedial technologies, but subsidizing the cluster of technologies necessary for them to succeed. In the spirit of the 2015 Paris agreement, US environmental legislation seems to have accepted the need to move beyond strictly penalizing carbon emissions to promoting clean energy technologies and establishing the necessary support infrastructure.

Upon closer inspection though, the environmental movement continues to embrace policies using the same substance focused regulatory mechanisms and mandating preferred technology solutions. Carbon offers the best example. The 2007 SCOTUS ruling designating CO2 as a “pollutant” opened the door to the USEPA using that designation to introduce a slew of mandated technologies that reduce carbon emissions. Carbon dioxide, a natural molecule essential to plant and animal life and whose large fluxes are a feature of planetary functioning, could now be treated the same as mercury. Accordingly, after establishing the 2011 Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to accelerate the closing of coal plants, the USEPA attempted to regulate power production based on carbon emissions through the Clean Power Plan (CPP) (sidelined in 2016). Subsequent legislation directed considerable government support to specific technologies to replace the lost power capacity — with wind and solar overwhelmingly favored. More recently, the push by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in July 2023 to use fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards to mandate an increase in the share of electric vehicles in the US auto fleet offers an example of using carbon dioxide emissions to regulate industry. Critics of the ambitious agenda to force changes in the US energy and transportation systems point out that it may lock entire industries into technologies that may not reach market success, or even function technically as their scale ramps up. The Breakthrough Institute has been among the voices questioning the rigid technocratic mandates of the major legislative acts of the 2020s that heavily favor a subset of non-carbon energy sources and endorse battery electric vehicles without reservation.

The political identity of the environmental movement has also morphed since the release of DoE as the movement has expanded its web of alliances. Traditionally the movement enjoyed broad support from groups ranging from hunters to hippies by remaining focused on issues related to pollution, public lands, and life in the wild. Starting with the popularity of Neo-Malthusian ideologies in the 1970s the movement has progressively shifted to the left of the political spectrum. Over the last decades, the environmental movement has further shifted its base by aligning itself with social justice issues such as intersectionality, human rights, and open migration that has proved to be an effective marketing strategy for gaining political support. However, adopting progressive causes has also served to discourage potential political allies including social conservatives, libertarians, and populists. In addition, the wholesale adoption of such causes has forced the movement to downplay potential tradeoffs between environmental, social, and economic goals. This has led the environmental movement to endorse climate-inspired regressive policies that make electricity more expensive and penalizes workers who must drive far to work because of limited access to affordable housing.

This political transformation was facilitated by what became a tidal wave of funding from wealthy corporations and private foundations who are purveyors of social justice causes. The growth and consolidation of these private funding sources has accelerated the adoption of social justice causes by today’s environmental movement. Over the last two decades, the movement has shown a clear affinity for aligning itself with management contrary to the suggestion in DoE to court labor. The c-suite was seen as the place where environmentalists could exert the most influence in compelling responsible corporate behavior and even greater influence could be had by finding individual sponsors among the titans of industry. The environmental movement became seduced and conquered by Davos and what it represented. Today many environmental NGOs find themselves on the receiving end of significant funding from private foundations and corporations. The very nature of the arrangement ensures that the advocacy of these NGOs deviates less and less from the interests of their patrons.

In many ways the DoE was prescient in its analysis. In the years since its publication, the environmental movement has indeed responded to the critique found in DoE by broadening its policy approach and expanding its political alliances. The DoE also correctly drew attention to the increasing importance of large moneyed donors to the environmental movement, a phenomenon that has mushroomed since the 2000s as money from corporations and private foundations dominate the content creation and distribution channels for environmental advocacy today. Overall, the environmental movement did broaden its scope, but it stuck with inflexible policy strategies that limit its success in forming new political alliances.

Ultimately the DoE must not be judged by its specific recommendations and conclusions but rather by the fresh perspective that it introduced and that continues to enrich the environmental policy debate. On the heels of DoE, the Breakthrough Institute acted on that new perspective by establishing research programs that critically examine the actual energy and agricultural systems that support modern industrial civilization and the rural and urban context that they exist in. That same technological realism and agnosticism argues for independence from the agendas of mainstream environmental movement. It argues for policies that support expanded options including nuclear, natural gas, and hybrid electric vehicles, that offer the flexibility necessary to modernize energy systems and simultaneously reduce carbon emissions. With respect to new political alliances, a fresh perspective of today’s environmental movement might question the long-term strategy of tying environmental advocacy with the growing litany of progressive causes. Associating too closely with this political agenda poses the threat of alienating large potential constituencies otherwise well-disposed to supporting environmental goals.

The Breakthrough Institute can channel the spirit of DoE by continuing to use technological realism in assessing environmental policy options and aiming to broaden the constituency for environmental issues to include people from all parts of the political spectrum.