From “The Death of Environmentalism” to Break Through:

In 2004, environmental consultants Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published an essay provocatively called “The Death of Environmentalism.” In it, they argued modern environmentalism had played itself out, had become yet another component of interest-group liberalism, and was incapable of addressing climate change and other major contemporary challenges. Coming from within the movement, the essay caused quite a stir within the environmental community and prompted extensive debate about the movement and its future.

Now Nordaus and Shellenberger are back with a book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmenalism to the Politics of Possibility, that expands upon their thesis and attempts to lay out a forward-looking agenda for a new progressive politics that can tackle the environmental challenges of our day. Like their essay, the book is prompting extensive (and much needed) discussion about the future of environmentalism. Environmental law prof Jamison Colburn analyzed the book for Dorf on Law, and my own take can be found in my review in today’s WSJ. It concludes:

In an odd way, the doomsaying of the global warmists has had a tonic effect, revealing, nearly 40 years since the first Earth Day, that environmentalism is stuck in a midlife crisis. Messrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger want desperately to get it unstuck. If heeded, their call for an optimistic outlook–embracing economic dynamism and creative potential–will surely do more for the environment than any U.N. report or Nobel Prize.

The review is somewhat brief, so I’d like to expand on some points, particularly some of my disagreements with the authors.

Overall, I think their critique of the environmental movement, and its obsession with the “politics of limits” and a “doomsday discourse,” is important and insightful. They explain how the environmental movement has become, in may respects, just another liberal interest group seeking the attention of the Democratic Party. Greens may score occasional political victories, but most are symbolic. As they argue, today’s environmental movement is fundamentally incapable of mobilizing action sufficient to address major ecological concerns, global warming in particular.

They condemn other environmentalists for ignoring trade-offs, confusing hard choices for “false choices,” and obstructing environmental progress. While most environmental leaders embrace the call for alternative energy sources, others like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. devote their energies to fighting offshore wind power near Hyannisport, dividing the movement and chilling investments in future technologies. As Nordhaus and Shellenberger lament, “when push comes to shove, would-be green developers and entrepreneurs too often find themselves abandoned by the very same environmentalists who advocate such projects in theory. The idea that transforming America’s economy, energy grid, or suburban landscape might require tradeoffs is anathema to many environmentalists” who seem wedded to the idea that there is some potential nirvana over the horizon in which humans live peacefully with no impact on the world around them.

Their project is more ambitious than simply announcing environmentalism’s obituary. They want to exhume the corpse and resurrect a new progressive politics to take its place. This is a harder task, and I found this part of the book less satisfying. Nordhaus and Shellenberger wish to see environmentalism reborn into a new, post-materialist progressivism driven by an optimistic, growth-oriented and forward-looking vision of the future, what they call “the politics of possibility.” Such a politics should appeal to Americans’ shared values, rather than parochial interest group resentments, and should recognize that well-intentioned environmental measures may have undesirable effects.

While I liked the book, I am not ready to sign on to all of their prescriptions. Portions of their agenda are sensible — particularly their call for emphasizing innovation over prescriptive regulation — but other portions are too lacking in specifics or a bit fanciful for my taste. At one point, Nordhaus and Shellenberger lament that the lack of a “thick” environmental identity comparable to that of conservative evangelicals, and call upon progressives to create “a new web of pre-political associations” to advance their cause, as if such institutions could be created from whole cloth. Yet the institutions of civil society must grow and evolve over time — and are rarely (if ever) created by design. Governments in particular know far more about how to squelch such institutions with ill-conceived government interventions than how to nurture their growth and success.

My disagreements with Nordhaus and Shellenberger may stem from our competing worldviews. I do not share their progressive political outlook or relatively greater faith in government-led solutions. Of course it is a much easier task to challenge the agenda of others than to construct an alternative of one’s own. In any event, Break Through makes an important and provocative contribution to the debate over environmentalism’s future. Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s call for an optimistic environmental politics that embraces economic prosperity and humanity’s creative potential is refreshing. It provides the base for a keener shade of green, even if their call for a new progressive politics leaves something to be desired. Environmentalism may be dead; long live environmentalism.

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