Green Fissures

A couple of times I’ve mentioned Jason Mark’s long piece at TAP about growing tensions within the environmental movement, and am surprised it hasn’t created more of a buzz (in Google-searchable public venues, anyway). Maybe some think he’s airing dirty laundry, or perhaps others don’t agree with some of his premises. But there’s not much question that the most immediate dispute he’s talking about–whether supporting greater use of less-damaging energy sources is the proper short-term strategy for fighting climate change, or that amounts to surrender–is a reasonably big strategic problem for progressives generally. Here’s how Mark puts it:

The biggest divide may be between those who would do anything to cut carbon emissions and slow climate change—going so far as to support natural gas and nuclear fuel, or even supporting geo-engineering and other controversial ideas—and conservationists who don’t want to trade one earth-damaging practice for another.

“I feel like the community has splintered,” says Chris Clarke, a writer in Joshua Tree, California, and a co-founder of the group Solar Done Right, which has battled the construction of utility-scale solar stations in the Mojave Desert that involve destroying vast stretches of wilderness. “Some people are unwilling to call themselves ‘environmentalists’ because ‘environmentalist’ has now come to mean climate-change mitigation at any cost.”

I wrote just the other day about David Roberts’ post at Grist on growing evidence that greater (albeit much better regulated) use of shale gas could be essential to the greater use of renewable energy sources. But as Mark points out, intense and unconditional opposition to fracking is rapidly becoming the most important grassroots environmental cause. It certainly doesn’t help that very recently the Sierra Club’s reputation took a big hit for quietly accepting very large sums of money from a company heavily involved in fracking. Now that same Sierra Club is criticizing other environmental groups for collaboration with fracking schemes.

There are a tangle of issues buried in these controversies, from suspicion of “post-environmentalist” writers like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, to conflicts over the priority accorded to climate change as opposed to more traditional (and also more popular and tangible) environmental concerns, to the strategic and tactical issues any social or political movement faces. And this is all happening at a time when the sense of urgency about environmental challenges is peaking–yet the bipartisan support the cause used to enjoy is all but gone.

I don’t have any big answers to these dilemmas, though as a Political Animal who watches the vast forces resisting progressive change closely every day, I am not inclined to believe an inflexible position on every issue, even if it’s justified, will accomplish much in the near future. Unfortunately, the near future is already kind of late for the kind of action we need.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.