Can Environmentalism Reinvent Itself?

By Keith Kloor | July 5, 2011 10:29 am

An intellectually bankrupt, marginalized social movement with an expired shelf life is at a crossroads. (Metaphor mix alert!)

On Saturday, a Guardian article asked:

Has the green movement lost its way?

True, we have heard this tune before. This time, however, there is mounting evidence that more charter members of the club are at last recognizing that contemporary environmentalism is in a protracted death spiral.

In her Guardian piece, Susanna Lustin uses the recent conversion of former green activist Mark Lynas (the latest heretic?) to explore the case for a curdled enviro movement, a thesis summed up here in the article’s subhead:

Anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist, anti-flying: the green movement may have alienated more people than it has won over, and there are now calls for a new kind of environmentalism.

What would that entail? Well, here’s Lynas in a weekend opinion piece published elsewhere:

Solving many of the world’s most critical environmental challenges will, in some cases, involve doing the exact opposite of what most environmentalists want.

Rather than retreating into hair-shirt austerity, I believe that, just as technology got us into this mess, technology is vital to get us out of it.

That means embracing some things that will make a lot of Green believers choke on their organic muesli.

It has taken me a long time to reach this conclusion. I used to passionately oppose not only nuclear power but GM crops. I once even threw a pie in the face of a Danish scientist who dared to question the orthodox environmental line. So what changed?

Through research, I found that much of what I believed about environmental issues had little, if any, basis  in science. Put simply, though my  concerns were right, my solutions were wrong.

Some–especially climate skeptics–will likely see a contradiction in that last sentence and might argue that his “concerns” also have “little, if any basis, in science.” I suppose his new book, published this week in the UK, details not just his awakening but also his argument for the validity of those environmental concerns, and the solutions he believes (and many greens reject) necessary to tackle them.

By now, this all might be too much for committed environmentalists to stomach, so I don’t expect them to have much appetite for Walter Russell Mead’s recent three-part deconstruction of Al Gore, international climate policy, and environmentalism. (Here’s part one, two, and three.) I echo Matt Ridley, who said, “I don’t agree with everything” in these essays, but also like Ridley, I think there’s plenty that is “perceptive” and worth reading. For example, who can disagree with Mead on this:

“Climate of Denial,” Vice President Gore’s “Rolling Stone“ essay is not, I am sorry to say, very useful as a guide to resuscitating the environmental movement.  It is largely reduced to the classic loser sandlot complaints: the other side didn’t play fair, they had bigger kids and the refs were biased.  Al Gore seems to want the climate movement to behave like the French Bourbons: to forget nothing in the way of grievances “” and to learn nothing about how to do better next time.

All pretty much true, except the facetious part about Mead being “sorry to say” the essay is not a useful primer to resuscitate environmentalism. But if you’re open-minded, don’t let Mead’s criticism of Gore keep you from reading on, or you might miss this:

Whatever one thinks of the scientific evidence for climate change, Gore is on much stronger ground when he argues that the earth is warming than when he argues that a great green global treaty on the lines he proposes can ever be either adopted or enforced.  There are a great many scientists and scientific journals who agree with Mr. Gore about climate change.  Perhaps they are all frauds and mountebanks “” but that is a tough case to make in the court of public opinion.  Once the argument moves to science it goes into complex and tricky terrain from which the broad lay public will draw only uncertain conclusions.  Gore does not win the scientific argument as decisively as he would like “” but his opponents cannot deliver a political death blow there, either.  The lay public perceives angry experts and dueling theories with a large but not totally convincing preponderance of evidence on Gore’s side.

There is, however, no serious evidence in either history or political studies to suggest that his approach to the problem can ever be adopted or will ever work.  Like war, global warming may well be real “” but that doesn’t mean a treaty can help.

The green movement’s core tactic is not to “hide the decline” or otherwise to cook the books of science.  Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science.  Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.

To argue with these people about science is to miss the core point.  Even if the science is exactly as Mr. Gore claims, his policies are still useless.  His advocacy is still a distraction.  The movement he heads is still a ship of fools.

Make of that what you will, but I happen to think the green movement is also tottering because it: 1) has gone stale,  2) has narrow demographic appeal, and perhaps most importantly, 3) has no compelling narrative (other than doomsday is always around the corner, and people are bored by that one).

Which is why I think the novelist Ian McEwan, in that Guardian piece, is on to something when he explains why he believes interest in climate change is waning:

I think it’s got a lot to do with human nature. Most issues have a narrative, with the sense of an ending or resolution ““ the referendum is passed, the government falls ““ but this really is a lifetime story, and not just our lifetime, but our children’s and their children’s. We are decades away from the point where we say, ‘We’ve finally deflected the rising curve of Co2 emissions, so let’s have one last push to fix it for good.’ We’ve made no impact on this rising curve as yet, and it’s hard to keep interest and optimism alive.

Generally speaking, that’s the big challenge for greens: keeping interest and optimism alive.

  • Eli Rabett

    Oh goody, more Calvinball.  Try this one.  Industry and the rich have lost their way and are endangering everyone.  Journalists are doing their part.

  • cagw_skeptic99

    Or try this one.  Temperatures have been level or even falling for about fifteen years.  Sea level rise is not accelerating and may even be declining.

    The latest news stories from the CAGW believers has it that Chinese coal usage has emitted enough sulfur to offset CO2.  If you believe this, then the world is safe because the Chinese and others will continue to increase their use of coal to produce electricity.

    Same proponents want us to believe that sulfur caused the cooler weather in the 50s and 60s.  I am curious how many true believers will stay on board if the next two or three decades follow the well established pattern and are colder than recent averages.  No amount of failure to predict the future by believers in these grandiose computer models seems to have any effect on the intensity of the religion, but the number of worshipers does seem to be declining.

    There is probably more money to be made going forward by applying for grants to study the coming ice age.  It worked for a while in the 70s, and  most likely will work again in the teen and 20s.  Be the first at your institution to get a new age grant, and you can be the Hanson/Jones/Mann of the next generation.

  • EdG

    One of the fundamental mistakes of ‘environmentalism’ has been to create a simplistic ‘good-evil’ dichotomy which attempts to blame ‘industry and the rich’ for all the world’s problems.

    Another fundamental mistake has been incessant wolf crying. This made more sense once, to generate public interest and rally support, but has long since become counterproductive due to its increasing shrillness.

    The problem is that the modern ‘environmental’ movement has become a gigantic industry built on wolf crying and it will need to be dramatically downsized to fall in line with the actual need for their services. Like any industry, those with vested interests will fight that all the way.

  • Barry Woods

    2 thoughts – nice phrase – published elsewhere – meaning The Daily Mail. 😉

    For most UK greens Mark Lynas writing in the Daily Mail is evidence of heresy and in the pay of big nuclear (he twittered that he and Goerge had been accused of it 😉 ! )

    Leaving aside the headline (not Mark’s – I checked)

    The contents would appear to burn a few bridges with some of the deep green uk groups:
    One of the reasons the Green movement is failing to attract support is that it has too much cultural baggage and is too ideologically rigid. Any reconsideration of the orthodox position “” even for the sake of the environment “” is seen as a betrayal.
    Politically speaking, the Green Party is trapped in the irrelevance of the Far Left. Trendy lifestyle choices such as shopping at farmers’ markets don’t address the issues of climate change and diminishing biodiversity.
    The Green demands that we should drive less, holiday at home, subsist on root vegetables and shiver in colder houses in order to use less energy are counter-productive as well as unnecessary. What we need to do is find a source of clean, green energy, which will provide the energy we need without radically altering the way we live.
    The other thought is that I would really recommend  – Solar – Ian McEwan – as he seems to completely get academic politics and NGO’s in a humourous way

  • Keith Kloor


    I believe that Mark’s turnabout is sincere. But he’s also being a smart capitalist, drumming up attention for his new book. One time-honored strategy is to write opinion pieces pegged to your book’s publication.

    If and when i write my first book, I’ll be sure to try to get news of it in as many places as possible, including low brow tabloids.

  • Gaythia

    I think that the environmental movement is missing a key point when it comes to Al Gore.  In my opinion, Al Gore is the victim of very clever, very deliberate character assassination.   Al Gores personality is what it is.  On an objective basis, I see no reason that it is a more defective personal style than say, George W. Bush.  But things are at the point where merely mentioning his name among those that are not already convinced of the wisdom of his views creates an incredibly negative response.
    Several links to Al Gore’s article were distributed to my in-box by various environmental groups, with the idea that I would further distribute the article among my friends.
    This was an utterly worthless attempt.  It has nothing to do with the way he worded things in the article.  Nobody would get to that point.
    I think that this is personally sad for Al Gore.  I think it is true that he is the victim of what amounts to very sophisticated adult bullying.  The swift-boating of John Kerry was similar.  I don’t know if there are public relations techniques that can over come this after the fact or not.  At the very least, we ought to figure out ways to combat this before it gets to the point where there is brain freeze when a public figure’s name is mentioned.
    From the point of view of the environmental groups however, I think that the only reasonable short term option would be to use other spokespersons, or groups of spokespersons, in a more carefully thought out plan of educational outreach.

  • Barry Woods

    7 – Oh I agree about the book promotion

    BUT, to write that in the Daily MAil, will have burnt many a green bridge permanently. he will have been aware of that, loss of goodwill will not have been for a few book sales.

    then again, this is consistent that the green have lost their way, (UK at least) seen as left, anti capitalist, home front, carbon rationing – (TEQ report by the –  The Dark Optimist 😉 activist, massage therapist, philosophy grad, government  DECC advisor and expert peer reviewer for the Climate Policy journal – I might write about him soon.)

  • Barry Woods

    Why would anybody bother to do a character assasination of Al Gore – when he is doing such a good job all by himself…

  • Keith Kloor

    @8-That’s disingenuous. Gaythia is right–and it arguably was a factor in his 2000 loss to Bush (though, again, he won the popular vote). The problem is, Gore unlike Bill Clinton, was unable to deftly overcome the character attacks (the way Kerry couldnt either).

    Now, to be fair, all politicians running for high office are subject to these campaigns from the political dirty tricksters. But the Rove smear machine is in a special class unto itself. Just ask John McCain about that.

  • Ed Forbes

    “…Through research, I found that much of what I believed about environmental issues had little, if any, basis  in science…”
    does go to the point of the issue

  • ivp0

    This mirrors my own experience.  As an active card carrying member of Greenpeace, NRDC, and The Cousteau Society for over 15 years, I believed I was a small part of a larger organization that would save the world.  The closer I got to the leadership in these organizations I found that it was really more about “sticking it to the man” than saving the world.  I stopped the bus and promptly got off.  I realized that I was “the man”.

  • Barry Woods

    I’m not great on past american elections, it is his refusal to debate.. and shouting at Roger Harrabin – for asking Inconvenient questions!

  • Jeff Norris

    I don’t agree that the Environmental Movement is tottering but in many ways it is the victim of its own success.  The Movement was about raising awareness of specific environmental abuses and encouraging conservation of resources and has been successful.   The problem arose when it tried to become the primary driver of individuals and governmental actions.   Questioning the government and challenging people to consider alternatives is much easier than being the government and changing people.

    Keith’s concern about the over use of a Doomsday Narrative in general is probably wrong.  That narrative has been very effective, especially when to stave off Armageddon for all, requires only the sacrifice of the few.

    Complaining about the treatment of Gore is ridiculous.  The hard cold fact is that any movement that  allows  a  living breathing person  to be the public face or authority on it will be tied directly to that persons past or present actions.  Why do you think the Federalist Papers and many other political writings used a pseudonym?   Not to offend anyone, but not wishing  to be tied to your past maybe  one reason for the practice of  regnal names.  

  • Dean

    Actually, this all indicates a coming of age for a movement. A movement in which everybody agrees isn’t a real movement. Disagreements, rustiness, staleness, changes in who it appeals to. It just means that the easy pickings are past and it may move into a new phase. It’s pretty normal that when something new like this comes up, it’s protaganists are fairly united. There is nothing like success to draw a wedge into the group as the variations in priorities and strategies come to the fore. And a division between those who focus on technology for solutions and those who focus on lifestyle changes is hardly a new dichotomy. So I really don’t see any news in this. These divisions have existed within environmentalism for years. Lynas may be new to it, but if he isn’t aware of it’s past, bad for him.

  • cagw_skeptic99

    Suggestions for environmentalists who want to do something positive:

    1. Focus on air and water pollution that doesn’t involve CO2.

    2. Get rid of the wind turbines that blight the landscape and produced essentially nothing of value.

    3. Encourage the use of nuclear energy to replace dirtier alternatives.

    4. Quit with blaming the energy companies, creationists, Republicans, etc. for the lack of interest in CAGW. The campaign against CO2 has been a huge distraction and has essentially no chance of actually causing meaningful behavior changes on a global scale.

  • dorlomin

    Last year Greenpeace ran a very succesfull campaign against Nestle and its choice of palm oil supplier as it was causing habitat loss for the Orang Utang.

    This year they have been part of the campaigns against over fishing that have been led by media celebrity chefs that have had an impact on choice of fishing.

    Why change what is working because Keith has no stomach for a fight on global warming?
    I did see a post about how AGW dominates the green agenda, no it dominates the corperate media ageda as its a manufactured controvosy.

    Keiths criticism tend to be vague and appeal to his anti AGW fans.
    They have very little to do with what is happening in reality.

  • Keith Kloor

    dorlomin (17),
    You make a fair criticism. There are specific environmental campaigns that raise awareness, change consumer and corporate behavior, such as the ones you cited. And there are others. I didn’t intend to give the impression that all environmental activism is for naught.
    My post, as short and incomplete as it was, is more a commentary on the public face of environmentalism as it is represented in the big signature issues–climate change, energy, sustainability, etc.
    On those issues, if you think what’s working…well, the evidence seems clear.
    Jeff (13)
    I agree about it being a victim of its own success. But as for the doomsday narrative, I think people tune it out.

  • Jarmo

    I think many people are concerned with the same issues as environmentalists. However, the solutions that environmentalist NGO’s tout seem ignore the reality altogether.

    Take Kyoto Protocol. The math: industrialised countries (1 billion people) cut emissions while developing countries (6 billion) increase emissions. The result is not a decrease of global emissions.

    First of all, a large share of the cuts are achieved by outsourcing the dirty industrial processes to developing countries, who then export the results back to developed countries. A zero sum game.

    Second, here in Europe the EU will cut 20% of their emissions by 2020. This cut will be offset by 2013 by China’s emissions. They will increase more than the EU 20% cut between 2011 and 2013.
    Kinda hopeless…. especially since Europeans are the only ones really doing something.

  • jeffn

    Jarmo- you’re close to hitting the nail on the head with this: “Take Kyoto Protocol. The math: industrialised countries (1 billion people) cut emissions while developing countries (6 billion) increase emissions. The result is not a decrease of global emissions.”

    The only part you’re missing is the additional fact that the AGW political platform insists on the patently false claim that we’ve “done nothing and blocked action on emissions.” In fact, we’ve done quite a lot- we learned that solar and wind can’t replace coal, we asked and learned that there is no support for returning to a “sustainable” stone age, and Kyoto style treaties and cap-n-trade don’t work. Those are important discoveries no matter how many lefties are in denial about them.

    We’ve also found common ground on an action plan- the Republicans are happy to let you build as many nuclear plants as you want, they simply aren’t willing to pledge fealty to Al Gore as a pre-requisite. Lynas’ and Monbiot’s problem is that they’ve noticed this and are appalled to discover the green movement cares more about politics than emissions.
    Keith- Al Gore lost ’cause people were mean to him? Really? Rove is in a class by himself- worse than James “drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park” Carville? Well, anything that gets you through the day. In all seriousness though, how likely is it that the only reason you lost in 2000 was that because folks like Dan “Fake but Accurate” Rather are just too rough on Democrats?

  • Jarmo

    to jeffn:

    The challenge of de-carbonizing is great and very few people (both in rich and poor countries) are ready to make sacrifices and cut down their standard of living to save the planet in the future.

    As far as politics is concerned, the reality is well-captured in these two pieces of news I saw today:

    In the first one David Cameron pledges that all government personnel will fly coach, saving some minuscule amount of carbon.
    In the second one, AirAsia, a carrier with 90 aircraft, orders 300 Airbus jets. Boeing predicts that over 33,000 new planes will be delivered by 2030.

  • jeffn

    I agree with one caveat- I think decarbonizing is “great” but it becomes impossible to do if you assume some sort of forced sacrifice – ie “cut down their standard of living.”
    That is the nub of the fight- the greens want sacrifice, not action. You can take action now by building nuclear plants and by planning for a future where electricity is abundant and inexpensive. The only way to move from fossil fuels in transportation is with a starting point of abundant, inexpensive electricity. It’s the only way the storage (batteries) make economic sense. Once you shift power generation and transportation off of fossil fuels you’ve tackled a big chunk of emissions.

  • Jarmo


    I think you just tackled the question that Keith’s latest post dealt with. The “green culture” values which, in my humble opinion, have a limited appeal.

    I completely agree with Mark Lynas when he said that technology got us into this mess and technology will get us out of it. Fossil fuels are right now the cheapest energy around. Energy is wealth and as you said, abundant energy is the key out of this mess.



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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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