Beyond the 100th Paradigm

by Randal O'Toole

Table of Contents

A Weakened Movement

Recently, members of the Sierra Club voted by a two-to-one margin to support a ban on all timber cuttings from federal forests. Some in the environmental movement consider this a victory which gives credibility to an idea that, as recently as two years ago, was viewed by most environmentalists as impossibly extreme.

But a broader view might hold that, in adopting this goal, the Sierra Club has effectively taken itself out of the debate over federal forests. After all, the "no-cut" goal is a no-compromise goal, and in Washington, if you are not willing to compromise, you will not be invited to the table.

The Sierra Club's action symptomizes the increasing marginalization of the environmental movement. This once seemingly omnipotent political force now has, at best, the role of the spoiler--capable of preventing the passage of laws it doesn't like but incapable of getting its own ideas enacted into law. Sometimes it can't even stop laws it abhors, such as the salvage sale bill passed by the 104th Congress.

Take a look at some of the things environmentalists have been doing lately:

Events such as these all suggest that the environmental movement has lost its way and is searching for a new direction. This is a natural response to a loss of power.

The environmental movement's loss of power seems puzzling at a time when three out of four Americans describe themselves as "environmentalists." It isn't due to the Republican takeover of Congress, as environmentalists were unable to get a single important bill passed in 1993 and 1994, when Democrats held both Congress and the White House. Most significantly, they could not convince the 103rd Congress to reauthorize the Endangered Species Act--spending authority for which expired in 1992--even though many environmentalists consider this law the linchpin of their efforts to protect ecosystems.

In large part, environmental groups are victims of political forces beyond their control. Those forces aren't some sinister conspiricy against the environment but are a natural part of the political system under which we live.

Federalizing the Environmental Movement

When Henry David Thoreau became America's first "environmental" writer 150 years ago, his goal was to make people aware of the beauty of the natural world and to encourage people to voluntarily leave some of it in its pristine condition. He never proposed or intended that the federal government should use its power to preserve wildness, and he would have been shocked at the idea if someone else had suggested it. Along with most people of his time, Thoreau agreed with Thomas Paine's maxim that "that government is best which governs least."

Thoreau also lived in an age when most people, whether farmers or craftsmen or tradesmen, earned about the same incomes. The railroads were just getting going, and while Thoreau didn't like the sound of a steam locomotive intruding on his refuge at Walden Pond, he objected equally to those who vandalized the railroads and to those who attempted to regulate them in the name of the "public interest."

America changed in the decades after Thoreau's death. A few wealthy people, such as Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, and Andrew Carnigie, seemed to control a huge portion of the economy, while the masses of workers seemed poor and downtrodden. Socialists, Progressives, and others saw the federal government as a remedy to such inequalities. As fears grew of stock market manipulators, speculators, and would-be monopolists, more and more Americans forgot their traditional fear of big government.

One of those Americans was John Muir, a nature writer in the Thoreau tradition. Muir admired Thoreau's writings, but when he realized that Thoreau would have opposed the use of federal power to preserve nature, he derisively called him "that huckleberry picker." Instead of relying on voluntary efforts to protect the environment, Muir joined with Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, and the other Progressives, who sought an expansion of federal authority.

The Progressives' success is readily visible on a map of the U.S.: More than a quarter of the nation's land is in the hands of just four federal conservation agencies. Yet political conditions were far different in 1900 than they are today:

In such simple times, it was easy to get the attention of Congress and the president and to promote a broad understanding of such complex issues as forestry, water resources, and the benefits of parks. In fact, the conservation movement was one of the originators of political techniques commonly used by special interest groups today: mass mailings, write-in campaigns, and Washington, DC, lobby groups.

Today, the federal government is much larger and everyone is a special interest group. Only about a quarter of a percent of federal resources are devoted to natural resources, and the average member of Congress who is bombarded by dozens of special interest groups every day doesn't have time to master the complexities of ecosystem management or biodiversity.

In such an atmosphere, interest groups quickly learn that they have about thirty seconds to gain the attention of any member of Congress or their staff. This means two things:

Of course, the reality is that neither a Republican Congress, with its ties to business, nor a Democratic Congress, with its ties to labor, are likely to shut down an industry that is an important part of the economies of many Congressional districts in nearly 40 states. But within the movement, ideas such as the no-cut proposal became viable because of an internal pressure: the severe competition for funds.

Internal Divisions

To outsiders, the environmental movement is a monolithic entity. But insiders know that the movement is in reality strained and sometimes torn by all sorts of divisions.

The best known such division is between national and local environmental groups. The national groups cover numerous issues, and in politics compromise is the name of the game. Thus the nationals will compromise on one issue in order to maintain a place at the table for the next issue. The locals are more often single-issue groups--a roadless area, a species, or an ecotype that offers no middle ground between winning and losing. Thus, the locals view the nationals as sell outs, while the nationals think the locals are naive and unrealistic.

Less known is the division between staffed and volunteer groups. The staffed groups must devote an embarrassingly large share of their efforts to fundraising, and a lot of their day-to-day decisions are based on the need to meet the monthly payroll. Volunteer groups face no such pressures, and are motivated by the "purer" goal of saving the environment. So the volunteers suspect that the staffed groups are "only in it for the money," while the staffed groups regard the volunteers as loose cannons.

Another division is between the technocrats and the biocentrists. The technocrats see every problem as a scientific one with an economic, ecologic, or other technical solution, which may differ from acre to acre. The biocentrists are more concerned with values and are more inclined to sweeping solutions to problems. Technocrats view the biocentrists as dreamers, while the biocentrists derisively term the technocrats "shallow ecologists."

Finally, there is the division between environmentalists who work on natural resource issues and those who work on more urban issues such as pollution and transportation--or, to use John Baden's terms, a division between "romance" and "sludge." People from the sludge side tend to see environmental problems as just a part of larger social issues, while people on the resource side are often more focused. The two sides rarely interact and in some cases view one another with hostility. Many urban environmentalists, for example, oppose efforts to protect wilderness, saying that if we could make the cities livable we wouldn't need wilderness.

Nearly all of these divisions have existed for some time, but only became pronouced in the 1980s. During the 1970s, most environmental groups were poor and survived on the enthusiasm of the low-paid staff or unpaid volunteers. But when Ronald Reagan was elected and appointed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, it suddenly became easy for the big national groups to get new members and contributors.

Most of the money that came pouring into the national groups was used not to hire new staff or take on new work but to move into fancier offices and increase the pay of existing staff. The staff may have felt justified in getting pay increases after having worked for so long for so little. But local and statewide environmental groups generally did not share the "benefits" of the Reagan revolution, and resentments built up between the national and local groups and between the staffed and volunteer groups that plague the movement to this day.

The targeting of Reagan and Watt as environmental enemies had another consequence. Before 1981, the environment was a nonpartisan issue, with voting split more along regional lines than party lines. After Reagan's election, the Democratic Party was increasingly viewed as the environmental party, while Republicans were considered antienvironmentalists.

Since the national groups had publicly blamed environmental problems on Reagan and other Republicans, it was only natural that, when Clinton was elected, many people felt that the problems were solved. National group memberships plummeted, with the National Wildlife Federation, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, and Earth Island Institute all reporting 15 to 35 percent declines in membership.

The chaos caused by the loss of revenue to the national groups shifted the balance of power to the local groups. Since national groups tend to be more compromise oriented, while local and volunteer groups take more of a hard line, this shift in the balance of power resulted in a greater tendency to be extremist and a lesser willingness to negotiate.

As memberships declined, groups of all sizes also became more dependent on foundation fundraising. Since a few foundations set the trends for many others, this left the environmental movement following the whims of a few foundation directors. While those foundation leaders have only the best of intentions, this situation meant that environmentalists were increasingly out of touch with their memberships and with the American people in general.

Relying on Big Brother

All of these factors--the crisis mentality, the oversimplification, the push to extremes by local groups, the use of polarization as a fundraising tool, and loss of touch between environmentalists and Americans in general--worked together to create another trend: an increasing dependence on big government solutions to environmental problems. Polls show that three out of four Americans support environmental goals. Yet the same polls show that three out of four Americans have no faith in government. This means that at least half of all Americans would like to see solutions to environmental problems that don't rely on big government, while no more than a quarter ardently believe in big-government solutions to environmental conflicts.

Despite these polls, and their clear reflections at the ballot box, most environmental groups remain committed to big-government programs: regulation, subsidies, and bureaucracy.

Greenpeace's confusion of means and ends is a natural result of a dependency on government solutions. As Peter Drucker wrote (and I've repeatedly quoted), "any government activity almost at once becomes `moral.' " Similarly, once we've decided to use big government as a means to saving the environment, that means becomes the end. Anyone who questions our means is questioning our goal: Either you are for the Endangered Species Act or you are against saving endangered species.

Drucker goes on: "The absence of results does not raise the question, Shouldn't we rather do something differently? Instead, it leads to a doubling of effort; it only indicates how strong the forces of evil are." It may be that saving endangered species is truly the morally right thing to do, but, Drucker concludes, "we should always question the effort if there are no results."

Natural Selection

Like any biological species or human institution, the environmental movement is best viewed as a product of natural selection. Those parts of the movement that are most successful will survive and be replicated by others. But "successful" doesn't necessarily translate to "saving the environment": Instead, it means things like "big budgets" and "attention-getting ideas."

Natural selection has no foresight and does not take the long view. It selects only for short-term success. If an attribute is beneficial in the short-run but harmful in the long-run, then that attribute eventually must die. But it will not necessarily be replaced by an attribute that is successful in the long run unless it can also be successful in the short run.

The Irish elk is a favorite paradox of biological evolution. Over the ages it evolved a rack of antlers so huge that it could not hold its head up. Biologists suggest that large antlers were favored during mating season, but eventually they may have caused the animal to go extinct. While this may be apocryphal, it illustrates a problem facing environmentalists: Tactics such as polarization may help them in the short run, but hurt them in the long run.

The problems were evident by 1994. Within the movement, increasing squabbling between national and local groups was exacerbated by declining memberships. Outside the movement, historian Anna Bramwell published a book titled The Fading of the Greens, suggesting that environmentalists were a spent force. And entertainer John Mellencamp--hardly a right winger--was singing about "prophets of doom" who "won't leave us alone" trying to get contributions by "sowing seeds of despair":

Yeah the air could be cleaner
and the water could be too,
but what we do to each other
are the worst things that we do.

("Another Sunny Day," from Dance Naked, copyright 1994.)

But all of these signs of public discontent were ignored by environmentalists, who were completely shocked when Republicans won Congress in November, 1994. At that time, the most successful long-term strategy might have been to work with the winners and to make environmental programs attractive to them. After all, Newt Gingrich had a decent environmental voting record and had previously been endorsed by environmental groups. But most environmental groups decided instead to demonize Gingrich and the Republicans, a tactic they hoped would be more successful in the short run--successful, that is, at getting members, contributions, and media attention.

The movement will probably survive the Republicans. But environmentalists' love of big government is much more disturbing that their hatred of Newt Gingrich. Nearly all of the programs they are fighting today are government programs--many originally created with the support of environmentalists or their predecessors. Yet environmental proposals almost all seem to give the agencies running those programs more money and more power.

The American people's increasing suspicion of bureaucracy, regulation, and other symbols of big government is much more sensible than the environmental movement's support for government power. The question is, is there a way for the movement to get out of the big-government morass? Or is it doomed to forever fight a losing battle because the short-term benefits of fighting that battle are greater than the short-term benefits of changing strategies?

The Environmentalism of the '90s?

Environmental groups responded to the 1994 election in a variety of ways. All of these responses are examples of the environmentalism of the 1980s: environmentalism that is based on polarization and divisiveness. Other groups began practicing a different sort of environmentalism, one perhaps more tuned to the 1990s: Will the laws of natural selection favor such consensus and market-based approaches? Or will the dominant paradigm of environmentalism return to the polarization and demonization of the 1980s? Before members of the next Congress take their seats, perhaps the environmental community can get back to its roots: Instead of identifying and polarizing environmental "enemies," we can remember that "we have met the enemy and he is us."

Randal O'Toole is director and Karyn Moscowitz is a senior associate with the Thoreau Institute.

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