Environmental ‘bad boy’ Ted Norhaus talks about the need for a new eco-paradigm
In the wake of President Bush’s 2004 re-election and a time of serious introspection for many, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published an essay advocating the death of the modern environmental movement. They meant it as a call to action, hoping for a more relevant and updated movement to be born in its place. Instead, the authors were harshly criticized and dubbed the “bad boys of environmentalism.”
So they set to work writing again. In October, the authors published Break Through. Nordhaus recently sat down with the N&R to discuss why we must change old ways of thinking, leave behind the doom-and-gloom rants, and use the climate crisis as humanity’s chance to move away from a nightmare and allow ourselves to dream.
Why did you guys write this book?
The intention of the book was to take the essay and flesh out a larger framework for thinking about both the ecological crises and global development, and what kind of politics we would need to create to address those issues and see our global development go in a direction that would be prosperous, equitable and sustainable.
The intention of the book was not to lay out a 10-point policy plan—it’s not a policy book—but to paint the broad philosophical basis and outline a new politics that could conceptually understand these problems in a way that we might be able to solve them.
The response to the book has been kind of negative and defensive from environmentalists, which comes as a surprise, because I feel the book really resonates with me and will resonate with my generation. Do you think there is just a generational gap going on here?
It’s hugely generational. We actually didn’t realize it when we wrote the essay until it came out. We didn’t think we were declaring some generational war or statement. At the beginning of the essay, we tried to recognize that we were children of the environmental movement—our parents were environmentalists, everyone we knew were environmentalists—and to express some gratitude and recognition for all that the environmental movement had accomplished.
We naively, perhaps, thought it would be read as a statement of gratitude and recognition, and it wasn’t, it was read as an attack. … At the Power Shift conference, which was 6,000 kids from around the country—climate activists—and these kids were so excited to talk about this different kind of vision and thinking and it couldn’t be more different than the response from environmentalists of my parent’s generation.
In terms of the environmental movement, would you say we’re on the brink of a paradigm shift right now?
We hope so. One of the arguments of the book is that there is an evolution that is already happening within global warming that is going to drive this shift. We talk about these new fault lines in the political culture that global warming creates, and traditional environmentalists are going to have to decide what side of the divide they’re going to be on. Are they going to be on the limits, anti-growth, anti-immigration, zero-sum side, or on the side of possibility: There’s room enough for all of us on the planet, we need to grow and innovate and invent our way out of this? We need to keep in mind that at the end of the day, this is about all of us being able to lead secure, prosperous and free lives.
In the book, you encourage existential questioning. Why is this important?
Global warming asks some pretty profound questions. Are [humans] a cancer on the planet or as natural as a hurricane? All of the stuff that we do is as natural as anything else. Nature’s not going to decide for us or tell us what to do, so what decisions are we going to make and what are they going to serve and what are we going to decide to value in the world? These are existential crises, or questions, at least.
Here’s another one: China and India are going to develop economically whether we like it or not. They’re not going to ask our permission. So we can go lecture them all we want about the emptiness of materialism and prosperity, but they’re still going to pursue it as we did and our ancestors did. So we can sit here and talk about how that is going to be the end of us or we can talk about how Chinese and Indians and other folks who are pursuing basic improvements in their living standards can go get that in a way that’s going to be sustainable for everybody.
Is there anything from the current story environmentalism tells us that works and that can be moved into a post-environmentalism vision?
A lot of environmentalists have figured out how to be more positive. Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for telling us about this nightmare that’s going to occur, so obviously we still have a long way to go. But people are focusing more and more on promoting the good stuff. When we were in Boston, we did a campaign with Clean Power Now, which is this group in Cape Cod [Mass.] that has been fighting for the Cape Wind Project, and it was inspiring. Here are these people who had been fighting for seven years to get a clean-energy project built, not to stop something, but to build something, and you walk in and they’re all wearing buttons that say “yes.”
When is the last time you went to a fundraiser or meeting with environmentalists where the message was not “no,” it was “yes"? We need those groups to go to Washington, too. We need them to be the clean-energy lobby, not the anti-pollution lobby.
In the book, you quote a speech former British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave about global warming and say his speech failed because he viewed global warming as an environmental problem. If it’s not an environmental problem, what is it?
It’s an economic-development problem. [That’s] the challenge of global warming: We have to build an entirely new clean-energy economy from the ground up. There were some costs associated with putting scrubbers on smoke stacks, but they were limited. And once you put the scrubber on you could keep burning coal. And once you put the catalytic converter on the tail pipe, you could keep pumping gasoline into the car, whereas, we need to literally replace energy sources that are the basic driver of our economy today.
[Global warming] is a totally different challenge [than ozone depletion and acid rain] and requires a different mind set, a different approach and understanding that this is about unleashing human development, economic activity, human ingenuity and innovation, not constraining it. We see economic development and growth and prosperity as the solution, not the problem.