Opinion: Are environmentalists an endangered species?

ROME, Italy — Way back during the first decade of this century, the Earth was roamed by a beast that will soon be extinct. Environmentalists, it seemed, were everywhere: at the supermarket, plucking at organic produce; at the stoplight, breaking in their hybrid cars; on your neighbor’s roof, putting up solar panels. Even oil companies got in on the action, smiling green from the pages of your magazine.

Yet the last 10 years will be remembered as the time that the environmental movement began its slow sink into the tar pits of obsolescence. It’s not that people have stopped caring about the health of the Earth. They’re more concerned than ever. What’s changing is the reasons why. Protecting the planet and its ecosystems is no longer the purview of those who worry about tropical forests, polar bears or the spotted owl. Increasingly, it’s the priority of people who care about themselves.

The public has woken up to the fact that much of what it once considered narrow environmental concerns can have an impact on the way we live. It’s a link that ecologists have labored to make for years, with little success. No matter how often they maintained that a patch of preserved forest could contain a yet undiscovered cure for cancer, what was guaranteed was the virgin timber in its trees and the prairie pasture beneath them.

It took something on the scale of climate change to drive the point home. There’s no telling to what extent the emissions of our cars, factories and power plants contributed to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina. But the 2005 flooding of New Orleans marked the high-water mark of the environmental movement, the moment when it became clear that caring for nature was not altruistic, but ultimately selfish and self-protective.

Compare Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," the book credited with the birth of modern environmentalism, with the movie that marked the beginning of its slide towards death, Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth." The first warns of a countryside devoid of birdsong. The other, of a world stripped of Florida.

The old habits are dying hard, but they’re dying nonetheless. Environmentalism sometimes bore the aesthetics and asceticism of a religion. The new movement is firmly grounded in mammon. The ranks of those who revered nature as a counterbalance to consumerism are being penetrated by a generation that sees sustainability not as an alternative to growth, but as its prerequisite.

Gore himself seems only dimly aware of the change he’s wrought. Speaking at the climate change talks in Copenhagen, he warned the North Pole had a 75 percent chance of being completely ice-free within a decade — a dramatic change, to be sure, but one whose most noticeable impact will be positive. Freed of ice, the Arctic Ocean becomes a channel for shipping and a potential source of mineral wealth.

And while the polar bear remains the symbol of climate change, there’s a growing awareness that the warming of the world will be hitting closer to home. Rising seas will threaten coastal cities. Drifting ecosystems will wreak havoc on health and agriculture. Natural disaster and shifting weather patterns will send hundreds of thousands on the move.

The question for the next decade is what to do about it. It’s no surprise that the Copenhagen talks — long heralded as a make or break moment in the fight against climate change — ended in failure. Environmental challenges are uniquely difficult in that they frequently involve sharing common, but limited, resources. It’s no coincidence that this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, spent her career studying the problem. One thing is clear, however. It’s going to be easier to muscle towards a solution if we realize that what’s at risk isn’t the environment, the planet or nature. It’s each and every one of us.