"I am here to perform an autopsy," he began. Then he did so. The patient was "environmentalism.”"
The scene was a standing-room-only crowd at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, early December. The speech's official title: “The Death of Environmentalism and the Birth of the Commons Movement.”
It was a remarkable speech, by most any standard. The speaker, Adam Werbach, is often described as “one of the best-known conservationists of his generation,” or something along those lines. The bio in brief: president of the Sierra Club at age 23 (in 1996); since then, video producer, author, environmental rock star. (Click here to download a PDF version of the speech or for streaming audio.)
It wasn't an easy speech to give. A week before, Werbach expressed in to me in an e-mail that he feared the speech was to be “an elaborate performance of ritual suicide -- not so fun.” But it was a friendly crowd -- friends and family, literally -- and within a few minutes of reaching the podium, his shaky voice gave way to evangelistic determination.
The theme, “the death of environmentalism,” had already been explored in print by Werbach's colleagues, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. But this speech transcended their intellectual analysis of the environmental and progressive movements. Rather, it was a rawer, more emotional telling, taking the audience through the four “seasons” of environmentalism:
- Spring (1952-1964) -- from the ascendancy of David Brower and Rachel Carson, to the rebirth of conservatism following Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential election debacle.
- Summer (1964-1978) -- through the first Earth Day and the passage of the great environmental acts protecting air, water, and endangered species.
- Fall (1978-1990) -- the rise of conservatism and the religious right, during which “that we began to lose the war of ideas.”
- Winter (1990-2004) -- environmentalists' failure to capture public attention on major problems -- for example, that “After a decade of framing global warming as a problem of pollution and future disasters, we are in a weaker place than we were when we started.”
It was a dark and deadly serious speech, punctuated by few light moments. “With fond memories, a heavy heart, and a desire for progress, I say to you tonight that Environmentalism is dead,” he proclaimed, adding
“Environmentalism is dead in no small part because it could never match the right's power to narrate a compelling vision of America's future. The argument I will make tonight is that every time environmentalists step outside the confines of the environmental discourse to articulate a more expansive, more inclusive and more compelling vision for the future, they cease being environmentalists and start becoming American progressives.”
Werbach is by no means the first person to make this case. Since Election Day, a steady parade of lefties have variously declared environmentalism and other progressive causes dead, dying, or dormant. And, like Werbach, many view this moment in history as a turning point -- a do-or-die moment for “the movement” to remake itself. (See also Van Jones' inspiring piece on the topic.) Indeed, as Werbach put it at the Commonwealth Club: “The sadness I have at accepting the death of environmentalism is tempered by the speed at which it was formed, and in the knowledge that we'll form the next progressive movement even faster.”
But Werbach's “autopsy” may be more poignant -- and more powerful -- than many of the other voices. For one thing, he commands the attention and respect of a legion of twenty- and thirtysomethings, a sizeable corps of the citizenry desperately seeking to be motivated, inspired, and empowered. For another, he commands media attention -- and, as his Commonwealth performance demonstrated, has a flair for using it to full advantage.
You are encouraged to read, and share, his speech.