Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds: Empowering our Children with Ways to Protect the Environment while Cultivating the Earth

Friday, April 14, 2006

The Death of My Environmentalism

In their article, “The Death of Environmentalism”, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argue that environmentalists are dooming themselves to failure by persisting in the ideologies and tactics of their historical precedents, the original environmentalists of the 1960’s and 70’s. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus discuss, these original earth-oriented activists were the one’s responsible for the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act, as well as many other important works of environmental legislation. These laws empowered the government to create a healthier American environment, for humans as well as wild things; thus, the first environmentalists were monumentally successful, to a degree that may seem astounding to environmental activists of the 21st century, who have become accustomed to persistent failure and only pyrrhic victories. Partly responsible for these early environmentalists’ success was an ideology that framed them as defenders of a distinct entity, the environment, and a governmental, legislation-focused strategy that usually followed the following pattern, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus describe:

“First, define a problem (e.g. global warming) as “environmental.” Second, craft a technical remedy (e.g., cap-and-trade). Third, sell the technical proposal to legislators through a variety of tactics, such as lobbying, third-party allies, research reports, advertising, and public relations.”

Unfortunately, the authors declare, such tactics are no longer viable in the modern political climate or effective against the horrific, global-scale issues the human race now faces, such as Global Warming. Shellenberger and Nordhaus cite a saddeningly long laundry list of important works of legislation that environmentalists have foundered, flimsied, and ultimately doomed to failure with their archaic stratagems. This list includes the U.S. refusal of the Kyoto Protocol, which devastated attempts to curb global carbon emissions, as well as the arguably fatal concession environmentalists made in 1991, when they abandoned the promising CAFE legislation (Corporate Average Fuel Economy.) If passed, this law might have dampened the environmentally catastrophic rise of the SUV culture in the United States. But environmentalists exchanged the auto industry’s support for the law—which would have allowed it to pass—for a promise that the industry would oppose governmental plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As Americans have recently witnessed, even with the support of the auto industry, the Refuge is far from safe from the threat of drilling; thus, what environmentalists had considered to be a sly tactical maneuver ultimately allowed fossil fuel consumption in the US to skyrocket for a concession from the auto industry that was, ultimately, unhelpful and unnecessary.
The solution to this depressing recent history of failure, the authors claim, is the death of Environmentalism as we know it. The answer is for environmentalists to stop focusing so exclusively on their narrow conception of environment, and what are and are not so-called “environmental issues”, and to embrace a new mode of operation in which issues such as global warming are realized to be, essentially, human problems, and in which traditionally disparate groups such as “labor unions, civil rights groups, and businesses [are treated] not simply as a means to an end but as true allies whose interests in economic development can be aligned with strong action on global warming.”

I read this article a full three weeks ago, and yet still its message is incessantly on my mind, sitting on my shoulder when I’m in meetings with administrators like a little cartoon angel (or, perhaps, a devil?) and while I’m talking with members of my school club, BarnardEarth. Without a doubt, I consider myself an environmentalist; but since reading this article, my self-definition has been a source of discomfort and the subject of wary introspective analysis. Specifically, I’ve had a recent conflict with the head of our school’s Facilities department in which my attitude as an environmentalist, I fear, has been more of an impediment than a boon.
Two weeks ago I met with this man to discuss his department’s recent plans for creating a more energy efficient campus. The plans, he explained to me, are just in the beginning phase. Essentially, before any changes can be made on the ground, Facilities must first submit a proposal to NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority) in order to gain funding for a primary study which will discover which particular developments, out of a lengthy list of potential changes, will be the most cost-effective. After this determination, Facilities may begin installing monitoring systems and working over the out-dated, energy-wasting pipes, valves, and lighting systems that now serve to keep our college warm and bright, but at the cost of the environment. The process, he explained, will take years.
Hearing the good news, that Facilities was independently and spontaneously looking into installing more energy-efficient equipment, I was elated. My first thought was that the student body should be aware of Facilities’ plans; I assumed that many other students would be as eager and happy to learn about Facilities’ submission of a proposal to NYSERDA as I was. However, as soon as I mentioned a possible newspaper article, the head of Facilities became very distressed. Evidently, he was worried about word getting out to students and faculty because he thought it might build up their expectations; when, in fact, no definite plans have been made. As he said, alarmed, We might not even make any changes at all. Nothing is decided yet!
I left his office confused and disturbed. His seemingly excessive confidentiality made me suspicious. Rebelling against what seemed, in the moment, like censorship, I immediately began speculating on how having an article written in the paper would, at least, keep them somewhat obligated to eventually making positive change. When I received an email from Facilities the next day, reminding me that the documents I had been given (I had received a list of the potential changes that Facilities had compiled with the help of a Con-Edison engineer) ought not to be distributed for publication, I responded with a verbose repartee, ultimately declaring that I had already contacted a reporter for our college’s newspaper, the Spectator, and that he could choose whether or not he wished to speak to her.
Looking back on this incident with Shellenberger and Nordhaus in mind, I feel ashamed and regretful. Even beyond the fact that I may have damaged my club’s relationship with a man and a department that are perhaps some of the most environmentally significant on campus, I am sad that I was so rude to a man who I really like, very much. I am charmed by him; he listens to classical Spanish guitar music incessantly, he has innumerable pictures of his daughter strewn across his desk, he is a good listener, and he is definitely smart. I do think he overreacted. But if I had been more compassionate, if I had seen him as a true ally rather than a means to an end, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus urge, I might have been more understanding of his need for privacy. Thinking about it now, it does make sense that the head of Facilities was alarmed at the idea of a newspaper article; often messages get skewed when they are translated by the media, and such an article may well have given students and faculty the idea that the process was further along than it actually is, or that Facilities is definitely planning on making specific changes. I do not doubt that Facilities will ultimately put into place more energy-efficient lighting and heating systems and appliances, simply because this is in their best interest; it will save them a significant amount of money to do so. And this is the reason why it makes so much sense, from a practical standpoint, to consider them as true partners: because, at least in this case, what is good for them is also good for the environment, and thus their success is our success. Personally and practically, I have learned Shallenberger and Nordhaus’s lesson the hard way.

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