Is Environmentalism Dead?

A response to the recent essay ”The Death of Environmentalism“

World Reports

The re-election of that very problematic George carried an expensive lesson: that in spite of all the tremendous organizing, new strategies, and rallying ‘round that environmentalists did to defeat the Bush agenda — we need to get bigger, be smarter and more creative.

In that respect, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s essay “The Death of Environmentalism” is not very useful or even new. Their arguments mirrored many ideas put forth way back in 1980 articulating the reasons Earth First! was born: Beltway groups had grown too comfortable in their access to decision-makers, and were compromising rather than challenging those decision-makers and the movement’s assumptions. Do we still labor under parallel problems today, despite our progress? You bet we do. But Michael and Ted, don’t sit on your high and mighty (and very white) horses in judgment — take some risks! Push the limits! If mainstream groups are big lumbering elephants — maybe big dead elephants — then call them out, by all means, but call them out by name. Then see what you can propose that is visionary and challenging.

Maybe some of those groups do need to close their doors. Shellenberger and Nordhaus stop miles short of that suggestion. We need to evolve. But I am not looking to mainstream groups for my hope. Exciting ideas fomenting change are percolating up from the grassroots. Shellenberger and Nordhaus did not poll the grassroots.

Case in point: My friends Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project (GJEP) were recently in Buenos Aires at the UN Conference on Climate Change. They were there to offer alternate views to the UN-endorsed “market solution” to global warming through carbon trading, particularly because the UN proposal for plantation forestry includes genetically engineered trees in the equation. After the conference they traveled to Chile to meet with the Mapuche people to discuss their opposition to plantation forestry, and particularly GE tree plantations.

But were the DC groups standing beside Anne and Orin at their press conference in Buenos Aires? No. It was the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and the World Rainforest Movement (WRN) — grassroots groups. Granted, the UN-endorsed “remedy” is but one angle in the climate change debate, albeit a potentially far reaching and inauspicious one, particularly because of threats it poses to wild native forests. But the main reason mainstream groups were not at that press conference is because IEN’s and WRN’s opposition exposed the underlying motives for a market solution — corporate profits and corporate control. Grassroots activists are on board with that analysis. “Policy groups” are not.

When we break down why the right is so effective, we need to include a critique of corporate power. Is it left out (as Shellenberger and Nordhaus did) because those same corporations that are the bane of earth defenders bankroll the foundations that fund the environmental organizations?

Which brings us to the ultimate irony of Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ essay — while they criticize mainstream groups for sucking up grant money without creating real change, they sucked up grant dollars to write an uninspiring piece. Why not use that money to get some creative and radical minds together and brainstorm?

So come on, Michael and Ted, let’s stir things up. And while you’re at it, take a few risks and agitate and organize, organize, organize. See you in the trenches?

Karen Pickett is a grassroots environmental activist. See Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s essay, and more discussion of it, at

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