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Environmentalism Lives; You Just Have to Look Closely

At a meeting in April of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, two warhorses of the green movement, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, released a statement entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism” — a dismal litany of the Bush administration’s murderously successful war on the environment that caused quite a stir among the tree-hugging set. While noting that established environmental organizations have become stunningly impotent in trying to slow down the neocon juggernaut, the report lacks any clear prescription for what to do about it.

That lack of a prescription is Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ point: We’ve lost, and we’re clueless.

In “The environment’s new bling,” a commentary published April 21 in The Boston Globe, Chip Giller, founder and editor of the online environmental magazine Grist.org, took note of the EGA confab and its desperately pessimistic focus. (Attention, streetspeak Luddites: “bling” is hip-hop slang for jewelry, and is included in the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Actually, the OED lists “bling-bling”; this was the term of choice as the etymological behemoth went to press, but it has since been truncated. You can’t expect a popular culture with the attention span of a fruitfly to hang onto two blings when one bling will do.)

Giller observed that in the current political climate, environmentalists are foolish to expect any kind of significant pole shift in their power (that is, the lack of it) inside the Beltway. He faulted the movement for preaching to “a middle-aged, upper-middle-class choir” rather than trying to broaden its base.

Giller then noted a phenomenon that remains substantially under the radar of mainstream environmentalists: the steady growth of a “green” ethic at the grass-roots level, which has little do with World Wildlife Fund bumper stickers and lots to do with subtle but broad-based changes in everyday behavior — in homes, neighborhoods and the marketplace.

Elaborating with several examples, he moves from “bling” to another word, which has been around for ages but is rapidly taking on new resonance: “sustainability,” which he defines as “the new self-reliance.”

How many people were throwing around the word “sustainability” even a couple of years ago?

Chelsea Green Publishing Co. — which has marched for years under the banner of “the politics and practice of sustainable living” — functions as an environmental ordnance depot: a repository of practical information on how everyday people can change their everyday behavior in everyday ways that have the power to transform the big picture even as the Sierra Club nobly scratches its head. From its massive backlist to several new cutting-edge titles, Chelsea Green has often been there, in the words of one Nathan Bedford Forrest, “fustest with the mostest.” (Hey, how often do environmental flacks get to quote a Confederate Civil War general?)

Expect still more in the months to come. The flagship, so to speak, of the next ambitious fleet of books is Limits to Growth, the 30th-anniversary update of a hefty broadside still considering one of the seminal manifestos of the sustainability movement.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right, but Giller is right, too. Forget about praying for epiphanies among the rapacious power elite; they are quite deliberately beyond our reach, and determined to remain so. You want a reality check? We’re talking about an administration that selected (and a Congress that confirmed) Alberto R. Gonzales as U.S. attorney general — a man who, in a 2002 memo to President Bush, described the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete.” His words, not mine.

So go ahead; keep badgering the White House with Environmental Defense Fund petition cards pleading for the imperiled survival of the Arctic National Widlife Refuge. Maybe those little postcards poke tiny demographic thorns in the side of somebody someplace inside the castle who deserves to be poked. But that’s not where salvation lies. It lies, as it always has, with the power of information and the willingness to engage.

Think about it: Isn’t it a good sign that the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” has developed enough traction to become a cliche?


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