Dead In the Water?

May 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
The Counter-Enviro Power List

It's not unusual for hostile outsiders to bash the environmental movement, but lately mainstream enviros have faced a far more painful sort of attack: the kind that comes from within.

Leading the charge are Michael Shellenberger, 33, and Ted Nordhaus, 39, two political strategists who caused a firestorm last October when they released a 36-page manifesto called "The Death of Environmentalism." Their thesis: that the movement, "with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies," is facing a crisis of irrelevance. In their view, environmentalists haven't seriously updated their thinking in 30 years and are failing to effectively address the most pressing challenge of the day, global warming.

Considered scandalous by many old-guard greens, their work drew fire from Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, who denounced it as "unfair, unclear, and divisive." But Shellenberger and Nordhaus aren't backing down. "Let's face it: Right now, the GOP is trouncing the environmental movement," says Nordhaus, an Oakland, California–based pollster. "It hasn't helped that our leaders are mostly literal-minded wonks."

Shellenberger, the executive director of an El Cerrito, California–based political organization called the Breakthrough Institute, says his group hopes to reenergize the environmental movement—partly by leaving the old mistakes of environmentalism behind, and partly by learning from strategies used by conservatives. He and Nordhaus have signed a deal with Houghton Mifflin to write a book detailing their political values and vision.

Also sounding the alarm: Adam Werbach, 32, the wunderkind who at 23 became president of the Sierra Club and who pronounced environmentalism DOA at a December 2004 speech in San Francisco. Over the past few years, Werbach says, he's felt like "a hospice worker trying to make the last days of environmentalism as painless as possible." Today he runs Act Now Productions, a company that creates media campaigns for progressive clients. Werbach hopes to inspire a movement that focuses on progress, not just problems. "Americans are aspirational: They dream of making things better," he says. Environmentalism will be meaningful again, he argues, when it does more than just paint nightmares.