Thanks for making the symposium a success! And next steps

Thank you to our panelists, moderator, emcee, and keynote speaker, as well as to all the organizers, staff and volunteers who helped make the “Foundations for a New American Environmentalism” symposium a success!

The symposium was recorded.  The recording will be edited, trimmed into sections and posted online for the public.  We will also aggregate the Twitter chat and post it to the blog.

We intend to continue the blog and our @ESFNewEnv Twitter feed as forums for continued discussion while we assess and prepare for next steps.  We hope to continue hearing from you!  This symposium was only the beginning.  Many questions were left unanswered, and many are yet unasked.  We want to see the dialogue that began today expand into new directions and actions to make a positive difference in the environment and the challenges we all face.



Economic Dynamics and Economic Frameworks

Driesen-The Economic Dynamics ofLaw-Paperback 2014-FlyerPlease welcome guest author Professor David Driesen.  Professor Driesen is a University Professor at the Syracuse University College of Law, where he researches and has taught environmental law, law and economics, and constitutional law.  He engages in public service to defend environmental law’s constitutionality, supporting efforts to address global climate disruption, and reconceptualizing environmental law. He has written numerous amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases and has represented then-Senators Barak Obama, Hilary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and others in Clean Air Act litigation in the D.C. Circuit. He is a member scholar with the Center for Progressive Reform, and blogs often on its website on climate disruption issues. He has worked as a consultant for American rivers and other environmental groups on Clean Water Act issues and has testified before Congress on issues arising form the implementation of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments.  As one of the panelists for the upcoming symposium, we invited Professor Driesen to give us a preview of his thoughts on a ‘New American Environmentalism.’  

Environmental experts tend to assume that the political paralysis that has largely strangled development of sensible national environmental policy in the US stems from some failure of environmentalism, and that’s its solution lies with a new environmentalism. Although I have no quarrel with re-imagining environmentalism, this assumption is quite questionable.

The policy paralysis that grips us does not apply only to environmental policy, and has broad roots in a substantial movement aiming at dismantling many government programs. It enjoys intellectual support from the law and economics movement, which has urged the use of the micro-economic framework economists use to model economic transactions as a guide to a variety of policies, including (but not limited to) environmental policy. This intellectual framework has spurred skepticism about the value of environmental law and an over-reliance on cost-benefit analysis, which the Reagan administration adopted as a deregulatory tool as a guide to policy. This framework undergirds deregulation, but also enjoys some support from technocrats who are not ideologically opposed to effective government.

Thus, a new environmentalism may not succeed without an intellectual framework capable of motivating a favorable change in the ideological climate that goes beyond environmental policy-making and thinking. I have attempted to provide such a framework in The Economic Dynamics of Law (Cambridge University Press 2013). This book offers a dynamic theory of law and economics focused on change over time, aimed at avoiding significant systemic risks (like financial crises and climate disruption), and implemented through a systematic analysis of law’s economic incentives and how people actually respond to them. This theory offers a new vision of law as fundamentally a macro-level enterprise establishing normative commitments and a framework for numerous private transactions, rather than as an analogue to a market transaction. It explains how neoclassical law and economics sparked decades of deregulation that made effective climate policy impossible and culminated in the 2008 financial collapse. It then shows how economic dynamic theory helps scholars and policymakers make wise choices about how to avoid future catastrophes while keeping open a robust set of economic opportunities, with individual chapters addressing the law and economics of climate disruption, financial regulation, contract, property, intellectual property, antitrust, and national security.

In short, I see the central intellectual task before us as providing a coherent intellectual framework to help support acceptance of a reasonably robust role for government in preventing systemic risk. The challenge involves using this framework to inform a broad-based campaign to create support for reasonably effective governance, not only with respect to environmental law but also with respect to financial regulation, inequality and much else. I hope my book provides a basis for such a campaign.

SUNY-ESF reports on our Upcoming Symposium

09.05.symposiumWe are so excited for this symposium!  Environmental scientists and policy experts from SUNY-ESF, Syracuse University, the Mohawk Council of the Akwesasne, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Breakthrough Institute and the University of Manchester will gather in Syracuse, NY to begin this conversation that we hope will stretch to become nationwide.  What do we need from ‘a New American Environmentalism?’  What will it take to do better than we have in the past?

Please join us, at the SUNY-ESF Gateway Center or online, to begin this talk about priorities, values and approaches on environmental issues in the US.

A group of leading environmental scientists and policy experts will gather Sept. 11 at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to discuss a New American Environmentalism.

Participating in a symposium held in connection with the inauguration of ESF’s new president, the panelists will represent ESF and several other institutions: Syracuse University, the Mohawk Council of the Akwesasne, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Breakthrough Institute and the University of Manchester, U.K.

Titled “Foundations for a New American Environmentalism,” the symposium’s objectives are to invite reflection on the values, visions and strategies that have characterized environmentalism in the past, lay the groundwork for a continuing national conversation informed by science and compassion, and motivate and empower a new generation of students, citizens and young academics to re-imagine and reinvent the future in ways that enrich and strengthen relationships with the communities that form the living planet. (Read the full article here: “ESF Symposium Focuses on ‘New American Environmentalism)


What We’re Reading: Nordhaus and Shellenberger, “The Death of Environmentalism”

We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of itsDeath-Enviro unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live. […]  What the environmental movement needs more than anything else right now is to take a collective step back to rethink everything. We will never be able to turn things around as long as we understand our failures as essentially tactical, and make proposals that are essentially technical. […] If framing proposals around narrow technical solutions is an ingrained habit of the environmental movement, then who will craft proposals framed around vision and values?”  

(Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2004, “The Death of Environmentalism“. Click here for full article)

A decade ago (2004), Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger released a very provocative essay that shook up the environmentalist world from within. The essay was written during the Bush administration, following years of successive political failures by environmentalists. It asked why environmentalism had become such a narrow special interest group, with broad, but only shallow support from the American public.

Today, much of the talk about a “new environmentalism”, whether in online articles or even at a recent European Commission Summit (LINK), still refers back to this pivotal essay. An important point that Nordhaus and Shellenberger had made in their 2004 essay was that environmentalists should move away from oversimplifying discourses focused on technical fixes alone (e.g. that changing the light bulbs, new hybrid vehicles will stop climate change…, etc). Ironically, the “ecomodernism” and “new environmentalism” that the authors  have helped create tends to be dominated by a discourse focused on such technological fixes (e.g. nuclear, hydro-fracking, GMOs, “clean coal”).

So, how did this happen? Is this distracting the American public, once again, from deeper discussions about shared values and visions that we still need to have? For example, can climate change and biodiversity loss be addressed without confronting deep inequalities (and inequities) in America, and globally? And if not (that is, if they are in fact interconnected problems), than a discussion about values (and justice) becomes central to moving forward.

We invite our followers to read (or re-read) “The Death of Environmentalism” essay because it confronts hard historical realities, challenges us to reflect upon our underlying assumptions and strategies, and draws many important lessons that are still very relevant today.

Symposium Keynote Speaker: Thomas Lovejoy

Lovejoy Bio PhotoThe man who coined the term ‘biological diversity’ and founded the TV show Nature, Thomas E. Lovejoy is an innovative and accomplished conservation biologist. Spanning the political spectrum, Dr. Lovejoy has served on science and environmental councils under the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations.  At the core of these many influential positions are Lovejoy’s seminal ideas, which have formed and strengthened the field of conservation biology.

Dr. Lovejoy currently serves as Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation.  Previously, he stood as the World Bank’s Chief Biodiversity Advisor and Lead Specialist for Environment for Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Senior Advisor to the President of the United Nations Foundation. Lovejoy holds B.S. and Ph.D (biology) degrees from Yale University.

We look forward to Dr. Lovejoy challenging the status quo and raising questions to begin our discussion of the transformative potential for a New American Environmentalism. His keynote address will start at 1 pm and be followed by three professionally moderated panels in which ESF faculty and noted thought leaders will engage with the big questions and re-examine deep-seated assumptions, concepts, and strategies in order to chart a path forward.  Join us on campus at the SUNY-ESF Gateway Center, or online at @ESFNewEnv at 1 pm on September 11!

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What We’re Reading: William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness”

The time has come to rethink wilderness.

This will seem a heretical claim to many environmentalists, since the idea of wilderness has for decades been a fundamental tenet—indeed, a passion—of the environmental movement, especially in the United States. For many Americans…wilderness presents itself as the best antidote to our human selves, a refuge we must somehow recover if we hope to save the planet. As Henry David Thoreau once famously declared, “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

But is it? (Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature“. Click here for full article)

What comes to mind when you think of the “thing” that is wilderness?

In “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” noted environmental historian William Cronon challenges the concept of wilderness as it has come to be held by the majority of American environmentalists–a notion that holds the natural world as being something apart from humanity and society; something untouched by human influence and, as such, pristine.  He notes that such an understanding of wilderness is, in fact, entirely a cultural construct comprised of a romanticized blend of thought that was brought to the fore of American environmental discourse in the aftermath of the industrial revolution.  Cronon argues that by conceptualizing wilderness as a place void of humans, a place “out there,” we leave ourselves little room to discover an “ethical, sustainable, honorable” place for ourselves within it, and that the idea of a wilderness separated from humanity divorces our understanding of our dependence upon, and interaction with, the natural world–opening the door for irresponsible and damaging environmental outcomes.

Is Cronon right?  Should we strive to reconceptualize wilderness as something that is born of human culture?  If we shed this notion, will we find a space to to realize a new relationship within the natural world, and help us determine pathways by which to exist in greater harmony with all that is non-human?

What We’re Reading: Robin Kimmerer, “Returning the Gift”

Though we live in a world made of gifts, we find ourselves harnessed to institutions and an economy that relentlessly asks, “What more can we take from the Earth?” This worldview of unbridled exploitation is to my mind the greatest threat to the life that surrounds us. Even our definitions of sustainability revolve around trying to find the formula to ensure that we can keep on taking, far into the future. Isn’t the question we need, “What does the Earth ask of us?” (Robin Kimmerer, “Returning the Gift,” Minding Nature May 2014)

Published in the Center for Humans & Nature’s journal Minding Nature, “Returning the Gift” (click here for full article) is Dr. Kimmerer’s invitation for us to shift our hearts and minds away from our current culture of scarcity—which always seeks to “take more”—towards a worldview of gratitude and reciprocity for the shared gifts of the Earth.

She paints a deeply personal and spiritually refreshing picture of how we could restore more harmonious and respectful relationships with nature.  For Robin, two questions we should ask ourselves more often are, “What does the Earth ask of us?” and “How can we reciprocate the gifts of the Earth?”  Infused with teachings from her Potowatomi Nation and her own experience as a distinguished scientist, she draws simple, humble, lessons that may have great transformative potential…for those who know how to listen. ​

Is Dr. Kimmerer right?  Is the issue at hand not only the balance of sustainability we maintain, but our conception of sustainability itself?

Dr. Kimmerer will be one of the panelists at the upcoming symposium on Foundations of a New American Environmentalism.  Please consider joining us for the live symposium on campus, or via the symposium Twitter chat at @ESFNewEnv.

An Introduction from Dr. Quentin Wheeler

Welcome to the SUNY-ESF New American Environmentalism Initiative, launching a national dialogue to renew and strengthen our country’s commitments to the Earth and to each other. We can do this by asking hard questions, by confronting difficult realities, by making sure the right lessons are constantly being assimilated, and by creating a dynamic and constructive forum that invites radically new, creative, possibilities to emerge as we move forward.

“New American Environmentalism” is not a well-defined concept that already exists, and far less a new ideology (-ism) that we are trying to promote. Rather we see it as a process and an important opportunity for dialogue in which we seek to challenge the status quo, bridge political gaps, include diverse voices, and raise questions to begin a discussion of the transformative potential for a New American Environmentalism to help us figure out how to live more sustainably on Earth.  A growing literature in the popular press and academic journals raises the notion of a “new environmentalism” that informs our consideration as well.  Summaries and comments about this literature will be posted to the blog regularly.

Please join us in this dialogue about the big questions as we re-examine deep-seated assumptions, concepts, and strategies in order to chart a path forward.  Follow us on the blog and on Twitter at @ESFNewEnv, comment on posts and send us short pieces that you would like to post.