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Alan AtKisson, 17 Mar 05

The dust seems to have settled a bit on the Death of Environmentalism debate enough to put the whole thing in historical perspective.

It was enough to make me become an environmentalist.

You see, way back in the early 1990s, I was invited to keynote the annual meeting of the Washington (State) Environmental Council ... two years in a row. This group gathers all that state's enviro organizations under one roof, so I was nervous, both times -- not just because I was still young then and less experienced as a speaker, and not just because right-wing "Wise Use" suspender-wearing property rights activists were up in the balcony recording my every word. I was nervous because I kept making a point of saying "I no longer call myself an environmentalist."

I was less nervous making this point the second time around, because obviously my message was not totally unwelcome. My main points to that group were simple, and I have repeated them often since, in many locations around the world. Environmentalism is about saying "No. Stop. Don't do that." It is an extremely necessary social activity in a world where natural systems are getting destroyed left, right, and center.

But it is not enough.

For environmentalism's "No" to mean something, there must be a corresponding "Yes." That "Yes" must consist of technical, economic, and cultural innovations and solutions. They must be invented, championed, and adopted, as rapidly as possible. They must do nothing less than transform the world.

Since those heady post-Brundtland, post-Rio days, that "Yes" is usually called sustainable development. Renewable energy, leapfrogging, micro-credit lending, pollution-eating nano-paint, you-name-it. It's all Yes Yes Yes, and you can read about lots of it, right here.

But back in the early '90s, we really weren't doing much of the "Yes" yet.

Now, we are.

Here, we call it "Worldchanging." Back when I was mastering my nerves in front of Washington's green leaders, there couldn't have been a Worldchanging, because in terms of being sustainably bright-green, the world wasn't changing so much yet.

Now, it is.

In my view, and the view of many others I know working on sustainability, the immediately infamous "Death of Environmentalism" essay was very old news indeed. Truly ho-hum stuff. It was the lament of people who are tired of being what I call (in my own little model of cultural change process) Iconoclasts, meaning folks whose role is to challenge the status quo. We usually think of Iconoclasts as activists, but they can also be critics, protestors, columnists. The role of the Iconoclast is always thankless, difficult, draining. The status quo is the status quo, after all, because it has momentum and power on its side. For every Julia Butterfly Hill saving a tree with two years of sitting high up amongst its branches, a million trees fall silently. For every George Monbiot, there are a thousand staffers at right wing think tanks. And you're not likely to get a million Julias or even a thousand Georges, because they are doing the scary and demanding work of speaking (or sitting) truth to power, over the long term.

So while you need environmentalism, you also need sustainable development, that unsexy-but-world-changing term (for which "worldchanging", by the way, is probably the sexiest available substitute). You need the wood recycling and related shaping technologies that get rid of the need big, raw, ancient logs. You need the technical, economic and social innovations like certified sustainable wood and LEED green building standards and replacements for wood fiber in general. And of course you need to change values and reduce demand and increase the protection of conservation ... and some of those things cross the fuzzy border back over into what we tend to call "environmentalism." But many of them are not. They are innovation and transformation processes. And for Julia's historic sit-in (we're using her here as symbol of environmental activism in general, and not just talking about trees) to be truly successful in the long-term, they need to keep happening, faster and faster all the time. That's the work of Change Agents.

The Death of Environmentalism authors write as though they were the first to have the insight that environmental campaigns by themselves don't work. As though generations of environmentalists (and other kinds of activists) before them had not experienced tiring of the nay-saying protestor role and decided to switch to visionary Change Agentry instead. As though no one else had thought about the need to create an Apollo-scale (or Manhattan-project-scale, or Marshall-plan scale) vision of change in our energy system. The same metaphors and analyses have been around since the 1970s; there were just fewer people ready to listen.

To cite just one of the many respondents to the DoE essay who seems to lack a sense of historical perspective, though he certainly knows his history and yearns for positive change, Adam Werbach recently performed a lengthy "autopsy" on environmentalism. Among other things, he showed how his mentor, the great David Brower had gotten off of "environmentalism" and onto The Ecology of Commerce, green job development for union workers, and similar sustainability topics. But this proves nothing essential, and negates the continuing important role played by the conserve-and-protest organizations that Brower founded. And an old activist has every right to get interested in new ideas at the end of his life.

But this essay is not a critique, or a complaint, on my part. Indeed it's wonderful to welcome tired and frustrated activists into the ranks of people trying to lead change in more positive terms, by expanding and accelerating the development of the replacements to destructive technologies and practices. Tired activists are usually at risk of becoming burnt-out Curmudgeons, which is a loss indeed. But when activists successfully become Change Agents and solution-promoters, they often become the best, because they know the system's ropes so well. Maybe DoE authors Nordhaus and Schellenberger can finally give some legs to this Apollo-scale US energy dream that so many have had for so long! (FYI, non-US folks are not so keen on the whole Apollo, Manhattan-Project, Marshall-Plan, adapt war-talk to world-saving language thing; very proto-imperialist, in their ears.)

But I dearly hope that no one seriously interprets this tempest in a green teapot to mean that environmentalism should disappear. Calls for the dismantling of environmental funding programs (as Werbach does) and the like are just silly. Environmentalists are, after all, winning many critical battles, in many parts of the world ... and the greatest need for them is yet to come.

Environmentalism is also getting subtler about when it must say "No," and when it can peddle a "Yes." In fact the difference between "environmentalism" and "sustainable development" -- or "worldchanging" or "bright green" or whatever -- is, I would submit, starting to narrow now, after a dozen years of gap-widening. The "Sustainabilists", who usually work inside the system rather than out in the streets or up in the trees, are tactically more able to join their voice to the chorus of passionate "No's" when the environmental dangers are more visible, and when the alternatives are more reachable. Meanwhile, the Environmentalists can be all the more implacable in their "No's" when it is so obvious that the technical, economic, and cultural "Yesses" are there to be adopted and installed.

Indeed, while Werbach, a former president of Sierra Club, was moved by the DoE essay to announce that he is no longer an environmentalist, I am ready to announce -- a dozen years after that second speech to the Washington Environmental Council -- that I'm becoming one again. And proudly. And optimistically. And without giving up my fundamental commitment to working on the solutions side of the change process.

I'm encouraged to do that by conversations with business and government leaders in recent months, in several countries, who obviously "get it" even more deeply than before. They still wanted a "Yes," a positive, solutions-oriented strategy from me (I work as a strategic consultant). But they have been more and more ready to hear the "No" side of the story as well. "Don't talk to the Minister about global warming and coal companies," one advisor briefed me in advance of a meeting. "It's just too controversial." But what did the Minister want to talk about? Global warming and coal companies. And by the way, what did the coal company reps, in a different workshop not long after that, want to talk about? Global warming, and what they should do about it. Such cracks in the ice are inspiring.

But I am mostly encouraged to become an environmentalist by other environmentalists, of course. I have never been so inspired in recent months as when I spoke to the international climate team of the World Wildlife Fund, at their strategy get-together in Istanbul. This is a serious Environmentalist group if ever there was one, and they are far from dead. This is the group that shadowed the international climate negotiations the whole way, playing an instrumental role in Kyoto's ultimate success (and Kyoto must be seen as a success, in the manner of laying the first foundation stones in a very large cathedral that will take a century to build). When demonstrations were needed, WWF helped demonstrations to occur (including dressing up in polar bear suits). When reasonable economic analyses and scenarios for renewables were needed, WWF supplied them. When Putin agreed to have Russia ratify Kyoto, he apparently did so in no small part because WWF activist Alexey Kokorin convinced him to do it. They deploy well-grounded Yesses and hard-hitting No's in equal measure, with tactical accuracy.

Now WWF's climate folks are promoting a PowerSwitch campaign that is typical of the new breed of environmentalism: brash and demanding of industry, part-no and part-yes. Get off of coal, get on to renewables. And power companies are signing up.

Make no mistake: Environmentalism's "No!" to the destruction of nature must continue to resound, long and loud, for generations to come. And if "Environmentalists" aren't doing it, this will mean it isn't getting done ... and without that active resistance pushing from behind, the "Yes" folks will very hard time indeed trying to pull societies toward the new-and-regenerative replacements for old-and-destructive ways of life.

So, with Earth Day just around the corner, let us begin now to celebrate environmentalism, whose death was grossly exaggerated. Let there be songs and cheers and dancing. At birthdays in Sweden, we cheer four times. "She lives!!" cries someone, and then come the shouts, carrying the birthday girl or boy into the future on a wall of powerful sound: "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

- Alan AtKisson

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Thanks to Alan for a thoughtful analysis of the environmental movement. Keeping a positive attitude during today's corporatized political climate is not easy. The obstacles to World Changing action can seem overwhelming. HURRAH for the cheerleading!

Posted by: Larry Warnberg on 17 Mar 05

I'd like to thank Alan too for the great piece, and for plugging Th Ecology of Commerce (book by Paul Hawken). That short book really inspired me and the ideas it contains will hopefully inspire action for decades to come.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 17 Mar 05

An inspiring piece by Alan, confidently following the footsteps of his mentor Dana Meadows (who is surely smiling down on this piece of context-making). Someone, send this to Nicholas Kristof at the NYTimes -- we really need a mainstream columnist out there who gets this, and Nick is doing more harm than good when he writes about environmentalism these days!

Posted by: Ted Wolf on 17 Mar 05

I write from a small corner of the world (wondering if there are big corners anyway).

Just last night I was chatting (via IM) with an "environmentalist" who is helping her group-of-groups change their own attitude. She's 28 years old and told me maybe 5 in 200 people (all over 50 btw) were not open to the "being iconoclasts is not enough" meme.

Today I read this article in WC ... It's a scary bit of syncronicity if you ask me! So let's keep it going and Thanks!

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 18 Mar 05


Great post!

I'm with you in that we need both: doomgloomers highlighting the bad and eco-futurists highlighting the good (TreeHugger's main focus). The really heartening discovery over the last 6 months for us, is the the quantity and quality of good stuff that is out there! Hopefully sites such as ours can help the change-agents' solutions gain much needed momentum.

Keep up the great work!

Posted by: Graham Hill on 18 Mar 05

Splendid essay Alan. Your central theme seems to be "choice." "Yes" and "No" form the Ying and Yang of our choices. A World Changer can state, "I'm saying 'No' to this - here's why..." and "I'm saying 'Yes' to this - here's why..." Ultimately we're describing the difference between the world as it is and as it could be.

If environmentalism, practiced as advocacy politics, has fallen on hard times, perhaps it's because of a wimpy, watered-down vision of a different world. It's a world pretty much like the one we've got, only with scrubbers and catalytic converters. Repeated "No's" wear us out; we begin to say, "Yes, keep running your wasteful, antiquated refinery - just put a couple of filters in it, okay?" We forget to ask, "Why a refinery at all? What do industrial ecology and biomimicry teach us about alternatives?"

Thanks again for a memorable essay. Dana told me, a few months before she died, that she was very proud of you. I can see why.

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Mar 05

Great essay Alan! Good to see more of the "we're winning!" meme, though not explicitly. I think one of the most important and effective things to do right now is get the positive energy going. People want to join a winning team, so saying we're losing is likely self-fulfilling, when it couls also be the other way around...

Posted by: Rikkert J. Swets on 18 Mar 05

Thank you! This essay reminds me of a statement David Brower once made. "To be against something is to be for something. To be against a dam is to be for a river."

Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 18 Mar 05

I've always been a Yes! enviro/eco/green myself, working towards the products and services that will allow those who want to live an ecological life to do just that.

No car instead a bike. About 100 kwh of electricity per month. A garden and the farmers market (which I helped start) for veggies in season.

What has always burned me is that the other enviro/eco/green folks have not only been No! but mistake tactics for strategy and are comfortable talking only to themselves. I mean, Washingtion may have had meetings where the major enviro groups talked to each other but Boston and the Northeast hasn't, to my knowledge, except for a year or two when Newt Gingrich and the Contract Congress scared them half to death. If they wouldn't talk to other enviro/eco/green groups, do you think they'd talk to businesses, churches, professional associations, or unions? Good God, no.

I carry a solar bike light on my backpack every day. I know I am solar powered. How many other people even feel the sun?

Posted by: gmoke on 18 Mar 05

Excellent and inspiring essay to this aging hippie/enviro/minim/leftie. Thank you so much, and happy to have found your blog! I (and others) will be in touch.

Posted by: Joe Chasse on 18 Mar 05


That is an incredible bit of writing!
Personally, I have for sometime now refered to myself as a Pro-activist. I'm a Proactive environmentalist. The activist carries the sign, and has always been a valued link in the chain. I'm one of those guys who simply walks my talk! (Example. I put one small garbage can on the curb for pick up only once a month! Waste reduction is my personal soap box!)

Gotta tell ya, I love the whole sustainable idea! I have always had a hard time explaining to non believers about the eco-system concept and why one owl species can stop logging. Realizing there must be a middle ground. One can't very realisticly say cut no trees, when they write on paper, on a wooden desk, while in a stick built house! Now I have words for the middle ground. We need the environmentalists who would stubbornly save us from ourselves. It's good to offer the environmentalist, AND and a green alternative. The NO counters the old YES. Then a New, sustainable Yes can be offered!

Additionally, as I read your work here, I was constantly seeing what you wrote in political terms. Meaning, change a few words and use this argument to explain a posative alternative to the Blue vs Red state debate! I'm clearly not the writer you are, but with a little imagination I'm sure you can see what I mean. When a progressive says No no no absolutely not! Is there a sustainable option? Is there a Yes? In fact, is it possible to use this argument and urge for a PURPLE America?

Good luck to you!
It seems you have your head on straight!

Posted by: Leslie Chasse on 18 Mar 05

I've created a blog to write excerpts of WC's newsitems in Spanish - linking to the original piece. I hope I can atract a few helpers and maybe move forward - no promises.

It's at

Maybe someday we'll be able to use something like "purple numbers" (google for that, it's a way of refering to paragraphs within a bigger text) so we may have reader-ants who claim ownership of just one paragraph, translate it and move on?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 21 Mar 05

Your description of international campaigning by WWF "brash and demanding of industry, part-no and part-yes. Get off of coal, get on to renewables," is a letter-perfect description of where we need to move US environmental organizing. WWF, Greenpeace and FOE have worked out nuanced campaigning that manages to offer hope and highlight workable alternative while still drawing bright lines and holding corporations and governments accountable.

Posted by: Ken Ward on 26 Mar 05



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