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Tuesday, Nov 6, 2007, 4:00 pm

Review of Break Through

By Brian Cook
Editor's Note: The following review of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus' new book Break Through is by In These Times' National Political Web Reporter Megan Tady.

Strutting My Stuff
By Megan Tady

So I may want a job working with the “bad boys of environmentalism”-- Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger-- the duo who has single-handedly given the mainstream environmental movement chronic heartburn for the last five years. Lucky for me, they’re hiring.

But in order to even be considered for the post, I need to strut my stuff. The pair has asked applicants to write a “funny and smart” review of their new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and post it on a blog. As a journalist committed to transparency the way Cheney clings to secrecy, I’ll give this warning to my dear readers:

“What you are about to read was written at the behest of my future employers, who I am trying to impress. Fortunately, the following would be true even if I wasn’t trying to score a job. Children and the faint of heart should cover their mouths—I just want them to be quiet.”

This fall, Nordhaus and Shellenberger riled the environmental community for the umpteenth time when they broke out Break Through. The basic premise of the book is that the only way to truly reverse or stop climate change is a massive public investment in clean-energy technologies. They argue that America should be pushing for more economic development, not less.

Of course, to the mainstream environmental movement, obsessed with limiting economic growth, this is Judas talking. Environmentalists have long espoused that fighting climate change can only come in three colors: capping greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the cost of dirty energy, and reducing personal consumption.

Before we jump to the present frenzy, let’s discuss how Nordhaus and Shellenberger came to be the foremost hunter of the environmental dinosaur. In 2003, I was working as an intern for Yes! Magazine and an article about Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s new Apollo Alliance came across my desk for fact checking. It inspired me, and I think I can remember saying something truly profound aloud, possibly to no one: “Like, cool.” Their project proposed a $300 billion investment in clean-energy jobs, research and development, infrastructure, and transportation.

Labor unions and environmental groups seemed to like it too. But when it came to backing the proposal in Congress, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were abandoned like stood-up prom boys. Chagrined, they retaliated with a paper in 2004 that cut straight to the marrow: The Death of Environmentalism [PDF]. The paper, which circulated like head lice, argued that the old guard environmental movement was not equipped to deal with climate change, and that environmentalists must evolve or perish.

Of course, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were not the first to throw themselves in front of the train. Consider Mark Dowie’s 1996 book Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, which details organizations’ systematic failure to actually save the planet. By 2007, when I wrote my article, “How Enviros are Holding Back the Climate Change Movement,” fed-up environmentalists were eager to talk. (Hey, if Nordhaus and Shellenberger are shamelessly going to self-promote, so am I.)

Three years later, they’ve come forward with a stronger vision for a “bold, clean energy agenda” in their book Break Through. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say that current plans to reduce greenhouse emissions and become more energy efficient is like poking at climate change with a long stick: we’ll never get close enough to stop it. They also say that the mainstream environmental movement’s desire to protect land has left global populations still flailing in poverty and despair long after the rainforest has been roped off. Instead, the pair argues for a vision that floats everybody’s boat.

They’re convincing. Their portrait of debt-burdened Brazil makes me want to hug the trunk of a street child rather than a tree in the Amazon. It seems only natural that any attempts to address climate change should also include the social and economic problems that create worldwide poverty and thus, environmental destruction.

The paragraph that’s particularly striking in this book, and found in their Cliff-Notes version (PDF) published by the New Republic, is:

How might history have been different had environmentalists and their political allies 20 years ago proposed that the nations of the world make a massive, shared investment in clean energy, better and more efficient housing development, and more comfortable and efficient transportation systems? The tables would have been turned. Global-warming skeptics would have had to take a position against the growth of new markets and industries. Proponents of this investment agenda could have tarred their opponents as being anti-business, anti-growth, anti-investment, anti-jobs, and stuck in the past.


But environmentalists, caught up in the Bermuda Triangle of legislation, regulation and lawsuits, don’t seem keen on change. Of course, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are up against veteran environmental groups that would rather prescribe chemo than some radical, holistic new treatment. And with most mainstream environmental groups busy capitulating to corporations and offering weak protections, Nordhaus and Shellenberger may just have to leave them behind.

Shaking the old guard is easier said than done, as many environmentalists are clasping a tight hand around Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s ankles. The storm around Break Through is akin to a FEMA director holding a fake news conference in California. For their call for a massive, government-funded investment in clean-energy technology, the pair has been called climate change deniers and delayers and even been compared to George Bush. They’ve also been chastised for being too vague and failing to provide a blueprint for how we actually make this investment happen, and what it is we’re investing in.

But comparing Nordhaus and Shellenberger to Bush is like linking 9/11 with Iraq. Bush uses the rhetoric that clean-energy technology doesn’t exist to sit back and stretch. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say let’s act, and let’s act now.

I agree that Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s failure to include a “how-to” in Break Through gives some opponents ammo. But my concerns with the Break Through camp aren’t in the lack of a blueprint. I say that I may want a job with Nordhaus and Shellenberger because my outstanding questions have left me pacing around my apartment for days.

I’m too young to be graying over the environmental movement’s failures, and have been arguing for some time to swipe the chess board clear. So Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s proposal for a new, radical agenda has me jumping for joy like a little girl in the bread aisle (yeah, I preferred carbs to candy as a child).

But like the way I can’t cross the street without looking twice, I still think we need to reduce our carbon footprint while we invest in new, carbon-free technologies. So when Nordhaus and Shellenberger say their “new paradigm [is] centered on technological innovation and economic opportunity, not on nature preservation and ecological limits,” I need to know that reducing our footprint is still part of the show, even if it’s not center stage.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger say they want to reduce poverty, but so did Reagan. What I haven’t heard from them is a plan to rein in wealth hording. Are they simply arguing for another form of Reaganomics, whereby the polluting corporations get the $300 billion in R&D investment and the rest of the world gets the crumbs? Sure, we’ll all be better off, relatively speaking, but the power structures and the incredible wealth disparities will still be in place. Are Nordhaus and Shellenberger proposing that their radical energy plan take place without also transforming a political system that has so far ignored and blocked any attempts at meaningful social, economic and environmental change?

Until we can make a similarly radical shift in consciousness about the impetus for economic direction—white guys getting rich off of the system—Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s proposal seems futile. Otherwise, we still have wealth disparity, but the environment is protected. We have a saved planet, but an incarcerated people.

If Nordhaus and Shellenberger are arguing for a new social contract where the power and wealth of corporations and the elite remains the status quo, then this job isn’t for me. If not, consider this my application.

Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.

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