Response to the Death of Environmentalism

I’ve talked about the report, The Death of Environmentalism several times (here and here) because its message has had such a traumatic effect on the movement. In a nutshell, DOE asserts that environmentalism has fixated on technical and incrementalist fixes and policy wonkery and is consequently incapable of addressing large scale environmental issues such as massive biodiversity loss and climate change. Also its authors have found an incredibly receptive community, including funders, to its nihilistic prognosis for the movement and its call for a populist to begin to address the problems of movement flacidity and environmental catastrophe.

In comes the response: The Soul of Environmentalism. To give you a sense of the trauma and the desperate need for a response felt by the authors of SOE, note the following which likens DOE to a “near-death” experience:

“We survived a virus!” cheered Michael Dorsey, a Dartmouth College professor of environmental studies and one of the new paper’s co-authors, before an audience of activists and foundation folks. “Those media guys tried to inject death into our movement. We beat back the grim reaper and those eco-necrophiliacs. We knew and we know when we look around that environmentalism is alive.”

The authors have even launched a blog to further discussion of their report and to forge new alliances among a broad array of organizations.

I have one major critique of SOE. However, let me begin by mentioning its substantive contribution: a re-engagement within the broader environmental community of the problems of environmental racism and classism. The movement has long been accused, and rightly so, of neglecting colour, class, native peoples, and urban issues as it focused largely on the interests of middle class whites–indeed, how the latter constructed nature to protect what we value (green leafy wildernesses instead of asthma free inner cities. Okay it’s polemical but it does have some truth). Robert Bullard’s ground-breaking work on environmental racism in the early 90s ignited interest in mainstream environmentalism; since then the movement collectively has backed away. After, acknowledging our role in perpetuating racism is hardly comfortable. DOE may have enraged many, but it has renewed the bonds that had been languishing.

That being said, SOE answers a question not asked in DOE and does not address the problems actually posed. I agree that DOE’s authors ignored race and class, created a singular set of environmental values where none exists, and adopted the language of the right wing in framing the environment. However, DOE has some things right. In many places, humans cannot live in harmony with nature (however it is socially constructed). Environmentalism is too in bed with traditional policy making processes. It’s too wedded to technocratic solutions such as geographic information systems (as much as I am a proponent of GIS, the advantages of its use versus other strategies such as protest has yet to be definitively proven). Outside of isms, SOE does not address the scalar problem of climate change. Indeed, by the time the peoples of the world come together in something akin the one world government inferred by SOE, there may not be much to save. I’m not saying that I like the solution proposed by DOE, either. It’s that SOE poses the problem, I hate to say it, as a kind of public relations problem, in other words, if only we could sell environmentalism better, or maybe it’s the differential impacts of environmental degradation, then more people would believe.

And who came up with this reframing of environment in SOE? It’s not all bad but some is awful. Remember that the object of reframing is to change the discourse in a direction that achieves your goals. But look at the following: “Fossil fuel use is a symptom of addiction.” Right, the public is going to adopt the discourse of addiction to stop buying SUVs. “One planet, Global community”? This sounds like world government, which to many in the US evokes images of the UN coming in with black helicopters to take over the US. “Expanding human rights to include sexual preference.” Consider that SOE represents a dialogue between the majority and minorities. Unfortunately, minorities are not unanimous in their support of issues such as gay marriage. In this, SOE has replaced one uniformity of values with another.

I’m still waiting for a adequate response for DOE, although I feel the need is less urgent than the authors of SOE do. With DOE, environmentalism has received a much-needed kick in the pants to respond to the big problems facing the world today. A manifesto, such as SOE, is not the solution. Let’s see what the environmentalists come up with.

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