The Long Death of Environmentalism
Last week Breakthrough co-founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus returned to Yale University for a retrospective on their seminal 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism.” In their speech they argued that the critical work of rethinking green politics was cut short by fantasies about green jobs and “An Inconvenient Truth.” The latter backfired — more Americans started to believe news of global warming was being exaggerated after the movie came out — the former made false promises that could not be realized by cap and trade. What is an earnest green who cares about global warming to do now? In this speech, Nordhaus and Shellenberger reflect on what went so badly awry, and offer 12 Theses for a post-environmental approach to climate change.
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
It is a great pleasure to be here at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies for this retrospective on “The Death of Environmentalism.” In early 2005 Yale invited us to debate that essay, and since then the School has continued to demonstrate a genuine interest in what our friend and colleague Peter Teague has taken to calling ecological innovation. You train your students to ask hard questions — we saw this first hand in 2010 Breakthrough Fellow and Yale School Masters candidate David Mitchell — and your flagship publication, Yale360, is publishing some of the most interesting green thinkers today. We are grateful once again for this opportunity to reflect on the nearly seven years since we wrote our essay, and make some new arguments about what the green movement must do now.
Seven years ago the two of us started interviewing America’s environmental leaders with the intention of writing a report on the politics of global warming for the October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. We came away from the experience deeply disappointed. Not one of the environmental leaders we interviewed articulated a compelling vision or strategy for dealing with the challenge. None expressed much interest in rethinking their assumptions about the problem or the solutions. What we heard again and again during our interviews were the same old riffs that green leaders had been repeating since the late 1980’s. Global warming would be solved through the same kinds of policies that we had used to address past pollution problems such as acid rain. Most were confident that John Kerry was, with their help, about to be elected president, and the biggest funders in the movement told us they were just a few steps away from passing cap and trade legislation.
That October we delivered our paper, “The Death of Environmentalism,” at the Environmental Grantmakers Association conference. While leaders at environmental philanthropies and national green groups hoped that the debate the essay started would just go away, “The Death of Environmentalism” struck a cord with many others and sparked a spirited debate. Many took the paper’s arguments personally and, without question, the most common reaction to our essay was “I’m not dead.” Our friend Adam Werbach gave a speech called “Is Environmentalism Dead,” wherein he suggested that environmentalists make common cause with a broader coalition of progressive interests in hopes of building a broader and more diverse movement. And Yale’s own Gus Speth questioned whether capitalism itself was compatible with ecological sustainability and suggested a radical shift in values was required to deal with the problem.