"Environmental ‘bad boys’ predict end of movement," reads The New York Times headline. The story is one of many in recent months about Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, rabble-rousing California media consultants who have sent environmentalists into a tizzy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." The essay argues that environmentalists have become increasingly isolated from the general public, and that this isolation has sapped the movement’s strength.
everywhere seem to be in the midst of an identity crisis. Messages
are pinballing about the Internet, activist groups are scrambling
to powder up their public images, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus
seem to be making a good living on the speakers’ circuit.
It’s somewhat surprising, really. The message of "The Death
of Environmentalism" has been bouncing around since the 1980s.
It was more than a decade ago that Westerners, weary of
the endless courtroom battles over endangered species, old-growth
logging and overgrazing, began to sit down and search for
collective solutions to natural resource dilemmas. Since then,
grassroots greens have shown that you don’t have to abandon
your ideals, or stand back and watch the landscape be wrecked, to
find common ground. It’s possible to stand up for the
environment, and to create alliances with those who make their
living on the land.
Nonetheless, some national
environmental leaders continue to turn up their noses at this kind
of cooperation. In the process, they’ve allowed themselves to
be painted as elitists, and the purity of the air, water and land
as a "fringe issue." The November 2004 election shows the power of
this negative image: The League of Conservation Voters alone poured
at least $15 million into the campaign, according to the
Times, much of it to defeat Bush. It
So, by pointing out the problem, and
suggesting a few solutions, Shellenberger and Nordhaus have done
environmentalists a great favor. As the saying goes, sometimes your
harshest critics are your best friends.
But, as Ray Ring
reports in this issue’s cover story, solving the problem
won’t be as simple as "re-branding" environmental groups to
make them sound more appealing to the "average Joe." It will take
real actions, hard work and genuine cooperation.
cultural divide in the rural West — between old-timers and
newcomers, between those who cross-country ski and those who drive
snowmobiles, between those who have a college diploma and those
who’ve gotten their education on the land — is real. To
bridge that divide, we will all need to swallow some pride and
really listen to each other. We will all need to remember that
whether the struggle is over the health of the land, or the health
of our neighbors, it’s not something we can walk away from.