Washington Libertarian Review

Political commentary from the State of Washington with a libertarian perspective.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Death of Environmentalism as we know it

There is a storm brewing in the environmentalist movement. On Sunday the Seattle Times reported that Green causes [were] called out of step, citing a recent paper writen by a pair of upstart environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, entitled the "Death of Environmentalism" which has stirred a debate within the environmental community.

The authors argue that "not one of America’s environmental leaders is articulating a vision of the future commensurate with the magnitude of the [global warming/environmental] crisis." Positing that "the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power," the authors argue, essentially, that the environmental movement has not evolved with the times, and continues to use the strategies of the '60s and '70s to fight, and for the most part lose, the battles of today. "We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially technical."

Indeed, the reason the environmental movement has stalled is probably because, as objectivist Robert James Bidinotto argues, is that enviromentalists do not recognize "the consequences of accepting core environmentalist premises, specifically, their deadly impact on human life.". Bidinotto continues, "Starting, as they do, from the premise of nature's intrinsic value—a value independent of any valuer or purpose—environmentalists are driven by that premise's inescapable logic to consistently oppose every human effort to use the planet," which in turn leads to poor living conditions and often death, mostly for the Third World.

After observing the successes of conservatives by promoting "values" over "issues" Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue: "Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like cost-benefit accounting, smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the right’s values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way. Environmentalists and other liberals tend to see values as a distraction from “the real issues” – environmental problems like global warming. If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics. Doing so is crucial if we are to build the political momentum – a sustaining movement – to pass and implement the legislation that will achieve action on global warming and other issues."

One interesting thing about the environmental debate is the perspective of each side. We all agree that clean water and clean air are common interests to all. The divergence is that the conservatives focus on the consequences of environmental policy to the individual while the liberals focus on the consequences of environmental policy on nature, the place were the individuals live.

And each side has a point, and therein lies the dilemma. If we focus on the individual interests of the here and now, by building hydroelectric dams in prime salmon habitats, we may have cheap power and not enough to eat. On the other hand, if we start taxing or regulating land intensive industries such as forestry with a view to preserving the salmon habitat we may have enough salmon but not enough lumber with which to build houses.

Whatever the appropriate policies ought to be, look for new forays from the environmentalists in the near future that will look nothing like business as usual.


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