Reports of Environmentalism’s "Death" May be Exaggerated
In 1992, according to Canada-based Environics Research Group, 17 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that "pollution [is] necessary to preserve jobs." In 2004, a whopping 29 percent agreed with it. In the same time span, there was also a significant increase in the percentage who think that the father of a family "must be master in his own house" (52 percent, compared to 21 percent in Canada), and who agree with the statement that "a widely advertised product is probably good" (45 percent).
Clearly, we’re dealing with a more conservative population today than we were a dozen years ago, and environmental positions do not enjoy the same level of support they did in the 1990s. If polls weren’t enough to enforce that point, the 2004 election cycle made it abundantly clear. Those results have caused a good deal of soul-searching, not only among Democrats and liberals generally, but also in the environmental movement.
The tragedy, say many green leaders, is that Americans are tuning out the environment at the very time that big-ticket crises—from global warming to endangered species loss and overfishing of the oceans—need immediate attention. Activists who had thought that President Bush couldn’t get away with simply ignoring the clear evidence that climate change was real were stunned to see that he could
Never was the movement more united in a common goal: getting rid of the President. Bush’s opponents convened America Votes, a coalition that included 20 citizens" groups, from the AFL-CIO, NAACP and NARAL to the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters. The Sierra Club doubled its commitment to put volunteers on the street ringing doorbells, and no one doubts the thoroughness of its effort. In districts where volunteers went door-to-door, more people voted for Kerry than voted for Gore. But the fact remains that the U.S. has winner-take-all elections, and the environment lost big in 2004.
There were obviously many reasons for the sad showing by both the Democratic Party and the environmental cause, but some things stand out. By dutifully indulging in pack journalism on swift boats, the terrorist threat and other items on Karl Rove’s to-do list (while ignoring environmental issues entirely), the media, led by Fox News, helped re-elect President Bush.
Sheldon Rampton, research director of the Center for Media and Democracy and co-author (with John Stauber) of Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, points out that what he calls "the right-wing echo chamber" has "gotten very good at using the habits and weaknesses of media to control the spin on stories. They know the media is entertainment, and they’ve gotten expert at creating controversy. For instance, if the print media wasn’t covering the swift boat issue, they would go on their blogs and say the newspapers aren’t objective. It works. If environmentalists had a similar echo chamber going, and were constantly harping at the media’s anti-environmental bias, the networks would be making effort to provide environmental coverage. They’ve been doing this successfully for decades."
Rampton calls the liberal radio network Air America "a beginning." Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning us to Death, adds, "We need an orchestra and Air America is one of the instruments. With 2004 behind us, we need to be adding more voices like that. And clearly, we have to start thinking two or three years ahead, as the right does." The problem, as Solomon and others note, is that conservative foundations recognize the value of consistent support for a strong media chorus, while the progressive funders do not. "Conservatives know you need multi-year funding to get something off the ground," he said. "It’s a nurturance process, and it’s very difficult with just one-year funding cycles."
Thus, media-friendly think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are able to funnel material to a receptive and influential network that includes Reverend Moon’s Washington Times, Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Fox News, The Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Follow the Money
Another factor in a rising tide of anti-environmental victories, of course, is the current election laws, which ensure that voters will be influenced by a steady flow of corporate cash. Since the candidates actually meet each other only in a few rigidly controlled debates, the public makes up its mind largely on the basis of manufactured images (especially television ads) rather than a vital give-and-take on the issues. Many commentators think that public financing of elections, across-the-board elimination of cash spigots like the 527 organizations, and other reforms would help, but the results are hardly guaranteed. (The McCain-Feingold soft money ban did little to affect electoral cash flow, for instance.) In 2004, total federal election spending was fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. According to OpenSecrets.org, George W. Bush’s campaign raised $367 million, and John Kerry’s $325 million.
Probably the best approach is that taken by such parliamentary democracies as Canada, France, New Zealand and Great Britain, all of which place firm limits on candidates" campaign spending. Most of these countries also restrict television advertising (or offer free time to qualified candidates), making it harder for office seekers to gain an unfair advantage or manufacture a false image. Australia and Ireland also use instant runoff voting, which eliminates primaries by allowing voters to mark a second and third place choice. (Lowest-placed finishers are eliminated, and votes for them transferred to the alternative choices for a second round of counting.) On a level playing field, where the issues can be heard and facts matter, the environmental message could be powerful.
The big green groups did go into the 2004 election cycle with all guns blazing, and they worked together for a common goal. They formed the fundraising 527 organization America Coming Together (ACT), which spent more than $78 million (four times the expenditures of Swift Vets and POWs for Truth) in an effort to defeat Bush. Working on grassroots campaigns, the Sierra Club’s 527 spent more than $8 million; the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) more than $6 million; Environment 2004 and the Natural Resources Defense Council more than $1 million each.
It wasn’t enough, but some analysts see it as a good beginning. The green coalition got no help from the candidate himself. The election became a forum on Iraq, and John Kerry (badly advised by his party) never came up with a strong disengagement message. And inexplicably, Kerry, the candidate with a 96 percent lifetime League of Conservation Voters score, raised environmental issues only tangentially, and with far too little passion.
Deb Callahan, LCV’s executive director, looks to the bright side. While the Presidency and many Senate seats were lost, 76 land protection initiatives were successful in both red and blue states, mass-transit initiatives passed in Colorado and Texas, and a leach-pit mining ban was upheld in Monta
na. The League, which says it won seven of its eight priority legislative campaigns, fielded 18,000 volunteers in five states, and now has 31 state affiliates. "We’re building one of the next big political movements," she says. "We have no dearth of foot soldiers; our task becomes deciding what to have them work on."
LCV has largely shifted its emphasis from mass-media campaigns to grassroots organizing, and is creating a local infrastructure that can be used in off-year local elections as well as on the federal level. Callahan says LCV is also beginning to focus on electoral reform. But the group opposes the pending S.271 "527 Reform Act" because she says it would penalize existing grassroots groups that organize 527 fundraising entities, while leaving intact Swift Boat-type fundraising by unincorporated organizations that aren’t even required to disclose their donors.
Despite the good work, it was clear that the environmental message needs to reach more people, and it needs to be tailored to their specific concerns. Polls show that people overwhelmingly consider themselves to be environmentalists, but it is a second-tier concern for them, and they cast their ballots on security concerns, economic self-interest and values issues. So from Environmental Defense to the Wilderness Society, the groups stuck to a common, unified message but the public’s attention was elsewhere.
The scene was set for some hard truths, and into the breach came Michael Shellenberger, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and Evans/McDonough pollster Ted Nordhaus. Their lengthy essay was provocatively titled "The Death of Environmentalism." When its release last fall was followed by a stunning election defeat, it seemed prophetic and an incendiary bomb thrown at the green braintrust.
The pair accused environmental leaders of treating defeats like victories, of "promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards" rather than "articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis [presented by climate change]." Proposing to destroy the movement in order to save it, they urged leaders to, if not just resign in favor of others who got "the vision thing," then to "step back to rethink everything."
Most observers agree that it was the lurid phrase "death of environmentalism" that helped the essay draw mainstream media attention, including network television appearances (well, a round on the Dennis Miller show), lengthy Q&A interviews on prominent websites and a New York Times cover piece and op-ed.
Not to be outdone, former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach (just 23 when he took the helm) delivered a San Francisco speech declaring that environmentalism was dead and that his task was to perform the autopsy. Like Nordhaus and Shellenberger, Werbach used global warming as a metaphor for environmental failure. And like them, he said that by framing climate change as "an environmental problem" rather than an economic and rule-changing one, the movement was allowing people to relegate it to the background of their lives. "No wonder the public doesn’t want to hear the truth about global warming: Nobody’s offering them a vision for the future that matches the magnitude of the problem," Werbach declared.
In separate interviews, Shellenberger comes off as very confident and a touch arrogant, and Nordhaus more reflective. They’re both very articulate about their vision, and they’ve had some effect. While the report circulated, former Vice President Al Gore held an online press conference in which he described President Bush’s refusal to do anything substantive about climate change "a stunning display of moral cowardice." In the final stages of his Presidential campaign, John Kerry talked a lot about "values."
But Shellenberger says this is just window dressing. "It’s great that liberals are thinking of what they’re doing in moral terms," he says, "but it has to go beyond just using the words. We have to get to the core of American values. This is an up-from-the-bootstraps culture, and environmentalists are telling people what they can’t have. It cuts against American aspirationalism."
What’s more, Shellenberger says, environmentalists are tone deaf to the changes happening around them. "They’re not paying attention to how different the values environment is today," he says. "The U.S. is looking like Texas and the Deep South; it’s increasingly anti-environmental. The groups aren’t paying attention to values and vision. They’re rigid about their proposals and strategies, but compromise on their core values. It shows how far we’ve fallen."
There’s definitely some truth in this. Many major groups have offices in Washington and are sticking to inside-the-beltway mentality about dealing with environmental problems when both the legislature and the federal judiciary are increasingly hostile territory. The Natural Resources Defense Council, for instance, writes in a recent open letter, "Litigation has always been a cornerstone of NRDC’s success in protecting the environment. But now more than ever we must rely on the courts, for there we meet the administration and the big corporations it favors on a level playing field." But is it really a "level playing field" when the Bush administration packs the courts with conservative judges?
Shellenberger sneers at greens who talk about global warming and then urge people to buy hybrid cars or compact fluorescent bulbs as a solution to it. "Thirty or 40 years ago the environmental problems were cleaning up the air and water, very straightforward and simple to deal with. It didn’t require major changes to the economy. But now we’re talking about mass extinction, global warming, an oceans crisis, and it does mean a massive overhaul of the economy."
In "The Death of Environmentalism," Exhibit A for a green group that "gets it" is the Apollo Alliance, which uses "big solutions to frame the problem," and is intent on building alliances with labor to build jobs and end the stranglehold of big oil in a new energy economy. But many of the big groups were already working with the Apollo Alliance, or using its work as a model.
(?)5S? cites the Sierra Club’s unsuccessful strategy for reforming the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules as an example of the movement’s failed approach. "The more things change, the more the strategy remains the same," he says. "The Sierra Club has been trying to increase the fuel-efficiency standards since 1990 and it has been an utter failure."
The "Death" essay is based on a central premise: That only a quarter to a third of the American people are now firmly in the environmental camp—a dramatic drop from the 75 to 80 percent support that most green groups routinely cite. When asked for the data to support this, Nordhaus responded: "We have research that shows that only about that percentage of the American public strongly holds the value that we call ecological concern. That is different than supporting environmental goals. Most Americans will tell you they support clean air and clean water, they just don’t support it very strongly. When we ask them open ended to n
ame the most important problems facing the country, fewer than five percent will generally offer any kind of environmental problem."
LCV’s Callahan denies that the movement needed to be told to build coalitions, since in its 2004 electoral effort the group made common cause with labor, women’s organizations and African-American groups. "Their report was self-serving and contained no fresh ideas," she says.
John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, wants Shellenberger and Nordhaus to, in effect, show him the money. "If their data is that good, they should burn it on 1,000 CDs and turn it into shareware," he says. "I want to see the data."
The Reaction Cometh
Since the "Death of Environmentalism" proposals emerged not from grey eminences but from two guys nobody had ever heard of, the reaction was swift and indignant. Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which worked hard and in wide coalitions to defeat Bush, pronounced himself "deeply disappointed and angered" with their "very troublesome and divisive set of conclusions" in a lengthy rebuttal. Environmentalism, he said, "is a broad, diverse and robust movement," and that diversity was nowhere represented in the authors" essay. Pope pointed out that the paper’s conclusion that the movement is wonkish and lacking in vision was preordained, since it was based on just 25 interviews with what he called "policy people," ignoring such movement "poets" as Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams and Barry Leopold. "They have erected, and then blown aside, a straw man," Pope wrote.
Also interviewed for the essay was the Sierra Club’s Dan Becker, who heads the global warming and CAFE campaign the authors deride. "Their first big accusation is that the environmental movement is not handling global warming the right way, and nobody should be surprised by that or disagree," Becker says. "Their second indictment is that there’s nothing new under the environmental sun, and that’s simply not true. Contrary to what they say, we’ve taken the fight out of Washington and gone directly to the automakers to demand clean cars. Our campaign has created buzz about hybrid cars among sheriffs in Florida, nuns in Missouri and bankers in Ohio. We’ve educated people about available technology, and when blocked on emission rules at the federal level we’ve helped create tough state laws and possibly a Canadian law. And there’s analogous creativity in other parts of the national movement. Not everything we do is going to work, but we’re not going to give up and go away."
By focusing on two campaigns that greens admit are still very much unfinished business—on global warming and CAFE—the "Death" authors make the movement look like losers with nothing to show for 30 years of work. But there are many success stories they ignore. For instance, as Mark Hertsgaard wrote in The Nation, activists have enjoyed huge success by targeting bad behavior by large corporations. "Since Bush’s victory in November, two of America’s best-known brands—Ford and Victoria’s Secret—have been badly stung by such campaigns, and more are planned," he wrote. Among the concrete achievements: Staples and Office Depot are now competing "to be the greenest company in the office supply industry."
Passacantando agrees with Pope that the "Death" authors like to set up straw men, and in this case it’s the CAFE campaign. "But CAFE was never the be-all and end-all of the movement," he says. "It’s a campaign that Dan Becker has led very forcefully, but it is one campaign out of dozens out there, and it still may have its day. In a movement like this, most of our tactics are going to fail."
And despite the federal vacuum on global warming, states and municipalities—prodded by both local and national environmental groups—are adopting policies and guidelines comparable to the best Kyoto tactics emerging from Europe.
Even the most vociferous critics of the "Death" essay admit that Shellenberger and Nordhaus make many good points. Environmental leaders admit—and admitted before being prodded—that they’ve been consistently outmaneuvered by conservatives and need to rethink their approach. "We’re policy experts at our core, but we realized that you can’t get the policy right without the politics," says incoming NRDC President Frances Beinecke. "That’s when we began facing the challenge of conducting a broader conversation with the public about why these issues are important."
Have greens allowed others to "frame" the debate? That’s the part of the "Death" essay that hits home the hardest. But some leaders insist, with ample evidence, that they’ve been working on this issue for some time. Passacantando points out that the movement has long embraced and worked with the strategic thinking of the Berkeley linguistic professor George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! "Lakoff has a fascinating analysis, and the movement is absorbing it in all the ways it can," Passacantando says. "He talks about how the brain is wired, how people view the world through a preconceived lens."
George Lakoff puts political movements on the couch. In addition to Elephant, he is the author of such books as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think and Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. He founded the Rockridge Institute because he thought Republicans were winning the war of words. As he noted in an Alternet interview, "A lot of liberals believe that the facts will set you free. It is our inheritance from the Enlightenment
.And the Republicans have learned that it’s false. They’ve set up a frame, they set up a narrative, and they set it up in terms of their values. And they get it as part of normal, everyday language and normal everyday thought. Once they’ve done that, the facts are irrelevant unless the Democrats can learn to re-frame the issues from their point of view, and then make the facts fit other frames."
On the Rockridge Institute website, Lakoff urges activists to think strategically, and to go on the cultural offensive. "Conservatives have parodied liberals as angry (hence not in control of their emotions), weak, softhearted, unpatriotic, uninformed and elitist. Don’t give them any opportunities to stereotype you in any of these ways
.Avoid the usual mistakes. Remember, don’t just negate the other person’s claims; reframe. The facts unframed will not set you free. You cannot win just by stating the true facts and showing that they contradict your opponent’s claims. Frames trump facts. His frames will stay and the facts will bounce off. Always reframe."
Many of the ideas in the "Death" essay have roots in Lakoff’s work, but he doesn’t use bombastic language, and he says he urged Shellenberger and Nordhaus not to call their essay "The Death of Environmentalism." His alternative title: "The Rebirth of Environmentalism." Lakoff readily admits, however, that his version wouldn’t have drawn as much press. "Shellenberger’s a publicist," he chuckles. "Getting press is his job." The authors acknowledge their debt to Lakoff,
who Nordhaus concedes "has been a major influence."
In an interview, Lakoff said that "many of the things that [Shellenberger and Nordhaus] point out are in agreement with the heads of the major environmental organizations, who understand that environmentalism is not separate from issues of work and jobs, business, health, foreign policy, religion and so on. They’ve been thinking about this for a while, though they’ve been lax in bringing the ideas forward. So it’s the correct critique, but it’s not new."
Lakoff also says that the notion that green groups spend all their time "working out scientific details and publishing scientific papers that have very little effect, though they may be true" is accurate because the groups have not built a frame around the information. "So Michael and Ted conclude that creating papers is a waste of time," Lakoff says. "I say it is worthwhile but you need to add serious framing."
And there’s a division on tactics as well. Lakoff points out that many environmental groups have large Republican constituencies, including fiscal conservatives who hunt and fish, support open space, love national parks or see a business strategy in sustainable development. While the "Death" authors think the movement can only move forward if it becomes a big tent of progressive causes (an idealistic approach), the environmental groups believe they also have to include their "partially progressive" membership (a pragmatic one). "I think both strategies can be followed without messing each other up," says Lakoff. "The short-term strategy is to enlist the partials and the long-term goal is to build a progressive movement."
Lakoff’s work as a consultant to the environmental movement has gotten off to a rocky start. According to Grist, the much-in-demand Lakoff has been slow to fulfill a commitment he made for a long-term reframing project with the Green Group, a coalition of 20 big-ticket national groups. He was to have been paid $350,000 for a three-phase project whose results were due in May, but by early April progress appeared to have stalled.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have their own George Lakoff, a pollster and opinion researcher by the name of Frank Luntz. It was Luntz, the pollster for the "Contract with America," who pointed out that Democrats have science on their side when it comes to global warming, but they will still lose if they go into battle with off-putting scientific jargon and complicated climate models. Meanwhile, the Republicans, using words like "healthy," "clean" and "safe" to describe policies that are none of the above (ie, Healthy Forests Restoration Act, Clear Skies Initiative) will triumph. And as Lakoff points out in Don’t Think of an Elephant!, the right enforces "message discipline," which includes repeating words and phrases like "love," "from the heart" and "for the children" when talking to women audiences.
Luntz sounds just like Lakoff when he says things like, "When you’re talking issues like the environment, a straight recitation of facts is going to fall on deaf ears." And he’s on the same track when he adds, "Eighty percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think. I can change how you think, but how you feel is something deeper and stronger, and it’s something that’s inside you. How you think is on the outside, how you feel is on the inside, so that’s what I need to understand."
So it definitely comes down to a battle over both minds and hearts, with environmentalists needing to get much better at winning the latter. When they were talking about that, Shellenberger and Nordhaus were definitely hitting the target. But many green leaders say they were already marching to that tune.
CONTACT: Breakthrough Institute, http://thebreak through.org (the essay can be downloaded at http://thebreak through.org/images/Death_of_Environmentalism.pdf); Rockridge Institute, (510)204-0646, www.rockridgeinstitute.org.
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.