« Return to this article

Know the West

Building a more effective environmental movement


The Rebirth of Environmentalism: Grassroots Activism from the Spotted Owl to the Polar Bear
Douglas Bevington
285 pages, softcover: $35.
Island Press, 2009.

In The Rebirth of Environmentalism, activist Douglas Bevington explores the relationship between large national organizations like the Sierra Club and small "grassroots biodiversity groups" like Northwest California's Environmental Protection Information Center. Bevington describes the different strategies these groups employ and analyzes their effectiveness in protecting land and wildlife.

Bevington's own position is clear: "Grassroots biodiversity groups have been the unsung heroes of American environmentalism during the past twenty years." He describes these groups as "small, radical environmental organizations that protect imperiled wildlife and forests, particularly through the aggressive use of litigation."

Bevington focuses on three late-20th century environmental campaigns -- the Headwaters Forest campaign, the zero-cut national forest campaign and the endangered species litigation campaign -- to reveal the often turbulent internal politics of the environmental movement.

In his view, the nationals play an "insider" game where compromise rules and access to the seats of power determines the groups' positions. Grassroots groups, however, use "outsider" strategies free from such considerations. Although he acknowledges that the insider strategy produces results, he concludes that it fails to achieve the level of protection needed. But this perspective is overly simplistic and disregards the accomplishments of national-grassroots alliances.

The Rebirth of Environmentalism invites comparison to The Death of Environmentalism by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus and to their follow-up book, Break Through. All three authors want the environmental movement to act more boldly, but that is about all they agree on. Shellenberger and Nordhaus want established national organizations to become more political in outlook and more strategic in action; they ignore the grassroots groups that Bevington sees as key.

An environmental movement with the power to address today's most pressing problems can emerge, says Bevington, but only if resources are reallocated from established national organizations: "We will need environmental groups that are bold and unconstrained, that do not fear controversy or conflict, and that advocate for what is ecologically necessary rather than what is narrowly seen as politically realistic."

Death or rebirth, the nationals versus the grassroots: At a time of unprecedented environmental challenges, these questions merit serious consideration by all who want to build a more effective conservation movement.