Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Break Through

I had the pleasure last week of attending a talk by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, the authors of what may be the most significant book on environmentalism of the last several years, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that American environmentalism's main mode of discourse, namely catastrophism, is fundamentally counterproductive since it causes people to despair and turn inward, and that therefore if we want to actually galvanize people to take action on environmental matters, we need to stop talking as if there is an unbreakable choice between environmental catastrophe and limited growth.

Their views on this have been shaped by years of polling research in many countries, and above all in North America, which has convinced them that the way the American environmental movement has gone about its business since the 1970s has been worse that ineffective. As a simple matter of political rhetoric, I think their argument is not only profound, but virtually unimpeachable. Americans never have and never will respond politically to be being told they are sinners who must repent, in this case, from the sin of consumerism. Even more, the Chinese will never accept that they too should restrain their growth, as if freezing the current wealth levels of different countries is remotely fair.

I chatted briefly with Michael after the talk, and handed him my paper, which he had some kind words about on his blog yesterday:
Gilman, Doug Randall, and Peter Schwartz come to very similar conclusions about how the political reactions to climate change might divide the environmental community, just as immigration reform and Cape Wind divided the Sierra Club.
[C]limate change may form the basis for a new set of political coalitions and oppositions that do not fit within the [traditional left-right] political paradigm. One possibility is that political coalitions and parties may be reformed around different attitudes to social risk-sharing, with one faction opting for having the state take an activist approach to mitigating a variety of "big" security risks (military, terrorist, environmental) and another coalition forming around allowing people to fend for themselves, with a less intrusive but also less protective state. The recent debate in the Sierra Club over the organization's stance on immigration presages such a formation, as does the current debate in Europe about "repatriation" of immigrants.
The initial reaction from some people to Break Through was that we constructed a straw man, as though to say, Come on, there's hardly any environmentalists any more who are anti-growth, limits-based, NIMBY, or anti-immigrant.

These claims were often followed, without any apparent sense of irony, by the insistence that technology can't solve our problems, there are natural limits to economic growth, and there's not enough room on lifeboat Earth for everyone to live the way we live in the developed world.

Having spent the last month traveling around the country on book tour, Ted and I have been struck that the biggest objection audiences have to our book is our contention that there's room for all 7 billion of us Earthlings to live prosperous, free and fulfilled lives. We point out that this won't be the case if we continue on the current fossil fuel trajectory -- hence the need for a politics that gets us off it -- but if we move to a clean energy economy, live mostly in cities, and begin to restore the nonhuman ecosystems we depend on, there's no reason to believe the levels of prosperity we enjoy shouldn't be achieved by everyone.

Ever since Malthus in the early 19th Century (and likely well before that) people have been predicting that we're going to run out of food. Their calculations are always impeccable. The problem is that they're based on existing technologies. And technological innovation is what our species excels at.

The new political fault line we see shaping up is between a large politics (what we call "greatness") characterized by a vision for growth, development, globalization, and non-zero sum thinking (i.e., "win-win") -- and a small politics characterized by NIMBYism, anti-immigrant attitudes, the resistance to what GBN calls "social risk-sharing," and the sense that there's only so much planet Earth to go around.

Which side will prevail? GBN says it's uncertain. "While ecosystems have always been dynamic and changing (and subject to collapse), the scientific ability to track such collapses, and the media visibility of such collapses, is far greater than it has ever been. How the global public will react to such collapses is largely unknown."

GBN makes the very good point that as human systems collapse, humans "rely upon primary loyalties (families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, gangs) for daily survival.... Those unwilling or unable to profit from the chaos will radiate outward through refugee flows, exporting social conflicts to adjacent locales."

What I thought was missing from the GBN analysis was an acknowledgment of the fairly extensive research of how discourses of collapse and apocalypse feed the small, authoritarian, and NIMBY political reaction -- not the expansive, democratic, and ecological one.
I think that critique of our work from last year is fair. We could have sharpened the analysis by suggesting that political discourses themselves are semi-independent variables that help determine political outcomes. One thing I learned from Nordhaus and Schellenberger is that an important indicator to watch for is the optimism or pessimism of the political narrative about climate. (People have been ignoring jeremiads since, well, Jeremiah.)

If I have a criticism of Nordhaus and Schellenberger, it is not on the substantive matter of how the politics of environmentalism should be framed. I agree strongly with them that environmentalism is most likely to succeed as a political matter if it is not positioned as a matter of restriction, but rather as an opportunity. Nor do I disagree in the slightest that from a policy perspective, it would be fantastic for the US federal government to initiate a major push to create infrastructure that can provide a "platform for green innovation" (modeled after, for example, the federal investment in the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s-40s, the Interstate system in the 1950s-60s, or the Internet in the 1970s-1980s) -- which would provide enormous business opportunities. Finally, I also agree that any viable solution to the global warming challenge must include a calculus for how we can get the rest of the world rich, too. If the solution requires keeping the Indians and Chinese down, it won't work.

Rather, what I disagree with them about is whether what they propose, even if seized upon by a visionary politician who sells it to the American and global public, can happen fast enough to save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Embedded in their work is a faith in the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), that is, the idea that environmental values begin to appear as people hit a certain level of income. They seem to argue that with better framing of the political discourse, we may be able to bring down the price point at which people begin to value more environmentally-friendly policies and consumer habits. There are three main criticisms of the EKC idea. First, it's not clear that people actually do value environmentally-friendly policies as they get richer -- it's just clear that they start to insist that these polluting industries get moved overseas. Yes, the Taiwanese cleaned up as they got wealthier, but they did so by shipping their nastiest facotires across the Straits to China. The Chinese really have no such option, and in any event, even if they did, it wouldn't reduce the global pollutant load for them to do so as they got richer. Second, it seems that the income-threshold at which people start to care about greenhouse gas emissions may be somewhere around $75K per family. Needless to say, China's nowhere close to that, and the amount of pollution it will emit before it gets there is staggering, and likely catastrophic at a planetary level. Third, and most profoundly, the theory of the EKC rests on a general theory of modernization, and specifically on the notion that modernization spells convergence in terms of political values. Readers of this blog probably don't need to be told how skeptical I am of such theories, in particular the idea that people's social and political values are somehow a dependent variable in relation to their economic status, or that political liberalism is the foreordained outcome of the modernization process.

With that said, I think the Nordhaus and Schellenberger have written a great book, one that points the right way forward, even if it may not be enough to save us.

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