From the Death of Environmentalism
to the Politics of Possibility
By Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus
[In the fall of 2004, two young environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born. Now, three years later, Break Through delivers on the authors' promise to articulate a new politics for a new century, one focused on aspirations, not complaints, human possibility, not limits.
If environmentalists and progressives are to seize the moment offered by the collapse of the Bush presidency, they must break from the politics of limits, and grapple with some inconvenient truths of their own. The old pollution and conservation paradigms have failed. The nations that ratified the Kyoto protocol have seen their greenhouse gas emissions go up, not down. And tropical rain forest deforestation has accelerated.
What the new ecological crises demand is not that we constrain human power but unleash it. Overcoming global warming demands not pollution control but rather a new kind of economic development. We cannot tear down the old energy economy before building the new one. The invention of the Internet and microchips, the creation of the space program, the birth of the European Union--those breakthroughs were only made possible by big and bold investments in the future.
The era of small thinking is over, the authors claim. We must go beyond small-bore environmentalism and interest-group liberalism to create a politics focused as much on uncommon greatness as the common good.
Break Through offers more than policy prescriptions and demands more than casual consideration. With its challenge to conventional environmentalist, conservative, and progressive thought, and its proposal for a politics of possibility, Break Through will influence the political debate for years to come.]
Questions for Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
Amazon.com: Your book grew out of an essay you wrote, "The Death of Environmentalism," that had an impact on the environmental discussion beyond even your own expectations, I assume. What did you argue in the essay, and why do you think it struck a chord?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We wrote the essay thinking that it would generate discussion among grantmakers and environmental insiders. We really didn't expect it to go viral and to be read by environmentalists and liberals all over the world. The essay was mostly about the failure of the environmental movement to make much progress on its agenda over the previous decade, but we could just as well have written it about any of the other liberal interest groups over that period. In the months after George W. Bush's reelection, a lot of liberals and environmentalists were ready to take a hard look at their political agenda, the Democratic Party, and the interest groups they supported. For that reason, our essay really did strike a chord.
In the essay, we argued that the great successes of the modern environmental movement in the '60s and '70s had laid the seeds of their failure in the early years of the 21st century. That they had built institutions filled with lawyers and scientists well suited to lobby policy makers who basically shared their world view. This worked well when liberals controlled the Congress and much of the federal bureaucracy, and when the politics of the time were more supportive of active government efforts to regulate the economy and clean up the environment. But as social values shifted through the '80s and '90s, as modern conservatism rose to power, and as the electorate became a good deal more skeptical of both government and environmentalists, these strategies, and the institutions that were created to prosecute them, foundered.
We argued that environmentalists needed to rethink the entire project, that these problems would not be solved simply with better PR and spin. Most especially, we argued that environmentalists needed to stop imagining that they were representing a thing called Nature or the Environment, separate from us (e.g. humans) in politics. It was for this reason that we argued that environmentalism had become a special interest, incapable of addressing large, complex, and global problems such as global warming.
Amazon.com: You wrote the essay three years ago. What have you learned from the response it got?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: First and foremost, we learned that there was a generational component to the debate that we really hadn't been conscious of when we wrote the essay. Those who came of age in the '60s and '70s, when the environmental movement, along with the larger liberal political agenda, was ascendant, were most defensive and critical of the essay. Their identities as environmentalists, and their identification with the environmental politics and strategies of that era, were most resistant to the idea that environmentalism needed to die so that a larger, more expansive politics might be born. Younger generations were much more open to our thesis and excited to get to work creating a post environmental movement. This remains the case. As we travel the country speaking to audiences about Break Through, it is younger audience members who are most inspired by our message and most committed to building a movement and a politics that not only saves us from global warming apocalypse but is also equitable, free, and prosperous.
Amazon.com: On one hand, you argue that global warming is a "monumental" crisis that demands a response beyond the more limited (and limiting) environmental policies of the past. On the other, you acknowledge that, despite a great deal of press attention, "global warming" still ranks at the very bottom of voters' concerns. How do you confront a crisis that voters don't care about?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: By getting it out of the global warming/environmental ghetto. We know that things like energy independence, getting off oil, getting out of the Middle East, and creating jobs and economic development in the new clean energy industries of the future are much higher priorities for most voters than capping carbon emissions or taxing dirty energy sources. So why not redefine our agenda as the solution to those problems? We can still cap carbon, but that needn't be at the top of the agenda that we communicate to voters. Making big investments to get off oil, making clean energy alternatives widely available and cheap, and creating millions of new jobs in clean energy industries is a winner with American voters and can carry the whole suite of policies that we need to address global warming.
Amazon.com: It seems that in the 2008 election, the possible candidates who have most identified themselves with environmental issues, like Al Gore and even Newt Gingrich, are sitting this one out, and it hasn't yet become a central issue among the declared candidates. Barack Obama did just give a major speech on the environment that has gotten some attention, though--do you think, despite voter apathy on the subject, that the issue could move the needle for a candidate?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We don't think that environmental issues, traditionally defined, including global warming, are likely to be make or break issues politically in this election. Voters simply have too many other pressing concerns, from health care, to energy prices, to the war in Iraq. The key, as noted above, is to reorient our agenda around those higher priority concerns. The good news is that all three leading Democratic candidates have made big commitment to large public investments to build the clean energy economy. Hilary Clinton has announced plans to invest $50 billion dollars, John Edwards recently announced a commitment to invest $13 billion annually, and just last week Barack Obama announced a $150 billion investment plan. The candidates read the same surveys we do. They know that there is extraordinary opportunity politically when we redefine our agenda around clean energy investment.
Amazon.com: I was fascinated by the section in your book in which you look favorably on Rick Warren's small-group evangelical movement [see The Purpose-Driven Life] as a possible model for providing belonging in our bowling-alone society, but you don't provide many specifics about what a similar environmental movement would look like. Do you have some ideas? Birdwatching? Boy Scouts?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We don't provide a lot of answers because we really don't have them. We wrote Break Through not to tell our readers what to do but rather as an invitation to join us in asking the right questions and experimenting with answers. For secular, liberal environmentalists, maybe we will find those "strong ties," through health clubs, or internet chat rooms, or mom's groups, or public service projects. What is key is that we understand that in a highly mobile and autonomous post-industrial society, we need to find easy ways for people to find connection and relationship with other people whom they may never have met, the literal equivalent of the evangelical service that is conducted several times every day, where people can come and go as they want, with child care and dry cleaning and whatever else liberals need to integrate that kind of regular activity into their everyday lives, and then we need to find ways to deepen those ties and connections, in ways that support and affirm secular values and personal autonomy. That is the starting point for creating a powerful secular political movement that is grounded in something more personal than direct mail campaigns, telephone appeals, and email alerts.
Amazon.com: Some skeptics of your technological optimism argue that the kinds of breakthroughs you expect as a result from massive investment just don't come easily in the energy sector. Solar power, nuclear energy, hydrogen fuel cells: they have all been around for decades without weaning us from oil and coal. What makes you think that the next decades will be different?
Shellenberger and Nordhaus: They are right in part; energy is a sector of the economy that has been particularly resistant to innovation. This is precisely the problem. It is why we are still dependant on energy sources that are 100 to 150 years old while virtually every other sector of the economy has transformed itself. This is why we believe that the faith that many environmentalists still hold that carbon regulations and taxes will drive sufficient private sector investment into energy markets to create the kind of innovation we need is unfounded. It is worth noting that virtually every alternative energy source we have--solar, wind, nuclear, and battery and fuel cell technologies for storage--resulted from public innovation and R&D, not private. The problem is that we haven't done enough of it, and we have done it inconsistently. After a brief couple of years in the late '70s, public funding for clean energy technologies dried up and has been on the decline ever since. The levels of technology investment in the energy sciences pales compared to the kinds of investment we make in the computer and bio-sciences. Skepticism about the potential to achieve the kinds of breakthroughs we need has been a self fulfilling prophecy. We don't make the investments we need to make, the sector fails to innovate, and then we conclude that it can't innovate. All of the barriers to innovation in the energy sector are arguments for a big commitment to public investment. Only the public sector can make the kind of long-term, common investments that we need to overcome those barriers to innovation.