Death of Environmentalism Essay Ignites Dissent

Published June 1, 2005

An April 20 Gallup poll showed only 1 percent of Americans believe the environment is the most important problem facing the nation today. That finding followed a 2000 poll reporting fully 41 percent of Americans believe environmental activists are “extremists.”

Environmental activists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have a theory about the American public’s declining support for environmental activism, which is creating tremendous dissent and self-criticism within the activist movement. According to their October 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” activist groups today are too extremist, too polarizing, and too lacking in credibility to achieve the broad-based support of the American people.

Only a shift to more moderate, practical positions, devoid of extremist and scientifically unjustified assertions, can recapture the movement’s credibility, argue the authors.

Need for Rethinking

“What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus assert in their essay. “We will never be able to turn around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially tactical.

“Today environmentalism is just another special interest,” the authors explain. “The institutions that define what environmentalism means boast large professional staffs and receive tens of millions of dollars every year from foundations and individuals. Given these rewards, it’s no surprise that most environmental leaders neither craft nor support proposals that could be tagged ‘non-environmental’ [anti-“Green”]. Doing otherwise would do more than threaten their status; it would undermine their brand.”

Identity Crisis

San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Mike Lee, in an April 21 article, observed that 35 years after the first Earth Day, the environmental activist movement is suffering an identity crisis.

“Critics contend that environmentalists lack a compelling vision and say the movement has become just another special interest,” Lee wrote. “Even though environmental groups’ coffers are fat and people of all ages profess interest in ecological issues, the movement arguably has lost its way in partisan politics, seemingly incessant fundraising, and a lack of personal connection to ecological threats such as global warming.”

“Just Another Special Interest”

The current nature of the environmental activist movement leads many to wonder, is a commitment to galvanizing environmental principles fueling environmental activist organizations, or do fundraising goals cynically dictate the substance and tone of the activist agenda?

“We need to have another coming-together of environmentalists to figure out who we are [and] what we stand for,” said Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day, in the Union-Tribune article.

“Environmentalists are trying to fix their tactics and their messages,” said Adam Werbach, a former president of the Sierra Club, as reported by the Union-Tribune. “What I am trying to say is that it’s really an ideas problem.

“Make executive directors go to a red state and try to explain environmentalism,” Werbach told a group of San Francisco environmentalists, the Union-Tribune reported. “If they don’t have a plan to activate the values we share in the majority of Americans, they need to move on.”

Growing Credibility Gap

Others wonder whether a shift in tactics alone can revive the activist movement. An ever-improving environment and the activists’ track record for exaggerating environmental threats has left the general public skeptical of the activist groups’ extremist rhetoric, argue many observers.

“Some of the most important environmental problems, though very real, don’t assault us personally, like the lung-scorching smog or burning rivers of decades past,” said Daniel Hinerfeld, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles, as reported by the Union-Tribune.

“The fundamental problem, as I see it, is that environmental groups are too often alarmists,” New York Times journalist Robert Nicholas Kristof wrote in his March 12 column. “They have an awful track record, so they’ve lost credibility with the public. I was once an environmental groupie, and I still share the movement’s broad aims, but I’m now skeptical of the movement’s ‘I Have a Nightmare’ speeches.”

Explained Kristof, “In the 1970s, the environmental movement was convinced that the Alaska oil pipeline would devastate the Central Arctic caribou herd. Since then, it has quintupled.

“When I first began to worry about climate change, global cooling and nuclear winter seemed the main risks. As Newsweek said in 1975: ‘Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend … but they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.’

“Environmentalists were right about DDT’s threat to bald eagles, for example, but blocking all spraying in the Third World has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths.”

“Anti-Human Philosophy”

Journalist Robert Bidinotto, in a March 13 column, argued that while the activist movement certainly has a credibility problem, its current problems are more deeply rooted.

“The underlying problem for environmentalists is not that they typically engage in factual distortions and scaremongering for a good cause. The problem is that their cause isn’t good,” Bidnotto asserted. An “anti-human premise in fact lies at the root of most environmentalist scaremongering and ‘extremism.’ All of them tacitly assume a value system in which humans and their activities are, by nature, immoral.

“If environmentalists truly care to do something about their own waning credibility and influence,” Bidinotto added, “what they first need to confront and reject is their anti-human philosophy.”

Out of Mainstream

Jonathan Adler, associate director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, said the anti-property rights, pro-regulation beliefs of environmental activist groups place them out of the mainstream of public opinion.

“Many Americans, including many local environmentalists, [realize] protecting property rights and ensuring new regulations are cost-beneficial [and] fully compatible with environmental protection,” said Adler. “Today too many greens think the only way to advance environmental values is through a massive (and growing) federal regulatory state.”

Until the activist groups’ big-government prescriptions change, Adler argues, the activist movement will continue to struggle for support among mainstream Americans.

“Modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new might live,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus summarized in their essay.

The question the movement must now ask is, What will be born to take its place?

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s October 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” is available online at