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Bridging the gap, a bolder approach.

by melo Mon Oct 1st, 2007 at 10:01:29 AM EST


Here's a review of a new book, trying to bridge the gap between investment and green technology.

It seems US-centric, but surely we are facing just the same issues here in Europe.

Breakthrough, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Above all, they were passionate about the environment. For the better part of a decade, they toiled in the green movement as consultants and political strategists, each hoping to change the world. Instead, the climate crisis changed the rules: It demanded a new way of framing the debate, and the pair became disillusioned when the environmental establishment stubbornly refused to adapt. That led to their fateful essay, with the not-so-subtle title The Death of Environmentalism.

more below

Break Through is a fascinating hybrid: part call to arms, part policy paper, part philosophical treatise. (Name another book that gives equal time to Nietzsche, cognitive therapy, and fuel-economy legislation.) It takes aim at some of the environmental movement's biggest lions, including Kennedy and Al Gore. It belittles the Kyoto Protocol; it rips into best- selling social critics like Thomas Frank and Jared Diamond. But it also dismisses free marketeers who believe that unfettered markets alone can solve our carbon-emission woes. "If this book doesn't piss off a whole lot of conservatives and a whole lot of liberals, we've failed," Nordhaus says.
The two have reimagined the underlying philosophy of environmentalism in a way that could win over many of its natural skeptics, from financially insecure Americans who view green activists as elitist snobs to the leaders of developing countries like Brazil, India, and China who think environmentalists want to stop economic growth just when they were about to get their share. Green groups may carp, but the truth is that the book could turn out to be the best thing to happen to environmentalism since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Consider the evidence: Since the Kyoto agreement, many of the 36 industrialized countries that committed to reducing emissions are not on track to meet even minimal goals -- since 2000, their emissions have gone up, not down. And both China and India are building a slew of coal-burning plants as their economies explode. "If China burns all the coal that it is set to burn between now and 2050," Shellenberger says, "we are super-deeply fucked."
Even if every American SUV owner were to buy a hybrid tomorrow, that wouldn't come close to offsetting the environmental damage being perpetrated around the globe. In fact, all the standards, cap-and-trade limits, and emission reductions that environmentalists have been pushing for may slow, but will never reverse, global warming. And that is Nordhaus and Shellenberger's inconvenient truth. "There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions," they write in their introduction, "without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute."
Environmentalists, therefore, have missed a huge opportunity. Rather than being leaders in solving the global climate crisis, they are content to be doomsayers and scolds. What Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate is what might be called post-environmentalism, an ambitious new philosophy that isn't afraid to put people ahead of nature and to dream big about creating economic growth -- neither of which environmentalists have been very good at. Their vision cuts across traditional political divides: It's pro-growth, pro-technology, and pro-environment. They have specific proposals about Brazilian rain forests, the auto industry, and global warming preparedness. But the heart of the book is its unabashed desire to create a new way to think about our problems. Just as computer technology fueled the economic boom that started in the mid '90s, greentech can drive the first boom of the new millennium. "Global warming," they write, "demands unleashing human power, creating a new economy, and remaking nature as we prepare for the future."

Their break with mainstream environmentalism happened gradually. In 2003, Shellenberger was a lapsed academic turned progressive PR consultant with several promising political initiatives under his belt. Nordhaus was working as a polling consultant and a political strategist for environmental groups. In private conversations together, they began mulling over some very untraditional thoughts. What if the economic solution to global warming weren't a matter of putting on the brakes but of stepping on the gas? What if environmentalism's emphasis on limits and "not in my backyard" restrictions was hopelessly at odds with the average American's belief in a limitless future? With a handful of like-minded partners, they drafted the New Apollo project, the first version of their plan for a federally subsidized greening of the economy. They hired an economist to run the numbers and determined that a $300 billion government investment could call forth another $200 billion in private capital. (To prove their independence from traditional environmental politics, they picked someone who had worked for the Bush administration.)
The public loved the idea. In polls the two conducted, a New Apollo scale investment plan got a thumbs-up from practically every group, including, most surprisingly, non-college-educated males -- classic Reagan Democrats -- the very voters who are generally antitax, anti-government spending, and anti-environmentalist. In fact, instead of being a drawback, the scope of the project was a selling point.

It soon became clear that the project conflicted with the shorter-term goals of those same interest groups, and ultimately the duo was asked by other environmental lobbyists to stop pushing the legislation in Congress. "Labor groups were interested in protecting existing jobs in the US rather than creating jobs in the new-energy economy," Shellenberger says. "Environmental groups were more concerned with regulatory limits on greenhouse gases and raising fuel-economy standards." They had tried to be strategic by forming a coalition of interest groups, but interest groups were, in fact, the problem.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus became convinced that as long as policy was shaped by special interests -- including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club -- there would be no policy other than short-term, narrowly focused fixes.

One would think that Silicon Valley, a short hop from the pair's Oakland office, would be the perfect ally in their crusade. The term cleantech is sweeping the Valley (see "The Great Green Boom," page 168), and $300 billion in federal R&D money should be a nice incentive. "Bill Joy gets it," Nordhaus says, but too many others don't. Many Valley players are leery of government programs, and they tend to take their policy cues from old-guard environmentalists, Shellenberger and Nordhaus have found. "They think this is all going to get done with a little cap and trade, and a few other policies. And the rest will be done by private capital!" Nordhaus says. The dollar investment that most Valley venture capitalists are talking about right now just isn't enough, they insist. We need hundreds of billions, not hundreds of millions.
Shellenberger shakes his head. "All these guys' education in computer science was underwritten by the fucking federal government!" he says. Yet when Silicon Valley tells the story of the Internet, the government's role is downplayed. "They think they invented the Internet," Nordhaus says. "But Intel doesn't exist and Google doesn't exist without massive federal government investment in computer science, the Internet, microchips!"

"No environmentalist will say investment isn't important," Nordhaus says, "but look at what they are actually putting their resources into." He and Shellenberger are certain that the public will support massive government spending on greentech -- bigger than anything the Sierra Club or Silicon Valley VCs are proposing -- only if it is presented not as an attempt to rein in prosperity and economic growth but as a quantum leap for the global economy and climate. If they're wrong, Shellenberger and Nordhaus may be best remembered for tilting at windmills -- when windmills were what they were fighting for all along.

Hat tip to Mark Horowitz at Wired.

(I don't have anything to add to this, though you all might, if you find this new approach interesting!)

Nordhaus and Schellenberger caused a big rip in the US environment community a couple of years ago with an article called the death of environmentalism. See this grist page. I basically agree with many points of their criticism, especially with regard to organisations like the Sierra Club, who will support green Republicans like former Senator Chafee, or lobbying groups like the NRDC. Old, mainstream environmentalism in the U.S. seems to be afflicted with a bad case of tunnel-vision.

Then again, there are many forms of environmentalism. I'm very enthousiastic about the bright green environmentalism of WorldChanging, for instance. So I don't know if the movement in the U.S. could be rejuvinated or if Nordhaus and Schellenberger are right to say, in a way, 'forget environmentalism, let it die, focus on building the progressive movement'.

I read a piece by them in the New Republic (link), and I agree with most of the analysis and the policy conclusions they draw. However, I think they are partially using some very suspicious argumentative frames, which come down to the point that we can never ever cut consumption or change lifestyle patterns.

I would like to write more on the matter, but I'm also short on time. Maybe tomorrow...

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Tue Oct 2nd, 2007 at 12:27:16 PM EST
thanks for your thoughtful comment and links, nanne.

i too have been enjoying world changing, and feel they focus strongly on the positive.

please come back with more of your thoughts.

the environmental movement needs whatever it takes to gain more traction.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Oct 2nd, 2007 at 01:47:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
There are a huge number of reviews out there within the environmental / Global Warming blogging community.  Some good ones:

* Watthead -- links to multiple good discussions. From this post of his

The funny thing is, despite all the "debate" that Break Through has kicked up, I'm struggling to see what all the arguments are about!
The funny thing is, beneath the aggressive and down-write adversarial tone of Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the understandably defensive tone of folks like McKibben and Pope, there's not much the two supposedly warring sides disagree on!

* Chris Mooney at DeSmogBlog Overselling the Right Message

Their new book, Break Through, has created a lot of chatter with its argument that enviros are too darn pessimistic, and repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot with command-and-control regulatory thinking and doom and gloom talking.

I decided to check out the Cliff notes version of Breakthrough--published in article/excerpt form recently in The New Republic. What I read was both quite sophisticated and yet, at the same time, a bit grating. You see, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are really arguing against a state of mind, a zeitgeist even, rather than anything very specific. Which is fine--especially if you attack the right zeitgeist (which they do). The approach, however, allows them simultaneously to rebuke greens and yet also outline a clean energy policy agenda that most environmentalists--at least as I understand the term--would probably agree with.

Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart. NOW!!!
by a siegel (siegeadATgmailIGNORETHISdotPLEASEcom) on Tue Oct 2nd, 2007 at 10:13:49 PM EST
thanks adam.

some people like to be controversial for the sake of it!

cool links too.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Oct 3rd, 2007 at 07:08:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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