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Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do?

Dispatch No. 2 from a climate-change conference: The battle of values has been won, at least for the moment, and not by us.
 
 
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Day One
Day Two

The bad boys of American environmentalism made their case this morning, and they made it well. By the time Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus had finished presenting the data that led to their famous Death of Environmentalism paper, most of the large crowd gathered for the What Works? conference here in Vermont were convinced that they had seen where the future lay for the climate-change movement – or at the very least, where it didn't.

Dressed in fashionable black and toting their laptops, the pair looked like what they are: one pollster, one PR guy. They didn't fit the cultural profile (hiking boots, ratty sweater) of Vermont environmentalists, and they'd pissed off a good many in the crowd with their paper's no-holds-barred attack on the big enviro groups. But when they plugged in their PowerPoint, they had the goods. In fact, the data they presented were even more striking than the argument they'd made in their paper.

The statistics came from a data set on North American values collected by a Canadian polling firm over the last decade – and what they showed was that, quite simply, this country is deeply conservative and getting more so. The battle of values has been won, at least for the moment, and not by us. For instance, what percentage of Americans do you suppose would agree with the following statement: "The father of the family must be a master in his own house"?

  • 1992: 42 percent of Americans agreed
  • 1996: 44 percent
  • 2000: 49 percent
  • 2004: 52 percent

Across 105 different values – everything from "concern for appearance" and "joy of consumption" to "acceptance of violence" and "xenophobia" – they found that over the past decade, an already generally conservative country has been making a beeline in the direction of status and security. A decade ago, 30 percent of Americans thought men were naturally superior; now the number is 40 percent. No matter what you ask, be it whether "to relieve tension a little violence is OK," or "it's important that people admire things I own," the numbers show a nation almost inconceivable to your average card-carrying Sierra Clubber. A decade ago, 17 percent of Americans thought that pollution was necessary to preserve jobs; now the number is 29 percent. In 1992, 66 percent of Americans said they "discussed local problems with people in my community," a number that has since dropped to 39 percent.

In other words, the sweet notion that we still live in a world where most people more or less agree with a worldview congenial to environmentalism – and particularly to the difficult changes required to deal with global warming – is simply wrong. Dorothy, we're not in 1978 anymore. Or, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger put it, there's been a "Fundamental Political Realignment."

In the face of that alignment, they insist, it's pretty pointless to keep doing what you've been doing. Instead, the answer is to look at the core values that progressives share, and then, more importantly, at what they label "bridge values," areas of agreement that "both our people and the people we need to reach could potentially share."

They were less specific about what those might be, though they returned several times to their advocacy of the Apollo Project, the effort to address global warming not by talking about carbon but by talking about jobs and communities. Even so, they were unwilling to wax very optimistic.

"I'm not convinced it's a likely outcome that we'll take back the government any time soon," said Nordhaus. Realigning politics, realistically, might take 20 years.

It's true that, as in their paper, the pair constructed a few straw men: The Sierra Club chapter in Boulder, Colo., can't really be obsessed over the question of whether or not dogs should share hiking trails with people. (Can it?) But whenever they returned to the sheer weight of data on how Americans see the world, one could sense the audience, almost against its will, agreeing.

"One of the things we've noticed is that a Darwinistic economy seems to beget Darwinistic values," said Shellenberger. "There's a drift toward sexism, ecological fatalism, patriarchy."

Well, yes – if we're honest, that seems to describe the America we live in right now.

"We're asking you to join us in the deconstruction of environmentalism, not out of a sense of nihilism," said Nordhaus, "but so that we can come together to reconstruct an alternative vision."

There's something almost exhilarating in knowing how bad a situation really is. Spared the false hope that maybe things will get better on their own, at least you have permission to think expansively about what to do differently.

Bill McKibben is the author of The End of Nature and Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age .