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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Code Blue for Conservation

July 29, 2008

By Charles Alexander

Illustration © Janusz Kapusta/SIS

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus haven’t quite reached the status of American Idol stars. But if you Google their names together, you’ll get more than 6,200 Web pages. Ever since last October, when they had the nerve to deliver their famous “The Death of Environmentalism” manifesto at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, they’ve stirred an uproar in conservation circles. Admirers praise Shellenberger and Nordhaus for prodding environmental groups to do some much-needed soul-searching, while critics of the essay could hardly be more upset if they saw Dick Cheney crashing an Earth Day rally. The debate will rumble on next year when “The Death of Environmentalism” will be turned into a book by Houghton Mifflin, which—as Shellenberger’s bio presumptuously notes—was the publisher of Walden and Silent Spring.

The provocative young duo may not be Thoreau and Carson, but they have enough green credentials to be taken seriously. Shellenberger, 34, is executive director of the Breakthrough Institute in El Cerrito, California. Nordhaus, 39, is a founder of the American Environics opinion and market research firm in Oakland (to conserve space, let’s call them S&N). Although both cut their teeth working on campaigns for conservation groups, they are now disillusioned. “Today environmentalism is just another special interest,” write S&N. “Modern environmentalism… must die so that something new can live.” That something new is a “progressive” movement that will create “new institutions and proposals around a big vision.” But if environmentalism is shoved into a new progressive (that’s a less loaded word than “liberal”) agenda, will the green movement become even more unpalatable to conservatives and suffer more political setbacks? Is protecting the environment no longer a value that can be shared by people of all political persuasions?


“Modern environmentalism,” write S&N, “is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis”—namely climate change. S&N have a good point. If humanity lets climate change get out of control, then much of the effort to protect individual species and habitats could be overwhelmed and undone. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars invested, environmental campaigns against global warming have flopped, say S&N, because environmentalists have not offered an inspiring plan for change.

Instead, green groups have narrowly defined global warming as a technical problem (too much carbon in the atmosphere) and offered uninspiring technical fixes (carbon limits, fluorescent light bulbs, hybrid cars). Moreover, they are Chicken Littles on global warming when they could be talking about a rosy future full of clean energy. “Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech is famous,” S&N write, “because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision… Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an ‘I Have a Nightmare’ speech instead.”

Following their own dream, S&N in 2003 helped bring together the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of environmental and other activist groups, labor unions, and business leaders that is promoting a giant investment plan to build energy-efficient factories, clean transportation, and renewable power systems. Invoking the program that put astronauts on the moon, the Alliance says its New Apollo Project can rebuild America’s infrastructure, create millions of jobs and boost economic growth (see box). As the biggest public-works bonanza since the New Deal, it could revive the political appeal of environmentalism. “The whole idea with Apollo is to achieve our global warming objective without talking about global warming and instead talk about jobs,” said Shellenberger in an interview with Conservation In Practice (CIP) .


If a jobs program were the only thing S&N wanted to graft onto environmentalism, then few would dispute their strategy. But there are hints of a broader agenda. In their paper, S&N ask, “Why are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global warming is?” It’s hard not to get the impression that S&N would like environmentalists to march with the peace movement, social justice groups, and other left-of-center factions.

In the CIP interview, Shellenberger denied any such interpretation. “We are not advocating that environmentalists move to the left,” he said. Nor, he continued, should they link up with other liberal movements, which he considers just as “moribund” as environmentalism. The progressive movement he envisions does not yet exist.

Even so, some of the people close to S&N seem a lot like old-style progressives. One is Adam Werbach, a former president of the Sierra Club, a cofounder of the Apollo Alliance, and now Executive Director of Common Assets, a group that aims to protect assets ranging from the environment to Internet access to democracy. Soon after S&N presented their paper, Werbach chimed in with a speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco entitled “Is Environmentalism Dead?” His first line answered the question. “I am here to perform an autopsy,” he declared. In the movement he envisions, Werbach made clear that conservatives would not be welcome. “Are you a progressive or a conservative?” he asked the audience. “If you’re a conservative and believe in dismantling our government, selling off our common assets, and endless war, but you still love nature, we wish you well, but we need you to leave this movement. We invite you to attack the conservatives, but don’t try to make us ignore the plight of immigrants, stay out of gay rights, or stay silent on the war.”

It was revealing to look at the website for Shellenberger’s Breakthrough Institute as this article was written. Given equal prominence on the home page with the New Apollo Project was a campaign to have Martin Luther King, Jr.’s portrait replace Andrew Jackson’s on the US$20 bill. In the “Strategy” section, the Institute listed environmental issues side-by-side with “Stop Government Control of Marriage (equal marriage rights for gays)” and “Jubilee 2000 (debt relief for poor countries).” As worthy as all these causes may be, they amount to a grab bag that could put off conservatives even as they fire up liberals.

Since when did the environment become a partisan issue? Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, who greatly expanded our national park and forest systems? And it was Richard Nixon, hardly a tree-hugger, who signed all the landmark environmental laws of the early 1970s. In recent years, though, some conservative commentators (Rush Limbaugh springs immediately to mind) have portrayed environmentalism as a kooky, radical ideology that values spotted owls over humans, wants to take away everyone’s property rights, and stands in the way of economic progress. To some people, environmentalist has become one of those “-ist” words, uncomfortably close to socialist and communist. This is an unfair caricature of environmentalism, but if Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Werbach keep lumping conservation together with other social issues, they run the risk of reinforcing the notion that enviros are knee-jerk leftists. In an interview with CIP, Nordhaus dismissed the idea that environmentalism could attract some Republicans back to the fold and become bipartisan again. “Honestly,” he said, “I don’t see where these moderate Republicans are. They are a dying breed. The Republican Party of Theodore Roosevelt and even Richard Nixon simply doesn’t exist any more. It’s gone.”

Whether or not that’s true, the desire to protect the environment for future generations remains a widely held American value. It’s just been trumped lately by war, terrorism, and the health-care and education messes. In the case of global warming, the public has been lulled into complacency by more than a decade of disinformation from the fossil-fuel industries, which have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to convince people that climate change is no big deal.

The oil-and-coal money machine has not yet killed environmentalism, but its assault has inflicted serious wounds, and public protests have been in vain. At a time when all sorts of issues merit a Million Mom March, Earth Day rallies no longer generate much press. For the moment, environmentalism doesn’t have anyone with the star power of a Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver an “I Have a Dream” speech.

So will the don’t-worry-be-happy message of the fossil-fuel industries remain unchallenged? How can the health and power of the green movement be revived? Here are some possible prescriptions, although they aren’t guaranteed to be fast-acting:

Sell Sell Sell. Environmentalists are always moaning that if they just got more free attention in the media, things would be different. More coverage—particularly by TV news—would certainly help, but that’s not the answer. The media are so splintered in this digital age that newscasts and newspapers are reaching shrinking audiences. Only if a story is big enough and timely enough to saturate all the media—like the Iraq war—does it capture the public’s fancy. But such a story is more likely to be about the Michael Jackson trial than the environment. Climate change is not a breaking story. It’s a slow-moving, hardly noticeable disaster. Cursed by a chronically short attention span, TV news will never give climate change the prominence it deserves.

Maybe it’s time for environmental groups to do what business does to get its messages across: advertise. Right now, conservation amounts to a US$4-billion industry with no coherent marketing and no strategy for telling most people what it’s trying to accomplish.

An ad campaign can blitz all media simultaneously. Many green groups have used small-scale advertising, but mostly as a matter of self-promotion (we’ve all seen the World Wildlife Fund’s panda). What’s needed is for all environmental groups and conservation-minded foundations to pool a portion of their resources to mount a massive offensive with one slogan and one message to raise public awareness. Industry does it all the time with “Coke is the Real Thing” or “Intel Inside” or “Got Milk?” It’s even worked before in the environmental arena: “Keep America Beautiful” was an indelible campaign in the 1970s that convinced millions of Americans to stop littering. None of us who saw those ads can forget the image of the Native American with the single tear running down his cheek. Now he has an entire planet to cry about.

Of course, the difficulty with mounting a unified campaign for the environment is that it is nearly impossible to get the groups and foundations to agree, much less give up a portion of their revenue for a common cause. But imagine if environmentalists acted more like dairy farmers in getting out their message.

Call Out the CEOs. The perils of climate change have given environmentalists some surprising (and largely untapped) allies who have more than their fair share of clout in the U.S. Congress: corporate CEOs. In recent years, the heads of such multinationals as DuPont and Xerox have publicly warned of the risks of global warming and launched programs to reduce their companies’ carbon emissions. And this spring, along came Jeffrey Immelt, Chairman of the Board and CEO of General Electric, who unveiled an Ecoimagination initiative to reduce GE’s greenhouse gas outputs and boost its sales of alternative-energy technology. He teamed with Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute, to write a column for the Washington Post about the need to “revolutionize the way we produce and consume energy.”

So far, Immelt has stopped short of endorsing specific legislation such as the Climate Stewardship Act introduced in the U.S. Senate by Republican John McCain and Democrat Joe Lieberman (the House has a counterpart bill). But he and like-minded executives should join with environmentalists in demanding action. Together they should lobby Congress just as hard as their opponents on the other side of the debate. It’s time for the business community as a whole, working side-by-side with green groups, to stand up to the fossil-fuel industries and declare that, although the world economy’s dependence on oil and coal may help oil and coal companies, it will ultimately be disastrous for every other company on the planet.

Where are the rest of business’s big guys? Microsoft’s Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are spending millions to bring health care and vaccines to poor countries. That’s wonderful, but the effort may go to waste if climate change brings droughts that ravage the developing nations. When is Gates going to realize that global warming—not Google—poses the greatest threat to his legacy? He and other wealthy CEOs have the stature to influence policy and the money to make political contributions and support environmental advertising. They could make an enormous difference.

Be Willing to Compromise. S&N are no doubt right that the environment would fare better politically if a progressive majority were forged in the U.S. Yet green groups pinned all their hopes on defeating George Bush last year, and it didn’t happen. Environmentalists have to face the possibility that the political climate will not change any time soon. That’s why their support of compromise, bipartisan measures like the McCain-Lieberman bill is so important. The proposed legislation would start a regime of limits on carbon emissions by companies, and a market in emissions permits would enable businesses to make reductions efficiently. But the two Senators were unsuccessful in an effort to get their proposal attached to the energy bill that Congress was working on as this article went to press.

Admittedly, compromise will sometimes be painful. Senator McCain has tried to win conservative votes for carbon limits by supporting subsidies for nuclear power—which, for all its problems, at least has the virtue of not releasing any greenhouse gases. McCain-Lieberman is obviously not a complete solution to the climate crisis, but it would be at least a step in the right direction for a change.

Nordhaus argues that nothing significant will happen in Congress without a major polit-ical shift. “It’s wishful thinking,” he said in the CIP interview, “to believe that you’re going to cut a meaningful deal on climate change with an administration and a majority in control that is completely hostile to the entire project.” But it’s not correct, as S&N would have us believe, that the fight against global warming has been a total failure. Enough nations ratified the Kyoto Protocol to put the treaty into effect last February, although the U.S. and Australia are major holdouts. Even in the U.S., according to a report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 28 states, including New York and California, have worked on programs to curb carbon emissions and, as of June 2005, the mayors of at least 166 American cities, from Seattle to Charleston, had agreed to apply the Kyoto standards in their own communities.

The main obstacle to action lies in Washington D.C., where two oilmen occupy the White House, but they may not be able to hold back the momentum for change much longer. It’s time for action—not just the brainstorming that S&N are doing, as valuable as that may be in the long run. When it comes to climate change, the world doesn’t have time to wait for a transformation of American politics.

No, environmentalism is not dead. But S&N are right about one thing: environmentalism is not enough. The campaign against global warming—and for preservation of the biosphere—is too important to be left to environmentalists or liberals or progressives or whatever label you choose. It is a campaign in which ideology and partisanship have no place. With so much at stake, environmentalists will have to join forces with far-sighted business, labor, religious, and political leaders of all stripes. Future generations are counting on it.


If America could marshal the will and resources to put astronauts on the moon in less than a decade, couldn’t a similar spirit of determination sharply reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels almost as quickly? Couldn’t the nation—and the world, for that matter—create countless jobs and jump-start economic growth by lining land- and seascapes with windmills, capturing the power of the sun, and building an economy that runs on hydrogen produced by renewable energy sources? That’s the idea behind the Apollo Alliance, which brings together such unions as the AFL-CIO, United Mine Workers and United Steel Workers; such ecogroups as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Global Green USA; such business leaders as Lotus Development Corporation founder Mitch Kapor and environmental architect William McDonough; and such activist organizations as Action for Grassroots Economic and Neighborhood Development. In addition to touting ideas for revolutionizing power production and transportation, this New Apollo Project calls for green construction codes that will make buildings use less energy, revitalization of urban centers to discourage suburban sprawl, and research into ways that industry can store carbon rather than release it into the atmosphere.

Of course, the original Apollo program had no opponent nearly as fierce as the fossil-fuel industry. While U.S. Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat and a member of the Apollo Alliance Board of Advisors, is pushing for a New Apollo Energy Act that would provide US$49 billion in loan guarantees for the development of alternative power such as wind and solar systems, Congress is expected to produce an energy bill tilted toward the usual suspects—oil, gas and coal. So the Alliance is focusing much of its lobbying effort on state and local governments. For example, California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, another Apollo advisor, has launched the Green Wave Initiative, which calls for the state’s pension funds to invest US$1.5 billion in environmentally friendly technologies and companies that agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To help get the public behind its goals, the Apollo Alliance has worked with the Campaign for America’s Future and other groups to produce video and print ads that emphasize America’s need to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. One ad, for instance, shows a line of wind turbines and talks about “how a windmill in Ohio could be the key to our national security.” But if you haven’t seen these ads, you are not alone. Although you can find them on the Internet, they have had very little exposure in traditional media. Until the Apollo allies decide to put serious money behind their campaign, they’ll have a tough time fighting the ExxonMobils of the world.

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About the Author

Charles Alexander is a former editor of TIME Magazine, where he directed the magazine’s environmental coverage. After 23 years there, he is now an independent journalist aiming to raise environmental awareness through writing, editing, speaking, teaching, and consulting.

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