Today I read Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Break Through. It was a roller coaster ride with only one hump. I went up, up, up in pure joy – and then straight down from the middle of the book. Apparently the authors made quite a splash a year or two ago with an article that criticized the environmental movement. Probably the part I liked was an elaboration of that article, and what I disliked was the rest – which supposedly was going to be uplifting, with a vision of new possibilities. In fact, it was cultural criticism, referring to all kinds of folks from Francis Fukuyama to Tony Blair to the preacher who wears Hawaiian shirts and shows people the purpose of their lives, Rick Warren. I didn’t want cultural criticism. I wanted proof – or at least strong economic arguments – that their alternative to environmentalism is sound. I didn’t receive it, so I will limit my comments to the initial arguments, with which I fully agree. In fact, I kept thinking, “This is the book I wish I had written.” Now I’m glad I didn’t.
They play with Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, showing that when we have satisfied our lower-order needs, we become engaged with higher order, “post-materialistic,” inner-directed needs instead. As Americans (and they are explicitly talking about Americans without necessarily trying to generalize to other societies) became wealthier and most secure, they became preoccupied with problems beyond their immediate survival: pollution, the protection of the wilderness, quality of life values. But environmentalists misunderstand the sources of their movement's upsurge:
“They have tended to view economic growth as the cause but not the solution to ecological crisis. Environmentalists like to emphasize the ways in which the economy depends on ecology; but they often miss the ways in which thinking ecologically depends on prospering economically. Given that prosperity is the basis for ecological concern, our political goal must be to create a kind of prosperity that moves everyone up Maslow’s pyramid as quickly as possible while also achieving our ecological goals.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger remind us that it is false to consider humankind as separate from nature, from “the environment.” The environment, they insist, includes humans, so everything is environmental. Yet environmentalists speak of “preserving nature” by stopping, restricting, reversing, regulating, and constraining human activity. The challenge of global warming is addressed with the same dismal formula, as if greenhouse gases were a new form of pollution caused by human prosperity. The authors, on the other hand, seek to address global warming by encouraging investment in new clean-energy jobs, rather than by regulating or constraining technology and business.
“Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises. We argue for an explicitly pro-growth agenda that defines the kind of prosperity we believe is necessary to improve the quality of human life and to overcome ecological crises.
“One of the places where this politics of possibility takes concrete form is at the intersection of investment and innovation. There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute....
“The transition to a clean energy economy should be modeled not on pollution control efforts, like the one on acid rain, but rather on past investments in infrastructure, such as railroads and highways, as well as on research and development — microchips, medicines, and the Internet, among other areas.”
Nordhaus and Shellenberger poke fun at the environmentalists’ habit of recalling how much better things were in the past, when humans lived in “balance with nature.” In reality, nature has always been violent and unpredictable. The current urge to enjoy the beauty of camping in the woods arose because we became so affluent in the postwar period. They write, “The satisfaction of the material needs of food and water and shelter is not an obstacle to but rather the precondition for the modern appreciation of the nonhuman world.”
Because economic security fluctuates, the priority that ordinary people assign to these “higher order” concerns also fluctuates, much to the annoyance of environmentalists, who grumble that the average American citizen often seems more concerned with jobs and growth than with regulations designed to “protect nature.” They cite polls showing the low priority ranking of ecological issues, though I doubt that these polls are representative anymore; for the past year or so, global warming (though not all other environmental issues) has become a top political concern.
Other, less affluent societies, also show more authoritarian values when their basic material and security needs are not being met, and become altruistic, tolerant, cooperative, and civic-spirited when they are prospering. Nevertheless, the anti-materialist environmentalists portray material prosperity as the cause of degradation and pollution, not its solution. They see human beings, especially when populous, as the source of the problems because of our intrusions into nature. This view, say the authors, is simply narrow-minded.
Turning to examples, they mention the grave deforestation of the Amazon, which rightly perturbs environmentalists. In a brilliant chapter, they recount the history of international economic policies, which created debts that the impoverished Brazilians have repaid many times over. Though the country has sufficient land and raw materials to support its population, the lingering poverty in the favelas accounts for the deforestation of the interior. Nordhaus and Shellenberger insist that only by addressing economic development is there any prospect of shifting the Brazilian economy in a different direction. But, they add, because environmentalists see conservation and development as separate issues, the real solution to the problem never crosses their minds.
I think these writers are correct. But they are not absolutely alone. Nicholas Stern’s report was more far-sighted than the activists whom I know. He recommended three different types of change for governments to undertake immediately: (a) carbon taxation, with tradable permits for greenhouse gas emissions; (b) dramatic investment and incentives for clean-energy research and implementation; and c) preparation and adaptation for the impacts of climate change. Yet the proposals in the US Senate are entirely focused on setting greenhouse gas limits, without offering significant investments in clean energy or adaptive preparations for climate change. This failure, say the authors, reflects the unfortunate dominance of the “pollution” paradigm in public discourse.
Skip the rest of the book. It does not suggest in practical terms what these excellent new investments should pursue, nor does it even attempt to prove that the new technologies will indeed be sustainable. I think they can be – but the environmentalists are never going to be convinced except by writers who know how to operate a calculator.