Where Do We Go From Here? Environmentalism, at a Crossroads

An excerpt from James Gustave Speth’s memoir “Angels by the River.”

The following is an excerpt from James Gustave Speth’s Angels by the River.

Almost a half century has flown by since we launched the Natural Resources Defense Council. Over that period NRDC and other mainstream U.S. environmental groups have racked up more victories and accomplishments than we can count. One shudders to think what our world would be like had they not.

Yet, despite those accomplishments, a specter is haunting American environmentalism—the specter of failure. All of us who have been part of the environmental movement in the United States must now face up to a deeply troubling paradox: Our environmental organizations have grown in strength and sophistication, but the environment has continued to go downhill. The prospect of a ruined planet is now very real. We have won many victories, but we are losing the planet.

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Here we are, forty-four years after the burst of energy and hope at the first Earth Day, headed toward the very planetary conditions we set out to prevent. Indeed, all we have to do—to destroy the planet’s climate, impoverish its biota, and toxify its people—is to keep doing exactly what we are doing today, with no growth in the human population or the world economy. Just continue to release greenhouse gases at current rates, just continue to degrade ecosystems and release toxic chemicals at current rates, and the world in the latter part of this century won’t be fit to live in. But human activities are not holding at current levels—they are accelerating, dramatically. It took all of human history to grow the $7 trillion world economy of 1950. Now, we grow by that amount in a decade, even with today’s slower growth rates.

How could this have occurred? Past is prologue, and to understand what happened to American environmentalism, we need to look at where we’ve been and how we got to where we are today—to tell the environmentalist’s story. To anticipate the story’s conclusion, recall that I said in the previous chapter that in launching NRDC we set out to change the system. But we didn’t. We improved the system in places, made it safer, better. But in doing so we became part of the system. It changed us.

It must be hard for young people, from today’s vantage point, to imagine what it was like to be an environmental advocate in the 1970s. But let me try to recapture that period.

First of all, it was a lawyer’s heyday. The Clean Air and Clean Water Acts are perhaps the most forceful federal legislation ever written, and there they were, with their deadlines and citizen suit provisions, along with the National Environmental Policy Act, just waiting to be litigated and enforced. And we could not lose. NRDC won almost every lawsuit we brought. The judges were with us. NRDC had so many successful lawsuits against EPA that an EPA assistant administrator said to me one day, “You know, you guys are running the agency.”

Second, the environmental agencies were as gung-ho as we were. Some EPA staff would quietly point out how their efforts were being stymied by the Office of Management and Budget and hint at needed lawsuits. The Council on Environmental Quality in the White House was 100 percent reliable—a friendly environmental ombudsman within the government. The old-line agencies like the Department of the Interior were struggling to catch up, and, when they didn’t, they were sitting ducks for our litigation.

In those early years, in the 1970s, economists were not seriously involved in setting environmental policies. We environmentalists initially ignored their calls for pollution taxes and market mechanisms, which infuriated some of them.

We think of our U.S. environmental legislation as the product of the movement launched on Earth Day 1970, but that is not quite how it was. The National Environmental Policy Act passed in 1969; the Clean Air Act completed its passage through Congress in 1970. They were driven more by far-sighted legislators like Edmund Muskie (D-ME) and John Sherman Cooper (R-KY) than by environmental lobbying or even public pressure. I can say firsthand that we at NRDC had a hard time keeping up with what Muskie and his staff were doing in the development of the Clean Water Act. There was actual leadership in the Congress, and it was bipartisan. So we did not see the need then to build political muscle and grassroots support. The key politicians were already with us. Congress was actually leading.

Next, there was little organized opposition from the business community or anyone else. They were caught off guard, at least initially, though it did not take long for the opposition to materialize.

We saw little need in those years for getting into electoral politics, building grassroots strength, and supporting local groups, or even for environmental education. There was a wealth of intellectual and political capital and public support. And we were in a rush to get the job done!

Relatedly, there was no overall strategy among environmental groups, few metrics to gauge our success, and no objective but friendly environmental think tanks serving as watchdogs, assessing us, and pointing the way forward. (The Conservation Foundation filled some of this need for a while.) And environmental law and policy as it evolved was decidedly ad hoc, lacking a foundation of overarching and broadly supported principles.

Environmental law as it was created in the 1970s was federal law. Our view of the states and the cities was disdainful. They had done so little. It was time for Washington to take control, as had happened with civil rights. We were also not much interested in international conservation efforts. They seemed to be mostly talk, and we had plenty to do at home.

In the media, the environmental beat was hot, attracting the best reporters. The media overall were powerfully supportive. None of us of this era can forget CBS’s anchor Walter Cronkite and his ongoing series “Can the World Be Saved?”

I think readers will sense where this story is headed. What happens when all that support in Congress weakens or even turns hostile, and we have neglected to build grassroots support and to get into electoral politics?

What happens when we have lived so thoroughly within the Beltway and submerged so completely in the staggering complexity of the regulatory mess we have helped to create, that we—wonkish us—cannot effectively communicate to a broad public, cannot strike those notes that resonate with average Americans and their hopes, fears, and dreams? What happens when we have elevated head over heart and lost the vernacular in favor of enviro-jargon like Prevention of Significant Deterioration, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standard, Total Maximum Daily Loads, and the like?

What happens when we begin to confront a mighty opposition not just from a now alert corporate America but equally from an antigovernment, antiregulation, antitax coalition of ideologically driven right wingers, and we have centered all our plans on powerful action by the federal government and neglected to develop an equally powerful grassroots force and to build strength at the state and local levels?

What happens when the antiregulation forces come together to build a skilled messaging machine and we do not?

What happens when we need, but don’t have, metrics to point out that we’re winning victories but losing the war and when we need, but don’t have, an independent think tank capacity to build new intellectual capital and to help us figure the way out of the mess in which we find ourselves?

What happens to the prospects for judicial remedies when half the federal judges are appointed by conservative Republican presidents? And when the environmental story no longer attracts the best reporters, the media lose interest, and the five corporations that control most of the media prefer to hear “both sides” even when “balance” becomes a form of bias?

And what happens when we find that economic issues have taken center stage and we have tended to neglect the economics profession and done too little to pioneer new ways of thinking about economics or the economy? And what happens when central pillars of our work—making the polluter pay, stopping this and that development—actually do raise prices and cost certain jobs at a time when half the country is just getting by, living paycheck to paycheck, economically insecure, and we have not forged powerful links with working people and their representatives and their research centers, and we are stuck with the reality that the only way we can save the planet is to show that it helps the economy and GDP?

What happens when those 1970s grade-schoolers grow up and know distressingly little about the environment or science? Only about half of Americans know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun!

And what happens when those hard-charging government agencies lose their luster and their drive and some become partly or wholly captives of those they are supposed to regulate?

What happens, of course, is what has happened. Progress slows down. Major resources shift from offense to defending past gains. New issues, like climate change, can’t get traction.

So I think it is clear that the mainstream environmental organizations (with my participation) are partly responsible for the situation in which we found ourselves. There were major strategic adjustments needed but not made; new institutions and new arrangements should have been forged but were not. We carried on under President Reagan much as we had under President Carter, but the world had shifted under our feet. Recently, our mainstream environmental groups have begun to make adjustments, but they are very partial adjustments and, as I say, late.

While we environmentalists are partly responsible, it is decidedly the lesser part. To chronicle the much larger part of the blame, it is useful to begin with Frederick Buell and his valuable book, From Apocalypse to Way of Life. He writes: “Something happened to strip the environmental [cause] of what seemed in the 1970s to be its self-evident inevitability. . . .In reaction to the decade of crisis, a strong and enormously successful anti-environmental disinformation industry sprang up. It was so successful that it helped midwife a new phase in the history of U.S. environmental politics, one in which an abundance of environmental concern was nearly blocked by an equal abundance of anti-environmental contestation.”

The disinformation industry that Buell notes was part of a larger picture of reaction. Starting with Lewis Powell’s famous 1971 memo to the Chamber of Commerce urging business to fight back against regulations, well-funded forces of resistance and opposition have arisen. Powell, then a corporate attorney who would become a Supreme Court justice, urged corporations to get more involved in policy and politics. Virtually every step forward has been hard fought, especially since Reagan became president. It is not just environmental protection that has been forcefully attacked but essentially all progressive causes, even the basic idea of government action in the interests of the people as a whole.

As federal environmental laws and programs burst onto the scene in the early 1970s, we pursued the important goals and avenues those laws opened up. There, the path to success was clear. But we left by the wayside the more difficult and deeper challenges highlighted by Commoner, Ehrlich, and others forty years ago in the writings I mentioned in the previous chapter. And our gains in the 1970s locked us into patterns of environmental action that have since proved no match for the system we’re up against. Ironically, these patterns were set in part by our own early successes, which were made possible in large measure by Senator Edmund Muskie and his remarkable aides Leon Billings and Thomas Jorling and their monumental air and water legislation. These new laws created major opportunities for lawyers and others to make large environmental gains, but in doing so we were drawn ever more completely inside the D.C. Beltway. Once there, inside the system, we were compelled to a certain tameness by the need to succeed there. We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.

I first developed my critique of today’s mainstream environmentalism in 2008 in my book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World. The book also included prescriptions for new environmental strategies. Now, six years later, I can update and broaden that analysis.

Angels by the River


First, here is what I mean by working within the system. When today’s environmentalism recognizes a problem, it believes it can solve that problem by calling public attention to it, framing policy and program responses for government and industry, lobbying for those actions, and litigating for their enforcement. It believes in the efficacy of environmental advocacy and government action. It believes that good-faith compliance with the law will be the norm and that corporations can be made to behave.

Today’s environmentalism tends to be pragmatic and incrementalist—its actions are aimed at solving problems and often doing so one at a time. It is more comfortable proposing innovative policy solutions than framing inspirational messages. These characteristics are closely allied to a tendency to deal with effects rather than underlying causes. Most of our major environmental laws and treaties, for example, address the resulting environmental ills much more than their causes. In the end, environmentalism accepts compromises as part of the process. It takes what it can get.

Today’s environmentalism also believes that problems can be solved at acceptable economic costs, and often with net economic benefit, without significant lifestyle changes or threats to economic growth. It will not hesitate to strike out at an environmentally damaging facility or development, but it sees itself, on balance, as a positive economic force.

Environmentalists see solutions coming largely from within the environmental sector. They worry about the flaws in and corruption of our politics, for example, but that is not their professional concern. Similarly, environmentalists know that the prices for many things need to be higher, to reflect the true costs of goods and services, and they are aware that environmentally honest prices would create financial burdens for the half of American families that just get by. But the government action needed to address America’s gaping economic injustices is not seen as part of the environmental agenda.

Today’s environmentalism is also not focused strongly on political activity or organizing a grassroots political movement. Electoral politics and movement building have played second fiddle to lobbying, litigating, and working with government agencies and corporations.

A central precept, in short, is that the system can be made to work for the environment. Not everything, of course, fits within these patterns. There have been exceptions from the start, and recent trends reflecting a broadening in approaches are encouraging, especially the increased activism outside the Beltway as groups, including mainstream ones, have strengthened their political operations and grassroots networks. But, still, our principal environmental groups are slow to adjust to the new realities.

America has run a forty-year experiment on whether mainstream environmentalism can succeed, and the results are now in. The full burden of managing accumulating environmental threats has fallen to the environmental community, both those in government and outside. But that burden is too great. The methods and style of today’s environmentalism are not wrongheaded, just far too restricted as an overall approach. Indeed, we badly need major efforts to work within the system, to make the system respond, which sometimes it does. The problem has been the absence of a huge, complementary investment of time, energy, and money in other, deeper approaches to change. And here, the leading environmental organizations must be faulted for not doing nearly enough to ensure these investments were made.

The environmental problem is actually rooted in defining features of our current political economy. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at any cost; a measure of growth, GDP, that includes everything—the good, the bad and the ugly; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred endlessly by sophisticated advertising; social injustice and economic insecurity so vast that they empower often false claims that needed measures would slow growth, hurt the economy, or cost jobs; economic activity now so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet—all these combine to deliver an ever-growing economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain human and natural communities. Yet very few of these issues are addressed by US environmental law or mainstream environmental organizations.

It’s clearly time for something different—a new environmentalism. And here is the core of this new environmentalism: It seeks a new economy. And to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics. New environmental leaders will learn from the ideas of the 1960s and early 1970s, rediscover environmentalism’s more radical roots, and step outside the system in order to change it before it is too late.

We must ask again the basic question: What is an environmental issue? Air and water pollution, yes. But what if the right answer is that an environmental issue is anything that determines environmental outcomes. Then, surely, the creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy we face—the ascendancy of money power and corporate power over people power—these are environmental issues. And more: The chartering and empowering of artificial persons to do virtually anything in the name of profit and growth—that is the very nature of today’s corporation; the fetish of GDP growth as the ultimate public good and the main aim of government; our runaway consumerism; our vast social insecurity with half the families living paycheck to paycheck. These are among the underlying drivers of environmental outcomes. They are environmental concerns, imperative ones, but they rarely appear on the agendas of our main national environmental groups.

We also need to address a second question: What’s the economy for, actually? I will return to this question in the chapter that follows, but the answer, I believe, is that the purpose of the economy should be to sustain, restore, and nourish human and natural communities. We should be building a new economy that gives top, overriding priority not to profit, production, and power but rather to people, place, and planet. Its watchword is caring—caring for each other, for the natural world, and for the future. Promoting the transition to such a new economy must be the central task of a new environmentalism. It is a task that obviously cannot be accomplished by environmentalists alone but only by a powerful fusion of progressive and other forces coming together to build a new politics.

This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate American culture.

Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America’s social fabric and undermining its democracy. In an America with such vast social insecurity, economic arguments, even misleading ones, will routinely trump environmental goals.

Similarly, environmentalists must join with those seeking to reform politics and strengthen democracy. What we have seen in the United States is the emergence of a vicious circle: Income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the growing income disparities. Environmentalists need to embrace public financing of elections, new anticorruption ethical restrictions on legislatures, the right to vote, tougher regulation of lobbying and the revolving door, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting, and other political reform measures as core to their agenda.

The new environmentalism must work with a progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing, strengthening groups working at the state and community levels, and both supporting and fielding candidates for public office. It will also require developing motivational messages and appeals. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.

The final goal of the new environmental politics must be, “Build the movement.” We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are still said to be part of “the environmental movement.” We need a real one—networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.

Can we see the beginnings of a new social movement in America? Perhaps I am letting my hopes get the better of me, but I think we can. Its green side is visible, I think, in the surge of campus organizing and student mobilization occurring today, including the efforts to get colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. It’s visible also in the increasing activism of religious organizations and the rapid proliferation of community-based environmental initiatives. It’s there in the occasional joining together of organized labor and environmental groups. It is visible in the green consumer movement, particularly in the efforts to move beyond consumerism. It’s there in the increasing number of demonstrations, marches, and protests, including those focused on tar sands, fracking, mountaintop removal, and other energy and climate issues. It is there in the constituency-building work of minority environmental leaders, in the efforts of groups to link social justice and environmental goals, and in the efforts now underway to dethrone GDP and find new measures of progress and well-being. It’s beginning, and it will grow. Over time, its principal driver will be climate change.

Only an unremitting struggle will drive the changes that can sustain people and nature. If there is a model within American memory for what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It had grievances, it knew what was causing them, and it also knew that the existing order had no legitimacy and that, acting together, people could redress those grievances. It was confrontational and disobedient, but it was nonviolent. It had a dream.

This excerpt is from Gus Speth’s latest book Angels by the River (Chelsea Green Publishing) and is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Meet the Writer

About James Gustave Speth

Gus Speth is author of Angels by the River: A Memoir (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014), co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, and professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.

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