The Culture War Tearing American Environmentalism Apart

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Written By Pinang Driod

Environmentalism has never been a stable ideology, and its adherents have never been a monolithic group. But, in Minneapolis, the green community has fractured as a wide array of self-described environmentalists find that they don’t agree on very much anymore.

Back in 2018, Minneapolis generated national headlines for being the first major American city to eliminate single-family zoning. Under a plan called Minneapolis 2040, the city legalized duplexes and triplexes in all residential neighborhoods. The plan led to a frenzy of ambitious regulatory changes meant to yield denser, transit-accessible, and more affordable homes across the city.

The stated goals of Minneapolis 2040 included housing affordability and racial equity, but supporters also stressed the environmental benefits of funneling population growth toward the urban core instead of outlying counties. “All the evidence and data shows that when you reduce your carbon footprint by, for instance, not having a 45-minute commute in from the suburbs … it helps the environment,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey told me at a downtown ice-cream shop in September. “It’s really simple, right?” Maybe.

From the beginning, though, many in Minneapolis perceived the plan as an attack on their way of life. Red signs popped up proclaiming Don’t Bulldoze Our Neighborhoods, falsely implying that bureaucrats would forcibly demolish existing homes. The city council passed Minneapolis 2040 with a resounding 12–1 vote. But, as is now common with attempts to legalize more housing, the plan soon came under legal threat. A newly formed group called Smart Growth Minneapolis, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society, and another bird-enthusiast group sued under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, which gave Minnesotans the right to legally challenge a public or private action that is “likely to cause the pollution, impairment, or destruction of the air, water, land or other natural resources located within the state.”

After a five-year legal battle, District Court Judge Joseph R. Klein ordered the city in September to stop implementation of Minneapolis 2040. The city has appealed Klein’s ruling, but as of now it must revert to the legal regime that existed prior to December 2018 until an environmental review has been completed. Hundreds of planned housing units are on hold.

On its face, the battle in Minneapolis is a fight over what types of housing should go where. But the debate is also revealing generational, ideological, and temperamental divides within the large umbrella of the environmental movement. And how these disputes are resolved will shape the future of cities, the politics of growth, and the contours of American liberalism.

I began to think of those who favored the Minneapolis plan as the “Crisis Greens.” They saw environmentalism largely through the lens of climate change and urgently demanded more government action to address the problem. They were less enamored of process than their opponents were, and less wary of change. And those skeptical of the plan, those involved in the lawsuit and those outside of it, I termed “Cautious Greens.” They were suspicious of development and sweeping government action. They saw environmentalism as encompassing varied lifestyle concerns and were thus much more focused on local impacts. But perhaps most telling, the Cautious Greens were apt to ask, with some bewilderment, What’s the problem with just taking our time?

My sympathies, I admit, lie with the Crisis Greens. The problem with taking our time is self-evident. For decades, America’s primary solution to building housing has been to encourage low-density sprawl that offered large single-family homes in exchange for traffic, onerous commutes, car-dependency, and a built environment often inhospitable to mass transit. And even sprawl can’t keep up with the demand for new housing, sending prices soaring. The Twin Cities area added 226,000 people from 2010 to 2017, according to the Metropolitan Council, a regional government agency. In that same amount of time, the region added just 63,600 homes. In Minneapolis proper, 37,000 new residents were accompanied by just 12,000 new homes from 2010 to 2016.

But the debate over Minneapolis 2040 won’t be won by the side with the best stats. “Debates about how to use and value the natural world get persistently entangled with questions of honor or status—questions about whose way of life is best,” the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy once wrote. That holds true in Minneapolis. Fundamentally, this isn’t a factual dispute; it’s a culture war over what values should define environmentalism.

If you were born after 1980 or so, the central environmental debate of your life has been climate change. Indeed, you may have learned about all other environmental problems—including retreating Arctic sea ice, disappearing polar bears, hurricanes, and other extreme weather—through the logic of ending carbon emissions. Your image of living a greener life likely has more to do with technological and behavioral changes—taking the bus instead of driving a car, buying energy-efficient appliances—that reduce your carbon footprint, rather than with whether you garden or enjoy hiking.

Millennials and subsequent generations have also grown up amid an urban renaissance. Minneapolis and most other major cities hemorrhaged residents after World War II, but since the 1990s, Americans—and young adults in particular—have rediscovered the economic, social, and cultural opportunities that cities offer. Unfortunately, this urban renaissance has been undermined by anti-growth laws that failed to build enough houses and apartments for new residents.

To the Crisis Greens, dense housing development in cities straightforwardly helps on all fronts. Writing in the local-news outlet MinnPost, the University of Minnesota urban geographer Bill Lindeke argues that promoting dense urban housing is “by far the most effective carbon reduction policy.” Focusing development in the urban environment, he writes, is fundamentally conservationist. “If regional newcomers can’t live in Minneapolis, they’ll live in Carver, Dakota and Anoka counties”—suburban areas with limited access to transit. “The direct result,” Lindeke continues, “will be habitat loss and the erasure of agricultural land in the exurbs, creating impervious surface and heat island intensification at a much larger scale.”

This argument can be counterintuitive if you’re used to thinking of new construction as inherently anti-environment. Nevertheless, one recent paper found that the “skyscraper revolution” since 1975 has been responsible for the “preservation of surrounding rural land, over 80% of which is covered in tree canopy or short vegetation.” A popular Crisis Green internet meme depicts two potential development scenarios for a fictional island: In one, all of the land is cleared for 100 single-family homes, each with its own lawn; in the other, a 100-apartment building perches along the shore, and the forest covering the remaining 96 percent of the island is intact. The moral at the bottom: “Density saves nature.”

The problem with an environmentalism that venerates just one more study is that it struggles to make decisions in the face of uncertainty and often refuses to see the high cost of inaction and delay. Minneapolis 2040 supporters’ suspicion has boiled over into openly questioning whether their opponents actually care about the environment at all. When I asked Frey how he evaluates which side comprises the true environmentalists, he said, “The side that is legitimate is the side that’s looking at the evidence and the data.” The environmental arguments against Minneapolis 2040, Frey concluded, aren’t “backed by intellectual honesty.”

Other supporters of the plan described a common pattern in which not-in-my-backyard types look for any excuse to block things they dislike. “A lot of people come to us to stop development projects,” Colleen O’Connor Toberman, the land-use director at a Minnesota environmental organization, told me. “I definitely also hear from people who are like, ‘I don’t like this. Please help me find the environmental grounds to oppose it.’”

Janne Flisrand, a board member of Neighbors for More Neighbors—a group pivotal to helping pass Minneapolis 2040—characterizes the opposition as “a small crew of mostly wealthy neighbors, mostly in very expensive neighborhoods.” “They do the same thing when it comes to bike lanes or transit stops,” Flisrand told me. “It’s a very familiar story.” But is it the whole story?

“I’m obviously not against development,” David Hartwell, a Smart Growth Minneapolis supporter and a former board member of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis, told me. Although he grew up in the suburbs, Hartwell, now in his late 60s, has lived in the city for nearly all of his adult life. His liberal bona fides were burnished by opposition to the Vietnam War, other forms of student protest, and his decades-long activism in favor of conservation.

When we spoke, Hartwell derided the suburbs as a “cultural wasteland”—the sort of comment that, in other circumstances, would align him with the very urbanists he’s fighting now. But his understanding of environmentalism is radically different from theirs. “I certainly think adding anything close to [the number of homes] the city wants to add is certainly going to change the environment in the city,” he told me. “One of the reasons we live here is because it’s a green place and, you know, it’s not like D.C. or New York.” (As a resident of the nation’s capital, I should point out that Washington beat out St. Paul and Minneapolis as having the “best big-city park system” while consistently authorizing more housing.)

In 2021, the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote an article about Hartwell’s love affair with his home—a 1906 six-bedroom beauty bought in 1995 and proudly restored, including by replacing the backyard pool with a 2,000-square-foot organic garden. Hartwell has done what many environmentalists of his generation did: buy a dilapidated old house and rehabilitate it instead of buying a new one. This speaks to one of the principal objections the litigants have to the 2040 plan: The green way to live has swung from preservation to supporting new construction. But Hartwell’s way of life has become much harder to attain after decades of underbuilding and price appreciation.

Hartwell and his allies present many other arguments against Minneapolis 2040. They tell me about stormwater runoff and impervious surfaces. They say that electric cars will solve the climate problem and make annoying bike lanes and buses obsolete. They point out that no one is preventing suburban jurisdictions from sprawling even if Minneapolis were to build more densely. They argue that transit is not a feasible option for many during the brutal Minneapolis winters—even though “more than 31 million passengers took Metro Transit buses and trains during the first eight months of 2023,” according to the Star Tribune, and 14 percent of Minneapolis households don’t have a car.

Carol Becker, a fierce detractor of Minneapolis 2040, expresses frustration with a “bike lobby” that is pushing a solution that works only for “young, white, childless men.” How are parents going to transport their 3-year-old to day care on a bike after a snowfall? Who but a very privileged set could afford to show up to work “dirty, sweaty, smelly, and filthy”?

Some of the Cautious Greens I met did acknowledge that, although requiring the city to go through an environmental-review process is at the core of the lawsuit, it’s certainly not the only—or even primary—motivation of every plaintiff. Proponents of the lawsuit tell me they are worried about lost property value, about buildings that are too big, and about feeling unheard by the democratic process. Jack Perry, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, told me that his own concerns with Minneapolis 2040 are related to racial justice: “That’s the entire thrust of it for me, was to use this environmental lawsuit to force” the city to give the Black community a seat at the table.

But the legal avenue available to opponents was through environmental law because, across this country, if you want to stop the government from doing something—such as building a border wall or just allowing new housing—an environmental lawsuit is the clearest way to challenge it.

The plaintiffs are frustrated by negative characterizations of them in the public discourse. Proponents of the 2040 plan, Perry argued, have “spent a lot of time trying to demonize good citizens as elitists and racists and NIMBYists and whatever-ists you want to have. It’s really offensive to everybody involved.” Rebecca Arons, the executive director of Smart Growth Minneapolis, is angry that “for five years, all [the city] did say was ‘You’re fake environmentalists’” instead of being willing to conduct an environmental review.

The historian Jake Anbinder advises against “the blinkers of the NIMBY framework.” Instead of seeing the Cautious Greens as self-interested, hypocritical homeowners, we might better understand them as adherents to an ideology deeply enmeshed in American politics. Incubated during a succession of development failures by Big Government, the Cautious Greens remain scarred by the highway construction and rapid suburbanization that characterized America’s built environment in the postwar era. Anbinder traces the historical development of anti-growth liberalism through a “wide array of local skirmishes whose participants had only a vague sense of being part of the same war.”

Anti-growth liberals, Anbinder has written,

began to question the previously unassailable idea that “the good life” demanded the unmolested physical expansion of the places where they lived. Skyscrapers, shopping malls, and apartment complexes became signs of something terribly amiss with postwar society rather than the symbols of progress they had once been. In response, conservationists fought for sweeping new open-space protections and environmental review requirements. Architectural preservationists advocated for landmark laws and historic districts, while community groups in neighborhoods rich and poor alike mobilized against new real estate developments.

In theory, you can be alarmed by the reality of climate change without caring whether your neighbors remove their 200-year-old windows. But what united these causes was that the people who cared about these issues were similar: They had similar professional backgrounds, they favored single-family homes, and all of them were focused, in one way or another, on blocking or slowing the rapid changes they were observing in the built environment. As the historian Lily Geismer explains in her 2014 book, Don’t Blame Us, about the development of suburban liberalism in the Boston area: anti-highway activists “redirected the ideology of postwar liberalism away from a growth-oriented vision and toward an emphasis on quality-of-life issues including a new appreciation of nature.” Geismer notes that this shift also obscured “an acknowledgment of their role in perpetuating many of the problems of environmental and social inequality.”

The way that ideas get tied together into a basket of beliefs we call an ideology is not through a careful assessment of various factual claims. In many cases, it’s the work of “coalition merchants” who, in the Cautious Greens’ case, did the hard work of tying together the cause of upper-middle-class homeowners and conservationists who wanted to see the preservation of natural land.

The Cautious Greens of yesteryear fundamentally reshaped the legal and democratic mechanisms by which development is governed. As the debate over Minneapolis 2040 has revealed these fault lines in Minnesota’s environmental community, activists have begun pushing to revise the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, the statute that gives them grounds to sue in the first place.

Minnesota is not the only state having these debates; similar clashes are occurring in Michigan, Washington, California, Utah, Texas, New York, and New Jersey and at the federal level. When Crisis Greens win legislatively, Cautious Greens fight back in court—as they have, with some success, in such places as Austin, Texas; Berkeley, California; and Arlington, Virginia.

Last year, two law professors, J. B. Ruhl and James Salzman, coined the phrase “the Greens’ Dilemma” to describe the tension between 20th-century environmental statutes designed to slow or halt new development and a climate crisis that necessitates building faster and more than ever before. If your primary concern is lowering carbon emissions to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change, stopping or slowing development is good if what’s being developed is bad. In that world, it’s easy to band together with classic NIMBYs like homeowners who hate development, because your causes are aligned. But when the country needs transmission lines to connect renewable energy to the grid or carbon pipelines to ensure that greenhouse gas doesn’t diffuse into the air—or when it needs new housing to accommodate growth—the coalition begins to fracture.

The first time I spoke with Marian Weidner, she was furious with me. Six months later, she was picking me up from my Minneapolis hotel to go birdwatching.

Weidner is the chair of the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis. Protecting birds is part of her group’s core mission. Earlier this year, I’d mentioned her organization—the biggest name among the plaintiffs—in an article I’d written about groups that, in my view, were using environmental statutes for non-environmental ends. Weidner told me that her organization had just pulled out of the lawsuit, and she clearly didn’t enjoy being roped in with the remaining litigants.

When we met in person, Weidner took me to the Eloise Butler Wildflower and Bird Sanctuary, within the city limits. As we walked through the wooded pathways, she provided the most pragmatic reason for birding I’ve ever heard: It’s a pastime she’ll be able to enjoy for the rest of her life. “Even if I’m, like, 90 years old … I’ll be able to appreciate birds, and it’s not like jogging or like running, where your knees give out.”

In all our conversations, Weidner, who joined her organization’s board in 2020 and became chair two years later, was tight-lipped about the Audubon Society’s internal machinations. But natural turnover within the organization seems to have played a role in Audubon’s withdrawal from the lawsuit; only two of the board’s seven members, Weidner said, had held their position when it was initially filed.

Weidner handed me an extra set of binoculars to use. We walked through a gate, under a sign that read Let Nature Be Your Teacher, and sat for a while on a bench. I learned how to listen for catbirds, and I briefly forgot that I was just a couple of miles from downtown.

Later, I looked up Eloise Butler, the city-owned wildflower garden’s first curator and later its namesake. Born in Appleton, Maine, in 1851, she moved to Minneapolis in her early 20s. Butler was a teacher—“At that time and place no other career than teaching was thought of for a studious girl,” she once wrote—but at the center of her world was the garden: “As you will know, I chiefly live and move and have my being in and for the Wild Botanic Garden.”

Butler was living at a time of growth far faster than our own. According to the census, the population of Minneapolis was 13,066 in 1870; by the time Butler died, in 1933, the city had grown to 464,356 people. A local-history blog run by Augsburg University notes that Butler was “opinionated and uncompromising in her advocacy for saving wild spaces from thoughtless development,” and historical sources indicate that she was “concerned with the impact of the growing city on nature.”

Obsessed with preserving the native flora of her home, she railed against “unwelcome foreigners like burdock, sand-bur, and Russian thistle.” Her irritation with the changing physical environment did not seem to be contained to the changing vegetation. “Most of our vegetable tramps, like the human ones,” she continued, “are from the Old World. Inured to keener competition, they multiply rapidly and crowd out our native wildings.” Butler is a product of her time and does not fit neatly into either of today’s warring camps. She clearly disliked rapid population growth and venerated the preservation of native wildlife; she also disdained suburban cottagers, whom she characterized as “apparently dissatisfied until the wilderness is reduced to a dead level of monotonous, songless tameness.” In short, she was wrestling with the same tensions between growth and conservation that we’re dealing with today.

About 425,000 people currently live in Minneapolis. Despite all this change, Butler’s wildflower sanctuary remains a public park, quiet proof that growth and preservation don’t have to be at odds. Even if triplexes replace single-family homes in nearby neighborhoods, from the sanctuary of the garden, no one would be able to tell.

The local Audubon chapter’s withdrawal from the lawsuit did not make headlines. But this was the group that stuck out the most to me—one that measured its stance on a current controversy against its core mission and decided to change direction. Weidner has not become a rabid pro-development ideologue, nor has her group completely cast off its former commitments. Instead it is showing exactly how ideologies change. No side of any debate can ever claim total victory. Instead, competing values meld, organizations turn over, and at least a few people change their mind—just in time for new fault lines to emerge.

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