The Green Insurgents

A few years back, these two guys audaciously pronounced the death of environmentalism. That didn’t go over too well with established greens.

Since then, they’ve published a sequel and opened up a storefront to sell a new brand of environmentalism. All this has triggered an odd turf war, including drive-by blasts from the likes of this crotchety knuckle-breaker.

I’ve been alternately bemused and confounded by this passion play. As a progressive movement, environmentalism in principle should welcome multiple viewpoints, even those that suggest cutting off the head of a lumbering green giant that has grown fat and dull from a moldy diet of outdated credos.

But give the Bad Boys from the Breakthrough Institute some credit, because they keep trying to kill the corpse that won’t die. Their latest effort appears in the new issue of The New Republic, entitled, “The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism keeps imploding.”

No sooner was the piece posted than this comment from sociologist Robert Brulle appeared:

This is the most ridiculous and non-factual analysis I have ever seen of the U.S. environmental movement. This interpretation completely ignores the refereed literature on this topic. Why is the New Republic allowing this sort of drivel to appear? Don’t you have any fact checkers?

Yeah, that’s hitting them where they hurt. Hey, Dr. Brulle, how about actually engaging the article?

13 Responses to “The Green Insurgents”

  1. Steve Bloom says:

    Why engage the article when it’s premised on patently false claims like the following?

    “This isn’t the first time an eco-bubble has inflated and then burst. In fact, the modern environmental movement was born in a bubble. In 1969, an industrial pollution fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, generated national publicity and outrage. The first photographs of Earth in its entirety transmitted from outer space were received as signs of a new ecological consciousness. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and, over the next three years, Congress passed and (a Republican) President Nixon signed into law sweeping environmental statutes.”

    Er, Rachel Carson?  David Brower?  The Wilderness Act?  Save the Redwoods?  The modern environmental movement already existed by 1969.  Of course it’s rather more difficult to characterize a ten-year “eco-bubble” as a fad.  From the point of view of a sociologist, such reasoning is a joke.           

    I know you like their tone, Keith, but try paying attention to what they say.

  2. Steve Bloom says:

    Say, speaking of the knuckle-breaker, did you notice that his blog got promoted on Letterman?

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    The events and people you mention all greatly contributed to the creation of the contemporary environmental movement.

    But like any social movement, it has its defining moments. The wilderness pioneers and landmark legislation you point to came before environmentalism was embraced by the masses.

    But you’re getting warmer with Rachel Carson’s role. Still, as with any movement, it takes big, emblematic events to strike a chord on a societal level, where it penetrates to the national consciousness.

    The fact is, environmentalism came of age during the period stated by the two authors. This is when a number of  epochal events and forces were joined together in the American mind–such  as the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, the Cuyahoga river fire, wrenching social unrest from widening opposition to the Vietnam war, Earth Day, and yes, Nixon era-foundational environmental laws.

    That modern environmentalism– a mass social movement–was born during this time frame is accepted historical fact.

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    Accepted historical fact?  Source for that? 
    Acceptance by the masses ought to be reflected in a big surge in organizational memberships in 1969-73 relative to preceding and following periods.  That’s certainly not the case for the Sierra Club, noting also that a major history of the Club published in 1988 cuts off in 1970.  See also this timeline of major events in the Club’s history, showing nothing special for 1969-73. 

  5. Keith Kloor says:


    From an EDF publication:

    “A groundswell was building in response to Carson’s writing, augmented by public revulsion at calamities such as the 1969 oil well blowout that blackened Santa Barbara’s beaches.

    The growing pressure erupted on Earth Day 1970. “A chorus of concern for the environment is sweeping the country,” the President’s Council on Environmental Quality wrote that year. “It reaches to the regional, national and international environmental problems. It embraces pollution of the earth’s air and water, noise and waste and the threatened disappearance of whole species of plant and animal life.”

    Environmental groups grew and multiplied, and lobbying Washington became a major new activity. The Sierra Club lobbied so aggressively that, prodded by President Richard M. Nixon, the Internal Revenue Service stripped the group of its tax-exempt status.”

    On the birth of the EPA, from the EPA:

    “Followers flocked to Carson’s cause–rendered all the more sacred by her premature death in 1964. Suddenly, everywhere people looked, they saw evidence of nature’s spoilation. Concern over air and water pollution spread in widening eddies from the often-forgotten core of the movement: a highly detailed and intellectually challenging book about commercial pesticides.

    The disillusioning effect of the Vietnam war enhanced the popularity of Silent Spring. When people heard of the defoilation tactics used in the jungles of Indochina, they became more receptive to the “environmental” ideas advanced by Carson and her countless imitators. The cognoscenti even began using a more arcane term–“ecology”–in reference to a science of the environment, then still in its infancy.

    The period 1962 to 1970 witnessed a slow erosion in the popularity of the word “conservation,” as man himself replaced trees and wildlife as the endangered species, bar none. Overpopulation and industrialization had left mankind trapped in a deteriorating environment. The damage was not just esthetically displeasing but threatening to the very survival of man. Environmentalism gained strength as a movement dedicated to ending–and if possible–reversing this decline in the human environment.

    Everywhere television programs, symposia, and “teach-ins” raised the burning question: “Can Man Survive?” In May 1969, U Thant of the United Nations gave the planet only ten years to avert environmental disaster; the following month, he blamed the bulk of planetary catastrophe on the United States. Under Secretary of the Interior Russell E. Train spoke skeptically at the April 1969 Centennial of the American Museum of Natural History: “If environmental deterioration is permitted to continue and increase at present rates, [man] wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell [of surviving].”

    Then there are the historians. If you’d like, I can recommend some good books for you to check out. Something tells me, though, that your mind is already made up and none of this actually matters.

  6. Tom Yulsman says:

    “As a progressive movement, environmentalism in principle should welcome multiple viewpoints”? Say what? 

    Since when have “progressives” welcomed multiple viewpoints. I must’ve missed something all these years. 

  7. Steve Bloom says:

    Tom, I have no problem with multiple viewpoints, and of course the environmental movement includes plenty of them, but there’s little point in pretending that the Breakthrough crowd has much useful to say when they so patently do not.

    Keith, I don’t think those sources help your case much, noting that both point to Silent Spring as a watershed.  Certainly some significant events happened in 1969-73, but describing that period as a bubble that then burst just doesn’t scan. 

    “I can recommend some good books for you to check out.”  Ooh, patronization.  Whatever makes you think I’m less informed than you about these things?  Remember what Brulle said:  “This interpretation completely ignores the refereed literature on this topic.”     

    Speaking of Brulle, his Drexel site links to an informative review <a href=””>article</a>.  Note also that the NSF considers his efforts worth <a href=””>funding</a>.    


  8. Steve Bloom says:

    Forgot about that HTML glitch again:

    First link.

    Second link.

  9. Keith Kloor says:


    You only reinforce Tom’s point when you make a comment like this:
    “I have no problem with multiple viewpoints, and of course the environmental movement includes plenty of them, but there’s little point in pretending that the Breakthrough crowd has much useful to say when they so patently do not.”

    That’s the substance of your criticism. Can’t you do better than that?

    As for my other point about the period when environmentalism became a popular mass movement, you’re just ignoring the facts. Or you’re just confusing the building blocks of a movement with when it actually catches fire and goes from a niche cause to a popular cause.

    Rachel Carson is the acknowledged godmother of the environmental movement. But environmentalism didn’t come of age in 1963. That happened later in the decade.

  10. Steve Bloom says:

    I re-read the Breakthrough article just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything critical.  I wasn’t, but I did happen to notice a couple of interesting passages:

    “When eminent physicist Freeman Dyson suggested in The New York Review of Books in 2008 that we could deal with global warming by creating carbon-eating trees, he was widely ridiculed.  What critics seemed to find most offensive was the idea that a big environmental problem like climate change might be overcome without significantly altering modern life.”

    Ignoring for the moment that implementing such a scheme might well require a commitment of resources at such a vast scale as to significantly alter modern life, there is the small matter of the idea being wholly impracticable within the near-future timeframe during which it would be needed.  I seem to recall that most of the criticism was along such lines, but moving on we find: 

    “While utopianism has a bright side–it is a way of imagining a better world–it also has a dark side characterized by escapism and a disengagement from reality that marks all bubbles, green or financial.”

    Irony, anyone? 

    To the extent that N+S ever had anything useful to say, at this point they’re just phoning it in.

  11. Steve Bloom says:

    “(Y)ou’re just ignoring the facts.”

    There are metrics that could be used for determining something like when it became a popular mass movement.  You would then need to relate significant inflection points in those metrics to identified characteristics of a popular mass movement, and show how the same fails to apply to the prior period.  I didn’t do much along those lines other than point out the lack of evidence with regard to the Sierra Club, but you did rather less than that. 

    As I mentioned earlier, and as your quoted sources support, Silent Spring seems to have been more or less the starting point for the process of creating the mass movement, and there’s probably a fair argument to be made that the process was complete in 1969-70.  Of course there was a subsequent backlash starting in the late ’70s, but it’s ridiculous to argue as N+S do that this constituted any sort of collapse of a bubble. 

    BTW, if you read through Brulle’s papers you’ll find out that he’s been able to produce one useful metric (organizational starts).  While probably not ideal taken on its own (he’s working on more, including membership totals), it clearly contradicts N+S’s proposed sequence of bubbles.  The most significant thing it shows (IMHO) is the obvious start of a ramp-up in the early ’60s.  There’s a definite peak in 1970, but an even larger one in 1981 right when the first bubble should have been thoroughly collapsed (noting the the next inflation should have been around 1988-90, for which I see no particular evidence either).  

    1981 is when the Club experienced its largest membership gain ever, BTW.  A reaction against Reagan certainly had something to do with that, but let’s not forget TMI (and following that, well before Jim Hansen’s 1988 testimony that N+S identified as the trigger for the second bubble, Bhopal and Chernobyl).

  12. Steve Bloom says:

    “That’s the substance of your criticism. Can’t you do better than that?”

    Of coure it wasn’t substance at all.  Why call it that? 

    N+S, to say nothing of Lomborg, Pielke Jr. and the rest of that crowd, have been thoroughly deconstructed elsewhere.  Is there some aspect of the criticism you’d like repeated?  I’ll be happy to summarize the central point, though:

    To the extent that future advances in technology will ease fixing the problem, that’s great, and to that end significant effort should be put into relevant R+D.  In the meantime, it would be bone-headed beyond belief to make plans based on assumptions of availability of unproven technology.  People who advocate doing so anyway are probably being more than just bone-headed. 

  13. londongreeneye says:

    Steve Bloom is certainly entitled to his strong opinions.  However, they don not seem to be widely shared.  A quick journey over to Google Scholar shows the N+S have 424 scholarly citations to their work.  Clearly quite a few people think that they have something of value to add to the debate. And similarly Lomborg has 4,170 and Pielke 13,100.

    So rather than arguing by vague assertion, S. Bloom would do better for his cause to actually engage some ideas.  It may be tiresome for him to do so, having already found the one and only truth, but apparently that has not stopped many qualified individuals from engaging the ideas of the deconstructed ones.

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