Another near-death experience for environmentalism

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

    HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
 

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that the environmental movement had become just another ineffective special interest, bogged down by its own myths and outdated approaches, ill-equipped to deal with climate change and other looming global eco-tastrophes.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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNING MANAGER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • CARPENTER RANCH MANAGER
    Hiring a part-time ranch manager to live on The Nature Conservancy's Carpenter Ranch property in Hayden, CO. Responsibilities include: facility maintenance of historic ranch house,...
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, KANIKSU LAND TRUST
    Kaniksu Land Trust, a community-supported non-profit land trust serving north Idaho and northwest Montana, is in search of a new executive director. The ideal candidate...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    10-day tour from Los Mochis airport, 2/nyts El Fuerte, train, 2/nyts canyon rim hotel, 5/nyts camping. 520-324-0209, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.