Carl Pope reviews Break Through by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
This is a guest essay by Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Two years ago, Ted Nordhaus’ and Michael Shellenberger’s widely discussed essay "The Death of Environmentalism" predicted that the cause in which I’ve worked most of my life was about to gasp a grim last breath. The self-proclaimed "bad boy" authors must be embarrassed now. With their new book on the same theme about to land in bookstores, environmentalism is alive and perhaps prematurely giddy over progress made and even victories won in the fight against climate change.
But don’t dismiss Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility just because its authors are lousy soothsayers. The book’s secondary thesis — that progressive politics, including environmentalism, is in dire need of optimistic grounding in 21st century reality — is too important and intriguing to leave unexplored.
Progressive politics, the authors persuasively argue, is rooted in economic, social, and environmental nostalgia. Nostalgia for the New Deal era of solidarity driven by shared material scarcity; nostalgia for the post-war era of homogeneous and stable communities held together by neighborhood, workplace, and church; nostalgia for an American landscape not yet reshaped by industrial society. Stubbornly refusing to move beyond this nostalgia, progressives cling to an interest-based politics and an almost fundamentalist faith in rationality. When their efforts fail, they conclude that the problem is corporate money or media monopolies or human nature — anything but their own politics.
I don’t think these traits and behaviors are intrinsic to progressive politics or environmentalism. They are, however, ingrained, habitual, and potentially lethal to both. Before I join Shellenberger and Nordhaus in scrutinizing such failings, however, I’d like to disabuse them of their "essentialist" and misguided view of my chosen community as simply one among a cluster of ineffectual progressive "interest groups" defined by the policy issues it prioritizes.
To me, environmentalism is an ethic, the blending of scientific insights into a set of values: concern for the future, humility about our place in the complex web of life, and a commitment to look for and try to understand these connections. It’s not, as some have argued, science as religion, but a marriage of science and values derived, for the most part, from the world’s great religions. It’s an ethic that captures an essential truth: there is only one biosphere, only one ozone layer, and shared dedication to protecting these commons — the great collective inheritance of humanity — should be everyone’s concern.
Such an ethic can be embodied in many different political approaches. Environmentalism flowered between 1965 and 1975; it took on the era’s emerging politics — with all the problems Nordhaus and Shellenberger identify. In that decade, national environmental organizations chose to change things quickly but shallowly, rather than more slowly and in depth. We retreated from the challenge of creating a new and positive economy, confining ourselves to advocating incremental improvements in the old economy. Deep down, we probably knew that the way we were achieving our critically important successes would require revisiting — but we had no idea how hard that would turn out to be.
Take, for example, environmentalists’ compromise in the Clean Air Act that allowed older sources of air pollution to go uncontrolled until they were at the end of their useful life. We thought we could clean up these older sources quickly, but instead the provision created a generation of zombie coal-fired power plants. Thirty-five years later, they continue to belch mercury as they refuse to die.
Overlapping errors came from our excessive fear of new technology, which blinded us to the need to speed up rather than slow the replacement of old and destructive ways of doing business. And then there was environmentalism’s serious miscalculation in becoming the first modern progressive movement in America to root its identity outside those American institutions with the strongest social contracts: unions with their ties of livelihood, and churches with their ethical ties.
The seriousness of this shortsightedness was for a long time concealed by the apparent availability of a third power base for social change: impartial expertise. Originally, 20th century progressives assumed that this expertise would be embodied in the federal bureaucracy; most of the early intellectual leadership of what became the environmental movement came from government scientists and land managers. (Aldo Leopold and Gifford Pinchot are probably the most famous examples, but even Rachel Carson started out as a biologist with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.) But as it became clear that government regulatory bureaucracies often became captives of the industries they had been intended to regulate, the progressive faith in expertise shifted to individual "public interest" advocates, with Ralph Nader serving as the prototype and mentor for the breed.
But this expertise-based model of social change assumed that political parties were ideologically incoherent, and that public officials were free-agent entrepreneurs, not party back-benchers. In the 1980s and 1990s, the modern Right began undermining this expertise-based advocacy with a more parliamentary model. By the time Karl Rove and Dick Cheney took control of the White House, the party leadership was running the show and few entrepreneurial bureaucrats or members of Congress were looking for expert policy advice at all.
This shift left environmentalism with a multi-billion-dollar investment in precisely the model of social change whose leverage had withered away, and by 2005, when Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote their essay, the U.S. government was scoffing not just at the Kyoto agreement but the very notion of climate change; no major American institution had embraced serious global-warming-prevention strategies.
Environmental advocacy had lost its way. But it had far stronger survival skills than Shellenberger and Nordhaus imagined, and as the authors were expanding their thesis into book form, environmentalism found a new trail and revitalized itself. Now more than 600 cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement; more than 20 states have renewable electricity standards; half of the North American auto market is now subject to tough CO2 emission standards; 13 of the most populous counties have signed the Sierra Club’s "Cool Counties" pledge, committing to an 80 percent CO2 reduction by 2050; states from Florida to Hawaii, and California to New Jersey, have enacted their own long-term, binding, and ambitious limits on emissions of greenhouse gases; all of the major Democratic presidential candidates have committed to very serious attacks on global warming; and the nation’s most popular Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has made the issue his signature.
Yes, many young activists call themselves climate-change activists, not environmentalists. A similar reidentification occurred in the 1970s when conservationists began declaring themselves environmentalists. But the fundamental value set did not change then, nor is it changing now. What has changed and will inspire environmental activism to again reinvent itself is the — Shellenberger and Nordhaus don’t like this word — environment.
Three new realities confront those concerned about protecting the biosphere.
First, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world’s people live in societies that have mastered the art of rapid, sustained economic growth.
Second, the world’s oceans, lakes, rivers, frontier forests, and grasslands, the biological commons that humanity has always exploited to accommodate eras of rapid economic growth, are either fully spent or so badly mismanaged that they are producing less economic value with each passing year. There is no underutilized frontier to be seized by China or India as there was for Britain, America, or even Japan.
Third, climate change is happening, and humanity’s most hard-wired mental map — the link between a place and its climate — is contingent and uncertain. None of us is capable of thinking clearly about this yet, but people are beginning to realize they must.
These three new realities strongly suggest to me that the task of environmentalism in the 21st century is utterly unlike that which it defined for itself in the 20th. For a hundred years, those who called themselves first conservationists and then environmentalists defined their task as being to constrain, and clean up after, an existing industrial order. For the next hundred years, our task is to shape, design, and accelerate the arrival of a new, sustainable economic order.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that the key to shaping the future is to embrace something they call "greatness," and to pursue it pragmatically, on the basis of a new social contract — and with an eye to the future, not nostalgia for the past.
While I agree with their belief in the need for sweeping and forward-looking change, I have a hard time figuring out what they mean by "greatness." I suspect their use of the term reflects their discomfort with environmentalists’ suspicion that Chernobyl, the Dust Bowl, and the pollution afflicting Chinese cities are the result of hubris. But Prometheus ends up with his liver being eaten away — and prudence and caution are values that might have kept us out of Iraq and many other disasters.
So I’ll offer my own pathway to the future, as a way of moving the dialogue along. For one thing, we need to make it easier to innovate so that the future can arrive quickly. New-generation wind turbines are environmentally preferable to older ones. Cellulosic ethanol will beat corn-based. Next year’s refrigerator technology will be more efficient than this year’s. Environmentalists need to wade into the thicket of rules and subsidies that sustain the carbon-based economy more aggressively, and quickly clear the path to an efficient, renewable energy future.
As we clear the way, however, we also need to steer this rapid innovation by insisting on adherence to two simple rules of market economics: Own what you sell. Pay for what you take. When a factory dumps waste into a river, it is taking clean water from those downstream, and it is not paying. When 80 percent of the mahogany coming into the U.S. from Peru has been illegally logged, we don’t have global trade — we have global crime rings. If we made sure that the rules of real markets governed natural resources, we would find that markets do, indeed, work very powerfully.
Finally, we need to recognize and help others see that the great expansions in human freedom and economic opportunity have been launched on the platform of newly available commons, not on spurts of privatization. These commons were sometimes natural, sometimes social. The cod banks of the North Atlantic spurred North European prosperity for generations. The greatest return on any investment made by the U.S. government in the last 30 years, for example, has clearly come from the money it sank into the internet. It is the job of societies — of governments — to protect, invest in, and guarantee universal access to such common resources.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that greatness requires progressives to embrace such investment strategies. I agree. But investments in what? Yes, new energy technologies — but for whom? The authors were myopic in eulogizing environmentalism. They’d be smarter now to embrace the environmental ethic, with its solid grasp of humankind’s one unifying need — protecting our shared natural commons — as the vanguard of the new progressive movement. The generation of activists who will power this green political machine are already pushing forward, not looking wistfully back.