Back in 2004, when Michael Shellenberger and I wrote “The Death of Environmentalism,” we argued that environmentalism was failing because it had become a special interest. Environmentalists had constructed an interest called “the environment” and then advocated for it in the same way that the insurance industry or the auto industry or the labor movement advocated for its interests.
That insight is all the more important today. Trump may build better roads and airports and the trains, as the old saw goes, might run on time. He might even lead a nuclear renaissance. But no amount of clean energy or infrastructure is worth forfeiting what remains of our civic and democratic culture.
Further, it is difficult to imagine a democratic path toward an ecomodern future that does not successfully address the twin challenges of immigration and multiculturalism on the one hand and deindustrialization on the other. These challenges are bedeviling advanced developed economies all over the world and represent the underlying crisis of the post-industrial economy and polity. Democracy, civil society, and the environment all demand that we not retreat back to our silos to advocate for the narrow technical, regulatory, and bureaucratic solutions in which we have become expert.
The Fire This Time
“The Death of Environmentalism,” was published just a few weeks before the reelection of George W. Bush and helped provoke a rare moment of introspection on the Left. It was read by some to be a call to create a broader coalition on the progressive Left of environmental, labor, and social justice groups to fight climate change and by others as a call to reframe the traditional environmental agenda as one that would create jobs and economic opportunity. Actually, what we had in mind was a more fundamental reimagining of liberal and progressive politics for a post-industrial globalized economy in which both the scale and nature of ecological challenges would be fundamentally different.
In any event, the introspection didn’t last long. In 2006, Democrats swept away Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency, supported by a multicultural majority that appeared to have remade the American political landscape, one that included many of the working class white voters who eight years later would swing the presidency to Donald Trump. There was nothing wrong with American progressivism, it seemed to many, that an emerging democratic majority of Latinos, African-Americans, millennials, and college educated liberals couldn’t fix.
The triumphalism blotted out a much more basic reality. With the Great Recession gathering, Americans deeply disenchanted with the Bush administration and convinced that the country was headed in the wrong direction simply wanted change. Obama proved able in 2008 and 2012 to turn out a larger and more diverse electorate that tilted the national election toward Democrats. But the Obama effect wasn’t transferable to other Democrats or progressives and it didn’t change voters’ general disenchantment with government or the direction of the country. Without him at the top of the ticket, Democrats suffered crippling losses in 2010, 2014, and 2016.
During those years, we at Breakthrough dabbled a bit in national security, economic policy, and a brief effort to rethink the social contract. But there wasn’t much appetite for it, at least coming from us. “What,” we were frequently asked, “does any of this have to do with the environment?” And so, over the years, we acceded to the same “policy literalism” that we had criticized in “Death of Environmentalism.” By the time “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” was published in 2015, social and economic progress were simply assumed. The focus, rather, was how to reconcile it with environmental protection.
But while it is all fine and well to remind people how much progress human societies have made in recent centuries, about three quarters of our countrymen are not feeling so good about it these days, at least judging by what they tell pollsters. Absolute poverty may be a thing of the past. But relative poverty, the gap between those at the bottom of the income distribution and the average American, and between the average American and those at the very top, is as large as it has ever been. With that have come new problems – obesity, drug addiction, depression, and declining economic and social mobility.
As we have transitioned from industrial to post-industrial economy, the middle class has shrunk. This is not because most of us have become poorer. From bottom to top, Americans are materially as rich as they’ve ever been. Goods and services that were once luxuries – air conditioning, high-definition television, mobile telephony – are now accessible to virtually all Americans. Food is so cheap that Americans struggle with obesity instead of hunger.
Rather global supply chains, rising productivity, and the information and communications technology revolution have brought stagnant wages along with the falling cost of goods. Meanwhile, the economy is increasingly bifurcated between those in the skilled knowledge economy and those in the unskilled service economy. Americans have been simultaneously falling out of the middle class and graduating from it economically.
For poorly educated workers, manufacturing once provided access to middle class incomes. Unskilled workers could find high productivity work in factories and with that high wages. But the old manufacturing economy is not coming back. America today actually manufactures more than it ever has. But long-term productivity improvements mean that America’s manufacturing sector employs many fewer workers than it once did.
The knowledge and service economy are different. Education, skilled labor, and social capital are rewarded and the income gap between those who are poorly educated and those who are well educated is magnified inter-generationally. The child of a PhD is enormously advantaged over the child of a high school dropout, even if they live in the same communities and attend the same schools and classes.
The progressive Left, from the Occupy movement onwards, has railed against the 1%. And while it is true that the very richest among us have reaped far more than anyone else in recent decades, the focus on the 1% allowed many liberal minded people to avoid less comfortable truths. The economic divide that has sundered America is not the one between the super rich and everyone else, but between the rising creative class of knowledge workers and those stuck in the low-wage service economy. That split is mirrored in the divide between red and blue, urban and rural, the so-called flyover states and America’s prosperous coastal enclaves.
Those with education, knowledge, skills, and cultural capital migrate to cities, to the coasts, to blue America. Those left behind seethe at their social and economic marginalization, their loss of status, and the sense that liberal, cosmopolitan America looks down on them, which it does.
Standard liberal remedies, such as redistributing income and spending more on schools and social services, can reduce income disparities to some degree. And by some analyses, they already have. Once taxes and income transfers are accounted for, economic inequality has grown little in recent decades. But even if that is so, those measures can’t close the enormous gaps in social capital, social mobility, and social status.
Perhaps a more robust social welfare state, not just income transfers, might result in more equitable social outcomes. But the welfare state is bedeviled by the challenges of maintaining social solidarity in an increasingly multi-ethnic society. The success of the social welfare state in Scandinavia and other parts of the developed world has been made possible in no small part by a relatively homogenous population. In the United States by contrast, the dream that working class white, Latino, and African-American voters might find common cause demanding a more generous social welfare state has foundered upon mistrust and inter-group competition for what are perceived to be limited public resources.
Those challenges, of course, go well beyond working class voters. Two decades of gridlock and broken promises have soured voters of all incomes on politics and government altogether. Racial resentments, a continual ratcheting up of extreme rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum, identity politics and its twenty-first-century handmaiden, techno-narcissism, have further contributed to American politics, and perhaps democracy, coming apart.
Back in 2002, I moderated the first focus groups that tested what would become the Apollo Alliance with white working class voters in Erie, Pennsylvania. The idea was that we might create a broad coalition among environmentalists, organized labor, and working class voters for action to address climate change and end our dependence on fossil fuels. By investing in clean energy manufacturing, we hoped, we could create economic opportunity and jobs for communities left behind as America’s traditional manufacturing economy struggled and shift the political ground upon which climate policy was being debated.
The participants were, to say the least, enthusiastic about the prospect and during a break, I left the room to confer with my colleagues behind the one-way mirror. As we shared our excitement about how well the idea was being received, the participants on the other side of the mirror started speculating about whether we might represent a company that was planning to open a wind turbine factory in Erie. They were desperate and hopeful. We were gleeful.
A few months later, we hired a consultant to produce a fanciful study purporting to show that a $300 billion investment in clean energy would create 3 million new jobs. Armed with good polling and economic modeling that nobody in our left-of-center bubble seemed too interested in questioning, we set out to conquer the Democratic Party.
The Apollo concept proved wildly successful politically. It ultimately became Democratic orthodoxy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed in the 2008 Democratic primaries over who had the best plan to create clean energy jobs. As President, Obama spent about $200 billion dollars in green stimulus and many billions more in continuing subsidies for renewable energy, electric cars, mass transit, and high-speed rail.
Fifteen years later, there are few clean energy manufacturing jobs in Erie. Long a stronghold for Democrats and organized labor, Erie County this year voted for a different kind of populist promising to bring back manufacturing jobs by tearing up trade deals, deporting immigrants, and ending the so-called “War on Coal.”
Sadly for Erie, Trump will be no more capable of bringing back high wage jobs for low-skilled and poorly educated voters than was Obama. The same demand for change and dissatisfaction with the economy and government that swept Trump into office may just as quickly sweep him out. But however things unfold, the rage, resentment, and economic disenfranchisement that made Trump’s ascension to the presidency possible are not going away.
A decade ago, I came to these challenges as a self-identified progressive. Today, I’m less comfortable with that identity, if only because progressives have demonstrated themselves every bit as capable of trading in arrogance, fantasy, and vitriol as conservatives. And I’ve come to know many conservatives whom I know to be every bit as committed to progress, equity, shared prosperity, and a beautiful world as I am.
Trumpism, in any event, is likely to redraw the fault lines of American politics in ways that are difficult to anticipate. And so for ecomodernists, and fellow travelers, this moment offers opportunity and peril. It is possible that the Trump Administration will end up looking like a souped-up version of the Bush administration with a more populist veneer and less appetite for nation-building.
Under these circumstances, there may be real possibilities to make headway on emissions. A Trump administration prepared to invest in advanced nuclear energy and next-generation solar panels and batteries, keep America’s existing nuclear fleet online, and support the ongoing transition from coal to gas – even as it withdraws from the Paris Accord, repeals the Clean Power Plan, and continues to deny climate science – could end up with more to show in terms of emissions reduction than a Democratic Administration committed to a green agenda that has failed to have much impact upon the trajectory of carbon emissions, in the United States or globally, for almost three decades.
But we should also keep in mind that there are far more problematic outcomes. Should the new administration take a hard turn toward authoritarianism, there will be important consequences for those who align themselves with or in opposition to it. Short of that, should Trump actually attempt to implement much of his agenda, he will engender enormous civil society opposition. The street protests in cities around the nation in recent days may provide just a taste of what is to come. With civil society, including the environmental movement, in the streets, a quick and politically convenient embrace of Trump initiatives that align with our technological preferences risks delegitimizing ecomodernism as a credible civil society voice.
In the end, each of us will need to make these assessments for ourselves. Are we taking pragmatic actions to encourage the best impulses of the new administration or are we legitimizing something much darker? The choice is not one that will be presented to us all at once or that we will make only once. Rather, we will be presented with it over and over again.
However we make those choices, it will be incumbent upon us all to do everything that we can to strengthen civil society, to fight for democratic norms and resist their erosion while simultaneously finding ways to turn down the rhetoric that has rendered so much of our civic life increasingly contentious and irreconcilable. We will also need to ask some hard questions of our own agendas and political commitments.
Here is hoping that we all make those choices well and that together, we can find new possibilities for social, economic, and environmental progress in this moment of fear and uncertainty.