Environmentally yours

Two new takes on global warming
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  September 24, 2007
ECO-VILLAIN? Lomborg’s revisionist approach
to saving the planet will be a cold shower for
overexerted greenies.

A little more than two years ago, upstart policy wonks Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus foretold “the death of environmentalism” in an incendiary eponymous essay. The green movement’s inability to significantly raise fuel-efficiency standards for American automobiles, to devise a workable plan to address carbon emissions, or to propel clean energy toward economic viability were signs of the movement’s imminent, imperative, and fatal collapse, they said. Environmental interest groups, Shellenberger and Nordhaus claimed, simply don’t dream big enough to address the multifaceted monster that is global warming.

Not surprisingly, their assertions engendered diverse responses, including one from Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope, who wrote in a long and angry rebuttal:
. . . by mingling the issue of the need for deeper and more effective global warming strategies with an ill-thought out assault on environmentalism, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are likely to create defensiveness, not receptivity; resistance, not movement; back-lash, not progress.

In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Shellenberger and Nordhaus continue to criticize a negative and narrowly defined environmental movement. They also present a positive alternative: post-environmentalism, a green philosophy that replaces the “politics of limits” with eco-focused economic development that “unleashes human activity.” It is a compelling vision.

Break Through “is an argument against the politics of essentialism and for a politics of pragmatism,” the authors write toward the end of their book. In this case, the politics of essentialism is narrow-mindedness: the environmental movement’s failure to address the “sociocultural context” that lies beneath most ecological problems, to conceive of humanity as part of nature, rather than as an infringement upon it, and to inspire a movement that is bigger than its individual dilemmas.

Consider their example of Brazil, where Shellenberger and Nordhaus accuse environmentalists of losing sight of, well, the forest for the trees: Instead of grappling with the macroeconomic forces driving the forest’s destruction — and articulating a national vision that speaks to the aspirations of the Brazilian people — environmentalists . . . have spent fifteen years . . . reinforcing the sense that protecting the Amazon should be done for environmental reasons.

The politics of pragmatism, on the other hand, is about interconnectedness — poverty and public health, economy and energy, humans, nature, and human nature — the recognition that these issues exist not in isolation, but as part of a complex web. Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s philosophy requires big thinking: Internet-scale government investment in clean-energy technologies (which will create a new clean-energy economy), adaptation to and preparation for unavoidable climate changes, and a “new social contract” that protects individual autonomy while recognizing the relationship between politics and social fulfillment.

If the authors’ arguments are, by their own admission, occasionally “digressive” (indeed, Break Through is also a brief primer on modern American political philosophy and economics), then that very fact simply underscores their argument: “post-environmentalism” encompasses all disciplines, and must be dealt with as such.

"NPR host's Aha! moments." By Deirdre Fulton.

Fall Literary Supplement

"Things" we love: Writers extol sacred objects of everyday use — and uselessness. By Caitlin E. Curran

"Touched by Grace: Andre Dubus's unending gifts." By Nina MacLaughlin.

"Great journeys": From Marco Polo to Twain and Shackleton, with a bit of Pico Iyer. By James Parker.

Perhaps it was unfair to take on Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming after reading Nordhaus and Shellenberger. Regardless of how much Cool It and Break Through have in common (both books introduce a “new” take on global warming, both criticize the environmental movement for its scaremongering, and both stress the importance of big investments in renewable energy), the differences in their tones and underlying messages are striking; Cool It suffers by comparison.

Lomborg is the equivalent of a cold shower for overexerted environmentalists. The Danish economist, who drew fire in 2001 for his controversial tome The Skeptical Environmentalist, isn’t a global-warming denier, but he charges environmental organizations and the media with reducing the science of climate change to “vastly exaggerated and emotional claims that are simply not supported by data.”

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