To fight climate change, progressives need a vision of the future that’s worth fighting for.
The phrase “the essay caused a sensation” has not exactly appeared with excessive frequency in recent decades. But three years ago, a pair of environmental activists wrote an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism,” and the essay did, in fact, cause a sensation. The Internet-published treatise, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who are active on the left in environmental consulting and polling, was widely debated in policy circles and even earned the Old Media’s greatest accolade, coverage in the New York Times. Now the authors have expanded their essay into a book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, hoping to widen the audience for their ideas.
Why did an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism” attain the limelight? Partly because its title sounds so negative. Most environmentalists and most reporters who cover environmentalism adore the negative. Cries of doom, prophecies of collapse–there is probably a contingent of environmentalists and environmental journalists who feel cheated that some manmade catastrophe has not yet wiped out Western civilization. To this faction, a paper claiming the destruction of environmentalism itself had appeal. Environmentalists also prefer to see themselves as powerless voices in the wilderness, opposed by unstoppable corporate steamrollers, though actually environmentalism has become one of the country’s potent political lobbies. Titled as it was, “The Death of Environmentalism” seemed to say that environmentalism had lost political clout. Environmental activists predict doom about environmentalism! Hard to think of anything more PC.
But “The Death of Environmentalism” was the reverse of PC–brimming with cheerfulness. What was dying, Nordhaus and Shellenberger contended, was the old model of environmentalism that depicted “the environment” as some distant place to be safeguarded against the footsteps of benighted humanity, with punitive sacrifice the only hope. Traditional environmentalists are fundamentally wrong, the authors contended, to think that “the environment” is a rainforest or wildlife preserve, while the places people live are artificial, or that men and women should bear shame about reengineering the planet. A pristine fjord isn’t “good” while a streetcorner in Brooklyn is “bad,” they reasoned: Both are different aspects of the same biosphere. Human alteration of nature is nothing to be squeamish about, since nature continuously alters itself, whether we act or not. “Fragile environment” is a nonsense phrase–nature has survived ice ages and comet strikes. The living world is not fragile; it’s a green fortress.
Railing against factories and materialism gets environmentalists nowhere, they continued, since everyone needs factories and most want materialism. Short-term pollution is acceptable if it leads to increased national wealth that allows societies to afford clean economies. (This is China’s situation right now.) Economic growth is not dreadful; it is wonderful, because it is accompanied by social liberalization and higher living standards for average people. (This is the situation right now throughout developing nations, and I recommend to readers Benjamin Friedman’s powerful 2005 book, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, which argues that for reasons of justice, the developing world must grow, grow, and grow.)
In short, Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s essay contended that traditional environmental doom-and-gloom has outlived its usefulness. Exaggerated scare tactics about genuine but minor concerns like arsenic in drinking water or airborne mercury, or cooked-up nonsense like electromagnetic fields near power lines or Alar on apples, now backfire, distracting attention from a danger that may be all too real: artificially triggered climate change. Optimism, not doomsday talk, is what will motivate average people to support additional environmental reforms, such as to counteracting global warming. Nordhaus and Shellenberger urged environmental lobbyists to get rid of their long faces and spread the word about tremendous progress in reducing pollution (it’s been declining for the past 30 years, even under George W. Bush) in order to create hope that dramatic progress against climate change is possible, too.
These arguments rang true to me, in no small part because I made them a decade earlier in my book A Moment on the Earth, which was subtitled, “The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.” It would have been good manners for the pair to credit that book in theirs, especially because the authors told me in 2005 that A Moment on the Earth helped inspire their work. Be that as it may, when my book making some of the same points was published in 1995, clearly I was a fool to believe environmental optimism was about to break out. What was I thinking! Now it’s a decade later and Nordhaus and Shellenberger again believe environmental optimism is possible, which brings us to their book.
In Break Through, an urgent, engaging work, Nordhaus and Shellenberger sail through the fog of instant-doomsday pessimism to show that environmental reforms succeed, are affordable, help the economy, and tangibly improve people’s lives. “Environmentalists continue to preach terrifying stories of eco-apocalypse,” they write, even though most environmental protection programs have worked and ought to be hailed as success stories for postwar liberal politics. Environmentalists “increasingly shake their fists at human nature,” though human nature springs from the natural scheme. “Whether we like it or not,” they assert, “human beings have become the meaning of the Earth.”
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