Break Through

Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger

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From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger
256 pages (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

We’ve all been told that global warming is perhaps the single greatest existential threat the Earth has ever faced. And we have all been told that we can each make a difference. Al Gore encourages us to use carbon offsets when we travel – neat little guilt-assuaging donations that promise freshly planted trees and enough new clean oxygen to “offset” your, say, 3,000-mile jet fuel-polluting trip to Las Vegas. Leonardo DiCaprio promotes everything from recycling to solar panels, like those that grace the roof of his multimillion-dollar Hollywood home. And even the queen of consumerism, Oprah Winfrey, has ditched her orgy of products – the “Oprah’s Favorite Things” episode – in favor of a greener attitude; she even handed out nontoxic cleaning products, smart light bulbs, and organic cotton “O” grocery bags last Earth Day.

If you think all of this activism seems well-intentioned but woefully naive, you’re in good company. Career environmental strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have expanded their controversial 2004 essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” into an important and powerful new book, Break Through. Given the rapid advance of global warming and the scope of the imminent climate crisis, shouldn’t we, ask Nordhaus and Shellenberger, insist on a much grander solution than the household-by-household “what you can do” approach we’ve been asked to embrace by the environmental movement? In other words, the planet is in severe danger and biodegradable flatware isn’t going to, well, cut it.

It’s not that small ideas are bad ideas or that creating a green atmosphere at home is silly – at the very least, most small green ideas are actually better for your health; but if we are going to solve the climate crisis, something on the order of a Manhattan Project is needed. So far, our efforts to curb climate change have been too meek.

So what do we do? Well, for one thing, according to the authors, we need to undergo a complete mental paradigm shift in the way we think about the problem. The authors argue for an end to the negative reinforcement of the environmental movement as we know it: the conserve, recycle, save, reduce, and sacrifice model – what Nordhaus and Shellenberger call the “politics of limits.”

What we need instead is a little American can-do attitude, one that starts with clean energy (i.e., energy that produces zero pollution) and encourages breakthrough technologies that can reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 percent or more: “The transition to a cleanenergy economy should be modeled not on pollution-control efforts, like the one on acid rain, but rather on past investments in infrastructure, such as railroads and highways, as well as on research and development – microchips, medicines, and the Internet, among other areas.”

As the authors see it, the environmental movement was born in late 1960s America and Europe – a society in which most Westerners’ basic material needs – shelter, food, etc. – were taken care of, a world in which Westerners had the luxury to turn our attention toward the sludge-filled rivers, dying whales, and smog that we had created. Environmentalism was the result of affluence. But by resting on a politics of limits, environmentalism has outlived its usefulness.

The planet needs a sustainable model of development so that all nations – from Europe and the United States to India and Southeast Asia – can enjoy a prosperous life. Unfortunately, absent a totally new energy system, global warming will continue to worsen. Perhaps the one irony of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s book is that they aim their postmaterial worldview exclusively at Democrats, progressives, and liberals, arguing that the time is ripe for Democrats to “embrace a new story about America, one focused more on aspiration than complaint, on assets than deficits, and on possibility than limits.” But just as what the world needs now is beyond the sole province of environmentalists, so too is our need greater than the efforts of just one party. The United States is in the midst of a partisan split so severe that something as important as literally saving the world should probably not be reduced to good political strategy.

There is no doubt the world needs a big change, and the authors are compelling and eloquent in their understanding of the modern environmental movement and the imminent global crisis. Ultimately, Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s point is as simple as their title: The world doesn’t need more recycled stationery; it needs a breakthrough.

Sacha Zimmerman is in charge of special projects at The New Republic. She is also a contributing editor at Reader’s Digest and the author of For America: Simple Things Each of Us Can Do to Make Our Country Better.