Werbach sees environmentalism’s death, hopes for rebirth
July 9, 2005
At just 23 years old, Adam Werbach was the youngest ever president of the Sierra Club in 1996. Now he says he’s stopped referring to himself as an environmentalist.Werbach is part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund. Earlier this year he gave a controversial speech at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club outlining the death of environmentalism as he sees it.On Friday night, a packed house at Aspen’s Belly Up nightclub listened to Werbach explain his reasoning as part of the evening exchange for this week’s Aspen Ideas Festival. Werbach answered questions fired by journalist and attorney Andrew Shapiro and also faced some sharp criticism and tough questions from audience members.So, is environmentalism dead?
It’s not a topic Werbach says he takes lightly. He was raised in the environmental movement, he said, and took his parents’ petition to oust President Reagan’s secretary of the interior, James Watt, to grade school for his friends to sign.But the current status of the environmental movement is something that’s painful for him, and it took him a long time to project its demise. It’s just not working, he said.”Is it attracting youth? Are we prepared today to deal with climate change if we continue our current plans?” he asked. “No major environmental official would say yes.”Werbach argues that the movement, created in the ’70s, had packaged together everything from seal pups to redwoods, clean water and toxic waste in order to pass a series of environmental laws. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, as a method of educating the public and demanding clean skies and air.
In the next decade the movement saw its greatest successes from the passage of laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, as well as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The movement was established by first defining problems as environmental, then creating solutions like car efficiency standards, then selling it with lobbyists, advertising and public relations.But since those heydays, Werbach argues, support for the environmental movement has become shallow. Even though three-quarters of all Americans identify themselves as environmentalists or pledge support for the movement’s goals, environmental issues rarely make it into a list of the top 10 things voters worry about the most, Werbach said.Environmentalism is stuck in the thinking of the 1970s and needs to be re-created after mourning the death of the original movement, he said. There needs to be some hard conversations and new ideas about the environment – and it’s not going to happen in 30 or 60 days, he said.Werbach isn’t quick to raise potential solutions, although some of his actions point to the direction he’d like to see the United States head in. He is co-founder of the Apollo Alliance, which promotes investing public and private capital in creating a clean-energy infrastructure, creating millions of new jobs, ending dependence on foreign oil and reducing the nation’s contribution to global warming.
Werbach said the new environmental movement needs to get its successes from an ability to inspire, not to shock.”Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream,'” not ‘I have a nightmare,'” Werbach said, causing the audience to chuckle. “That’s what environmentalism has become – the ‘We have a nightmare’ group.”Environmental successes should be celebrated, he said, and young people need to be included in the new plans for the movement. No one under 25 years old has ever told him they disagreed with his projection of the movement’s demise, he said.”It’s our right and our responsibility to ask about environmental issues,” he said. “I hope if we start asking, something will change.”Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org