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It's Not Easy Being Green: Are Some of the Biggest Enviro Groups Giant Sell-Outs?

As climate change worsens, the internal strains in the environmentalist movement are starting to show.

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Some environmentalists say the divisions have been fueled by gadflies looking to appear contrarian for the sake of minor celebrity. “I think, bluntly, that part of this is [happening] because there’s some value to the post-environmentalists in hippie-punching,” says Alex Steffen, a self-described “bright green” futurist who is the author of a new book, Carbon Zero. “Just saying, ‘Oh, those guys are wrong’—since there are a lot of people who want to think that traditional environmentalists are wrong—is a great way to sell books and get speaking gigs.”

It’s true that some of the noise seems calculated for effect. But it would be dangerous to wave off the differences of opinion. A careful look at the environmental movement reveals a profound gap among people who share a worry about the state of Earth. There is a real split over what should be considered a smart survival plan for billions of people on a finite planet. That split, if it’s not navigated constructively, threatens to sap the environmental movement’s political muscle just when it is needed most to achieve its goal: keeping the planet healthy enough to maintain our civilization.

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In a sense, today’s differences are just a new variation on a century-old dispute. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, American environmentalists fell into two distinct camps. The first, led by Sierra Club founder John Muir, was part of the larger Romantic movement that viewed wild areas as pristine places that needed to be saved from the scourge of humanity’s hand. The second, led by the founding head of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, thought of nature more like a garden—something to be tended by man. Natural resources, in Pinchot’s view, should be mindfully stewarded to conserve them for future generations.

The split between those who esteem nature for its intrinsic value and those who want to protect it for its instrumental value persisted through the years. Some 21st-century environmentalists—most prominently the leaders of The Nature Conservancy—now talk almost exclusively about environmental protection in terms of preserving ecosystem services. We should invest in nature and protect natural infrastructure because humans benefit from them: Wetlands blunt hurricanes, forests suck up carbon dioxide, clean rivers bring us water. At the same time, some environmentalists have been re-energized by a nascent grassroots movement to recognize legal rights for natural systems, an effort inspired by the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia that grant nature formal rights.

Opposing opinions on what constitutes appropriate use of modern technology also divides some putative eco allies. An instinctual techno-skepticism has formed an undercurrent in environmental thought—at least since Silent Spring and the backlashes to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and near disaster at Three Mile Island. As worries intensify about unchecked greenhouse-gas emissions, however, some greens are rethinking their posture toward once-verboten technologies. James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who twice has been arrested at the White House while opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, has said, “Next-generation, safe nuclear power is an option which we need to develop.” Nuclear power is anathema to many other environmentalists, but the British writer George Monbiot reversed his long-standing opposition two years ago and wrote in The Guardian, “Abandoning nuclear power at a time of escalating greenhouse gas emissions is far more dangerous than maintaining it.”

The use of genetically modified organisms also highlights this divide. Even as most rank-and-file environmentalists remain suspicious of them—with their vibe of Promethean overreach and their control by monopolist corporations like Monsanto—some self-identified greens say GMO technologies are the only way to feed a growing population. In a speech earlier this year, Mark Lynas, another British environmentalist, told the Oxford Farming Conference, “The risk today is not that anyone will be harmed by GM food but that millions will be harmed by not having enough food.”