Environmental managers are in transition between a regulatory-driven past and new environmental dynamics. The future will be driven by stakeholder demands for the responsible use of natural and human capital. Understanding this transition and its business implications requires an examination of how we got to the current state, a brutally honest evaluation of where we are today, and re-examination of how environmental departments can add value in the future. Seven essential steps will be necessary to successfully navigate this transition.
“The Death of Environmentalism”?
The environmental movement of the past 35 years has seen a period of tremendous progress. Polls show most Americans strongly support environmental protection. But past successes have repositioned the priority of environmental issues behind more urgent needs such as health care, national security, retirement financing, and jobs.
Environmentalists have failed to rally public support around emerging global environmental issues— issues that do not lend themselves to the regulatory solutions of the past. In 2004, an article called “The Death of Environmentalism” directly challenged the modern environmental movement, stating that it is “no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis.”1 Written by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the article has prompted an intense and continuing debate among environmentalists.
And no wonder. The authors state that “today environmentalism is just another special interest” and that “environmental leaders are like generals fighting the last war” in which the three-part strategic ramework for environmental policy-making hasn’t changed in 40 years: first, define a problem (e.g. ,global warming) as “environmental.” Second, craft a technical remedy (e.g., capand- trade). Third, sell the technical proposal to legislators through a variety of tactics, such as lobbying, third-party allies, research reports, advertising and public relations.
The article created so much buzz because many environmentalists believe that it accurately describes the “elephant in the room” that few of their colleagues were willing to publicly address. Although the analysis was U.S.-centric and focused on global warming, it has broad implications for corporate environmental managers. Environmental activists may sit on opposite sides of the negotiating table from corporations, but the politics, public awareness, and technical challenges described in the article impact everyone who works on environmental issues.