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Nicholas Kristof's Kool-Aid

by Andrew Christie

Environmentalism Under Attack

The publication and wide dissemination of the essay "The Death of Environmentalism" is a healthy indication of a movement engaging in useful self-examination and vigorous debate -- unless you're Nicholas Kristof, in which case it's an indication that "the movement is in deep trouble."

In the March 12 New York Times, Kristof seized on the assertion by the essay's authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus that "modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live."

Kristof, who apparently did not read beyond this sentence, interprets this as an admission that environmentalists have lost credibility due to crying "wolf." Examples: Caribou herds are thriving despite enviros' warnings about the construction of the Alaska Pipeline, the ban on DDT to save bald eagles "has led to hundreds of thousands of malaria deaths," and the dire predictions made in the 1960s around the burgeoning growth of global population have not come true.

The only problem with this damning thesis is that it is wrong on all counts.

"One of the greatest myths concerning caribou," notes Defenders of Wildlife, "is that oil development has caused an increase in the Central Arctic herd's numbers. Before development, the herd contained about 5,000 animals. Today it numbers around 27,000. This increase is largely attributable to several years with mild weather and has nothing to do with development. In truth, the Central Arctic herd's calving activity has shifted away from developed areas to alternative calving grounds with poorer quality habitat."

The hundreds of thousands of lives lost to malaria due to the U.S. ban on DDT is a myth -- "rubbish. transmuted from cyberspace junk to popular folklore," per Dr. Alan Lymbery of the Division of Health Sciences, Murdoch University, Australia. DDT is still in wide use throughout the Third World. Its use has declined, Dr. Lymbery notes, largely due to its declining effectiveness, caused by indiscriminate use in agriculture, not in disease control. "Most nations where malaria is a problem, and most health professionals working in the field of malaria control, support the targeted use of DDT as part of the tool kit for malaria control," he writes. "Most also agree that more cost-effective, less environmentally persistent alternatives are needed. There are some effective alternative chemicals for the control of adult mosquitoes, but preventing their further development is lack of investment by industry."

As for "alarmist" early warnings about the disastrous consequences of overpopulation, anyone who called for a tsunami early-warning system on the western side of the Pacific Ocean and predicted horrendous consequences if we failed to act was also an alarmist -- up until December 26, 2004. That we have managed to put off the terminal consequences of the burden we are placing on the Earth's natural systems may be a tribute to our ingenuity, but cleverness will only take you so far. The ultimate consequences of continuing to follow the Western model as it was put in place at the dawn of the industrial age -- a pyramid of consumption, with a small human population perched atop a base of resources assumed to be limitless, now inverted so that a broad, expanding population is balancing on a shrinking base of resources - aren't hard to foresee.

Enthusiastically clucking over public "suspicion of environmental groups" and their "loss of credibility," Kristof expresses a view of the U.S. environmental movement and activism that has been energetically promulgated since the mid 70's, when the Heritage Foundation took on the project of turning around the definition of "special interests:" not their rapacious corporate clients, but the labor unions and public interest groups who opposed them. Environmentalists were defined as extremists. The PR industry stoked the fog machine for their clients, whose media organs -- and not a few environmental groups -- came to parrot the idea of working with corporations to achieve "win-win" resolutions, discarding messy endeavors like litigation, legislation, and activism when it is so much easier to just cut a deal or dip into the public treasury and pay off the despoilers of the land, air and water. (The historical analogy would be to Booker T. Washington, "the Great Accommodater," who earnestly urged his fellow African-Americans to trade in their unseemly agitation for civil rights in exchange for jobs and favors from the white power structure, circa 1902. Said power structure immediately anointed Booker T. as the Voice of Black America.)

That Kristof, a professed former "environmental groupie," is spouting the industry line and has bought into a manufactured mythology is a measure of the success of the public relations industry. His prescription is a complete distortion of the meaning of "Death of Environmentalism" authors Shellenberger and Nordhaus, whose essay calls for activists to do more to make the connection between major environmental issues and the concerns of people in their everyday lives, transforming environmentalism from single-issue activism into a social movement, connected with the other great movements for social justice.

An environmental movement, in short, that Mr. Kristof is bound to like even less than the one he dislikes now.

Andrew Christie is an environmental activist in San Luis Obispo, CA
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Albion Monitor March 18, 2005 (

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