I’m generally into the idea of “standing up for nature” and “not turning the planet into an uninhabitable trashball,” but the thing that’s always kept me at arm’s length from environmentalism is how completely selfish the better part of its proponents are. Sure, they’re “thinking globally” as they “act locally,” but aside from assuaging their own wounded conscience and giving them something to harp on about at parties, you know what all these local acts amount to in the global picture? Fuck all.
Riding a bike with a bunch of folks across the Williamsburg bridge once a month or converting your car to bio-diesel may make you “feel like part of the solution,” but it does nothing to counteract the billions of people driving cars every day around the world. And recycling? Please. Besides the fact that the better part of American waste-management companies just dump the majority of their recyclables in with the regular trash while no one’s looking, even when it’s actually carried out it’s still a scam.
Take plastics. Things like glass and metal can be melted down and reused, but when you “recycle” a plastic bottle the amount of new plastic that has to be added in to make it rigid again effectively negates the whole process. Of course, that shouldn’t stop you from getting a big ole fuzzy every time you fish a milk jug out of the garbage.
What’s worse is even when you look at groups trying to make an impact on the big picture, they’re crippled by this same “let’s just use less” mentality. That’s why they continue pushing for things like limits on carbon emissions that, even if, somehow, against all odds, were they actually carried out would only serve as band-aid solutions at best.
In 2004 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, a pair of longtime environmentalists, wrote an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism” which called out their colleagues for being oblivious to the fact that the decades-old cap-and-trade MO they were still clinging to wasn’t doing squat to deal with global warming. While the rest of the environmental world was busy holding their fingers in their ears and calling Shellenberger and Nordhaus traitors to the cause, the two put together a full-length book called Break Through. It basically argues that instead of wasting their time trying to fight industrial growth, environmentalists should take the industrial ball and run with it, pumping tons of money into a whole new research sector dedicated to coming up with clean energy technology that can actually be implemented large scale. And instead of treating the project like penance for all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet, we could make it this big national push like the space race, where there are all sorts of new jobs and everybody’s psyched to git ’r done before China or the Koreans or whoever. Sounds good, right? I mean, who could be opposed to that? The majority of environmentalists it turns out.
Having recently gotten back from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an ecological fuck up every bit as unfixable by traditional environmental means as global warming, I got in touch with Shellenberger to see if he could explain what the hell these people’s problem is.
Vice: At the beginning of Break Through you sort of apologize for invoking the 60s in the “Death of Environmentalism” by referencing MLK. What do you think everybody’s hang-up on that decade is?
Michael Shellenberger: Ted and I constantly hear this tragic story that boomers like to tell about how “Everything was going to change in the 60s, man, then they killed our best people.” Reaganism, George W. Bush—it’s all because the Man killed the Kennedy brothers and King. It’s a completely reductive narrative, yet it’s been really persistent on the basis of nostalgia and the appeal of this idea that we’ve fallen from a better past. The real story is obviously far more complicated. Some things have gotten better while others have gotten worse, but it’s completely impossible to generalize in the way that the left has.
It seems like the flip side to that is how the 40s and 50s is always vilified as this horrible period of reckless growth and materialism when, as you guys point out, all the post-war economic progress is what gave people the financial stability to start addressing environmental issues and so forth.
And people don’t realize that there were a lot of environmental laws getting passed in the 50s and 60s. There was already an effort in this period of economic growth to clean up the air and rivers and protect endangered species well before Silent Spring came out in 1962. It’s not unique to the United States, either—as countries develop they grow more concerned with these quality of life issues.
The logic’s really simple. Once you’ve got enough to live and eat, you start to think, “It’d be nice to live somewhere where the air isn’t so polluted,” or, “It’d be nice to go camping on the weekend or take my son fishing in one of the local rivers or lakes.” But those are concerns that only emerge after you’ve been able to meet your basic material needs.
That’s at odds with the conventional wisdom where all development is bad and the less advanced a culture is, the “closer to nature.” Why do you think this idea is so hard to process for most environmentalists?
To a certain extent it’s understandable, because your own standard of living is generally pretty invisible to you. You spend most of your life hanging out with people who have a very similar standard of living to yourself. There are a lot of people in the United States who don’t travel at all, but very few ever visit a really poor country. A few years ago I was in a village in Venezuela where they had no running water. I’d been in poor communities in Latin America before, but I just was reminded by the circumstances that when there isn’t any water, everybody’s dirty. Of course, your first priority in getting water is to have enough to drink and cook with, and then if you have some left over you can bathe. You would never go into that community and be like, “God, these people have terrible hygiene.”
But that’s exactly what folks are doing when they criticize people in the third world for not being more “environmentally conscious.”
There was a great photo in the Times this morning of guys who are making charcoal out of these gorgeous old-growth mahogany trees in the Amazon. They’re trying to do it as quickly as possible because they know there’s about to be a crackdown and the whole tone’s kind of like, “What’s wrong with these guys, why don’t they love nature?” Well, you know, they’re trying to survive in the Amazon rainforest, where nature is constantly trying to kill them.
If advancing to a given level of comfort is the necessary first stage in environmentalism, what do you make of all the folks who say the only way to save the planet is to forsake civilization in favor of these Thoreau-lite, Into the Wild sort of lifestyles?
There’s a lot of fuzzy-headed thinking about it. What you find people saying is something like, “There’s not enough earth to go around. There aren’t enough resources for the Chinese to live like we live.” And they’re making the same mistake Malthus made when he said, “Look, population is increasing exponentially but agricultural production is increasing at a much slower rate, so we’re going to run out of food and there’s going to be mass starvation.” The error in that line of thinking is that it took for granted this notion that there wouldn’t be any sort of technological innovation in agriculture.
It’s the same with environmentalists today when they say, “There’s not enough earth to go around.” Well, this is because you’re not factoring in technological progress. Yes, if we keep burning all the coal and oil we’re set to burn we’re going to have some pretty huge consequences in terms of the changing climate and its effect on food production and water availability and everything. But we are an adaptive species and we certainly have the capacity to invent energy sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide. We also have the capacity to create new materials. When people say things like, “We’re going to run out of resources,” that implies that we’re going to keep using the same set of resources in the future that we’re using today, when of course if you look at even the recent past, we’re using vastly different materials and resources now than we once used. Huge advances have gone into creating new materials and recycling old ones so that they can be infinitely reused.
So what happens is people make that error of foresight, then they wrap a whole morality around it. “Oh, the Chinese can’t live like we live, therefore we all have to live like monks.” Or, “Therefore we have to build a wall around the United States.” So much of this comes from just a basic misunderstanding of how the economy works and technology progresses.
How much shit have you guys taken from the rest of the environmental world for the book?
There’s been some honest and some sort of dishonest responses to the book. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club wrote a response to Break Through which praised certain aspects of the book but sort of dismissed it as a whole. The majority of bloggers at environmental websites like Grist just freaked out, to the point where the review in the San Francisco Chronicle and a long, multi-part review on Grist by two folks who sound like they didn’t actually read the book basically accuse Ted and me of wanting to delay action on global warming. But our whole argument was to the contrary—that we need to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy and the only way to do that is to make big investments in technology innovation so that clean energy becomes cheap.
How likely do you think that actually is?
We think there is a good politics focused around technology innovation. As consultants, we actually went and did a lot of research that supports this. It’s a very popular idea both among working-class swing voters—what used to be called “Reagan Democrats”—and also among the Democratic base. As Democrats and progressives we felt like, “Wow, this would be a very powerful agenda, to focus on technology innovation, the jobs that get created by it, the creation of a new infrastructure, gaining a competitive advantage in the global economy, etc.” So we were baffled that our environmental colleagues kept insisting, “No, no, the focus has to be on pollution regulation.” That’s what initially led us down this path of questioning why everyone is stuck in this older paradigm of environmental thinking and what we call the “politics of limits.”
You guys have proposed a “New Apollo Project” as sort of a clean-energy version of the space race. How well do you think that idea’s going?
Well, Apollo as a slogan has really taken off. You find everybody—I think even Mitt Romney was talking about the need for a new Apollo project on energy. So we feel good that the meme has infected all the presidential candidates and many members of Congress. We also feel good that there’s more money now being proposed for investment in new energy than there was four years ago. Four years ago when he was running, Kerry proposed nothing to this effect, and both Clinton and Obama have proposed $150 billion over the next ten years. We think you need something more like $300 to $800 billion over ten years, but at least we’re making progress on that front. We also harbor no illusions about the fact that a big investment in clean energy is hard, in part because there’s no established lobby in Washington, whereas there’s obviously a huge lobby for fossil fuels. There are also a lot of economic interests who’d rather see big investments in things like health care, for example. That’s why we believe the real power of the Apollo concept is through appealing directly to the public, since it’s so popular among voters—more popular among voters than it is among lobbyists.
Do you worry that this idea will fizzle as people get burned out with the whole debate on climate change?
We don’t think the big investments in clean energy innovation and infrastructure need to be motivated by concern for global warming. In fact, because global warming remains a very low priority for most people, we think it’s better to motivate it out of concerns for the economy and national security. From there you have the potential to reach much more deeply.
That would also draw in the sort of conservatives typically considered “anti-environmentalist,” wouldn’t it?
The problem we have with conservatives is that so often they have a very knee-jerk mentality about government investment. I think this is finally starting to change, that because of the widespread repudiation of the Bush administration a lot of Republicans are rethinking this kind of reactive position. We did a thing online with the New Republic where a lot of conservatives weighed in, including Newt Gingrich, and all agreed that we need some fairly serious investments in these clean energy sources. Now, we don’t think what they’re agreeing on necessarily goes far enough, but we’re definitely seeing some progress there. To actually have an impact on global warming, Apollo has to be a transformational politics—you have to be able to win elections running on the Apollo idea and the big investment in energy. You can’t just be another slogan that’s uttered every four years.
Go to http://www.thebreakthrough.org/ for more info about the Breakthrough Institute. Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility is available at amazon.com and a bunch of other places. You should get it and read it, if only for the juicy section calling out RFK, Jr. for trying to stop the Cape Wind energy project because the windmills would ugly up the view from his family’s Hyannis Port compound.