‘Death’ authors getting a little too cocky
The American Prospect has a big package of stories in the latest issue called "The Environment: Death and Rebirth." In it, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus — authors of the infamous "Death of Environmentalism" paper — have a follow-up called "Death Warmed Over." It’s meant as a response to critics of the original and something of a look ahead.
While it, like the original, contains nuggets of insight, the bulk is taken up with strawman bashing, bad analogies, and an entirely unwarranted degree of smug self-satisfaction.
It seems virtually every critic of the Death paper Just Didn’t Get It. Or no — they were projecting. Thus we are helpfully informed, "Everything that irritates you about ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ can lead you to an understanding of yourself." Um, thanks.
The misunderstandings took many forms. But "what really seemed to bother the national environmental leadership," they say, "was the title." It’s yet one more demonstration that "environmentalists are overly literal."
This galls. Does anyone think a middling essay on environmental inside baseball would have gotten so much publicity if it was called "The Poor Framing of Environmentalism"? Or "The Need for a Broad, Values-Based Progressive Movement"? The sensational title was a deliberate play for notoriety. It worked — it got these guys press, speaking gigs, a book deal, and a level of pundit renown all out of proportion to their real contributions. Having ridden to prominence on the back of an attention-grabbing gimmick, they are in no position to complain about the attention it grabbed.
After rehashing what they see as their central point — that the notion of "the environment" is conceptually flawed — they say it was “at the heart of our essay, yet conspicuously ignored by most readers.”
Let me make a suggestion: If an essay prompts a range of misinterpretations, the title gets more attention than the substance, and virtually no one apprehends the central thesis, maybe the problem isn’t that the critics are blinkered fools but that the essay wasn’t very clearly written.
S&N once again laud their precious Apollo Alliance, and tout a new piece of legislation they’re working on: "If automakers want help covering the health-care costs of their workers, they must, under the Competitiveness and Accountability Act, increase the efficiency of their vehicles."
Yes, the Apollo Alliance is a clever idea. But — not to be all, you know, literal — it hasn’t really accomplished anything. And the "Competitiveness and Accountability Act" is quite clever as well, but you may have noticed that American car companies aren’t particularly interested in efficiency:
Chrysler’s product plan would increase to 10 from five the number of SUVs offered by its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. … General Motors is pinning its turnaround on a series of new full-size SUVs — the very models whose sales have fallen as gas prices have climbed. GM previewed the redesigned Chevrolet Tahoe and several other 2007 models last week.
And the feds are perfectly happy to accommodate by tweaking CAFE standards to remove whatever incentive was left for GM to make more efficient cars. (See Billmon’s excellent post on all this.) So good luck with that legislation.
In the end I largely agree with Shellenberger and Nordhaus about environmentalists’ policy literalism and the limited use of "the environment" as a conceptual tool. New thinking is certainly called for.
But not just thinking. These guys, like their mentor George Lakoff, seem entirely too enamored of their own cleverness. Cleverness and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee. If you’re going to condescend to folks who have devoted lifetimes of grinding work to protecting the planet’s ecosystems, you better produce either some results or some humility.
The progressive establishment (and funders) seem to have gone ga-ga over these guys based almost entirely on some fuzzy and largely untested ideas. It’s a bit mystifying. Perhaps if those ideas catch on with the American public, or get some legislation passed, or make anything happen, really, then the love-fest is warranted.
But absent that, the cocky self-regard displayed in "Death Warmed Over" has the redolent odor of overreach, of 15 minutes of fame passing quickly by.