Steven F. Hayward reviews Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow
Steven F. Hayward
My correspondent was too timid to acknowledge the challenge, but Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two environmentalists and card-carrying members of the "progressive" Left, have stepped up to attempt something very much along this line. Nordhaus and Shellenberger operate an environmental-research firm in California, and burst on the scene three years ago when they presented a long memorandum to the annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association titled "The Death of Environmentalism." The duo argued that the conventional environmental movement had reached a dead end because it had become just another narrow special-interest group. The environmental movement as then constituted, they argued, needed to die and be reborn within a broader progressive movement.
The environmental movement might have gotten farther had it not chosen to become an adjunct of the Democratic party in a fashion similar to the way the NRA acts within the Republican party.
"The Death of Environmentalism" became an instant sensation and marked out its authors as the "bad boys" of environmental activism. Not surprisingly, they received a mixed reaction. While some environmentalists embraced the memorandum, many others lashed out against the young upstarts. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, chief ideological enforcer of the antediluvian greens, professed himself "deeply disappointed and angered by it. . . . It is unfair, unclear, and divisive." Pope's 5,000-word reply to Nordhaus and Shellenberger essentially boiled down to the argument that there was nothing wrong with environmentalism that still more intransigence wouldn't cure.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger have expanded their argument in Break Through, and although there is much here with which conservatives will disagree, it is nonetheless an important book for its genuine self-criticism of environmentalism and its attempt to break out of the rut of contemporary environmental politics.
Break Through comes in two distinct parts. The first half of the book, "The Politics of Limits," takes the environmental movement to the woodshed and delivers a thorough thrashing that is congruent with criticisms conservatives and eco-skeptics have long made. They scorn the apocalypticism that has dominated environmental discourse, seeing its essential pessimism as a hindrance to political and social success. They also acknowledge and repudiate the misanthropy that often comes to the surface in environmental agitation; human beings and what we make are a part of the planet's environment, too. Environmentalists "see in housing development only the loss of nonhuman habitat--not the construction of vital human habitat. Thus, the vast majority of environmental strategies aim to constrain rather than unleash human activity." And they reject environmental romanticism, noting, as with other forms of political romanticism, its danger: "Environmental tales of tragedy begin with Nature in harmony and almost always end in quasi-authoritarian politics."
They think the Kyoto Protocol a dead-end approach to climate change; they argue that it is a substantive mistake to classify carbon dioxide, the principal nutrient for plant life, as a "pollutant" similar to smog--thereby breaking conspicuously with Al Gore's relentless refrain about "global-warming pollution." They clobber Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (and NIMBYism generally) for hypocritical opposition to the Cape Wind wind-power project, and they trash the "environmental justice" movement for its superficiality and abuse of facts and reason ("Despite their rhetoric of expansiveness, environmental justice advocates have made environmentalism smaller, not larger"). "Environmentalists who take antimaterialist positions on everything from global warming to local development," they write, "do so not because they are hard-hearted but because they are narrow-minded."
Above all, they reject the "limits to growth" mentality that has been near the center of environmental thought for two generations: "Environmentalists have tended to view economic growth as the cause but not the solution to ecological crisis. Environmentalists like to emphasize the ways in which the economy depends on ecology, but often miss the ways in which thinking ecologically depends on prospering economically. . . . Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises."
If environmentalists take some of this critique to heart, the movement might emerge from its temperamental adolescence and begin to address real problems with real answers. Not surprisingly, given this critique, Nordhaus and Shellenberger see economic growth and human ingenuity as the cornerstone of any successful environmentalism for the 21st century. Whether the problem is preserving the tropical rain forests of Brazil or reducing the exposure of inner-city residents to air pollution, the common denominator for solutions must be increasing prosperity. This is a far cry from the late environmental icon David Brower, who once placed a full-page ad in the New York Times with the message, "Economics is a form of brain damage."
On the issue of global warming, the authors insist that constraints on greenhouse-gas emissions will never work. Instead they advocate massive research (with government paying for the largest share of the work) into post-carbon energy systems. With the due caveats about government-funded research, this seems a better approach than Gore's hairshirt agenda (as Jim Manzi, too, has argued in the pages of NR). They may underestimate the sheer technical and economic difficulties of energy-technology progress, but Break Through is not intended primarily as a policy tome--it is intended to reorient our general thinking about the environment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger do, however, run into some trouble in the second half of the book, "The Politics of Possibility." Their premise is that environmental goals can be achieved only through integration with a "progressive" agenda directed at the problems of health care, industrial decline, and the rest of the issues that compose what the authors call the "insecure affluence" of our age. Even within this dubious embrace of "progressivism," there is much to commend. Nordhaus and Shellenberger see the New Deal as old school, and think little of the class warfare of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? And they refreshingly part company with the usual liberal condescension toward evangelical Christians, pointing admiringly at the reasons for the flourishing of evangelical mega-churches.
The difficulty with the second half of the book is not so much that it doesn't build the case for the "progressive" agenda from the ground up (which would have required a much longer book), or even that it makes a presumption in favor of liberal policy. This is, after all, a book written chiefly for liberals. But in arguing that liberals need to be more philosophical (hear, hear!), Nordhaus and Shellenberger deploy a number of philosophical categories that are problematic, at the very least, and represent an embrace of the core principles of postmodernism--though, happily, that overused term does not appear in their generally clear and direct prose.
The duo are against Platonic essentialism when it comes to conceiving nature (including, it would seem, human nature), and for a revival of Deweyite pragmatism as well as an empowering individual "authenticity." The reader gets dizzy at times following the back-and-forth between (on one hand) provocative references to Richard Rorty, Thomas Kuhn, Francis Fukuyama, and the "metaphysics of becoming" and (on the other) more down-to-earth, wonkish discussions of gas-mileage standards for automobiles.
By the end it becomes clear that Nordhaus and Shellenberger aren't just trying to save environmentalism; they are trying to save liberalism, which they consider nearly as intellectually dead as environmentalism.
"Environmentalism is hobbled by its resentment of human strength and our desire to control nature, and liberalism by its resentment of wealth and power," they write. While their interest in rethinking the philosophical first principles and contradictions of modern liberalism is promising, it cuts off the entire right side of the spectrum from the conversation. To be sure, most Republican officeholders view environmental issues with deer-in-the-headlights paralysis and fear, while many conservatives remain--for decent reasons--suspicious of if not hostile to the subject. But for all their shrewd observations on American politics, Nordhaus and Shellenberger must surely know that real policy progress seldom occurs in a climate of political polarization, and few issues are more polarized today than the environment. And there is more openness on the right to serious environmental thought than they might think; Newt Gingrich's new book, A Contract with the Earth, intersects closely with Nordhaus and Shellenberger on several points, for example. The environmental movement might have gotten farther had it not chosen to become an adjunct of the Democratic party in a fashion similar to the way the NRA acts within the Republican party.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger give hints that they understand this. The book is no polemic seeking to score cheap points, and--while they make clear their partisan dislike of conservatism--they acknowledge the dynamism of the Right: "Today, 'changing the world' better describes the mission of American conservatism than American liberalism." But they need to decide what they most wish to save--environmentalism or liberalism.
It is not clear their larger errand is being appreciated. The "bad boys" are taking a lot of fire from the Left for their heresies. In The American Prospect, Kate Sheppard called the book "a lot of wasted ink" and worse. For this and other reasons Nordhaus and Shellenberger are likely to receive more serious consideration from the Right than from their intended constituency. Above all, conservatives are much more likely than liberals to embrace their central point: "Humans are the most powerful, creative, and adaptive species ever to roam this remarkable planet. We have overcome hunger, disease, and oppression--we can overcome ecological crises."
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Scholar at AEI.