Man-Made Hurricanes And What To Do About Green Ineptitude

by | Jul 10, 2005

Last January, Grist Magazine ran “The Death of Environmentalism: Global warming politics in a post-environmental world” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. In the foreword, Peter Teague, Environment Program Director for Nathan Cummings Foundation ties global warming to the increasing number of hurricanes the Gulf Coast is now experiencing. And since the Gulf Coast is experiencing another one right now, this seems an opportune time to take a look at an excerpt from the piece.

We believe that the environmental movement’s foundational concepts, its method for framing legislative proposals, and its very institutions are outmoded. Today environmentalism is just another special interest. Evidence for this can be found in its concepts, its proposals, and its reasoning. What stands out is how arbitrary environmental leaders are about what gets counted and what doesn’t as “environmental.” Most of the movement’s leading thinkers, funders and advocates do not question their most basic assumptions about who we are, what we stand for, and what it is that we should be doing.

Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” — “the environment” — than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Thinking of the environment as a “thing” has had enormous implications for how environmentalists conduct their politics. The three-part strategic framework for environmental policy-making hasn’t changed in 40 years: 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.

When we asked environmental leaders how we could accelerate our efforts against global warming, most pointed to this or that tactic — more analysis, more grassroots organizing, more PR.

Few things epitomize the environmental community’s tactical orientation to politics more than its search for better words and imagery to “reframe” global warming. Lately the advice has included: a) don’t call it “climate change” because Americans like change; b) don’t call it “global warming” because the word “warming” sounds nice; c) refer to global warming as a “heat trapping blanket” so people can understand it; d) focus attention on technological solutions — like fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars.