Apparently, the environmental movement is dead. That's news to me, but Michael Shellenbeger and Ted Nordhaus argue in a provocative report to major donors that not only has the environmental movement failed, it is essentially dead, and needs to be replaced. As Salon put it:
If you really want him to take notice, declare that his own strategies and tactics dealt the fatal blows, but he's too blind to see that he's still beating a corpse.
And if your aim is actually to force him to stand up and fight, announce all this publicly to the very generous folks whose grants fund his programs and paycheck.
The mainstream environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the NRDC, have become, well, too mainstream. Despite the cataclysmic threat of global warming, these groups have focused their efforts on raising fuel standards and other policy fixes. When push comes to shove, they have failed to aggressively push an environmental agenda, not willing to embarrass their Democratic allies with "extreme" rhetoric. I quit the Sierra Club myself a few years ago due to such frustration. While a rise in fuel standards would certainly help the situation, it would not in the long run answer the threat of global warming.
As the authors point out, most scientists agree that we need to reduce emissions by at least 70 percent. What does this mean for our society? Well, simply enough, we need to re-design our economy and way of life to no longer be dependent on fossil fuels. Yes, that's a daunting task, but anything less is rearranging the chairs on the Titanic. We need to not only be honest about the serious implications of global warming, we also need to propose suitable answers to the problem, no matter how radical they may seem.
Lack of a Big Picture
Perhaps the gravest failure of the environmental movement is its inability to reach potential allies in the labor movement and elsewhere. Instead, it has narrowly focused on "environmental" issues, to the exclusion of outside factors that have contributed to the current political climate. As the paper states,
For most within the environmental community, the answer is easy: too much carbon in the atmosphere. Framed this way, the solution is logical: we need to pass legislation that reduces carbon emissions. But what are the obstacles to removing carbon from the atmosphere?
Consider what would happen if we identified the obstacles as:
To me, perhaps the single most important factor to the modern conservative era would be the size and power of corporations. This has led to the corrupting influence of money in politics, to trade policies that overrule national laws, to growing corporate pollution, and to massive income inequality, fueling the rise in poverty. Yet the environmental movement, despite its resources, has failed to address the need for corporate reform. Instead, we focus on the consequences of such corporate power, instead of attacking the need for reform of corporations themselves. Which is sad, really, as a push for corporate reform would find plenty of allies, both within the labor community and in the general populace, as well as putting Republican defenders of the status quo on the defensive.
How about our trade policies? Global warming is, of course, a global issue, one that cannot be solved by U.S. legislation alone. One idea listed in the report would be to promote the use of alternative energy through our trade agreements. So as an example, if a country wanted access to the U.S. market, we could require that they invest heavily in renewable energy, in addition to labor agreements designed to reduce poverty in the developing world.
Or take the tax code. As the authors point out, environmentalists, and indeed progressive in general, have for too long ignored the importance of tax issues. So whereas Republicans and their allies see the tax code as the single most important issue, Democratic allies typically pay less attention, leading to new rounds of tax cuts every few years. I'll blog more about this in the future, but not only does the debate over taxes affect every other government program, the structure of the tax code itself can promote progressive goals.
The author, as an example, talk of how Japan rewards R&D investments with tax credits, one of the reasons Japan is the most technically advanced country in the world. Here at home, in addition to tax credits and other ideas, why not go for a more radical approach? Why not advocate for replacing the payroll tax, one of the most regressive taxes in the country, with a tax on natural resources and waste? Not only would this accomplish important environmental goals, it would also be a boon to labor, by increasing employment (via reduced labor costs) as well as reducing the tax load on the working class. Sure, this would be a very radical idea, with plenty of controversy, but aren't we tired of playing it safe? Of small ideas and incremental reforms, while Republicans promote drastic changes in the tax code and the role of government?
Lack of a Vision
As stated above, I believe, as the authors do, that in order to address global warming we need to be willing to re-design our entire economy, in order to move ourselves away from fossil fuels. Yet while the environmental movement believes this in theory, their efforts are geared to such goals as the Kyoto Treaty, which would not have come close to reducing emissions by the necessary 70%. The Sierra Club seems to argue for greater efficiency in our cars and power plants, which seems like an inadequate solution to me. In short, we are still focusing on technical policy fixes, instead of the long-term vision of an alternative economy and way of life.
Now, the authors do not get into the details of what such a vision would entail, so bear with me while I attempt to explain the details. Let's get back to the basic problem: too much carbon in the atmosphere. What leads to carbon? Primarily, emissions from cars and coal burning power plants. So, first we need to severely reduce or eliminate carbon from transportation. I believe doing so through more stringent emissions standards doesn't address the real problem; our car-centered ways of life. The modern city is completely built around cars and roads, making it very difficult to reduce the impact of cars on the environment.
Why is it that most New Yorkers use the subway, while public transit in Dallas struggles to stay afloat? Are New Yorkers simply more environmentally conscious than us Texans? Well, probably. But more importantly, New York was designed in such a way to encourage high-density living and mass transit. Dallas, however, was designed to promote the use of cars and the spread of sprawl. So let's redesign our cities. Let's encourage "smart growth" policies that can build a sustainable future. Instead of sprawl, we can use the principles of New Urbanism to address two key problems facing most cities: the growth in traffic and the lack of downtown economic development. The paper notes, and I agree, that too often we in the environmental movement only focus on our own goals, without considering how we can help others. So while completely redesigning our cities may seem a daunting task, fighting for such an approach allows us to promote a positive vision, where instead of restrictions (i.e. fuel standards) we can argue for ways to improve peoples' lives (less traffic, less crime through downtown development, a vibrant city center, etc.).
But what to do about those power plants? Well, the only solution I see is to move to an electric system built around renewable energy. But that won't happen until the price of renewable energy, particularly solar panels, falls to the point where it is competitive with fossil fuels. This will take a much greater increase in R&D. Instead of trying (and likely failing) to get the federal government to fund such research, why not simply do it ourselves? The Sierra Club alone possesses roughly $120 million in assets, with millions more going to other environmental groups. As usual, I suspect the majority of this money goes towards efforts at the federal level, with smaller amounts going to local causes.
Why not take at least some of that money, and create a venture capital fund, one that would invest in renewable energy companies? Investing in research that would lower the price of renewable energy sources would do far more good than any federal policy. What's more, the nature of venture capital would allow us to impose any type of agreement we want on companies receiving the money. So in the covenant agreement (yep, that's what the industry calls it), we could not only fund innovative companies in renewable energy, we could also impose a number of labor friendly terms, everything from affordable healthcare benefits to decent pay and union rights. This would win us much-needed allies in the labor movement, allowing us to create a much stronger progressive force.
Finally, the authors point out that the environmental movement needs to do some serious PR, and remake its image. Like progressives in general, too often environmentalists expect the validity of their arguments to win the day, without paying attention to the overall political climate. Yet we cannot expect to convince average Americans if we do not understand how they view us. Simply by talking to friends and family, I get the feeling that the environmental movement is viewed as:
Restrictive of personal freedoms
Unconcerned with economic growth
This is not something that can be ignored. If we are to succeed, we must improve our image and reach out to potential allies in the progressive world, most importantly the labor movement. We must find ways to promote economic growth through environmental solutions. As an example, Michael Shellenberger, one of the authors of the report, also helped to create the Apollo Alliance, a new alliance of labor and environmental groups that seeks to create jobs through the promotion of renewable energy and smart growth policies.
Well, I apologize for the long post, but as you can see, the paper inspired me to really think about some of our problems in the environmental movement. Which is not to say I agreed with everything; I felt the authors were too quick to dismiss the potential of technology to radically change our economy, and thus solve many of our environmental problems. And while I agree with the underlying vision of the Apollo Alliance, so far I have not seen many real accomplishments. But the big picture the authors paint, of an environmental movement in need of drastic change, is something I most definitely agree on. Hopefully their paper will spark some much-needed discussion over the future, of both the environmental movement and the world.