A Call to Reinvigorate Environmentalism…

September 23rd, 2008

Posted by: admin

I recently came across an interesting article by Jeffrey St.Clair published in February 2007. St.Clair is a progressive journalist/activist and is an outspoken critic of the effectiveness of environmental NGOs:

A kind of political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement. Call it eco-ennui. You may know the feeling: restlessness, lack of direction, evaporating budgets, diminished expectations, a simmering discontent. The affliction appears acute, possibly systemic…

…this much is clear: the vigor of the environmental movement has been dissipated, drained by the enforced congeniality displayed in our disputes with Clinton and Bush, the Democrats in congress, and the grim, green-suited legions of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Despite the rampages of the Bush administration, the big green groups can’t even rouse themselves into much more than the most reflexive kind of hysteria, fundraising letters printed in bold type…

Once highly regarded (and deeply reviled) as fierce advocates of the “public interest,” environmentalists now are largely dismissed in the living rooms of America as merely another “special interest” group (weaker than most), peddling its meager influence on the Hill, angling for access to the anterooms (never the control room) of power, or, at least, a line item in the federal budget…

The surest sign of decadence in a social/political movement is its engagement in the suppression of internal dissent: such decadence now erodes the moral core of the environmental movement. Stray beyond the margins of permitted discourse, publicly critique the prevailing “strategy,” strike out in an authorized new direction and the overlords of the environmental movement crack down. They enfilade the insurgents with legalistic maledictions, gag orders, and accusations of sedition…

National environmental policies are now engineered by an Axis of Acronyms: EDF, NRDC, WWF: groups without voting memberships and little responsibility to the wider environmental movement. They are the undisputed mandarins of technotalk and lobbyist logic, who gave us the ecological oxymorons of our time: “pollution credits,” “re-created wetlands,” “sustainable development”…

Environmentalism was once a people’s cause, unaligned with any political party and independent from the demands of the shadowy syndicate of mega-foundations (Pew, Rockefeller, Ford) that now hold the mortgage on the movement-those high priests of what Foucault called “condescending philanthropy.” Environmentalism was once driven by a desire for social justice and an unremitting passion for the wild. We need to tap back into those populist currents…

10 Responses to “A Call to Reinvigorate Environmentalism…”

  1. stan Says:

    “Rampages of the Bush administration” ???!!!

    This guy needs to find his way back to earth. Environmentalists got their precious biofuels subsidies — and the poor and hungry of the world rioted over the resulting 70% increase in the cost of food. Environmentalists got their polar bear designation on the endangered species list — despite a tripling of their numbers.

    Over the years, environmentalists won the fight in stopping nuclear power plants, won the fight on drilling in the hellholes of Alaska, and won the fight over drilling off-shore — and the public has seen gas prices spike while terror supporting regimes raked in trillions of dollars.

    Environmentalists won the fight over banning DDT — and millions of poor people have died needlessly from malaria.

    For years environmentalists won just about everything they fought for. The public has started to see the results in food prices, gas prices, and millions of dead Africans.

    Global warming alarmists like Gore and Hansen are being exposed as frauds. Any environmentalist with sense is keeping a low profile. Just what exactly does Cherney expect of environmentalists — a Pickett’s charge into the guns of an angry public?

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  3. stan Says:

    Oops. Meant to refer to the author of the article, not the author of the post. Should have been “St. Clair”. Sorry about that chief.

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  5. Francois Ouellette Says:

    “National environmental policies are now engineered by an Axis of Acronyms: EDF, NRDC, WWF: groups without voting memberships and little responsibility to the wider environmental movement.”

    The same thought occured to me recently when they have been talking about a major hydroelectric project here in Quebec, on the Romaine river. Hydro-Quebec has learned many lessons over the years, and this time they have managed to forge a large consensus, including the local aborigines, and the local population. Environmentally, the project if very carefully crafted.

    Despite this large consensus, the media gave a lot of space to a so-far unknown environmentalist grouping who, of course, oppose the project. When I heard them talk on the radio, I asked myself “Who are they representing? Exactly how many members do they have?” That is apparently not a question the journalist would ask. I guess it’s OK to be a small opposition group, but it would be good to know how minuscule you can get and still be granted so much media space.

    By systematically opposing everything, the environmentalist groups don’t help their cause, and alienate a lot of people. Maybe, in fact most probably, they are the victims of their success. Environmental considerations are now mainstream, so they have no choice but to radicalize.

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  7. David Cherney Says:

    Stan, no offense taken. ;-)

    Few people would argue against the fact numerous substantive gains have been made by the environmental movement over the last 40 years — even in the last eight. And you are right; following St.Clair’s advice might be a Picket’s charge. However, many environmental minded individuals are dissatisfied with the state of the environmental movement and environmental policy outcomes more generally. Off the top of my head, others include Sharon Beder, Mark Dowie, Robert Gottlieb, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Adam Werbach.

    Perhaps we should refocus our attention from “rampages of the Bush administration” towards some of the other issues St.Clair raises:

    1) Why does he perceive that a “political narcolepsy has settled over the American environmental movement?” If he is right, why has this occurred?

    2) Does the perception of environmentalism as a “public interest” to a “special interest” matter?

    3) Who are non-membership based environmental NGOs accountable to?

    4) How has the affiliation of environmentalism and the Democratic Party affected the environmental movement in the United States?

    I do not have good answers to these questions. However, they certainly are worth thinking about.

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  9. stan Says:

    Before addressing your questions, a more basic one needs to be determined — is there a single, coherent “environmental movement”? I don’t think so. Everybody (even real estate developers and oil company employees) wants clean air and clean water. The goals of the movement have gone far beyond clean air and water. And these have costs that many Americans are not willing to bear.

    “Environmentalist”, like “feminist”, has become a term that has lost popularity as the activists running the leading political groups have become viewed as extremists. Too many seem to be willing to sacrifice people in support of their “worship” of mother earth.

    I fully expect that there will be some splintering. As food prices and gas prices put tremendous strain on the poor, environmentalists are going to have to choose between advocating for people or advocating for even higher prices.

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  11. David Cherney Says:


    Of course there is not a single, coherent environmental movement. The same can be said of nearly every social movement. One could likely make a strong argument that there is not a single, coherent Republican or Democratic Party — too much diversity in perspectives/goals exists.

    However, does simplifying the diversity of perspectives help us understand the political and social dynamics associated with environmentalism? I think so. Should we continue to remind ourselves of your point? Always.

    You are basically asking the question ‘has the term environmentalism been hijacked from some individuals that consider themselves to be environmentally minded?’ This directly relates to my second question in comment #4.

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  13. stan Says:

    [btw, Sen. Inhofe made a speech about it today.]

    The Democrats and the GOP are each coherent on one central goal — the need to elect more of their members to office. My point on “environmentalists” is that I don’t believe there is any goal about which a significant number of Americans are willing to rally.

    What’s the goal? To “save” the planet?

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  15. David Cherney Says:

    In a previous post, I spoke to the number of Americans that claim to belong to an environmental group.


    Presumably, the 12-20 million Americans that belong to an environmental group have some vision of the future in mind (i.e.goals). With just over 120 million people voting in the 2004 presidential election, I would consider 12-20 million to be a significant number of Americans. Because we cannot clearly articulate the goals of the ‘environmental movement’ in this thread does not mean that the environmental movement does not exist.

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  17. stan Says:

    Unresponsive. If you can’t articulate what the goals are, the assertion that common goals must exist falls flat. Members of Ducks Unlimited have a common goal.

    Everyone wants clean air and clean water. Everyone also favors good jobs, freedom, justice, low inflation, high employment, quality schools, low taxes, responsible government, low crime, love and peace. [not to mention good local restaurants and free, convenient parking] None of that makes for a movement.

    Note, that St. Clair’s does explain what he thinks the goals are (or were): “Environmentalism was once driven by a desire for social justice and an unremitting passion for the wild.” Of course, that sounds a lot more like the rant of a extremist than the goals of a mainstream movement seeking to attract a large group of voters.

    And a nit — all members of environmental groups should not be assumed to be voters or even adults. The proper denominator is a lot higher.

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  19. David Cherney Says:

    Unresponsive? No. A difference in perspective? Yes.

    I do not buy into your definition of a social movement.

    It is not clear to me that identifying a single common goal is necessary to suggest that a social movement exists. A common outlook, collective action, and a desire for change (or preventing change) are among my criteria.

    Your comments suggest that you consider yourself an environmentally-minded individual, but feel as if your perspective is not represented by mainstream environmentalism. This does not mean that an ‘environmental movement’ does not exist.