Can modern greens loosen nature’s grip on environmentalism?

In 2005, two renegade greens tried to kill off environmentalism in broad daylight. The environmental movement, they said in a provocative essay, had grown stale and ineffectual. It was beholden to a wooly-headed, tree-hugging worldview that was as dated as lava lamps, bellbottoms and Billy Jack. This save-the-Earth brand of environmentalism, which has long idealized wilderness (as true nature) while simultaneously designating humanity as the scourge of the planet, "must die so that something new can live," Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote in "The Death of Environmentalism."

Their critique landed like a thunderclap in green circles. Some environmentalists welcomed the jolt. But Sierra Club Executive President Carl Pope, channeling the reaction of many establishment green leaders, was dismissive: "I am deeply disappointed and angered by it," he wrote in a long retort.

For a few moments, though, environmentalists debated the state of their planet-saving enterprise. But this was in the middle of the George W. Bush era, when the environment was widely considered under assault. So green warriors soon returned to the trenches and focused on preventing the administration from rolling back existing environmental protections. They didn't have the time or luxury to reflect on their failings. The opportunity for a reimagined environmentalism seemed lost.

Or perhaps the seeds that had been planted a decade earlier were just budding. Because today there is a growing reassessment under way in the environmental community.

Leading the charge is a varied group of what I call modernist greens (others refer to them as eco-pragmatists). They are people with deep green bona fides, such as the award-winning U.K. environmental writer Mark Lynas, whose book The God Species champions nuclear power and genetically modified crops as essential for a sustainable planet.

Another is Emma Marris, author of the critically acclaimed Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. She argues that “we must temper our romantic notion of untrammeled wilderness” and embrace the jumbled bits and pieces of nature that are all around us—in our backyards, in city parks, and farms.

By Keith Kloor

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