The Temperature Transcends Race
Michael Shellenberger, coauthor of “The Death of Environmentalism,” takes on race-based advocacy
photo of Michael Shellenberger
The following article is part of a package on the new green justice movement. For more, read Environmental Justice for All and Global Warming is Color-Blind. And for the complete interview transcript, click here.
When Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus distributed their incendiary essay “The Death of Environmentalism” at an eco-conference in 2004, greens everywhere quickly got their organic-cotton knickers in a twist.
The young consultants had declared that it was time for the movement to stop organizing around single-issue, regulatory politics: an approach that led to cleaner air, cleaner water, wilderness conservation, and other victories. This old-school strategy, they argued, would not be enough to stave off climate change—a problem of unprecedented size and scope.
As the essay made the rounds, the unconvinced suggested to Nordhaus and Shellenberger that the environmental justice movement—born in the 1970s to battle toxic dumping in communities of color—embodied the very sort of expansive environmentalism they were calling for. After conducting dozens of interviews and in-depth research, the two concluded just the opposite.
In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Shellenberger and Nordhaus dedicate a chapter to critiquing the environmental justice movement; they argue that despite a “rhetoric of expansiveness,” it’s traditionally been beholden to single-issue politics that make it “smaller, not larger.” Instead, they call for a wider-ranging approach that recognizes the interplay between ecology, economics, social issues, and pure politics. It’s a solution that depends not on scaring or guilting people into change (or proving institutional racism), but in creating opportunity in the workplace and at home.
Utne Reader recently spoke with Shellenberger about Break Through. The conversation began with a back-and-forth about younger, “post–environmental justice” activists who are focusing on issues such as job training, livable wages, health care, and sustainable communities.
You lob some pretty harsh criticisms at the environmental justice movement in the new book.
What started out as an effort to make environmentalism more expansive ended up making it even more narrow. The challenges facing poor communities of color go way beyond air and water pollution. They have far less access to healthy food; they have less health care security, less child care security. They’ve got crappier schools. There’s more stress and disempowerment. To create a politics that’s centrally focused on toxic contamination or diesel bus pollution is reductive and speaks to a set of things that are very low priorities in comparison to the much bigger factors driving health and life outcomes.
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