Ted Nordhaus, co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, talks to SN&R
In the wake of President George W. 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 sat down with SN&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. As we point out in the book, paradigm shifts tend to be generational as opposed to all the New-Age-y we’re going go have a séance and come out of it changed. That’s not how paradigm shifts happen. If you go back and read Thomas Kuhn, who coined the term and the concept, they tend to be intellectually violent revolutions.
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 pursing basic improvements in their living standards can go get that in a way that’s going to be sustainable for everybody.
In terms of the idea of massive government funding for clean-technology research, do you guys see something happening where some sort of silver-bullet technology is developed and then it spreads to places like China and India?
On the one hand, there’s this market fundamentalism in all this cap-and-trade stuff. We’re just going to perfect the market by internalizing all these externalities and then that will drive all this private investment into clean energy technology and that will take care of the problem. One of the problems is if you really look at the history of innovation in the energy economy there isn’t a lot of it. One of the reasons is because, and I don’t fully understand, there is a lot of innovation from what technology experts call technology spill-over. It’s very easy when you come up with a new innovate thing in energy for your competitor to go quickly reverse engineer it and do the same thing, which then becomes an obstacle to big, private investment and that sort of innovation. The flip side is that’s exactly why we need a big public energy push; fixing the market isn’t going to be sufficient to get the innovation we need from the private sector and because we’re doing public innovation it makes the spill-over effect a good thing. If we can figure out how to build solar panels and build an electrical grid and battery technology to store the power when the sun isn’t shining at prices that are competitive to what it costs to burn really dirty coal, then that will spill over to China and India and that’s exactly what we want. That’s exactly what we need to happen and we need it to happen really, really quickly.
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 [Massachusetts] 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 fund-raiser 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.
Can you explain the concept of insecure affluence?
In our day jobs, we’re social-values researchers. We worked with a study that has been tracking the evolution of America’s social values since the early 1990s and one of the things that’s confusing is even as by basic economic metrics people have been getting wealthier, we see this rise of what we call “survival values,” sort of dog-eat-dog, Darwinian, every man or woman for themselves kind of view of the world as opposed to what we call fulfillment values, which focus on quality of life, personal growth, self-actualization. And it’s quite anomalous if you look around the developed world, what you see is as developed societies become more affluent and prosperous and free, typically values evolve in the direction of the fulfillment, higher-order, post-material, inner-directed values and that hasn’t been happening in the U.S.
Even as Americans have become more prosperous, they’ve also become a lot more insecure. And that’s a result of what’s been a profitable but difficult transition from an industrial, manufacturing economy to a post-industrial, information and service economy. And [it’s] also a function of a whole set of economic forces that result from the globalization of the economy. Poor Americans today have air conditioning and modern appliances and automobiles that were beyond the reach of poor Americans in the 1970s. In basic material terms, they’re wealthier. But also the gap between rich and poor has grown … all of this drives these outer-directed, status-oriented, materialistic values. We think that also has a political expression. We point out that ecological concerns don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s a whole set of social, economic and political preconditions for it and as these preconditions get eroded it becomes much more difficult to get Americans to embrace ambitious efforts to protect the environment.
Our point about insecure affluence is we need to understand the nature of that insecurity. It’s not the same kind of insecurity that Americans were faced with in the Great Depression when one-third of the country was out of work, when people were literally going hungry. People who are insecure today, poor Americans today, suffer from obesity, not starvation. … Liberal, progressive, Democratic politics are stuck in an older time. We really haven’t upgraded or updated our politics to reflect what America looks like in 2007.
Explain why it’s problematic that environmentalists think science speaks for nature?
We make a distinction between capital “S” science and the sciences. Capital “S” science imagines that there is a single, objective truth in reality in science, and what flows from that are conclusions about how we should live that science can instruct. We argue that, in fact, there is not an ultimate, absolute truth to be represented. Science will be constantly changing, and old paradigms will die and new paradigms will come into being.
We go back to Kuhn … Kuhn’s point was that Newtonian physics wasn’t bad physics, it wasn’t bad Einstein or bad quantum mechanics, it was a completely different way for understanding measures and calculations and interpreting them and using them and it worked quite well. It still works quite well to fly airplanes [but] that doesn’t mean it’s absolutely correct. It means it’s close enough to accomplish the things you need to accomplish. And as you’re able to see new things, you come up with better frameworks for doing it and for serving the needs that you have.
Much of modern environmental discourse is constructed by the natural sciences. Rachel Carson was a biologist and many of the great thinkers that lay the framework from … Rachel Carson to René Dubos, are all macro-scientists. So there is this fetishization of capitol S Science—if only we could get Americans to listen to the Science and understand the Science, to do what the Science says … We call it Scientisms, which is a belief in a metaphysical science that can explain everything and explain the world to us. And we argue that’s just unscientific.
As much scientific consensus as there is about climate change, it is one particular narrative from the facts that we’re observing. When we go the Earth is heating up as a result of human carbon emissions, that is all true, that is an accurate interpretation of those facts. We could also say the planet has gone through multiple heating and cooling and experienced multiple transformations of its climate and natural landscapes and this is just the latest of them, and it happens to be caused by this particular set of activities that we have some control over. But it’s no less natural than those other transformations. And that meaning is no less legitimate then the conventional meaning we take from global warming.
The decision about what to do about [global warming] can be informed by the sciences but it can’t be instructed. At the end of the day, we need to decide what we’re gong to do about the fact that a set of things we’re doing is heating up the atmosphere and there may well be a whole set of consequences associated with it. And those are questions about what kind of societies we’re going to live in and what we’re going to value in the world and how we’re going to live together and who’s going to survive and how they’re going to survive and Science will offer us no answers there.