Still Searching for a Vision

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Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Mifflin, 2007, 344 pages. $25 hardcover.

In the shadow of economic collapse and the recent collection of more austere climate change scenarios, many are anxious for the markets to rebound, and some are worried about the lack of political will needed to effectively confront climate change, but only a few are trumpeting the call to rethink in a fundamental way the nexus of economy, society, and ecology at the crux of these manifold challenges. It now seems abundantly clear—if it had not before—that the pursuit solely of an economic bottom line is a socially and ecologically unsustainable path (particularly within the moral vacuum in which several sectors of our nation’s economy appear to have been operating). These voices argue that we need, with unsurpassed urgency, to rethink and revamp our economic system writ large. To do this well, we will surely need a new politics.

What Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger began in their provocative 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” they continue and expand in the book-length treatment Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. While originally published in 2007, theirs may be an even more salient question to ask now than when the book was published: Is it time for a new brand of environmental politics?

In the book, Nordhaus and Shellenberger rely heavily on the image of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and the evocative story of how it might have instead been “I have a nightmare.” Their thesis is that the environmental movement has been going down the wrong track for the last four decades, preaching the equivalent of a nightmare rather than a dream. The overarching argument is for the movement to shed its history of pollution-based, limits-focused “conceptual models, policy frameworks, and institutions” (p. 10), born during the height of the regulatory era, and to craft instead a new politics based on creativity, human potential, and the imagining of new possibilities. They indict the environmental movement’s public message for its negative content and emotional character: restricting, constraining, punishing, preventing, guilt, fear, doom and gloom, etc. The solution to our current predicament, Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest, is the “unleashing rather than restricting [of] human activity” (p. 127). In addition, the authors suggest that we not only reorient ourselves away from this past approach, negative in its imagery and tactics, but that we essentially disassemble the environmental movement as one of many (competing) special interests and diffuse it throughout our politics. As they put it, “if we are to overcome ecological crises, we must no longer put concepts like nature or “the environment” at the center of our politics” (p. 17).

The “politics of possibility” are, for Nordhaus and Shellenberger, a politics of growth: “we argue for an explicitly pro-growth agenda” (p. 15). However, their prescription for growth and investment is tempered by a focus on general human well-being rather than on the endless accumulation of wealth. They explain that the “new vision of prosperity will not be the vision of economic growth held by those that worship at the altar of the market . . . it will define growth not in gross economic terms but as overall well-being” (p. 270).

In Break Through Nordhaus and Shellenberger create a rollercoaster of an argument, which by turns soars to honorific praise one moment and crashes to almost brutish mudslinging the next—enough to induce airsickness in even the most patient reader. They disparage important parts of the new environmentalism they describe (particularly environmental justice activists and international social configurations), many of which have been calling for an end to the mainstream establishment of environmentalism for some time. The authors, too, often write with what appears to be the intention of picking a fight.

It is perhaps easiest to understand the authors’ intentions in writing the book if we realize that in many ways Break Through is propaganda. Further, it is important that we realize the intended audience is the environmental movement itself, not necessarily the general public. Nordhaus and Shellenberger have written as insiders for insiders. In this regard, the authors’ professional acumen is evident. The book is a rather exhaustive form of message analysis and public relations strategy written by two strategists. To use marketing terms: it is a plan for the discontinuation of a longstanding brand name product and a branding/marketing plan for the rollout of a new product. Branding and marketing go hand in hand, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger are, in my view, quite correct in their recognition that the environmental movement could stand to be re-branded. However, whether or not their new product endorsement is actually as different from its predecessor as their marketing suggests, is another matter.

One point that the authors might have spent more time connecting to their central thesis is the notion that in order to speed along positive environmental change, we will need to decouple our understanding of environmental politics and special interest politics. Decentralizing “the environment” as a category of thought is a profound suggestion. Surely a conceptual approach that considers environmental implications of myriad decisions, processes and policies is a requisite part of the oft touted, but seldom explained, orientation toward “sustainability.” It would have been helpful to see Nordhaus and Shellenberger expand more on how their vision for unleashing human potential would facilitate this shift in perspective and practice.

By far the most serious shortcoming of Break Through, in my view, is that Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to misrepresent the degree of change implied in their vision. Let us take President Obama as a practical example of the sort of propaganda strategy that the authors are proposing. His campaign rhetoric, which has cautiously carried into the early days of his presidency, probably created as powerful a re-branding of politics (in this case, with a capital P) as the country has seen in decades. His message of “change” was intimately bound up with the notion of the possible. But, despite an enormous public affinity for his message, Obama’s brand of change wasn’t necessarily new—it was just not “more of the same.” The lesson the weary electorate may stand to learn, especially younger voters with whom the rhetoric resonated strongly, is that change comes in different forms.

There is change for the sake of change—which is motivated primarily by the notion that the status quo is not working, is not desirable, or does not have broad public support. Then there is change that is needed, change that questions the appropriate course of action, which reconsiders fundamental assumptions as a basis for action. What we need now as we face economic collapse and accelerating climate change is a politics that reconsiders what is possible and what is needed and what is desirable in concert with one another. This is true vision-based change—the kind of agenda that articulates shared goals, a strong values-based rationale, and connects deeply with the necessary cultural reserves of political will. The beauty and elegance of Dr. King’s “dream” derive from such qualities as these, and thus it has resonated through the decades as a powerful vision for change. Nordhaus and Shellenberger appear to understand the power of vision and of the possible, but they miss these crucial elements of change.

To move away from doom and gloom, crisis and catastrophe, in our messages about the environmental future is certainly well warranted. As is a new focus on possibilities for our politics rather than focusing only on restrictions—an approach that is creative rather than critical, “vision-based” rather than “nightmare-based.” But the authors fail to give significant content to their vision; instead, they merely set up its parameters (a creative rather than limiting focus and a diffusion of environmentalism into all arenas of our politics). By failing to reconsider the old paradigm completely they suggest a potentially dangerous course of action.

One could argue that the focus in Break Through on the power of human potential, especially when coupled with a focus on growth, is tantamount to a reinvigoration of the technocratic, anthropocentric worldview that is in large part responsible for the ecological, social, and economic predicament in which we find ourselves, namely, that human technology and ingenuity will be able to overcome any challenge presented by the natural world. Further, and perhaps the most glaring danger, their pro-growth prescription is deeply problematic in its rejection of limits. There is an empirical issue with denouncing limits altogether. Science (including ecology, evolutionary biology, climatology, and many other fields) does—and should—imbue our view of the world with limits. But science doesn’t tell us how we must constrain, restrict, etc., human activity—our politics do, our policy does, our environmental movement does. Instead of creating a scientifically untenable worldview that rejects limits (while paradoxically placing full faith in science as a source of technological innovation) society needs to better understand limits and how to distinguish between a vision of limitless human creativity and a vision of a healthy ecosphere, one that surely must be defined by some natural boundaries for healthy, resilient systems (including humanity’s economic system). Surely these two visions cannot be mutually exclusive.

To return in closing to the new presidential administration, unfortunately it seems that Obama has unquestionably absorbed the very brand of growth-oriented, investment-based environmentalism that Nordhaus and Shellenberger propose. In a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, the pair even write that Obama has effectively ended the debate that they tried to start about the future of environmentalism by announcing the “most far-reaching program ever proposed by an American president to remake America’s energy economy—with hardly a mention of the environment” (“Investment Trumps Environmental Regulation,” San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, March 19, 2009, p. A-15). In the long view, this may not be entirely bad. The degree to which environmental concerns have permeated energy policy, national security, and job creation in Obama’s response to this economic uncertainty—and thus have become part of a national discourse far broader than a focus only on climate change—may represent the important beginning of a breakdown of the category “the environment” as a special interest for which Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue. However, although the change toward a politics of the possible within the environmental movement may have already begun, the vision toward which we are moving is both incoherent and a continuously moving target.

Break Through succeeds most strongly in suggesting not a particular vision, but in showing the power of a vision to motivate change. The environmental movement desperately needs a vision as powerful as Martin Luther King’s dream. We need a dream that positions humanity within the realities (limits, or whatever we choose to call them) of the planet—one that envisions the mutual flourishing of humans and nature.

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