An Open Letter to Michael K. Dorsey

Dear Michael,

First, thank you for beginning this debate. As I’ve said in a previous post, I am willing to tip my hat to “The Death of Environmentalism” because it has caused us to stop for a moment and consider our strategies. Likewise, your criticisms have caused me to re-read Nordhaus and Schellenberger’s essay, and to re-think it in the context of the environmental justice movement. I’ve done both of those things, and would like to respond to your criticisms.

First, let me define the “environmental justice” movement as I understand it. This movement attempts to highlight the fact that the least powerful members of our society have been forced to shoulder much of the burden of environmental degradation. Everything from toxic wastes, polluting factories and power plants are often “hidden” in poorer communities and neighborhoods. Those of us who are better off socioeconomically are happy to enjoy the “benefits” of such degradation, but we certainly don’t want these things located near us (the “NIMBY” argument).

If I’m correct in defining the environmental justice movement, I must admit that I’m confused by your harsh criticism of “The Death of Environmentalism,” because after re-reading it, I believe it promotes the same sort of broad approach to environmental issues as that movement. Nordhaus and Schellenberger argue that we must stop thinking of environmental issues as distinct problems, and consider them within the contexts of economics, labor and social issues. We must reframe “environmentalism” as part of a broader movement for social and economic progress for all. No longer can environmentalists be satisfied to merely concern themselves with issues that merit the label “environmental issues”; rather, they must begin to consider concerns of health care, wage decline, free trade/”globalization”, etc. Ultimately, if we’re going to really address the massive environmental problems that face us, we must adopt a systems approach to these issues which considers and addresses interconnections between “environmental” issues and others.

Pardon me if I’m oversimplifying, but doesn’t the environmental justice movement also advocate such a systems approach? Doesn’t it attempt to bring attention to the social and economic costs of environmental degradation? Doesn’t it try to demonstrate that environmental problems are tied to issues of race, class and gender? Again, please correct me if I’m misstating anything here.

If I’m not mischaracterizing the movement for environmental justice, then, again, I’m puzzled, as it seems to me that a movement like the Apollo Alliance holds great promise for addressing issues of inequality. At the same time, I’ve taken note of your charge that Nordhaus and Schellenberger have presented “old ideas.” They don’t mention the environmental justice movement at all in their essay, and this is a huge oversight. Is your criticism, then, that these authors present ideas that have been at the heart of the environmental justice movement without giving credit to that movement?

If that’s the case, I hope you’ll join me in a call for Nordhaus and Schellenberger to redress this oversight. The bold vision presented both by your movement and “The Death of Environmentalism” can not afford to alienate any potential allies. It certainly can not afford to present even the appearance of engaging in the old tactic of borrowing from/stealing the ideas of oppressed peoples without giving credit to those peoples. Credit should be given where it is due, and all interested parties should be invited to the table to further discuss and contribute to a progressive offensive against the right-wing ideologues that threaten all of us.

I look forward to your response. I think you’ve brought some important ideas up, and I hope we can all continue to engage in productive dialogue that, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., uplifts human personality.


Jeff McIntire-Strasburg, Ph.D.

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