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Know the West

An identity crisis, a decade or two late


"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.

Now, environmentalists 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 didn’t work.

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.

The 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.