To All–thought provoking,..
ENVIRONMENTAL FAILURE: A CASE FOR A NEW GREEN POLITICS
By James Gustave Speth
A specter is haunting American environmentalism — the specter of failure.
All of us who have been part of the environmental movement in the
United States must now face up to a deeply troubling paradox: Our
environmental organizations have grown in strength and
sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill, to
the point that the prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. How
could this have happened?
Before addressing this question and what can be done to correct it,
two points must be made. First, one shudders to think what the world
would look like today without the efforts of environmental groups and
their hard-won victories in recent decades.
However serious our environmental challenges, they would be much more
so had not these people taken a stand in countless ways. And second,
despite their limitations, the approaches of modern-day
environmentalism remain essential: Right now, they are the tools
readily at hand with which to address many pressing problems,
including global warming and climate disruption. Despite the critique
of American environmentalism that follows, these points remain valid.
The need for appraisal would not be so urgent if environmental
conditions were not so dire. The mounting threats point to an
emerging environmental tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
Half the world’s tropical and temperate forests are now gone. The
rate of deforestation in the tropics continues at about an acre a
second, and has for decades. Half the planet’s wetlands are gone. An
estimated 90 percent of the large predator fish are gone, and 75
percent of marine fisheries are now overfished or fished to capacity.
Almost half of the corals are gone or are seriously threatened.
Species are disappearing at rates about 1,000 times faster than
normal. The planet has not seen such a spasm of extinction in 65
million years, since the dinosaurs disappeared. Desertification
claims a Nebraska-sized area of productive capacity each year
globally. Persistent toxic chemicals can now be found by the dozens
in essentially each and every one of us.
The earth’s stratospheric ozone layer was severely depleted before
its loss was discovered. Human activities have pushed atmospheric
carbon dioxide up by more than a third and have started in earnest
the most dangerous change of all — planetary warming and climate
disruption. Everywhere, earth’s ice fields are melting. Industrial
processes are fixing nitrogen, making it biologically active, at a
rate equal to nature’s; one result is the development of hundreds of
documented dead zones in the oceans due to overfertilization.
Freshwater withdrawals are now over half of accessible runoff, and
water shortages are multiplying here and abroad.
The United States, of course, is deeply complicit in these global
trends, including our responsibility for about 30 percent of the
carbon dioxide added thus far to the atmosphere. But even within the
United States itself, four decades of environmental effort have not
stemmed the tide of environmental decline. The country is losing
6,000 acres of open space every day, and 100,000 acres of wetlands
every year. About a third of U.S. plant and animal species are
threatened with extinction. Half of U.S. lakes and a third of its
rivers still fail to meet the standards that by law should have been
met by 1983. And we have done little to curb our wasteful energy
habits or our huge population growth.
Here is one measure of the problem: All we have to do to destroy the
planet’s climate and biota and leave a ruined world to our children
and grandchildren is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today,
with no growth in human population or the world economy. Just
continue to generate greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue
to impoverish ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current
rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit
to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels —
they are accelerating, dramatically.
The size of the world economy has more than quadrupled since 1960 and
is projected to quadruple again by mid-century. It took all of human
history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. We now grow by
that amount in a decade.
The escalating processes of climate disruption, biotic
impoverishment, and toxification, which continue despite decades of
warnings and earnest effort, constitute a severe indictment of the
system of political economy in which we live and work. The pillars of
today’s capitalism, as they are now constituted, work together to
produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive
environmentally. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic
growth at any cost;
All we have to do to destroy the planet’s climate and biota is to
keep doing exactly what we are doing today.
powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by
generating profit (including profit from avoiding the environmental
costs their companies create, amassing deep subsidies and benefits
from government, and continued deployment of technologies originally
designed with little or no regard for the environment); markets that
systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected
by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests
and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by
sophisticated advertising and marketing; economic activity now so
large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical
operations of the planet — all combine to deliver an ever-growing
world economy that is undermining the ability of the earth to sustain
Are Environmentalists To Blame?
In assigning responsibility for environmental failure, there are many
places to lay blame: the rise of the modern, anti-government right in
American politics; a negligent media; the deadening complexity of
today’s environmental issues and programs, to mention the most
notable. But a number of observers have placed much of the blame for
failure on the leading environmental organizations themselves.
For example, Mark Dowie in his 1995 book Losing Ground notes that the
national environmental organizations crafted an agenda and pursued a
strategy based on the civil authority and good faith of the federal
government. “Therein,” he believes, “lies the inherent weakness and
vulnerability of the environmental movement. Civil authority and good
faith regarding the environment have proven to be chimeras in
Washington.” Dowie argues that the national environmental groups also
“misread and underestimate[d] the fury of their antagonists.”
The mainstream environmental organizations were challenged again in
2004 in the now-famous The Death of Environmentalism. In it, Michael
Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus write that America’s mainstream
Today’s environmentalism accepts compromises as part of the process.
It takes what it can get.
not “articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the
magnitude of the crisis. Instead they are promoting technical policy
fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards —
proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the
political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem.”
Shellenberger and Nordhaus believe environmentalists don’t recognize
that they are in a culture war — a war over core values and a vision
for the future.
These criticisms and others stem from the fundamental decision of
today’s environmentalism to work within the system. This core
decision grew out of the successes of the environmental community in
the 1970s, which seemed to confirm the correctness of that approach.
Our failure to execute a dramatic mid-course correction when
circumstances changed can be seen in hindsight as a major blunder.
Here is what I mean by working within the system. When today’s
environmentalism recognizes a problem, it believes it can solve that
problem by calling public attention to it, framing policy and program
responses for government and industry, lobbying for those actions,
and litigating for their enforcement. It believes in the efficacy of
environmental advocacy and government action. It believes that good-
faith compliance with the law will be the norm, and that corporations
can be made to behave and will increasingly weave environmental
objectives into their business strategies.
Today’s environmentalism tends to be pragmatic and incrementalist —
its actions are aimed at solving problems and often doing so one at a
time. It is more comfortable proposing innovative policy solutions
than framing inspirational messages. These characteristics are
closely allied to a tendency to deal with effects rather than
underlying causes. Most of our major environmental laws and treaties,
for example, address the resulting environmental ills much more than
their causes. In the end, environmentalism accepts compromises as
part of the process. It takes what it can get.
Today’s environmentalism also believes that problems can be solved at
acceptable economic costs — and often with net economic benefit —
without significant lifestyle changes or threats to economic growth.
It will not hesitate to strike out at an environmentally damaging
facility or development, but it sees itself, on balance, as a
positive economic force.
Environmentalists see solutions coming largely from within the
environmental sector. They may worry about the flaws in and
corruption of our politics, for example, but that is not their
professional concern. That’s what Common Cause or other groups do.
Similarly, environmentalists know that the prices for many things
need to be higher, and they are aware that environmentally honest
prices would create a huge burden on the half of American families
that just get by. But universal health care and other government
action needed to address America’s gaping economic injustices are not
seen as part of the environmental agenda.
Today’s environmentalism is also not focused strongly on political
activity or organizing a grassroots movement. Electoral politics and
mobilizing a green political movement have played second fiddle to
lobbying, litigating, and working with government agencies and
A central precept, in short, is that the system can be made to work
for the environment. In this frame of action, scant attention is paid
to the corporate dominance of economic and political life, to
transcending our growth fetish, to promoting major lifestyle changes
and challenging the materialistic values that dominate our society,
to addressing the constraints on environmental action stemming from
America’s vast social insecurity and hobbled democracy, to framing a
new American story, or to building a new environmental politics.
Not everything, of course, fits within these patterns. There have
been exceptions from the start, and recent trends reflect a
broadening in approaches. Greenpeace has certainly worked outside the
Organizations built to litigate and lobby are not necessarily the
best ones to mobilize a grassroots movement.
the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have had a
sustained political presence, groups like the Natural Resources
Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund have developed
effective networks of activists around the country, the World
Resources Institute has augmented its policy work with on-the-ground
sustainable development projects, and environmental justice concerns
and the emerging climate crisis have spurred the proliferation of
grassroots efforts, student organizing, and community and state
But organizations that were built to litigate and lobby for
environmental causes or to do sophisticated policy studies are not
necessarily the best ones to mobilize a grassroots movement or build
a force for electoral politics or motivate the public with social
marketing campaigns. These things need to be done, and to get them
done it may be necessary to launch new organizations and initiatives
with special strengths in these areas.
The methods and style of today’s environmentalism are not
wrongheaded, just far, far too restricted as an overall approach. The
problem has been the absence of a huge, complementary investment of
time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change. And
here, the leading environmental organizations must be faulted for not
doing nearly enough to ensure these investments were made.
America has run a 40-year experiment on whether this mainstream
environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in. The full
burden of managing accumulating environmental threats has fallen to
the environmental community, both those in government and outside.
But that burden is too great. The system of modern capitalism as it
operates today will continue to grow in size and complexity and will
generate ever-larger environmental consequences, outstripping efforts
to cope with them. Indeed, the system will seek to undermine those
efforts and constrain them within narrow limits. Working only within
the system will, in the end, not succeed — what is needed is
transformative change in the system itself.
A New Environmental Politics
Environmental protection requires a new politics.
This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental
concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The
environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to
consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a
healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society
should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a
redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep
change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a
powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values
that currently dominate.
Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in
addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America’s social
fabric and undermining its democracy. It is a crisis of soaring
executive pay, huge incomes, and increasingly concentrated wealth for
a small minority, occurring simultaneously with poverty near a
30-year high, stagnant wages despite rising productivity, declining
social mobility and opportunity, record levels of people without
health insurance, failing schools, increased job insecurity, swelling
jails, shrinking safety nets, and the longest work hours among the
rich countries. In an America with such vast social insecurity,
economic arguments, even misleading ones, will routinely trump
Similarly, environmentalists must join with those seeking to reform
politics and strengthen democracy. What we are seeing in the United
States is the emergence of a vicious circle: Income disparities shift
political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large
businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic
process to act to correct the growing income disparities.
Corporations have been the principal economic actors for a long time;
now they are the principal political actors as well. Neither
environment nor society fares well under corporatocracy.
Environmentalists need to embrace public financing of elections,
regulation of lobbying, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting, and
other political reform measures as core to their agenda. Today’s
politics will never deliver environmental sustainability.
The current financial crisis and, at this writing, the response to
it, reveal a system of political economy that is profoundly committed
to profits and growth and profoundly indifferent to people and
society. This system is at least as indifferent to its impacts on
nature. Left uncorrected, it is inherently ruthless and rapacious,
and it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject
values of fairness and sustainability into the system. But this
effort commonly fails because progressive politics are too enfeebled
and Washington is increasingly in the hands of powerful corporate
interests and concentrations of great wealth. The best hope for real
change in America is a fusion of those concerned about environment,
social justice, and strong democracy into one powerful progressive
The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to
build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major
efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the
state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and
appeals — indeed, writing a new American story, as Bill Moyers has
urged. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by
lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more
from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.
Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive,
reaching out to embrace union members and working families,
minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s
movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared
fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still
needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental
community from those working on domestic political reforms, a
progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace,
consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world
poverty and underdevelopment.
The final watchword of the new environmental politics must be, “Build
the movement.” We have had movements against slavery and many have
participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and
the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of “the
environmental movement.” We need a real one — networked together,
protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and
corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to
realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.
Can one see the beginnings of a new social movement in America?
Perhaps I am letting my hopes get the better of me, but I think we
can. Its green side is visible, I think, in the surge of campus
organizing and student mobilization occurring today, much of it
coordinated by the student-led Energy Action Coalition and by Power
If there is a model within American memory of what must be done, it
is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
It’s visible also in the increasing activism of religious
organizations, including many evangelical groups under the banner of
Creation Care, and in the rapid proliferation of community-based
environmental initiatives. It’s there in the joining together of
organized labor, environmental groups, and progressive businesses in
the Apollo Alliance and there in the Sierra Club’s collaboration with
the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in the United
States. It’s visible too in the outpouring of effort to build on Al
Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and in the grassroots organizing of
1Sky and others around climate change. It is visible in the green
consumer movement and in the consumer support for the efforts of the
Rainforest Action Network to green the policies of the major U.S.
banks. It’s there in the increasing number of teach-ins,
demonstrations, marches, and protests, including the 1,400 events
across the United States in 2007 inspired by Bill McKibben’s “Step It
Up!” campaign to stop global warming. It is there in the
constituency-building work of minority environmental leaders and in
the efforts of groups like Green for All to link social and
environmental goals. It’s just beginning, but it’s there, and it will
The welcome news is that the environmental community writ large is
moving in some of these directions. Local and state environmental
groups have grown in strength and number. There is more political
engagement through the League of Conservation Voters and a few other
groups, and more work to reach out to voters with overtly political
messages. The major national organizations have strengthened their
links to local and state groups and established activist networks to
support their lobbying activities. Still, there is a long, long way
to go to build a new and vital environmental politics in America.
American politics today is failing not only the environment but also
the American people and the world. As Richard Falk reminds us, only
an unremitting struggle will drive the changes that can sustain
people and nature. If there is a model within American memory for
what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It
had grievances, it knew what was causing them, and it also knew that
the existing order had no legitimacy and that, acting together,
people could redress those grievances. It was confrontational and
disobedient, but it was nonviolent. It had a dream. And it had Martin
Luther King Jr.
It is amazing what can be accomplished if citizens are ready to
march, in the footsteps of Dr. King. It is again time to give the
world a sense of hope.
James Gustave “Gus” Speth is the dean of the School of Forestry and
Environmental Studies at Yale University. His most recent (and
important) book is The Bridge at the Edge of the World (Yale
University Press, 2008