In 1995 Mark Dowie sent up as big of a flare as possible with his Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Losing Ground.” He “told the story” of what had happened with American environmentalism under Ronald Reagan — it had morphed from the non-profit collaborative spirit to the soulless competitive corporate model of today. But his warnings fell on deaf ears. Now here’s a new report from Sarah Hansen that details pretty much what he predicted — that the funders would shrink their practices down into a visionless world of “quarterly metrics” producing a movement that has no major accomplishments since 1980. I’m just glad it’s other people saying this and not me.

SEARCHING FOR LIFE AMID THE RUINS.  A new report from Sarah Hansen details the non-winning approach of the environmental movement over the past 30 years and points to the one under-cultivated source of hope — the grassroots.



I’m afraid it’s about this simple — here’s four major milestones in the mess that is today’s environmental movement:

iiiiINFECTION – 1980 Election of Ronald Reagan, appointment of James Watts as Secretary of Interior as a symbolic moment

iiiiiDANGEROUS DIAGNOSIS – Publication of Mark Dowie’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “Losing Ground” (such a perfect title) predicting problems ahead

iiiiiDECLARATION OF DEATH – Publication of “The Death of Environmentalism” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

iiiiiPOSTMORTEM – Sarah Hansen’s 2012 report, “Cultivating the Grassroots” which notes no major environmental achievements since 1980.



Tragic. The American environmental movement struck an iceberg around 1981 when they panicked in response to Reagan’s appointment of James Watt as Secretary of Interior. In response, money came pouring into environmental organizations from donors like never before. And guess what money does. It corrupts.

The movement got corrupted. Not in an evil way. Most of the people who began reshaping the major organizations into more corporate-like forms had good intentions. They kinda just drank the Koolaid that you can bring in corporate marketing, communications, and strategy folks and not lose your spiritual way.

Mark Dowie in his landmark book, “Losing Ground,” quoted Nobel Laureate George Wald‘s warning at Earth Day in 1970 that America was coming, “perilously close to allowing ‘anti-pollution to become a new multi-billion dollar business.” By “anti-pollution” he meant the environmental movement in general. He was right. By the mid-1990’s the large environmental NGO’s became another corporate styled set of businesses, complete with renaming their “Executive Directors” as “CEO’s” (could you ask for any clearer sign of selling out?).

I think a lot of people thought they could take on the appearance of corporate professionalism yet retain the soul of grubby hippy enviros. Didn’t work. Oh, well.

Now Sarah Hansen has produced an interesting report (though Mark Dowie said pretty much the same stuff in the video we did with him in 2005 titled, “Empowering the Grassroots,” which you can still find on our Shifting Baselines page here). She makes some nice blunt statements, but in the end I think she misses the biggest problem, which is that the heads of the major environmental groups have become, not leaders with grand bold visions they are willing to individually fight for, but rather “FACILITATORS” with the mission of conducting polls, securing “metrics”, and basically asking the public and their employees, “what do you people want to do?”

What can you expect for results with that sort of system?