Sustainable Enterprise After the “Green Bubble”

Professor Tom Lyon

Professor Tom Lyon

by Thomas P. Lyon

The “green bubble” has popped.  Just ask Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who wrote an article for May 20, 2009, issue of The New Republic entitled “The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding.”

If these authors sound familiar, it’s probably because of a similar piece they wrote in 2004 entitled “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.”  Of course, that piece came out right before environmental politics roared back from the “death” they had just finished exaggerating.  Consider this quote from their article:

“From the battles over higher fuel efficiency for cars and trucks to the attempts to reduce carbon emissions through international treaties, environmental groups repeatedly have tried and failed to win national legislation that would reduce the threat of global warming. As a result, people in the environmental movement today find themselves politically less powerful than we were one and a half decades ago.”

Or not.  Since the “death” of environmentalism, Congress has passed two major (if flawed) pieces of energy legislation, which include fuel efficiency increases, increases in energy R&D, biofuels mandates, tighter efficiency standards for appliances, and a raft of other specific steps.  America elected a new President who strongly supports climate legislation.  And the EPA is on track to start regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  As former activists turned PR consultants, Nordhaus and Shellenberger must have felt a bit embarrassed as they watched all of these developments mock their attempts at prophecy.

Now the so-called “bad boys of environmentalism” have found another opportunity to attract attention (and perhaps some new clients) by announcing the demise of environmentalism.  And they have a point—the collapses of the housing market, the financial system, and the auto industry have pushed green issues out of the limelight in recent months.   But the more important question is whether this is a short-term or a long-term shift.

Once we work our way out of the current recession, income growth and GHG emissions will resume, oil prices will rise again, and the challenge of climate change will be waiting for us.   The drumbeat of growing demand for environmental improvement will continue.  We will find that the extensive media coverage of climate issues since An Inconvenient Truth has educated the public on climate change, and permanently raised the level of public discourse.  We will realize that the shift toward sustainable enterprise is still underway and is not going to be reversed.   The speed of that transition will vary over time in response to economic conditions, as it should.  But the “implosion of environmentalism”?  It is an exaggeration, just like its “death” a few years ago.

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One Response to Sustainable Enterprise After the “Green Bubble”

  1. Thanks for the right on analysis!

    Unfortunately, it takes a controversial headline or point of view to get noticed and sell magazines. But you read the piece, it seems.

    I welcome contrarian views on sustainability, global warming, etc. It’s fun to poke holes their logic. A favorite topic of the global warming deniers is to take a discussion of contradictory data by legit scientists and blow that out of proportion. As you point out, we need to think about research, data, and public policy response over the long term, and look the curve, not the blip.

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