Review of Break Through: from the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Nordhaus and Shellenberger

This entry was posted Friday, 23 October, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Since their controversial article in Grist Magazine in 2004, the authors have been back-pedaling to explain themselves to the environmental community from whence they were “reared,” and in this book they have done so. The major premise is that the environmental movement ceased being a “movement” and reduced itself to an interest group based on complaint activism. It has also been motivated by scientific rationalism and nature has risen to become a religion, decoupling human potential from solving our long list of problems. In many ways this is true and the environmental community can be denigrated for other tragic missteps, misperceptions and political failings through the years. However, the authors paint with a wide brush and fail their own scrutiny in oversimplification and reduction to essentialism, (or the distillation of ideas to their simplest form). Must we embrace our own evil twin to move forward?

Counter to the rhetoric of the authors, there are many within the environmental community that have seen the hubris in “saving the planet” without offering a tangible vision of sustainable development. Creating policies, demonstrative case studies and working from the grass roots “to build the Earth” has been a core tenet of many environmentalists, particularly those who have worked on integrated conservation and development (ICDP) overseas. In this country, we still face the either or mentality nature versus man, or the new oversimplification yet incrementally more palatable approach of Triple Bottom Line, where we optimize for Social, Economic and Environmental variables to achieve sustainability. However, this also over weights human activity at the expense of nature as well as creates a a false “pigeon-holing” of environment as a category rather than understanding the nature of our cosmology, which is that nature (and its laws of physics and ecology) are the bottom line and we are a component of it, or one within it.

There is much to show in environmental improvements globally, but they sadly pail in the juggernaut of hyper-consumption and global capitalism fueled by materialist pursuits in a postmaterial era. This spiritual disconnect of the environmental movement about which the authors rail is also debunked by the work of authors, like Thomas Berry, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and others. The authors fail to pick up on T. Berry’s cosmology and use it as the basis for gaining passionate followers to the transformative, evolving “Universe Story.” Indeed the authors identify the need for a new story of hope and possibility, amidst the dire predictions of the future, to unleash the potential of human creativity. But their brief review of Berry’s work was shallow and focused on his book, Dream of the Earth, a early work of Berry’s that first articulated the ecumenical need for many voices and a new story.

The authors believe we should not be constrained or have limits, or at least not promote them in a transformative platform. They pit fall into promoting economic “growth,” when they really mean transformation (i.e. Herman Daly’s Steady State economic theory). To offer such as an “either/or” shows their own illogical argument. Developing countries will need to grow themselves out of poverty, however to do so at the expense of the environment will be not only self-destructive, but impossible. Their development will be a different kind of growth than what we in the West have experienced, and must leap frog industrialization, but to do so they must be offered the fruits of green technology transfer as quickly as possible. The author’s diatribe against the environmental community is weakened by their illogical non-secutors.

Overall this is a seminal work and parts should be required reading because of the authors brilliant job in assessing political will and cultural history and trends, defining well the power that is be hind the fundamentalist movement and juxtaposing it with the environmentalism. It is uncertain that the door they open in cultural relativism and reconciliation may not simply justify the Right’s continued irresponsibility. The authors spend a great deal of time discussing political philosophy, most of which are outdated modes of thinking and rampant with misperceptions of the fundamental systems that guide us. Determinism is strongly defended by the principles ecology and economy, and it is highly questionable how much freedom we have to change human behavior, and that “truths change as society does.”

The authors are major promoters of the Apollo Project and adaptation to a growing inhospitable planet that is now required because of decades of political inaction and capture by status quo and corporate interests. The authors explain away and find no blame in the economic injustices that have resulted from decades of greed and manipulation by powerful elite. Should not these people be held accountable given the evidence for “crimes against humanity?” Yet they point a hard finger at the environmental community as being as culpable as the conservative right from achieving political change on the issue of global warming.

They are right on that the message of “fire and brimstone” and the “sky is falling” have not been hopeful, too monkish and scientific, and unlikely to gain donors and transform fence sitters into fomented activists for lifestyle changes. This is ironic in that Christian fundamentalists and political Right have used red meat, Biblical literalism and oversimplifications to raise a political maelstrom of activism, as it appeals to their under educated and conservative demographics. Materialism and quest for power has been the drive of human progress and should be tapped, the authors state. But is there not a middle way, a way that can tap our primal need for competition, material gratification and power without destroying each other and the planet? Or is there a new, progressive socialism based on a cosmology of shared communion of a common origin and a creative, self-fulfilling future? This debate is core to what it means to be human on this planet.

They are right that the world is constantly changing, and that we are one with nature and product of it. Their argument is an important one, but the attack of the environmental community is alienating, as it is full of fallacious arguments. And is questionable whether they could have made their point without such libelous accusations against some of our planet’s most profoundly visionary and important activists and change leaders.