The New Environmentalism

Times are tough for environmentalists. The movement that brought us clean water, the Endangered Species Act and Al Gore is witnessing the inconvenient truth of runaway greenhouse gas emissions, increasing biodiversity loss and the decline of ocean life.

As a new decade dawns, can the environmental movement regain its shine (and significance)? To find out, Momentum asked a leader from one of the nation’s most influential environmental action groups, along with the guy who literally wrote the book on reinventing environmentalism.

Air & Energy Program Director, Natural Resources Defense Council

“Over the past 10 years, more policy work and direct negotiation with industry has been a hallmark of the environmental movement. I think we’ll see even more of that in the future. Using the NRDC as an example, so much of what we’re doing is trying to change the way people do business. Outside of our accounting department, we didn’t have a single M.B.A. on staff until maybe five years ago. Now we have a whole group of people who come from business and understand how businesspeople think about these issues.

Everybody wants clean water. Everybody wants clean air. Nobody wants their children to live next to a toxic waste dump. The underlying values are shared. Where we don’t agree is not in the end result. Rather, it’s the tools we use to get there. So, what’s the balance between government regulation and letting the market decide? If you define environmentalism as long-term thinking and an enlightened self-interest, I think most people would say, ‘Yes, I care about these things.” But what does that mean in practice? There’s never been unanimity within the environmental community about the tools.

If you look at the numbers for who wants clean energy, and who wants to wean us off foreign oil or oil altogether—those numbers are huge. It depends so much on how you frame the question to people. If you define our goal in a way that’s understandable to regular people who aren’t inside the beltway negotiating the nitty-gritty details of legislation, I think there’s a huge commonality of interest, purpose and support for all the core things we’re trying to achieve.

I’m hugely optimistic [about the environmental movement]. We have no choice but to solve these problems, so we’re going to solve them.”

Chairman, The Breakthrough Institute
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

“The argument we made [in “The Death of Environmentalism”] is even more right today than it was in 2004. Unfortunately, when An Inconvenient Truth happened, we had a moment of mania among greens. Mostly they were talking to each other, but they convinced themselves that everyone had seen the light.

There are fundamental technological and economic obstacles to capping, regulating or pricing our way to a clean-energy economy. The scale of transformation necessary to achieve significant reductions is much wider than anyone imagined. The politics are going to work only when we acknowledge that it’s a technological challenge, and put technology and innovation at the center of the political agenda.

We [co-author Michael Shellenberger and I] have been incorrectly identified as technological optimists. In fact, we’re technological pessimists, at least when it comes to existing technology. … But we’re optimistic that when we understand it’s a technology and engineering challenge—not an economic or a regulatory challenge—we can identify a set of technologies and develop them sufficiently to do the things we need them to do.

I was born and raised in the environmental movement and spent many years working for the biggest environmental groups. So I had a strong environmental identity all of my life. I would describe myself now as a post-environmentalist. Post-environmentalism is what happens when we move old ideas about the environment out of the center of our basic political and philosophical proposition. If the environment doesn’t include humans, then it’s a scientifically unsound concept. And if it does include us, it becomes another synonym for everything. In post-environmentalism, ideas of nature and things being natural versus unnatural just go away.

The real question is: What environment do we want to live in? And that will be something we create.”