Guest Column: The trouble with “desperate environmentalism”

When I started teaching environmental law and policy, I thought I would work with the next generation of extraordinary environmentalists. I don’t.

My students are extraordinary, but many see themselves as “corporate social responsibility consultants,” “ecosystem service managers,” “sustainability leaders,” “industrial efficiency experts,” maybe “clean energy entrepreneurs”—not environmentalists. They avoid that label because they associate it with stalled progress on the issues they care about. But this reinvention is a losing strategy.

It is hard to blame anyone for shying away from the environmental movement. Many of my students were infants at the time of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the last time there was national legislative success on an environmental issue. Without a long view, traditional environmentalism can look like a failure.

But dormancy does not equal failure.

This suite of laws produced real results and is still working, still protecting natural systems and the people who rely on them. After all, we have the hopeful and heroic thinkers who gave us the Clean Air Act to thank for the 2015 Clean Power Plan, the only tool the United States has to enforce national climate change action.

But from climate change denial to corporate malfeasance, resistance to enforceable environmental protection is rampant. Seeking any conceivable path forward, many young leaders are exchanging their sympathy for the victims of environmental damage for the concerns of the regulated community. They turn away from enforceability-based approaches and promote more conservative techniques that they hope will impress and persuade reticent and cynical policymakers and power brokers.

If this is environmentalism at all, it is “desperate environmentalism,” characterized not by awe, enthusiasm and enjoyment of nature but by appeasement. It relies on utilitarian efficiencies, cost-benefit analyses, private sector indulgences and anthropocentric divvying of natural resources.

The environmentalists of old insisted on transformation, not marginal gains.

The Clean Water Act aimed to restore the integrity of all the nation’s waters by eliminating water pollution. Now we quantify whether such improvement is economically efficient, and we politely ask whether an industrial facility might consider reducing its discharge.

Perhaps, desperate environmentalists suggest, such a reduction would improve the bottom line by reducing some costs. Suddenly, economic efficiency moves from being one in a collection of cultural values that drive decisions to the only relevant value.

Having conceded so much to conservative approaches, desperate environmentalists cannot advocate what is now a radical idea of the past: Government should force polluters to reduce pollution for the sake of healthy natural systems and human enjoyment.

The problem is desperate environmentalists strive for a mythical conservative embrace but cooperation from the right is unrealistic. As they move right in an attempt to meet their opponents, the opponents will not, at some undefined threshold of compromise, consent to new policies of protection. Rather, desperate environmentalists could continue to erode their position until environmentalism grows unrecognizable.

If desperate environmentalists continue to give up ground in pursuit of unattainable compromise, they will be left with nothing to offer but their opponents’ vision of the world.

The present lurch rightward does not have to be permanent. I encourage my students to think big by reminding them of the real and measurable progress that occurred in an age of transformation, not appeasement. I remind them that the greatest successes occurred when environmentalism was not a dirty word.