Book Reviews

Green Day

To fight climate change, progressives need a vision of the future that's worth fighting for.

By Gregg Easterbrook

Tagged Climate ChangeEnvironmentalism

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger • Houghton Mifflin • 2007 • 305
pages • $25

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,

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 environmentalprotection
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.”

With sharp analysis, wit, and impressive command of detail, the pair
dissects the faults of traditional doomsday thinking, then show why
optimism about the future is justified. They skewer the wealthy enviro
elite who yak about how others should conserve, then oppose wind-energy
towers off Cape Cod because they want unspoiled views from their
mansions. Break Through endorses pragmatic approaches to environmental problems, having no use for ideological warfare. The authors “emphatically disagree” with the doomsayer’s belief that ecological problems must get worse before voters will support change–the dialectic underside of the environmental movement that actually longs for bad news about rising sea levels and melting glaciers. “In our view,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger write, “things have to get better before they can get better.” Immiseration theory, which holds that suffering is the instigator of reform, “has been repeatedly discredited by history.” Postwar progressive events like the Civil Rights Act and the Clean Water Act came during times of prosperity and rising expectations. Break Through contends that a booming global economy and good international relations will likewise prepare us to face climate change: The better things become, the better the chance of staving off harmful global warming, which is the book’s leading concern.

While exhibiting keen insight, Break Through falters by offering few concrete proposals. Generally, Nordhaus and Shellenberger don’t like proscriptive environmental programs intended to constrain human action; they prefer broadly optimistic programs that seek to inspire creativity and innovation. Specially, they don’t want a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system, modeled on the cap-and-trade system that has worked well against acid rain, because global warming is a bigger problem than acid rain and thus requires bigger, transformative thinking. Fair enough. But most of the 256 pages of Break Through are devoted to what’s wrong with other people’s ideas, while few are spent on what Nordhaus and Shellenberger would have us do instead, other than Make No Little Plans. If even visionaries like Nordhaus and Shellenberger lack much in the way of specific recommendations, it must be that some key element of knowledge is missing from the global warming debate.

Break Through makes valuable contributions, but does it offer sufficient reasons for us to believe that environmental optimism is an idea whose time has come? Probably not; note that no presidential contender is speaking the language of hope about the greenhouse issue, though it’s well established that voters like optimistic candidates. There seems to be three significant barriers against environmental optimism, which I’ll offer in ascending order of importance. First is that the media consistently do an awful, terrible, careless, rash, and unsophisticated job of covering environmental issues–actually, that’s sugarcoating it. Most big-media environmental coverage, including in the New York Times, reads like stenography for environmental fund-raising, and thus reflects the environmentalists’ preferred lobbying view that everything everywhere is totally negative. In 2001, for example, when President Bush postponed a regulation to strengthen rules about arsenic in drinking water, the Times devoted front-page banner-story coverage to a mere postponement, treating it as some kind of general calamity, while Maureen Dowd, writing on the paper’s editorial page, preposterously claimed the president wanted Americans to drink “poisoned” water. Missing from their coverage was any mention of the low magnitude of the risk: Arsenic in drinking water is rare to begin with. Then, when Bush ultimately imposed the strong regulation, the Times buried the inconveniently positive development in a box on page A18. The result is that when the Times and other news organizations turn to the major environmental issues where Bush has indeed failed–greenhouse gases and energy policy–media credibility is shot, owing to the Chicken Little syndrome.

The second barrier to environmental optimism is the Democratic Party’s
blindness to it. After Social Security, environmental protection is
government’s most important achievement of our lifetime. But you’d
never know that from Democratic candidates, who speak nothing but
doom-and-gloom on the issue in order to appease environmental
fund-raisers. If you want voters to support liberal solutions, you must
point to liberal solutions that have worked. Environmental regulations
of the last 30 years have brought about spectacular declines in air,
water, and toxic pollution; indeed, all major environmental trends
other than greenhouse gases are now positive. Yet progressives won’t
say this, nor has any candidate for the Democratic presidential
nomination. It’s no wonder that public opinion surveys, such as a
recent Gallup poll, show that Americans believe pollution is getting
worse when actually it’s declining–one-third less smog and two-thirds
less acid rain than 30 years ago.

The third barrier to optimism is the money problem: No one is in the
center of the issue because you can’t raise money in the center.
Democrats and progressives cry that the world is ending because
demonizing raises money. Republicans and conservatives cry that
environmental regulations stifle the economy, despite a compete lack of
evidence–because such claims are also moneymakers. The optimistic
assertion, “Environmental trends are positive because most regulations
have worked at low cost, and that’s why we should not be afraid to
tackle global warming,” may sum up what the public needs to know, but
it has zero fund-raising punch. Ponder the Washington think-tank
landscape: There is no centrist environmental organization, because no
one will fund one.

This mental tire-spinning shows in the state of climate-change
politics. Even as science increasingly supports the hypothesis that the
world is warming (there’s a chance warming will produce net benefits,
but prudence says we need insurance), only the most modest plans are
advancing on Capitol Hill. The president has proposed an international
conference aimed at producing nonbinding greenhouse gas goals for
future decades, which is exactly what George H.W. Bush proposed in
1992. Al Gore, for his part, has made a doom-and-gloom movie that
relies exclusively on worst-case projections about global warming, even
as it came out that at his own Nashville home, the former vice
president uses 20 times as much power as the national household
average. At the greener-than-thou Live Earth concerts this past summer,
celebrities flew in private jets to demand that others conserve. Gore
exhorted Live Earth audiences to back a treaty mandating a rapid 90
percent reduction in American carbon-dioxide emissions. Announcing this
goal may make the Live Earth promoters feel pious, but the target is
meaningless for the next few decades at least. Using current
technology, a 90 percent reduction in American carbon-dioxide emissions
could be achieved only by deep reductions in electricity generation and
outright banning of all petroleum use. And if you think Arnold
Schwarzenegger will lead us out of the climate-change woods, bear in
mind that his supposedly daring California greenhouse-gas initiative
does not take effect until he leaves office.

Looked at in the old-fashioned, sour-puss-environmentalist way, the
goal of preventing artificially triggered climate change can seem
hopeless. In 2004, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow of Princeton
University, two leading energy researchers, calculated that merely to
stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulation at about half again
today’s level would require such measures as doubling the number of
nuclear power plants while raising average new-vehicle fuel efficiency
to 60 MPG, all the while building 100 times more wind turbines than now
exist. Numbers like that make it seem any progress at combating
artificial global warming will be extremely expensive and inevitably
contract the world economy.

That’s why the hopeful, future-oriented viewpoint expressed in Break Through is so necessary. Based on today’s science and economics, climate change might take us down. But that’s because the knowledge that will defeat global warming does not yet exist. If you had told a rationalist of 1907 that in 2007 the world would be consuming 80 million barrels of oil per day, the rationalist would have scoffed, “Impossible!” In the reasonably near future, perhaps even in our lifetime, the global energy economy may function using clean energy on a scale that seems impossible today. What’s required are breakthroughs in technology, engineering, and economics, and the first step is to price greenhouse gas emissions so that scientists, engineers, and businesspeople can profit by making those breakthroughs. Smog reduction, remember, was widely viewed as “impossible” until financial incentives led to the invention of the three-stage catalytic converter. While others deny the climate change threat or squabble over whose ox should be gored, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are right to look to human ingenuity for the big breakthroughs that will make the impossible possible.

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Gregg Easterbrook is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of The Progress Paradox.

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