Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"Environmentalism" fiddles while the planet burns

In case you missed it, the United States Senate has given up on trying to pass a law that would slow down the nation's greenhouse gas emissions. Even after the nation's worst oil spill in history and scorching heat waves worldwide, Democrats failed to gain any Republican support for their proposals.

So we'll just have to let the planet stew in its own juices and wait until the next time progressive lawmakers with a 60-vote majority in Washington might be compelled by a massive environmental emergency to do something. But who wants to bet that can happen before our modern society and political institutions melt away in the heat?

In the last few days, there's been a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing from pundits and politicians. But I think that one of the best responses came from David Roberts at Grist, in a post headlined 'Environmentalism' Can Never Address Climate Change.

Roberts writes:
Environmentalism has a well-defined socioeconomic niche in American life. There are distinct cultural markers; familiar tropes and debates; particular groups designated to lobby for change and economic interests accustomed to fighting it; conventional methods of litigation, regulation, and legislation. Environmental issues take a very specific shape.

The thing is, that shape doesn't fit climate change. Climate change -- or rather, the larger problem of which climate change is a symptom -- isn't like the issues that American environmentalism evolved to address.
He goes on to make the point that the environmental establishment had its genesis in, and grew from, its battles against industry. Early environmental activists shut down factories that were dumping sludge into rivers and lakes and rammed their boats against whaling ships. Later environmental activists took industry to court over more abstract environmental problems like mercury emissions and underground groundwater contamination.

Those big problems have been largely addressed: by most measures (if you leave out greenhouse gas pollution), our American physical environment has less pollution to deal with now than we've had since the industrial revolution took hold.

So: can the same environmental establishment that gave us the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts save us from global warming? The recent failure in Washington does not inspire confidence, and Roberts makes a compelling case for why that is:
The entry of the problem [climate change] into American politics via environmentalism has set it on a certain cultural and political trajectory that is both inadequate and extremely difficult to escape.

Addressing the climate challenge will crucially involve restraining industry emissions (the vaunted "cap"). But that is only one of myriad strategies and changes that will be necessary. The environmental advocacy community has tried, of late, to reshape itself to the contours of the problem before it. It has tried to act with a more singular focus, in a more unified way, and to bring other interest groups (military, religious, etc.) into the fold. It has tried to reorient around a more forward-thinking, positive agenda ("clean energy"). Contrary to a lot of the sniping you hear these days, the efforts of those involved have been heroic.

But it's an impossible task. There is no siloed progressive interest group that can engineer the wholesale reindustrialization of the United States. Period. No amount of clever framing or thoughtful policy proposals can overcome the basic limitations of interest group politics.

Many green leaders are now saying that what's missing is a climate movement. That's obviously true in some sense; this will be the work of generations. But the question is whether "the environmental movement" can catalyze a big enough movement to be effective on this problem.

What needs to happen is for concern over earth's biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement -- and movement politics, as handed down from the '60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.
To put it another way: this can not be a traditional environmentalist battle against industry, because nearly everyone agrees that industry - and the entire economy - is what needs to be reinvented in order to stop burning fossil fuels and start finding more innovative, efficient forms of energy.

I have worked for years inside and in league with a number of old-line environmental groups, and from that perspective, I unfortunately have to agree with Roberts's diagnosis. "Environmentalism" carries too much baggage from the baby-boom generation whose suburban-back-to-the-land, materialist lifestyle has done so much climate damage.

For many people my age, it's extremely frustrating to see dominant "environmental" organizations behave as though the most productive thing we can do is to buy up lots of land for conservation reserves. Or worse, when we pour thousands of dollars' worth of nonprofit resources to file injunctions against the "scenic impacts" of clean energy projects.

Sure, these things satisfy the comfortable baby-boomers who want to have a nice view outside the picture windows of their ski condos.

But these kinds of actions, and their funders, are calcifying the environmental establishment into something that's demographically old and elite, and politically out-of-touch and ineffective.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the environmental establishment fiddles while the entire planet burns.

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