J500 Media and the Environment

Thank GOD it’s dead. Now, let’s return to the shore. by shemme

I’m going to come right out and say it – I absolutely love and agree with “The Death of Environmentalism.” This is the kind of essay that I yearn to read – provocative, tricky, smart and delicious.

The most literal interpretation of the essay will likely lead readers to label the essay as “negative,” but I urge you to look deeper and think harder. Shellenberger and Nordhaus are just as hopeful and optimistic as you are, they just haven’t spared telling you about their frustrations along the way. I see them calling on environmentalists to form a “positive, transformative vision” that “doesn’t just inspire, [but] also creates the cognitive space for assumptions to be challenged and new ideas to surface.” They aren’t telling us to give up and go home because the earth is doomed, they’re telling us that a simple reframing of the issues has the potential to make a huge difference.

“If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics.”

S&N have ridden in on a rearing, snorting, stamping, wild-eyed “vision-and-values horse.” Remain calm, a few acknowledging pats on the neck and maybe a carrot later, you’ll see it’s not such a terrifying beast after all.


Did anyone notice how many times the words “vision” and “values” were used? Well, in case I’ve sparked your curiosity, “vision” was mentioned 41 times and “values” a whopping 54 times. I believe that S&N are asking us to 1) figure out what America’s values are and then 2) appeal to those values by aligning our environmental goals with them in a cohesive vision for the future. Simple! Crafting and presenting issues in such a way that fires up core values and incites action and/or change is something that conservatives have been doing for a l-o-n-g time – seems like we’ve finally caught on, because really, aren’t we all “values voters?”

It’s all about a controlled use of language. Confused? George Lakoff’s book, one of S&N’s resources, might help all of us figure this thing out.

S&N suggest creating “a road map to guide the development of a set of proposals that simultaneously energizes our base, wins over new allies, divides our opponents, achieves policy victories and makes America’s values environment more progressive.”

I insist that these boys are indeed optimistic. The “old” environmental movement is dead and we’re burying it’s conceptions and organization standards with it. What S&N suggested in this essay 3 years ago is already happening: Obama is referring to climate change as a “moral challenge” and telling us that “yes, we can make a difference,” Hillary has chosen the economic route citing the potential creation of 5 million new jobs in a secure and prosperous green economy, and other figures have taken similar routes as well.

As environmentalism goes mainstream (i.e. aligns itself with the vision and values of the American people), more eyeballs and ears are tuning in than ever before. It’s exciting! As for those fired up environmentalists that rebutted the essay – good for them! They’ve spent some time thinking about what S&N proposed and that’s the first step.


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Here are the authors at UC Berkeley in Nov. 2007:

Here are the authors at Google on 01/16/08:


9 Comments so far
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It was interesting that you pointed out “vision” and “value”. We need to know America’s value in order to market environmentalism to more number of people. At the same time, I think Americans have to change their values a little. I’m not American, so I’m not sure about Americans’ values. But for example,economy is huge in America. We have to face a question like,is it acceptable that the government put more regulations on business? What will the oil industry become of? Can we sacrifice wealth for the environment? etc.


Comment by sachikom

Great post, Sarah.

You address such a tricky subject. On one hand, fear and guilt are not the motivators we should use. On the other hand, I do believe we are dealing with a global crisis and I personally hate it when people try to sugar-coat a problem (like, say, news about our current war). So I feel like we’re obligated to mention this planetary crisis, but we also have to “win” people over with positive messages of hope and self-interest…like you say, Simple!

I see a real problem in abandoning “the message” of climate crisis because it essentially negates the hard work of the scientists and advocates who brought environmental concerns to the forefront. If we’re truly close to a breaking point (which I personally believe we are) does it matter if we create X number of new jobs? Apparently “Earth First” is a dated concept and we’re in another “Me First” age…great, pretty soon we’ll be roller-skating in bell-bottoms to “Disco Duck” again.

Ranjit Arab

Comment by rarab

Ranjit, fear and guilt were never mentioned and I certainly don’t support using them as motivators in persuading people to believe in lies…ahem.

Please don’t assume the I’m suggesting we abandon the gloom ‘n doom crisis image altogether, but we aren’t inspiring anyone by solely relying on such grave imagery. I personally believe in environmentalism for the environment’s sake, but this isn’t selling. Environment for people’s sake is more attractive to people who don’t share my view (I think).

Nobody wants to negate the hard work from before, but the world has changed, people have changed, and the message needs to change/be modified to keep up.

The jobs thing is not a selling point for me, personally, but I realize that it is for others. Yes, there are a lot of “Me First” people out there – a very large number, and we’ve got to appeal to their values in order to achieve our goals. So, let’s roll up our sleeves & get to it!


Comment by shemme

Just to clarify…I wasn’t ascribing the fear and guilt to anything you said, just mentioning that they are current motivational tools in the climate change discussion–and, as you say, haven’t been very effective.

Sounds like we’re on the same page in many regards. I’m with you in that I’m willing to “sell” it in any way necessary. I just hope people ultimately see beyond themselves to understand how big of a problem this is.

Ranjit Arab

Comment by rarab

I think you do point out the successful points of the essay, that

” They aren’t telling us to give up and go home because the earth is doomed, they’re telling us that a simple reframing of the issues has the potential to make a huge difference.”

but you also point out that it is “Simple!” (is this sarcasm that I am mistaking? If so, oops). If it is so simple, how come there is such a struggle for overturning the coal-fired power plants, an issue that is happening NOW, and so close to home?
What is an easy way to get people educated, get them to care, commit, take time out of their busy lives to have their voices heard loud and clear as well as have changes made?

Juliana Tran

Comment by julianat

Julia, yep, I think the concept is simple.

Why is there a struggle with the coal plants… well, I’m guessing it’s because we haven’t offered up alternatives in such a way that align with the values and vision of the Holcomb community. What do the people of Holcomb want? Jobs? Probably, but they want something more, too. What is that something? Once you figure that out, then ask – What alternatives to a coal plant will give them what they want? Then demonstrate how the alternatives align with their values and vision for the future (give them what they want). Has anyone done this?

It might be simple, but not easy. I’m convinced that to make the issue relevant to the people you want to educate, get to care, commit, take acton, etc. you absolutely have to appeal to their values,vision, self interest, whatever you want to call it. We might have to set our own personal motivations aside in order to speak in terms that others can relate to.

Sarah Hemme

Comment by shemme

“Why is there a struggle with the coal plants… well, I’m guessing it’s because we haven’t offered up alternatives in such a way that align with the values and vision of the Holcomb community.”

I absolutely agree with you. As environmentalists – or whatever we want to call ourselves – we can’t just point to the problems and say “You can’t do that.” We have to say at the same time, “But you can do this” and help provide an alternative that fulfills the same need. I am hoping to spark that discussion on the Center for Sustainability blog (guest writers welcome).

At the same time, I think we have to be careful about telling someone what they should do, which is where education enters the picture. Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I believe an informed public will ultimately make the right decision.

Comment by kusustainability

Jeff, The challenge is the informed public are not the ones who make the decisions – it’s the (hopefully) informed legislators that do – ideally on our behalf. Take a look at this poll and see what you think. It did come from an impartial party but I think the evidence is telling, nonetheless.
& we don’t have to dig deep to see that politicians make decisions for many reasons – supporting their constituents is one of them, but not the only one.

Simran Sethi

Comment by j500

That’s true – we must have well-informed legislators to make a difference. I think it was clear from statements that Focus the Nation panelists made that many legislators are just beginning to learn about this issue, which worries me. And the skepticism about public surveys makes it even more difficult. If we can’t rely on educated constituents and sound research to convince legislators to do the right thing, what other options do we have?

Comment by kusustainability

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