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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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Another rift involves the geographic scope of individual environmentalists’ concerns. Ever since Henry David Thoreau set up a shack on Walden Pond, environmentalism has been animated by a love of place. A righteous parochialism was the spark that inspired scores of successful environmental campaigns: a desire to protect this river, this forest grove, this mountaintop. On the other hand, environmentalism has also been animated by a planetary consciousness from the moment the Apollo mission beamed back images of a tiny blue marble floating in space. For a generation these two ideals were in chorus, exemplified best by the greenie bumper sticker: “Think Global, Act Local.” But in the era of global climate change, a love for the local and a concern for the global might be in conflict.

This is best illustrated by the controversies over putting giant solar installations in the Mojave Desert and building a wind farm off of Martha’s Vineyard. One person’s blueprint for clean energy infrastructure is another person’s unthinkable desecration of a beloved place. While some environmentalists argue that we have to pave parts of the desert with solar panels in order to save other parts of the desert from a four-degree Celsius temperature rise, others see that as heresy.  

“I think the important split is actually between people are who thinking in planetary terms and people who are not,” Steffen, the futurist, told me. “The key to intelligent planetary thinking is to recognize that goal number one is to be promoting the stability of planetary systems, and then figuring out goal number two: how to get the greatest set of interesting possibilities for humanity into that constraint. And I worry that this debate between ‘old environmentalists’ and ‘post-environmentalists’ or whatever totally misses the larger point. The only kind of conservation worth having is one that starts at those larger systems, talks about what is necessary to maintain their stability, and starts scaling down from there into the particularities of political contexts, and specific places, and technological systems.”

Achieving those goals could get increasingly difficult, however, if the movement is publicly split, as has happened with the issue of hydrofracking for natural gas.

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The Sierra Club, under the leadership of its previous executive director, Carl Pope, wasn’t the only prominent environmentalist organization heralding natural gas as a bridge fuel that could take our energy system from carbon-intense coal to renewables like wind and solar. (When burned, gas emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal.) Among the most vocal proponents of natural gas today are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, founders of the Oakland-based liberal think tank the Breakthrough Institute. Nordhaus and Shellenberger ticked off greens in the early aughts with the essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” which urged green groups to rethink the core assumptions of their political strategy. The pugnacious pair is often bashed for their rhetoric, but the two are genuine in their hawkishness on the climate and their commitment to global equity.

“As we look ahead to the human-development challenge, we’re going to need other kinds of low-carbon and zero-carbon energy,” Shellenberger says. “If we have everything riding on solar and wind, then we have all of our eggs in one basket.”

Nordhaus adds: “Look, we have two billion people who don’t have access to anything other than wood and dung [for energy]. Assume a world of nine billion people. Now assume that we have perfect economic redistribution from rich to poor, and everybody makes $15,000 a year. And then just do the math on global energy use—it still triples. You can’t meet that all with renewables.”