Are the greens going astray?

Special to The Times

HAVING spent 30 years together in the environmental movement, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger speak with authority about environmentalism as a movement fatally out of touch with its mission. In “Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility,” they map the failure of environmentalists to think pragmatically about nature and pollution, and their inability to draw people toward goals such as climate stability.

For these writers, the politics of environmentalism, which they equate flatly with a politics of limits, is dead. People will be living in a hotter world, they declare, and need to conceive a new energy economy. This is the idea behind their Apollo Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing environmental solutions that support clean energy and create jobs.

To frame their critique, Nordhaus and Shellenberger go back to the beginning, arguing that environmentalists are mistaken about why their movement exists. Abuses of nature didn’t lead to the ecological activism of the 1960s; instead, it was postwar prosperity that freed Americans in large numbers to care about something more than survival. These days, the authors argue, impoverished nations need similar economic advancement to become members of a “post-scarcity society” that relies on “post-materialist values” if they are to be in a position to curb emissions.

Throughout “Break Through,” the authors take aim at leading environmentalists and others who, they suggest, have framed the issue in unrealistic terms. They criticize Rachel Carson, Jared Diamond and Edward O. Wilson for depicting nature as virginal territory that must be unsullied by industry.

The concept of a working forest or waterway is lost on NIMBY-minded environmentalists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who launched a campaign against Cape Wind, a large wind farm planned for a site seven miles offshore from the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass. To protect scenic views, defenders of the Appalachian Trail mounted a similar fight against a wind project in western Maine -- an effort that, by defeating a renewable energy source, ultimately contributed to the ongoing mining of mountains in West Virginia for coal.

In the book’s most engaging chapter, the authors show that the environmentalist perspective on Brazil’s rampaging deforestation is foolishly misguided. Protective laws and parks are meaningless in a nation that has no choice but to pillage its forest in service to international debt. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say that the world community needs to develop pathways to prosperity in the developing world, which means that Brazil’s debt must be forgiven.

Debt, along with fear, is a wide-ranging menace. In the U.S., the authors argue, a quagmire of “insecure affluence” is pulling the culture in two directions: toward a fear-based, survivalist mode that makes part of the nation xenophobic, hawkish and conservative, and toward a dependence on debt and showy affluence, which keeps people focused on illusory, short-term goals. Without better job and healthcare security, not to mention a more coherent national security perspective, any plan to reduce emissions will be too small to avert the coming climate catastrophe.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest a third direction, based on “global warming preparedness, health care reform, and the construction of a post-materialist politics aimed at meeting our needs for esteem, status, belonging and purpose.”

Yet having preached that environmentalists need to focus on clean energy technology, Nordhaus and Shellenberger close “Break Through” without doing so. In discussing their Apollo Alliance, they don’t mention new developments in renewable energy such as geothermal and concentrating solar, which can provide emission-free base-load power. They cite “clean coal” and carbon sequestration, as if politicians, financiers and researchers have not taken a stand against these expensive and dangerous ideas. Odder still is their lament that despite signs of support for Apollo, environmentalists remain focused on carbon taxes and caps, when such strategies might raise the $300 billion they say Apollo needs.

“Break Through” makes strong proclamations about a movement and a climate crisis that are advancing so quickly that even the most current writing on them is outdated. Although the book should be embraced for its big-picture warnings, in the end it does not live up to its title. Like a sea turtle with plastic rings around its neck, the authors’ good work is strangled by insider talk and political jargon, which makes it every bit as narrowly focused as the efforts of environmentalists they criticize. One hopes they will follow up with an effort of broader appeal.

Anne B. Butterfield lives in Boulder, Colo., where she tracks developments in climate change and energy technologies.


Aloud at Central Library

What: Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, in conversation with Jennifer Price

Where: Richard J. Riordan Central Library, 630 W. 5th St., L.A.

When: 7 tonight

Info: (213) 228-7025