TO THOSE who have ever felt frustrated by an inability to find the words necessary to connect the ideas of economic growth to environmental health, you are not alone and your observations have not gone unnoticed.
In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Berkeley authors Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger identify the shortcomings of the Environmentalist Movement and describe how it is ill-suited to tackle the challenges of global climate change. By failing to adapt to America’s conservative political shift since the 1960’s, the Environmentalist Movement has become mired in a “Politics of Limits”; an erroneous and politically self-defeating belief that meaningful environmental policy must simply be, above all else, regulatory.
The failures of American environmentalism are numerous and BT often reads as a no-holds-barred criticism of environmentalists from the NIMBYism of Robert Kennedy Jr. to the terrifying Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth. Kennedy is ridiculed for famously lobbying against the construction of wind turbines near his home in Nantucket Sound, Mass., and Truth is decried for dosing audiences with two hours of panic followed by the suggestion to buy fluorescent light bulbs—among other quasi-comforting afterthoughts—buried before the credits.
Break Through authors Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue for a paradigm-shift in our understanding of environmentalist politics. The solution, they argue, is not just to limit the emissions of our old, fossil-fuel economy, but to unleash the American Spirit in an Apollo-like challenge to create a new, clean-energy economy.
One of BT’s most original themes is that progressive social change tends to occur not when people are terrified and insecure, but when they have hope and sense of security. Al Gore, N&S lament, blew it by warning viewers of Truth that the climate crisis will force us to “change the way we live our lives” without ever bothering to give “the impression that this change might be for the better”.
At first, it is unclear whether or not N&S fail to recognize the motivating role fear can play, or simply feel that the alarm bell has been sufficiently sounded and its time to move on. An irony of BT is that, by evoking the Apollo moon missions, N&S don’t acknowledge that Neil Armstrong’s famous step was made possible as much out of fear from Sputnik as it was from Kennedy’s appeal to the American desire for greatness.
Alas, N&S clarify. At its introduction, BT explains the power of hope by asking what would have become of the civil rights movement had Martin Luther King given an “I Have a Nightmare” speech instead of his famous “I Have a Dream”. However, citing the depressing tone in which the speech begun, N&S concede “it was probably for the best that King gave a nightmare speech before the dream speech…Had he ignored the valley, the mountaintop would not have been as high or as bright.”