Last month Al Gore gave a rousing speech on climate change, throwing down an audacious challenge to the American people. By 2020, Gore declared, let American by powered 100% by renewable sources of energy.
Gore appealed to the Apollo Project as the model for an enterprise of such grandeur. In 1961 President Kennedy announced his goal that America put a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy’s challenge captured America’s imagination and galvanized the American computer, aeronautics and space industries. As wildly ambitious as the aim at first appeared, the United States reached it with 15 months to spare. In his speech, Gore announced that we need a new Apollo Mission for energy today.
Painting a vision of this magnitude represented something of a departure for Al Gore in his thinking about how to move people on climate change. He has done more than anyone to raise awareness of the issue, but at first he appeared to think that simply laying out the inconvenient truth about global warming would be sufficient to mobilize action. When it didn’t, he started musing about the inconvenient evolution of the human fear gland that was designed to respond to immediate, emotional stimuli rather than cognitive and scientific input.
In this Apollo speech, Gore was adopting the approach of two renegade activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” argued that environmentalism was too fear-based, too narrow and too policy wonky to ever make a real difference on climate change. The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the green movement. After all as former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach observed, “nobody likes to be called dead, especially when they think they are still alive.”
“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” is the updated book length version of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s thesis. It’s an important book as it encapsulates a body of thinking that has done much to reorient the US environmental movement’s response to climate change, from Al Gore downwards.
In “Breakthrough” Nordhaus and Shellenberger, expand on their critique of classic environmentalism and broaden it into a new vision of progressive politics.
The starting point of their critique is that the doom-mongering discourse of climate change doesn’t work. It just paralyzes people. They quote the most quoted lines of their earlier essay:
“Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare speech” instead.” (p.1)
Environmentalism has for forty years been giving “I have a nightmare” speeches. As the nightmares have become more lurid and terrifying, culminating in the four horseman of the apocalypse predictions on climate change, people have stopped listening.
Focusing on problems has been problematic for environmentalists for other reasons too, the authors claim. It has turned the movement into a special interest group concerned with its own particular category of problem objects, polluted water, air, endangered species etc, to the exclusion of other people’s problems, such as jobs, race, women’s rights etc. Furthermore it has led to environmentalists speaking a jargon of technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions to their problems (CAFÉ standards, cap and trade etc.) as if the American electorate was made up of “one hundred million policy wonks.”
Breakthrough argues that the way forward for environmentalism is to become part of a progressive politics that emphasizes possibilities rather than limits and that recounts an inspiring story rather than a litany of problems and grievances. It needs to recognize Americans aspirations for meaning and fulfillment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger urge progressives to look across the chasm of the culture wars and learn from what those on the other side are doing right; the Republicans have been telling a story about American national greatness and moral strength that resonates across the income groups and Evangelicals such as Rev. Rick Warren have drawn tens of thousands to their mega-churches by preaching the spiritual greatness and uniqueness inherent in every person.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger exhort environmentalists and progressives to find a way to tap into these rich sources of inspirational and electoral power. In particular, they urge the left to unite around the New Apollo Project, a program for combating climate change that will invest $300 billion in renewable energy R and D. They estimate that the program will create 3 million jobs, undercutting the claim that environmental concern must come at the cost of trade union jobs and so helping tp create a broad backing coalition. The Project is wrapped in an uplifting story of how American inventiveness, know how and get-up-and-go will once again come to the world’s rescue.
Some of Breakthrough’s points are spot on; about the enervating effect of doom and gloom, the fragmenting consequences of environmentalists’ focusing on things, and the key role of vision and values in mobilizing action on climate change. It’s a bracing read too, grappling with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, Paul Berman’s elergy to the sixties generation, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” John Dewey, and the American Transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, among other sparring partners.
The main weakness of this book is that the authors are fixated on the question “how are we going to get a Democrat into the White House and blue majority in both houses of Congress?” This leads them to discount potentially good solutions to climate change because they aren’t politically sexy. For example, they give Cap and Trade short shrift (p258) because it’s a problem based solution and “politicians who vote against such initiatives won’t pay a price at the next election.” In other words, it can’t easily be explained in a ten second sound bite. Nevertheless cap and trade is indispensable for leveling the energy playing field and bringing renewable sources on stream sooner.
The political slant of the book also leads the authors to reject any approach that might make Americans feel bad about their role in creating the world’s environmental crises. We are repeatedly told that Americans respond to a vision of aspiration and possibility far better than to the old environmental politics of limits and constraints. That may be empirically true, but maybe the fact that the United States, with about 4% of the world’s population, has produced 30% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should prompt some soul searching about whether a few limits might indeed be in order. And if politicians can’t do the prompting, then perhaps someone else needs to. Religious leaders, for example.
In fact, anyone who has thought about the intersection of religion and ecology will be struck by the weirdly ambivalent relationship that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to religion. They admire Evangelical churches for giving their congregants an overarching moral framework, and a strong sense of esteem and belonging and wish that there were liberal institutions that could do the same in a way that wasn’t as patriarchal and reactionary as they find the Evangelicals to be. But the authors are unconvincing about where the progressive counterparts to such values might come from.
At the end of “Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:
“Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”
In ‘Breakthrough,’ they do not repeat this call for a turn to religion as a source for ecological thought. The story of American greatness has become the aspirational myth that can inspire the fight against climate change. But it was a Puritan pastor, John Winthrop who first sketched the vision of the “Shining City on the Hill”, and the “I have a Dream” speech was drenched with biblical references. Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?
Rabbi Julian Sinclair is a scholar, Jewish educator, and an economist. He holds a BA from Oxford University in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and rabbinic ordination. He has been an economic analyst for the UK government, and Jewish Chaplain and Instructor in the Divinity School, Cambridge University.
“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the politics of Possibility” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Houghton and Mifflin 2007.