Complete Interview: The Temperature Transcends Race

Michael Shellenberger, coauthor of “The Death of Environmentalism,” takes on race-based advocacy
interview by Hannah Lobel
Mar-.Apr. 2008
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The following is a complete transcript of  an interview that ran in Utne Reader’s March-April 2008 package on the new green justice movement. For more, read Environmental Justice for All and  Global Warming is Color-Blind .

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 multifaceted 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. So 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.

 

Are you saying that low income communities, particularly communities of color, don’t bear a larger burden of environmental degradation?

No. We say very clearly that poor communities of color do bear a heavier burden in terms of pollution and environmental impact. The point that we make is that what gets defined by environmental justice advocates as environmental impacts are not the most serious factors determining health outcomes. In other words, smoking, diet, probably even things like stress related to living in an environment that’s high in violence and insecurity. Those are much more powerful factors shaping life and health outcomes and an expansive movement would deal with all of those problems simultaneously, not just with the ones that are defined as “environmental.”

 

There’s a new breed of environmental activists—Van Jones in Oakland and Majora Carter in the Bronx, for example—who are focusing on more comprehensive approaches, like training low-income people for green jobs, cleaning up waste sites, creating cleaner, safer green spaces. Will they succeed where you think their predecessors failed?

What is exciting about it is that they are taking a more expansive view, in which economic development is at the center of the agenda. The challenge that they and all of us face is creating a politics that is comprehensive enough to deal with the many factors driving concentrated poverty.

In the book we point to the excellent work of Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone. He’s taken a truly ecological approach in that when he deals with a problem like childhood asthma, he attacks all of the causes: everything from lack of health care to dilapidated housing to cigarette smoking to diesel bus pollution.

The same thing has to be the case in creating prosperity and security for poor communities of color. It’s not enough to, for example,  just do job training. There also has to be very significant government investment to make sure that there are actually jobs there for the people who get the training.

Look at what Canada has done. He has drug and alcohol treatment, parenting classes, a whole set of other things that empower community members. Just providing jobs is not sufficient. The challenge of dealing with complex challenges, whether it’s global warming or entrenched poverty, is being able to attack a number of causes at once.

 

How does that fit into the broader environmental movement?

This is what we mean by the death of environmentalism: A new politics that’s capable of dealing with challenges from concentrated poverty to global warming should not put the environment or nature protection at the center of our work. We need to be putting a vision of economic development, prosperity, and really a kind of belonging and fulfillment at the center. And that requires a different policy agenda; it requires a different discourse; it requires a different way of organizing and really a whole different way of being in the world.

 

What do you mean by “a whole different way of being in the world”?

It means, for example, that if you’re going to go take on a challenge like concentrated poverty, you’ve got a take a cold hard look at what the factors are driving it. Traditionally, the left has looked at poverty and had a kind of corporate conspiracy explanation or reduced it to racism or globalization and deindustrialization. And on the right, conservatives have reduced concentrated poverty to things like culture or welfare dependency. A more holistic approach would understand that there are a number of factors driving the persistence of poverty and that we need to be taking all of them very seriously, even when they might lead us to some fairly uncomfortable conclusions.

The left has not really yet come to grips with how destructive past government social policies have been, including welfare. The first people to tell you about the destructive impact of welfare would be people living in poor communities of color. But I think most liberals and progressives haven’t really dealt with how badly designed many of those government programs were. [Bill] Clinton had welfare reform in 1996, which aimed to restrict how long any individual could receive welfare payments, but what he never did was to really create a new social contract that would reward work.

We argue in Break Through that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should have good health care, you should have retirement security, and you should have very high quality care for children—what we call early childhood education. Those things do not exist. The green jobs agenda has to marry itself to an agenda aimed at a new social contract, one that is focused on expanding assets and rewarding work.


Those are wonky terms. What do you mean by “expanding assets,” “rewarding work,” and a “new social contract”? What do they look like?

Well, this is a big challenge and the truth is I don’t have a huge number of answers around what the policies look like. One idea that has been kicked around for a number of years but has never really been advanced politically is the idea of a baby bond, where every baby born in the United States would get somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 in a savings account that he or she could not spend until he or she becomes 18, at which point the money would have grown if it were invested at, say, 5 percent a year. That money could then be spent when the child turns 18 on going to college, starting a business, or perhaps even buying a home.

One of the big barriers and obstacles to equality, one of the great disparities, is that whites have greater assets than African Americans. And that’s persisted in the 40 years since desegregation. And assets are important, because if you have even a small amount of wealth you feel more secure; you’re more able to take risks like starting a business; you’re more capable of paying your way through college. An asset-based policy like baby bonds is not welfare; it’s something that both empowers the individual but also seeks to remedy long-standing disparities between African Americans and whites.

 

Going back to green jobs, the new energy act has a provision that allocates $125 million toward green job training. Is that enough?

It might be enough for job training, it’s certainly not enough to create a new clean-energy economy. A group of energy scientists and energy experts just sent an open letter to the presidential candidates and Congress calling for an investment of $30 billion every year. Other analysts have called for something closer to $80 billion a year. 

Creating a whole new energy economy is an enormous undertaking, as is overcoming concentrated and entrenched poverty. I’m sure that everybody involved in that $125 million job-training program sees it as a good first step. The challenge now is to go and create the kind of political movement that we’re going to need in order to secure much larger investments to do things like buy down the price of solar, so that there is a viable economics for installing solar on homes and businesses.

One of the interesting areas that we’ve been thinking about lately is: How do you tie together both a working class green-collar jobs program, focused on solar-panel installation or retrofitting buildings for greater efficiency, and a more professional, scientific agenda for investing in clean energy R&D, inventing new technologies, and achieving technological breakthroughs that bring the price of clean energy down dramatically.

 

You’ve called for a massive government investment on the scale of the space program in the 1950s.

The thing to remember about the U.S. government is that it’s the biggest buyer. In the late 1950s microchips cost about $1,000 each. The federal government decided that it needed microchips for the space race with the Soviet Union, and it literally bought so many microchips over less than 10 years that the price came down to just $20 a microchip.

There’s a very similar situation today with another silicon-based product, and that’s solar panels. Every time you double the production of solar, the price comes down 20 percent. We ought to spend what experts suggest will be between $50 billion and $200 billion to buy down the price of solar so that it’s cheaper than coal. If we’re going to deal with global warming we’ve got to have clean energy sources that are cheaper than coal in places like China, for whom energy costs are fundamental to sustaining high levels of economic growth.

So, we look back at those past investments in technology. We also look back at the past investments in infrastructure, when the United States government created the interstate highways. We’re going to need a whole new energy grid to bring wind, for example, from windy places to cities. We’re going to need a whole set of investments, and we think that we’re better off looking for models to past investments in technology and infrastructure than we are to past efforts at pollution control.

 

Is that realistic, economically and politically?

Absolutely. When you do focus groups and polls around global warming, energy independence, and economic development, the support for government investment into new technologies and infrastructure is far higher than public support for raising the cost of energy, which is effectively what a regulation-centered approach to global warming would do.

A paradigm shift needs to happen to move traditional progressive and Democratic politics away from a politics of limits and toward a politics of possibility. It’s hard because a lot of the people who are in charge of global warming policy today, from big environmental groups to members of Congress, came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when a politics of limits worked pretty well dealing with past environmental problems like smog in Los Angeles and river and lake pollution.

Faced with a problem like global warming—which is centrally connected to economic growth, since energy is the lifeblood of the economy—those folks need to have a fundamentally different way of seeing the world. It’s not obvious to us that the baby boomers are going to be able to make that change or whether the change is actually going to have to be made by people who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and have a far greater appreciation of complexity, globalization, and the challenges that the new energy economy is going to pose.

 

It’s going to cost so much money. How do you convince progressives to get over their fears of being tagged “tax and spend” liberals?

Well, the funny thing is that fear is strongest among baby boomers. When we went to Power Shift, which was the youth climate conference, we just didn’t find a lot of progressive young people all that worried about being called “tax and spend.”

One of the truly great contributions that President Clinton made, but also President George W. Bush, is that it’s pretty darn clear now to the American people that, in terms of fiscal stewardship, Democrats do better than Republicans. That said, there are going to be people who are going to accuse advocates of major government investment like us of being tax and spend liberals. We welcome that fight. It’s basically a fight over how we want to invest our shared assets. And that’s exactly the kind of existential question that we want to put at the center of our politics. We want to see an investment in the future, an investment in clean energy, not more investments in stupid wars in the Middle East or in our addiction to oil.

 

You have a lot of critics. How have people responded to your critique of environmental justice in Break Through?

Ever since we wrote “Death of Environmentalism” we’ve been in various debates about environmental justice. We decided to do the chapter in part because so many people said, Well, environmental justice is the expansive environmentalism. And we went and looked at it and read a huge amount and interviewed many dozens of people, and what you find is a movement that looks at the intersection of race, class, and pollution, which actually makes that movement smaller not larger.

And frankly, you didn’t ask it, but I’ll say it anyway: We think that a race-based politics is toxic, and completely outmoded, and that we should not be organizing as different races. Race is itself a very dubious concept and construct. We’re a single human race and we’ll do far better organizing across race lines than within them.

If you look at where the environmental justice movement has gotten into trouble, it’s where you find a lot of infighting often between different “races,” different ethnic groups. It hasn’t actually served to be a unifying movement.

Now, that is all changing in large part because of younger leaders, which is very positive. But I think we need to say goodbye to that older form of environmentalism.

 

To say race is itself a very dubious concept and construct is one thing, but to say that it doesn’t play a role in how communities suffer is another.

Well of course. Of course there’s racism. And of course there are racial disparities, but that’s different from organizing as Latinos or as African Americans or as whites. I just don’t believe that that’s a positive expansive politics. It’s important to organize outside of racial and environmental categories. The fact that pollution is a problem does not necessarily lead you to creating a pollution-based politics. And the fact that racism is a problem does not mean that you should have a race-based politics. The goal of the original civil rights movement was to put an end to race-based politics not to reconstitute it.

 

What advice do you have for emerging environmental justice leaders?

One of the natural and totally understandable tendencies among social-change agents is to reduce their focus to a set of things that they decide are manageable. They’d say: If I’m going to deal with childhood asthma, I just don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the causes, so I’m going to focus on the diesel buses because that’s all I have funding for and that’s what environmental foundations want to support.

The challenge for this new crop of progressive leaders—I wouldn’t call them environmental justice leaders, by the way—is to constantly maintain an eye on the big picture and seek ways to focus that don’t require reducing multiple causes to singular causes.

 

Van Jones has been working for some time on community development in Oakland, but he has said that it wasn’t until he started talking about “green” jobs that the media and others really started to listen. Is jumping onto the green wave something community activists do at their peril?

There’s something very powerful about having civil rights leaders like Van and Majora stand up and say, “We want green for all.” [The clean-energy economy] can’t just benefit a few venture capitalists and help us white yuppies feel better about our consumption. It’s got to be more transformative than that.


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