Break Through

From the Death of Environmentalism to The Politics of Possibility

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” sparked passionate debate while earning them a reputation as the wild boys of the Environmental Movement. Contributor DYLAN SMITH chats with the authors about their new book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, and an altogether new approach to the urgent problem of global warming.

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Michael Shellenberger at home in Berkeley, CA. Photograph: Michael Macor, The Chronicle


Within the realm of all political conversations—be they social, economic, biological, religious or environmental—there are two pools of thought. The first calls for change. The other calls for restrictions and constraints to change whereby to hold the human condition in place. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” sparked passionate debate and earned them a reputation as the mavericks of the environmental movement. In it they call for the death of Environmentalism’s inherently pessimistic notions in order to make way for a more progressive, change-based approach to the philosophy, ideology and social movement of Environmental Protection. I recently spoke with the author whose expanded his essay into a new book called Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger hold less that Environmentalism is dead—but that it should be. From the Industrial Revolution to the present day, political strategies that targeted smog and water pollution focused on mere cities, regions and swaths of countryside in smallish corners of the world. Global Warming, by its very definition, requires a collective response.

Global Warming requires a Collective response
Michael Shellenberger

The first modern environmental laws came in the form of Britain's Alkali Acts of 1863; which regulated the deleterious air pollution given off by factory’s burning coal for the production of railroads, steams engines and machines. An Alkali inspector was appointed to curb the pollution which placed all major industries that emitted smoke, grit, dust and fumes under supervision. But for the next 100 years, air pollution would remain the primary environmental concern. It wasn’t until the Great Smog of 1952—which brought the City of London to a standstill and caused upward of 6,000 deaths—that the Clean Air Act of 1956 was passed, and pollution in that city was regulated. Taxing carbon emissions for major industries, and tax breaks for homeowners, came to characterize the modern Environmentalist Movement; which continually found ways to penalize the very consumers and corporations the marketplace had created.

Shellenberger believes “we should focus on making clean energy cheaper rather than making fossil fuels more expensive” and explains, “all human impacts on the environment are determined by the creation of technological substitutes. Solar and wind are not legitimate substitutes for fossil fuels.” While Break Through holds up as a piece of political philosophy, this distinction acts as a catalyst to an entirely new technological strategy and viewpoint; abandoning the previous theories that hinged on solar and wind by expanding technological views to encompass a wider scale of solutions.

Shellenberger explains “global climate mitigation is a massive technological undertaking that now requires nuclear energy.” This neo-environmentalist philosophy includes developing Third World countries where natural gas, renewables, and nuclear energy are the winners. Coal and fossil fuels are the losers. The author advocates for a highly developed alternative vision, strategy and plan whereby a consortium of 20 nations (G20) collaborate to reduce carbon emissions and ultimately restore planet earth to its more natural state. But the fight for neo-environmentalism is also a fight against million dollar anti-nuclear institutions like Greenpeace and the NRDC, the latter of which actually writes EPA legislation and greatly influenced Obama´s Clean Power Plan.

Using the Clean Air Act to order the 50 states to proffer plans by which they’ll reduce carbon emissions by 2030 is frankly no different than Britain’s Clean Air Act of 1956; which led not only to the collapse of the coal and mining industries during the Thatcher years, but also left her legacy in ruins. Indeed, Obama is yet another old school Environmentalist choosing coercive politics over possibilities.

Someday our planet will be dotted with windmills and solar panels, high-speed trains and nuclear efficient office buildings. Until then, we’d do well to remember this author’s two bits on that score: “There is no single, glorious and transcendent Science. There are only sciences creating contingent truths, toiling away to reveal, create and organize facts and theories until the next revolutionary paradigm comes along to reorganize entire worlds.”


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