Life After the Death of Environmentalism

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages)

Public opinion researchers Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus set themselves up as the "bad boys" of the environmental movement back in 2005, when they dropped their "Death of Environmentalism" opus on the world at the annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. It was widely perceived as a low blow to suggest, in front of the movement's financial backers, that environmentalism was in the middle of an existential crisis. And environmentalists -- even those who agreed with many of Nordhaus and Shellenberger's basic arguments -- were understandably annoyed. It seemed like sabotage, not constructive criticism, it put the community on the defensive. Even if they agreed with some of the ideas in the essay, environmental groups had to make it clear that they weren't going to roll over and die just because two researchers told them to.

Two years later, it's become clear that the environmental movement is anything but dead, as "green" has moved from the fringes to certifiably chic, and even the Bush administration has admitted to the realities of climate change. Now Nordhaus and Shellenberger are back with an entire book about the failures of environmentalism. They offer their own take on what environmental policy should look like, claiming that movement is stuck on "quasi-authoritarian politics" and "hobbled by its resentment of human strength." But Break Through, like their previous work, isn't as "out there" as they'd have you believe; most of it just rounds down to common-sense henpecking of those they purport to be aligned with, and a lot of wasted ink.

But despite all their hype -- and the prime real estate they've taken up in The New Republic, Salon, and Grist over the past few weeks -- they're not really saying anything new here, and their thesis operates on a lot of outdated ideas, straw men, and hollow talk.

The premise of "Death of Environmentalism" wasn't one that many would argue with. The green movement, Nordhaus and Shellenberger wrote, has spent too much time dwelling in nostalgia, negativity, and defeatism. Major environmental groups were stuck on old models of dealing with pollution, and they were out of touch with reality. The pair charged enviros with elitism and hostility toward humankind, an assertion that played to a caricature of environmentalists, but also contained more than a shard of truth.

The environmental movement has disdained economic growth and engaged in plenty of guilt-peddling in the past, though today most green groups have adopted a more positive framework for addressing climate change. But Nordhaus and Shellenberger decided to run with their "bad boy" approach yet again, despite its diminishing validity. "Eco-tragedies are premised on the notion that humankind's survival depends on understanding that ecological crises are a consequence of human intrusions on Nature, and that humans must let go of their consumer, religious, and ideological fantasies and recognize where their true self-interest lies," they write in the new book. They argue that every environmental leader from Rachel Carson to Al Gore has had an unhealthy fixation on doom and chaos, and rather than embracing human innovation as a solution, they've written humanity off as the root of ecological evil.

Break Through takes aim at what Nordhaus and Shellenberger perceive to be the environmental movement's "regulation-only agenda," which primarily advocates for caps, cuts, and reductions. While they're quick to defend themselves against claims that their book is anti-regulation, they are essentially arguing that regulation should play a relatively insignificant role -- one largely overshadowed by a massive investment in the research and development of green technologies. Calling for the kind of government subsidization that helped bring us the Internet and microchips, they envision a $30 billion public investment in research, development, and deployment of new energy technologies, funded at least in part by the proceeds of auctioning off carbon credits in a cap-and-trade scheme. Environmentalists, they allege, are scared to make this kind of investment.

"It goes back to Rachel Carson, who basically attacked modern agriculture and the technologies of modern agriculture as the cause of environmental destruction," said Nordhaus. "The environmental movement has long been skeptical of technology, and hostile toward economic growth. They see those things as the problem, and not the solution."

But the truth is it would be hard to find anyone in the environmental community today who doesn't support public investment in new technology. Though relatively modest when compared to the billions that Nordhaus and Shellenberger call for, the new energy bill being debated this fall includes increased public investment in clean energy, and the major environmental groups are backing it. But to read Break Through, you would think that the big green groups were pounding down the doors of Capitol Hill demanding that our representatives stop public investment and start focusing solely on regulation.

Instead, environmental groups have been out there pushing for exactly the sort of policies Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue for. They are central to the recommendations of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Stern Review. A cap-and-trade system where the credits are auctioned off is the basis of both the Boxer-Sanders Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act and legislation floated by Joe Lieberman and John Warner. And just this week, Barack Obama announced his energy plan, becoming the first of the Democratic candidates to make the auction system a central plank of his cap-and-trade proposal, and pledged $150 billion investment in R&D of new technology. So the big ideas in Break Through are already part of the mainstream dialogue, even if the specifics differ.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a fair assessment of the problems in these bills, namely that they don't provide an out should the cost of enforcement get too high. "Of all of these things are going to have a technology or energy-cost safety valve, why the hell are we fighting over what the cap should be rather than fighting over making sure we have the revenue and the infrastructure in place to actually develop and implement the technology that will make it possibly to not only meet but exceed whatever cap we have?" asked Nordhaus, in a recent interview with the Prospect. But in reality, those are political concessions made in an attempt to get something past industry loyalists, not loopholes created by enviros because they want them there. This is part of a larger issue in their writing, which envisions environmental groups to be much more powerful than they actually are, while at the same time chiding them for not being powerful enough.

Which gets to another major challenge that they do little to address: Even if we do make the sort of big, bold public investments they're hoping for, the process is still a political one, and it will be fraught with all the perils of subsidies that environmentalists don't get much control over. They're well-aware of the kind of grip fossil fuels have held on Congress for so long, and they've already seen politicians' zeal for bunk solutions like "clean" coal, corn ethanol, and nuclear power. Investing in new technology isn't a guarantee that we'll come out with the best, most efficient alternatives -- if anything, it increases the chances that some flashy-but-insubstantial projects will be favored over others. Putting a price on carbon helps phase out dirty energy and favors alternatives more equitably. When I asked Nordhaus about how to overcome these pork-barrel tendencies, he said the environmental community hasn't thought about this subject enough -- when in fact they've been the only ones raising the alarm about getting the United States too heavily invested in as-yet unproven tech fixes.

Another key piece of their argument is that Americans are far more concerned with immediate needs like food, shelter, and security than about bigger issues like climate change. "What we know from extensive amounts of sociological and psychological research is that people don't really get to worrying about things like global warming or the destruction of the Amazon until they are feeling really secure about their more immediate needs," says Shellenberger. But again, you won't find many green groups who argue that meeting these needs shouldn't be part of comprehensive progressive reform, one that brings energy security, more jobs, health care, a cleaner environment, and higher standards of living. Even more inexplicably, Nordhaus and Shellenberger spend a good chunk of the book railing on the environmental justice movement for getting its facts all wrong, while the movement's leaders -- people like Van Jones, the Ella Baker Center, the Apollo Alliance (which Nordhaus and Shellenberger co-founded), and Majora Carter -- have been at the forefront of the push for green-collar jobs and the sort of "lifting all boats" programs for addressing climate change that the writers so devoutly espouse.

Sure, Americans still list taxes, the war in Iraq, crime, jobs, education, and even cultural issues like gay marriage and abortion above climate change on their list of priorities. But recent polls have shown a sharp upturn in the number of Americans concerned about climate change, mostly because of growing interest in the economic possibilities of green tech, the changing U.S. economy, and ever-more-conspicuously changing climate. One recent Yale/Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans think we need to act now to curb climate change, and 68 percent support entering a global pact to do so. In the past year alone, talk about 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050 moved from the fringes of American policy discourse to the center of several major pieces of legislation -- a world away from where the country was when Nordhaus and Shellenberger penned "Death of Environmentalism."

"God knows we need to be working on technology, and I don't think there's anyone that's opposed to that, but the idea that there's a magic technology that will come and that will save us or whatever just strikes me as highly unlikely," said Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and grassroots climate action leader. "What we've got are lots of technical solutions, and we need to pursue them all at once, and we need to not make any one of them the magic fuel. And that's hard work, and less sexy."

And not all of that work can be spun in a way that makes it seem glamorous. Sure, everyone wants to believe that humankind can live without regulations or fear of consequence. Who doesn't want to be told, "Have a ball putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere! I'm sure human ingenuity will save us!" It would be great if that were the message environmental groups -- and progressives of all stripes -- could put out there, but when it comes to climate change, the scientific realities don't oblige to what we'd like to see happen. While there are merits to spinning the message as positively as possible, all the public opinion surveys, comprehensive research on effective messaging, and gimmicky policy directives can't change reality. And that reality says we need to drastically reduce emissions and create a comprehensive plan.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger have learned that the easiest way to get attention is to fire on your own, and it has served them well. But they, like pretty much everyone in the environmental community, realize that there isn't one cure-all for climate change. We need silver buckshot, not a silver bullet, to take on climate change, and that will come through solutions both sexy and mundane. Putting a price on carbon, increasing energy efficiency, placing a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that aren't equipped with carbon capture technology, stopping deforestation, creating a vast green jobs program, raising fuel economy standards, and yes, making major public investments in technology will all be a part of that -- no matter how you choose to spin it.