Do Progressives Have the Wrong Idea About Change?


Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have written a book -- Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) -- that challenges the way we are used to thinking about solving social problems. The conventional wisdom writ large, especially for progressives, is that when things are bad, people need to be scared into changing their habits, whether it is to protect the 50 million people who lack health care, or the behaviors that contribute to potential climate catastrophe. Most of us assume that we have severely limited resources, that growth is bad, and we need ever-increasing amounts of regulation to save the future.

In their book, Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest something very different. They argue strongly that scaring people is no way to make change. For example the 250 million people with health care will not be inclined to fight for those who don't have it, unless they feel confident in the future, and that the health system will improve for them too, since people don't want what exists to get worse in the process of expanding care.

The same for climate catastrophe: As Nordhaus and Shellenberger put it: "Cautionary tales and narratives of eco-apocalypse tend to provoke fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among voters -- not the rational embrace of environmental policies. This research is consistent with extensive social-science research that strongly correlates fear, rising insecurity, and pessimism about the future with resistance to change."

Furthermore, they strongly argue that an enormous investment in green technology, including huge commitments from the military, as in supporting the Internet and computer chips development, combined with unleashing the best of the American "can do" inventive energy is a much more viable approach than the technological fixes, caps on pollution, carbon trading, and all the strategies that put constraints on human activity. This is controversial approach to say the least, and one that flies in the face of much of what progressives have come to believe about growth and regulation.

Needless to say, in a world with enormous problems and challenges facing all of us, and the radically different worldviews that dramatically divide this country, considering new, provocative ideas can cause anxiety. Many simply want to get the bad guys out of power. But if and when that happens, we still need to figure out how to fix the massive array of problems ahead of us. That is Shellenberger and Nordhaus's point. The old ideas are not going to work. We need a new vision, and the authors are offering one, and stirring the pot in the process.

In the end, many readers may not agree with the Break Through thesis, but the ideas the authors present deserve discussion and debate. Progressives are stuck with a lot of conventional wisdom that has not led us to change and the success we need.

What follows is an essay from Nordhaus and Shellenberger, based upon ideas in their book, followed by commentary from writers with strong opinions on the book. A second article on AlterNet today is a review by environmental writer and leader Bill McKibben of Break Through and Bjorn Lomborg's Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming.

-- Don Hazen, Executive Editor

American Power: The Case for an Energetic New Progressive Politics
By Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger

Most progressives today are optimistic that, in 2008, Democrats will regain the White House and solidify their majority in Congress, largely on the basis of the country's anti-war sentiment alone. But down this path lies danger, for if Democrats fail to offer a vision for the future that is as large and positive as the war in Iraq is negative, we may take back the White House and Congress and fail to take back America.

A new politics should inspire Americans to grapple with certain existential questions: What kind of a country do we want? How can we achieve it? These questions implicitly contain a question about investment: how shall we invest our wealth and our labor?

With Iraq and the "war on terror," the conservative movement has defined American power as unilateral military force. Progressives have not yet offered a counter-argument and story about American greatness that is capable of challenging the (neo)conservative one.

A new story of American Power begins by acknowledging what our country is great at: imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future. First we dream -- and then we invent.

The time is ripe for progressives and environmentalists of all stripes to come together around American Power agenda for a major investment into clean energy. Not only is a large public investment crucial to bringing down the price of clean energy, an investment-centered agenda will serve the purpose of unifying Americans under a vision for energy independence and economic revitalization, one that will appeal to California and New England progressives and environmentalists and Midwestern Reagan Democrats alike.

Massive investments in clean energy offers a way of defining the source of American power around our capacity to dream better futures -- and invent our way out of crises. Oil-funded terrorism, global warming, economic insecurity -- these are challenges that America will overcome through our ingenuity and our capacity to reinvent ourselves every fifty years.

Given all this, it is more than a little ironic that one of the lobbies most standing in the way of this vision of investment-centered vision of American Power is the Washington, D.C.-based environmental establishment itself.

An investment-centered approach

Our new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, was born from an essay we wrote in 2004 about the politics of energy and global warming. Before we wrote that essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," the two of us had spent all of our professional careers, about thirty years between us, working for the country's largest environmental organizations and foundations, as well as many smaller grassroots ones. Like most of our colleagues, we tended to see global warming as a problem of pollution, whose solution would be found in pollution limits.

In 2003 we started to break away from the pollution and regulation framework. With a small group of others we created a proposal for a new Apollo project. We proposed a major investment in clean-energy jobs, research and development, infrastructure, and transit, with the goal of achieving energy independence. The political thinking was that this agenda would win over blue-collar and swing voters and Reagan Democrats in the presidential battleground states of the Midwest, and excite the high-tech creative class at the same time. And by putting serious public investment on the table-$300 billion over ten years-we hoped we could break through the logjam that had divided business, labor, and environmental groups for years.

But more than any short-term political calculation, Apollo, we hoped, would be the vehicle for telling a powerful new story about American greatness, invention, and moral purpose.

After we created the Apollo proposal, we did what new political coalitions on the left tend to do: round up endorsements from other groups. And while we succeeded in getting endorsements and letters of support for Apollo's principles from businesses, unions, and most of the large national environmental groups, we were baffled, and then angered, by what happened next.

Environmental lobbyists told us that while they supported Apollo's vision, they would do nothing to support it in concrete ways, either in Congress or during the 2004 elections. Those of us who had created Apollo had made the decision to focus on jobs and energy independence, because they were far higher priorities among voters than stopping global warming. In particular, we discovered that investment in clean-energy jobs, to get free of oil, was more popular with voters than talk of global warming, clean air, and regulation. But environmental leaders thought our nonenvironmental and nonregulatory focus was a vice, not a virtue.

Fearing that it would distract Democrats' attention away from stopping the George W. Bush administration's energy bill, which included billions in new subsidies for coal and oil, environmental leaders eventually asked us to keep Apollo legislation from being considered by Congress. Still the good soldiers, we did as we were asked, and Apollo was, briefly, withdrawn. But it hardly mattered: the Bush energy bill passed anyway.

Today, four years after we were told to withdraw legislation to invest $300 billion into a new Apollo project for clean energy, the demand for action on energy independence and global warming have only grown. And yet environmental leaders continue to deny the need for major new investments and insist that new pollution and efficiency regulations are all we need.

In September 2007, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute conducted a nationwide poll of likely voters on global warming and energy. What we found was that global warming continues to rank dead last as a concern for voters. The poll also tested public support for a variety of global warming policy prescriptions. The investment-centered "New Apollo" program received substantially more support than the regulation-centered alternatives (cap-and-trade and Sky Trust). After voters were told of the negative consequences of each program, Apollo was the only program to maintain majority support of the electorate.

The politics of limits

The consensus today among climate scientists is that U.S. emissions must be reduced 80 percent by 2050 if we are stabilize emissions and avoid catastrophic climate change. But current regulatory approaches will result in modest, not deep, reductions in carbon emissions. That's because there simply do not yet exist the low cost, low carbon technologies that could be quickly brought to scale to replace carbon intensive energy sources. It is true that some strategies for reducing emissions, such as efficiency and conservation, can be scaled up immediately. But disruptive technologies like solar and carbon capture and storage -- mass quantities of which will be required to deal with global warming -- are still far more expensive than coal and gas.

Environmentalists suggest that setting some pollution limits and a price for carbon will be enough to move gradually -- emissions reductions of just two percent per year -- to achieve 80 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the price of carbon would have to be set at exorbitant levels for today's clean energy alternatives to become cost-competitive with coal, especially in China and the developing world, which will contribute 70 percent of new emissions between now and the middle of the century. And if action on global warming depends on voters and politicians accepting higher energy prices, there will -- as we have seen -- be very little action on global warming.

Recognizing that voters care more about the cost of energy than global warming, the policies under consideration in Congress would limit pollution so little that the price for carbon would be very low, around $7 to $10 per ton. At that price, firms required to reduce their emissions will invest in the least expensive emissions reductions possible, such as burning methane from landfills, purchasing forest land for carbon sequestration, shifting from coal to natural gas, or retrofitting power plants and buildings so they operate more efficiently. Private investment would not, for the most part, go to technologies like low-cost solar energy and carbon capture and storage, which are required to displace coal-based energy.

Meanwhile, China and India long ago rejected any approach to addressing climate change that would constrain their greenhouse gas emissions or their economic growth. For years, energy experts had expected that China would overtake the United States as the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter by 2025. It turns out that China will gain that distinction by the end of this year. The governments and the people of China and India are increasingly concerned about global warming, to be sure, but they are far more motivated by economic development, and to the extent that the battle against global warming is fought in terms of ecological limits rather than economic possibility, there's little doubt which path these countries will take.

The only way the Chinese government will be able to substantially reduce its emissions is if the price of clean energy and carbon capture technologies come down enough to get within striking distance of the price of fossil fuels.

The dramatic and rapid breakthroughs in price and performance that we need will not be primarily driven by the private sector. Private firms will play an important role in bringing new technologies to market -- and carbon pricing will play an important role in making market conditions more amenable to clean energy technologies. However, private firms will not make the large, long-term investments in R&D and deployment, nor can they create the public infrastructure (e.g., new transmission lines bringing wind power from rural areas to cities) needed for the new energy economy.

Given all of this, it's odd that environmentalists ever viewed global warming as fundamentally similar problem to things like smog in L.A., acid rain, and the hole in the ozone, much less one that won't be hard to fix. Granted, both problems are consequences of human pollution. But whereas dealing with the ozone hole required a simple, inexpensive chemical substitute, global warming demands a totally different way of producing energy. We were able to fight smog without replacing oil. We dealt with acid rain without dismantling our power plants. And we will phase out ozone-depleting chemicals without affecting any of our energy sources. But to deal with global warming, we will need an almost entirely new energy infrastructure -- one that will first require the creation of an almost entirely new politics.

American power

In the dark depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt became a radical experimentalist, inventing various New Deal programs to overcome hunger and joblessness. During World War II, America defeated fascism as much through our ingenuity and manufacturing muscle as through our fighting GIs. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Defense Department made a series of large and strategic investments to create the Internet, and it guaranteed the market for microchips, thereby creating the conditions for the electronics and information revolutions.

Today we launch a new campaign called "American Power," one aimed at persuading Congress to generate the $30 billion annual investment we need to make clean energy as cheap as possible, as quickly as possible. American Power will provide a vital peacetime role for the military. Just as the Department of Defense guaranteed the nascent market for silicon microchips in the 1960s, bringing the price down from $1,000 to $20 per chip in just a few years, the Pentagon must today do the same with silicon solar panels.

There are no silver bullets when it comes to energy, but solar panels, like microchips, have their own kind of "Moore's Law": the price of solar comes down roughly 20 percent every time production capacity is doubled. Experts say that for a total cost of $50 to $200 billion, we could bring solar panels down to the price of natural gas or even goal. It might be the best $200 billion ever spent by the U.S. military.

Our new book, Break Through, is a call for a new positive politics, one that puts a vision of a better world -- not ecological apocalypse with its view of humankind's sins against nature -- at the center. At the very moment when we find ourselves facing new problems, new social and economic forces are emerging to confront them. Internet-empowered grassroots activists, high-tech entreprenuers, and the new creative class may become the force behind a new politics of possibility.

Policy-wise, we should make big investments into clean energy and take action to restrict greenhouse gases. But in our politics -- and our vision for the future -- we will be in a far stronger position if we put this energetic definition of American Power at the center.

Only time will tell whether Washington-based environmental groups will ever come around to this new, investment-centered agenda. The first test could arrive as early as next month. That's when Congress may take up global warming legislation. What matters most about the legislation under consideration is how much money it will raise for investments into clean energy.

But this isn't just about what we do over the next several months. It's about the politics we need for the next several decades. What's needed isn't so much a new policy or a new message but rather a new movement, one that embraces human power and ingenuity and public investment and puts these forces to work to creating a new energy economy and a more prosperous, secure world.

The good news is that, at the very moment when we find ourselves facing new problems, from global warming to the insecurity born from globalization, new social and economic forces are emerging to overcome them. High-tech businesses and creative "knowledge workers" may become a political force for big clean energy investments. And Democrats and progressives, looking for a positive vision every bit as big and bold as the war in Iraq is negative and awful, could put this new vision of American power to work for the good of the world.

Comments on "Break Through" from Chris Mooney's De-Smog Blog.

You probably heard already: The "Death of Environmentalism" guys are back, once again explaining the follies of the green movement.

Their new book, Break Through, has created a lot of chatter with its argument that enviros are too darn pessimistic, and repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot with command-and-control regulatory thinking and doom and gloom talking.

I decided to check out the Cliff notes version of Break Through -- published in article/excerpt form recently in The New Republic. What I read was both quite sophisticated and yet, at the same time, a bit grating. You see, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are really arguing against a state of mind, a zeitgeist even, rather than anything very specific. Which is fine -- especially if you attack the right zeitgeist (which they do). The approach, however, allows them simultaneously to rebuke greens and yet also outline a clean energy policy agenda that most environmentalists--at least as I understand the term -- would probably agree with.

It's a matter of emphasis, really. It's a matter of framing.

And indeed, it's on the subject of framing environmental messages where Nordhaus and Shellenberger make their most resonant point. Let's say it again: Doom and gloom = bad messaging. This is not exactly a new observation, and it happens to be grounded in tons of social science research and public opinion data. As American University professor Matthew Nisbet and I have argued repeatedly, you don't want to frame global warming as a "Pandora's Box" of untold catastrophes. Not only does this lead to a temptation to oversell the science about many still uncertain climate impacts. It also makes people feel helpless, or worse. As Nordhaus and Shellenberger put it:

"Cautionary tales and narratives of eco-apocalypse tend to provoke fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among voters -- not the rational embrace of environmental policies. This research is consistent with extensive social-science research that strongly correlates fear, rising insecurity, and pessimism about the future with resistance to change."
So how do you frame environmental issues? Well, for one thing, you use optimism -- and a sense of can-do spirit--to your advantage. You don't tell people that the world is going to end, or that they're going to be poorer; rather, you tell them there are economic opportunities lying in wait if we address global warming. And then they’re more inclined to listen. Indeed, I would argue that if there's one central reason the climate issue has shifted of late, it's that many energy and transportation industry companies are changing their tune and waking up to the fact that they will still be making money -- and perhaps even more of it -- in a post-carbon world.

Not only do Nordhaus and Shellenberger get the central global warming message right -- they go farther with detailed policy prescriptions. The bulk of their New Republic article explains why we must invest massively in new clean energy innovations, instead of just emphasizing caps on pollution all the time. After all, the latter strategy quickly and inevitably leads to counter-charges about wrecking the economy and keeping people poor -- and suddenly we find economics cutting against environmental interests, rather than working in their favor.

My main problem with this line of argument is that I don't disagree with it -- which is precisely the point. I mean, does anyone deny that global warming is fundamentally an energy problem, and that solving it will necessitate bringing online innovative new technologies that let us power our societies in a way that's both cheaper and cleaner?

Note by Don Hazen on a recent review of Break Through from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Robert Collier, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, and now a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley's Center for Environmental Public Policy, reviewed Break Through along with Global Warming denier Bjorn Lomborg's book, Cool It, this Sunday.

Collier's review is quite bizarre. Collier tries to equate Break Through with the highly discredited work of Lomborg. Collier writes, "Like [Danish writer Bjorn] Lomborg, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that global warming is nothing to be much afraid of." and that " Translated into plain English," the Shellenberger/Nordhaus book is "essentially a repeat of conservatives' hoary old line that environmentalists are a bunch of rich, secular, tree-hugging snobs. ..."

I'm not sure what book Collier read, but Nordhaus and Shellenberger are not remotely global warming deniers. They describe the climate future as an "existential" threat to human civilization.'" And that "global warming will likely trigger droughts, water scarcities, and famines." And: "Over the next fifty years, if we continue to burn as much coal and oil as we've been burning, the heating of the earth will cause the sea levels to rise and the Amazon to collapse and, according to scenarios commissioned by the Pentagon, will trigger a series of wars over basic resources like food and water."

Collier writes that the Nordhaus/Shellenberger book, along with Lonmborg's book, "serve as talking-point summaries for those who want to defend the status quo of American energy-guzzling lifestyles." This is in contrast to the authors essential argument in the book is that after one's basic needs are met, greater consumption (including "energy-guzzling") is unnecessary."

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