Another near-death experience for environmentalism

  • Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility


Where were you the day environmentalism died? 

It was Oct. 6, 2004, when social researchers and environmental policy strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger instigated the world's greenest catfight by distributing their essay The Death of Environmentalism at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. The pamphlet charged that the environmental movement had become just another ineffective special interest, bogged down by its own myths and outdated approaches, ill-equipped to deal with climate change and other looming global eco-tastrophes. 

The essay was incendiary, and full-throated cries of rebuttal from the eco-sphere's highest realms continue to echo today. Now, a new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, fleshes out the duo's earlier critiques, giving the authors an opportunity to address critics and propose solutions. In that sense, the book reads a little like the most recent shot in an ongoing skirmish, but if The Death of Environmentalism and the volley of retaliatory essays were akin to rifle fire, then Break Through is a cannon shot, one loud enough to resonate with readers outside of professional activism and policymaking. The resultant indignation has already spilled from the boardrooms to the blogs, where critics accuse the authors of everything from advocating old-hat positions greens have already taken to acting as unwitting spokesmen for a neoconservative energy agenda. 

At the heart of Nordhaus and Shellenberger's argument is the notion that today's eco-activists wrongly define ecological health and economic development as competing interests. Leaning heavily on the research of social scientist Ron Inglehart and the myth-of-Nature stance well-articulated by folks like environmental historian William Cronon, they attack the dominant view of right environmental action as that which limits man's intrusion on Nature. It's a lousy philosophy, they argue, in part because the belief in capital-n Nature too narrowly dictates which issues qualify as "environmental," but also because - sociologically speaking - a society tends not to give a damn about environmental protection until its members enjoy at least some of the comfort and security that accompany economic growth. 

Enter the doomsday juggernaut of global warming, which by virtue of its scale seems to mock the modest emissions regulations and quick technological fixes that enviros championed in response to smog or acid rain. Cap-and-trade programs like the Kyoto Protocol, the authors insist, get us nowhere in the face of climate change - they're ecologically insufficient, politically unpopular, and unlikely to be recognized by emerging forces like India and China. 

So Nordhaus and Shellenberger deliver their ultimate heresy: that what we need is not less development, but more - a lot more, in fact, and rapidly - enough development to prompt a radical shift toward a global clean-energy economy. We aren't talking about a few extra Priuses or compact fluorescents here - the authors advocate a $300 billion federal investment in energy research over the next 10 years, a program comparable to the New Deal or federal high-tech subsidies for a young Silicon Valley. It's a seductive if somewhat messianic strategy, taking a page from the hard-line libertarian playbook, then red-penning it to include a massive government investment and an ultimately green objective. 

Some in the activist community have responded with a nervous yawn, downplaying Break Through's significance by noting that the environmental movement has, since The Death of Environmentalism, already adopted a more nuanced approach to the relationship between environmental health and economic development. But Nordhaus and Shellenberger's ideological shift goes beyond acknowledging the occasional common interests of, say, loggers and conservationists - it's the conviction that, on a global scale, meaningful progress on environmental issues can only be a function of economic growth. 

Though their policy directives are the most ambitious (and contentious) aspects of Break Through, it's as brazen social critics that the authors really shine. The book confronts a number of environmentalism's sacred cows, from the credibility of the environmental justice movement to the value of "wake-up calls" like An Inconvenient Truth, and the authors are rarely short on social research statistics to support their positions. Readers with faith in the slow-but-steady greening of American politics are likely to see Nordhaus and Shellenberger as premature pallbearers, but even the loudest Kyoto cheerleader will be hard-pressed not to examine a few of her presuppositions. 

"Environmentalists imagine solutions that seek to constrain, rather than unleash, human activity and economic growth," the authors write. "(They) find themselves unable to move to alternative strategies or stories about how we need to change the world." Break Through offers no shortage of new strategies and stories, but whether mainstream activists will embrace them remains to be seen. For environmentalism, the answer to that question could be a matter of life and death. 

The author is a graduate student at the University of Montana.

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

368 pages, hardcover: $25.00.

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

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