“A New Era for Environmentalists” – In 1985

25-Year-Old NY Times Story Reveals a Movement Still Trying to Figure Itself Out

Yesterday I received a letter (made of paper! in the mail!) from the estimable environmental warrior-writer Tom Turner, who for years edited Friends of the Earth’s magazine Not Man Apart and is also the author of several books on green activism. Tom had read my article on the new generation of leaders taking over the environmental movement, and he thought I would be interested in a photocopied clipping of a November 1985 article from the NY Times, “New Leaders and a New Era for Environmentalists.”

Reporting on the ascendance of a fresh crop of leaders at the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, the Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, and Friends of the Earth, the Times’ Philip Shabecoff wrote: “The environmental movement, an agent of broad change in the nation’s economic social and physical fabric in the last 15 years, is about to plunge into a new era as a new group of top leaders steps into place. … The leading national environmental organizations are reassessing their goals, methods, and structure.”

I have to say that the movement chronicler in me was tickled by the repetition from my own reporting: The blast from the past confirmed the coincidences of history, how human experience folds back in on itself. But the Times article from 25 years ago is more than just an eco-curio. The echoes from a previous generation of green leaders contain important lessons for the young leaders of today. If many of the challenges facing greens in 2010 are the same as in 1985, the responses will have to be far different — or history will repeat once again, and this time probably less generously.

Reading Shabecoff’s story, I was struck by how a feeling of instant nostalgia had already set in among eco partisans back in the eighties. “Everyone interviewed warned that the easy victories, the large-scale programs to clean air and water and protect public land, were largely a thing of the past. The issues of the future will be much harder to solve.” Hardly a decade after their salad days, greens — beset by Reagan and James Watt — were on the defensive. Then head of Greenpeace Richard Grossman summed up the mood: “We are at the point where a lot of people think a lot of vitality has gone out of the movement, that the energy and aggressiveness of the seventies has disappeared.”

It was hard not to miss the similarities with today’s green movement. In 1985, as in 2010, environmentalists were trying to balance the need to respond to pressing threats with the long-term strategic imperative of reforming an entire economic system predicated on unsustainable growth and the unallocated costs of negative externalities. “Many of the leaders said their movement would have to come to grips with the basic causes of pollution and the exploitation of resources,” Shabecoff reported. Greens had figured out that to do that, they would need to create meaningful alliances with marginalized communities. “[Peter Berle of the Audubon Society] noted that while the poor often bore the brunt of polluted air and water, and therefore were beneficiaries of environmental activism, there were few minority representatives in national organizations. In terms of goals, he said, environmentalists can no longer focus on single issues but must come up with programs that join economic and social needs with environmental concerns.”

“We are not talking to anywhere near the number of people who should be interested in our issues,” George Frampton of the Wilderness Society said back then.”

Hearing today’s anxieties repeated from a generation ago left me a bit depressed. If the unbearable whiteness of the green movement had been identified as a problem so long ago, how could environmental groups not be more ethnically diverse today? Any why are we still trying to figure out how to, in the words of Barry Commoner, “confront the fundamental political and economic issues”? History’s repetition seems equal parts tragedy and farce.

The biggest difference I could spot between then and now was in the strategies for affecting change. In 1985, the environmental movement was on the verge of becoming “more pragmatic and more a part of the political mainstream” and eager to “upgrade the professionalization of their organizations.” There’s no question that the creation of an environmentalist infrastructure — government agencies, university environmental studies departments, and phalanxes of attorneys — has been an asset to the planet’s ecosystems. At the same time, the increasingly technocratic bent of green groups was already being viewed as something of a liability 25 years ago: “What may be lost, judging by the tone of the interviews, is some of the passion and inspired amateurism that helped produce a torrent of new laws and changes in public attitude.”

In the eighties, environmentalists were eager to clean up, get polished, and go inside the Washington apparatus to push their agenda. In 2010, that move is viewed by many as a mixed success. “At some point in the late seventies, early eighties, we got really aggressive and successful at lobbying Capitol Hill and the White House, and that was a transition from being more of a grassroots environmental community,” Eric Pica, the current head of Friends of the Earth told me. “And I think that the successes that we had … mostly in the seventies … I think we took some of the wrong lessons away. That transformed the movement into this lawyerly, regulatory, DC Beltway-focused community. And we’ve kind of forgotten, neglected the power base that got us to that point.”

Today, there appears to be an emerging consensus that it’s time to get back to “passion and inspired amateurism” of the early seventies. The new leaders of 2010 say what we need is less focused group messaging and inside-the-Beltway maneuverings, and more heartfelt spirit and energy directed encouraged at the grassroots. I hope their instincts are right. Because at this point I don’t think we can wait another 25 years to figure this stuff out.

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