Is the Environmental Movement on the Wrong Track?

Editor's Note: Below is a review by David Morris of the book, Break Through by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. In the spirit of debate, following the review is a response from the authors and a rebuttal from Morris.

In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger tossed a stink bomb into the normally collegial annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association in the form of a jeremiad against the premises and strategies of the environmental movement, The Death of Environmentalism. The succeeding months witnessed a spirited and often heated back and forth between the authors and environmental leaders.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger's new book, Breakthrough (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), offers up the same thesis in much greater detail and broadens its condemnation to liberals in general. The title implies a radically new way of thinking and acting. Yet the thesis and the supporting arguments have been championed for decades by conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Hudson Institute.

Let me summarize their points. The rapid economic growth from 1950 to 1970 satisfied Americans' material needs, allowing us to move up the Maslowian hierarchy and pursue more psychological and aesthetic needs. Environmental activism did not bring us environmental legislation. Prosperity did. Environmental activism won't bring the poor here or abroad into the environmental fold. They have more pressing needs. Developing countries cannot pursue environmental objectives until they have become prosperous.

Thus economic growth should be environmentalists' and liberals' (the authors appear to view both with equal disdain) No. 1, and perhaps No. 2 and No. 3, concern. "Muscular investment" is the key to successfully confronting the qualitatively new issue of global warming rather than environmentalists' traditional reliance on "pollution and regulation." Muscular private investment depends on muscular public investment. The authors propose a 10-year, $300 billion public investment strategy. Such a strategy would enable environmentalists to build politically effective coalitions with business and labor. It is this last point, the need for massive public investment, that would lead conservatives to part company with the authors.

Is the politics of hope hopeful?

I'll take on the authors' arguments head on a bit later, but let me offer a few impressions upfront. The book declares that it is a message of hope and optimism, compared to the environmentalists' drearily and often counterproductive pessimism. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are certainly right to criticize environmentalists for their emphasis on the negative. But to me the authors' key assumptions are at least as sobering.

They espouse that activism is not the key to social or economic change. Regulation, at least in addressing climate change, is ineffective. The very idea of protecting nature is itself not useful: "Nature can neither instruct our actions nor punish them," they write. Science cannot guide us to the truth. Strong communities are not advantageous. Place-based strategies are wrongheaded.

Indeed, the authors seem to rule out as unhelpful or counterproductive any strategy other than massively bribing the private sector to do the right thing. They call this a paradigm shift. I call it business as usual.

Sometimes the authors seem to go out of their way to provoke. Their style of naming names and taking no prisoners is probably what led to the widespread comment on their original brief. This book is littered with statements that seem, at best, defiant, and at worst, downright bizarre. Here's a sampling.

  • 1. Cities "are as organic and natural as forests."(their emphasis)

  • 2. "And throughout the animal kingdom there was murder and gang rape -- even among the much beloved and anthropomorphized dolphins -- activities that hardly qualify as harmonious."

  • 3. "Saving the redwoods and banning DDT were no less acts of controlling nature than were logging ancient forest and spraying toxic pesticides."

  • 4. "'Medicare for all' might have made good sense to Americans in the l950s and l960s, when Medicare was first established, but it holds far less allure today."

  • 5. Brazil "simply doesn't have the resources to eliminate slavery."

  • 6. "To declare oneself as pro-globalization or as a free trader is as meaningless as declaring oneself anti-globalization, anti-corporate, or in favor of fair trade."

  • 7. "... Darwin showed humans to be as much a part of the earth as a redwood tree, or a hurricane ..."

Five arguments, five responses

And now, to the authors' key points.

1. "Nothing is more central to this book than our contention that, for any politics to succeed, it must swim with, not against, the currents of changing social values."

Given the arc of politics and society in the United States from 1970 to 2007, this is a perplexing assertion. Conservatives have been wildly successful with a strategy that directly contradicts the authors' proposition, that is, a strategy running against the currents of changing social values. As William Buckley Jr., himself, leader of the emerging conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s and a major architect of their narrative, proudly declares, "A conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling 'Stop!'" Of course, conservatives didn't, and couldn't, stop history. They have, however, effectively reversed, a number of historical trends.

Swimming with the currents is, of course, much easier. And as the river banks move quickly by, you might have the sensation of making rapid progress. But that is only if the stream is moving in the right direction.

In any event, one might argue that the challenge before us is not to swim against or with the current, but to build another path for the river and move it in that direction.

2. Rising prosperity, not activism, led to the environmental and liberal victories of the 1960s and 1970s.

For some reason, the authors propose that affluence brought us not only environmental legislation but also civil rights. "Black Americans, who had long been excluded from the economy and society, were finally wealthy enough to demand their higher needs for their political and civil rights, and white Americans were finally secure enough to grant and even fight for them."

Most historians would argue that World War II, not rising affluence, galvanized the modern civil rights movement. Having fought and died to defend American freedoms, blacks returned to a society that continued to disrespect and humiliate them. As for the argument that an affluent America was secure enough to extend a welcoming hand to blacks, need I review the decade and more of blood, sweat and tears given by thousands of non-affluent blacks fighting for their rights?

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was, for the Democratic Party, an act of supreme political courage. As President Lyndon Johnson famously and presciently told his young aide, Bill Moyers. "I think we've just delivered the south to the Republican Party for the rest of my life and yours." The Democratic Party's decision on integration led the south to go solidly Republican. The result was the takeover of the Republican Party and Washington by conservatives.

As for environmentalism, even the authors seem ambivalent about the role of affluence. They cite the finding of a 2005 survey that 79 percent of Americans interviewed favor "stronger national standards to protect our land, air and water." But they also note that when pollsters asked (and ask) voters to rank issues in terms of their importance, "the environment almost always came in last."

So we might rephrase the relationship of affluence to environmentalism. Affluence makes people open to environment legislation, but it doesn't move them to view it as a priority. Only sustained and effective activism can translate lukewarm support into legislative and regulatory victories. Another important lesson, explored in more detail in a moment, is that the New Deal policies showed that government could be an effective and responsive force for good. By the 1960s the vast majority of Americans trusted the government, and that trust probably laid the groundwork for governmental efforts in the environmental sector.

3. "The politics born of material poverty cannot speak to post-material insecurity."

For Nordhaus and Shellenberger, it is a crucial fact that between 1945 and 1973 America became affluent and middle class. Yet they devote but one paragraph to the process by which that occurred, noting simply that in 1932 Americans suffered true material deprivation, but by 1946 they "were arguably the happiest they ever have been. A powerful feeling of solidarity pervaded American society."

The authors declare that the politics born of material poverty are not useful in an age of post-material insecurity. But they never explain what the politics born of material poverty consisted of and why they were successful.

Recently, I had the pleasure of having a conversation with Paul Krugman about his new book, The Conscience of a Liberal, before an audience of 1,000 in Minneapolis. Much of that book might be viewed as an empirical rebuttal of this central thesis of Nordhaus and Shellenberger.

As Krugman argues, the prosperity and solidarity of the 1950s and 1960s were largely a result of the federal government changing the rules, which in turn altered a 50-year social dynamic toward inequality and material deprivation. The strategy had three central elements. One was to literally make the rich much less rich. The New Deal doubled the tax rate on the very wealthy, raising it to 70 percent, which compressed the distance between rich and poor. The second was to establish a major and ongoing politically powerful constituency that spoke for social programs that helped labor and the poor. This was achieved by establishing rules that enabled and encouraged a sixfold increase in union membership in 10 years. The third element was the use of the National War Labor Board to reduce the inequality of wages within companies.

The result was not only affluence, but also an optimistic society that for a generation trusted government to work effectively and without corruption on behalf of the society as a whole. Support for New Deal policies far outlived the New Deal itself. Indeed, it was a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who raised the tax rate on the very rich even further, from 70 percent to an all-time high of 91 percent.

By the 1950s the conventional wisdom of the 1920s had become, to major Americans, the ravings of lunatics. "Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs you would not hear of that party again in our political history," Eisenhower wrote to his brother Edgar in 1954. "There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

This was the "politics born of material poverty." Is the politics of equalitarianism and solidarity and aggressive government intervention useful in addressing problems in an era of "post-material insecurity"? Since Nordhaus and Shellenberger do not explain what they mean by the politics born of material poverty, they can't satisfyingly explain why it is not relevant to the current era.

There is another problem with their narrative and that is their definition of post-materialism. Sometimes they call the new insecurity, "economic insecurity." Sometimes they call it "insecure affluence." In one place they assert, "Meeting one's material needs entails meeting one's basic survival needs for food, shelter and physical security. By this standard, virtually every American today has more than met his or her material needs and is a post-materialist." "When Americans today fear for their economic lives, what they fear is not starvation or dying from lack of medical treatment but rather losing their status, their community and their quality of life."

In another place the authors note most of us have become poorer since 1973. And they concede that our rising economic insecurity might be returning us to "survival values" characterized by "fatalism and everyday rage" and a society less supportive of openness and tolerance and democracy itself, away from the "fulfillment values" that are central to the book's argument.

In any event, it is never clear why New Deal thinking and strategies are inappropriate for today. The outlines of the new strategy the authors discuss are certainly different from the New Deal in that the authors focus on the individual, not the community. But it is unclear how effective this would be.

For example, the authors criticize liberals for focusing on universal healthcare. They chide liberals for talking to the 250 million Americans who have insurance about the 50 million who do not. (They might not have seen Michael Moore's movie, which is entirely about the tragic state of those WITH health insurance.) They argue that liberals should instead focus on reducing the costs of healthcare insurance for the currently insured. Only when the insured are satisfied with their healthcare will they support a program to extend medical care to the uninsured.

The authors eschew strategies that talk about the common good. "Americans today aspire as much to uncommon greatness as they do to the common good. They aspire to be unique, not common," they note. "None of this undermines empathy, compassion or generosity. On the contrary, it is only when people are feeling in control, secure and free to create their lives that they behave expansively and generously toward the collective."

These are counterintuitive statements. One would think that when the majority is satisfied with the services they get, it would undermine their motivation to fight hard for extending those services to the minority. As for prosperity leading to generosity, one need only ask waiters and waitresses whether their wealthy or their working-class customers tip them more. Even at the height of American's affluence in the 1970s, we were far, far down on the list of countries most generous in aiding poorer nations.

4. "Why do Democrats continue to put policies like minimum wage increase and carbon caps rather than muscular investments at the top of their agendas?" "(R)egulation cannot be the sole policy egg in the global warming basket, for without investments to encourage technological breakthroughs, we won't come close to achieving the emissions reductions we need to stabilize the climate."

The authors consistently counterpose regulation and investment, arguing that investment is more effective than regulation. But regulation drives investment. The phaseout of lead and chlorofluorocarbons, the tripling of refrigerator efficiency, the recent renewable electricity mandates, have encouraged tens of billions of dollars in private investment. And when it comes to regulation, history shows, mandates are far more effective than financial incentives.

The authors themselves seem ambivalent about this issue. They come in like a lion, chiding liberals for embracing "small, incremental policies" such as "caps on carbon emissions" rather than "muscular investment." And go out like a lamb by declaring, "'cap and trade' -- could if done right, generate billions of dollars in private investment for cleaner sources of energy. As such, it offers one of the best opportunities for environmentalism to evolve into a politics of possibility."

As for the authors' faith that throwing immense sums of money at private companies will get us where we want to go, I offer two objections. First, public investment, as history advises us, rarely is spent along the lines we would like. In any feeding frenzy in Washington, the existing large industries will eat first. Look at the draft energy bill in Congress today. It intends to spend sums of money that are at least in the ballpark of the investment strategy proposed by Nordhaus and Shellenberger. But the amount spent on nuclear and clean coal far exceed the amount spent on renewables and efficiency.

Second, public R&D investment, history again teaches us, is usually spent ineffectively. This might not have been the case in the U.S. Department of Agriculture up to 1980, when any knowledge developed with public money was available to the public free of charge. But post-l980, all federal R&D money goes to private companies who own the intellectual property. Public spending on energy R&D has produced few clear successes. The authors point to the Pentagon's spending on transistors and integrated circuits and the internet as successes, and they were. But these were examples of where the military had an internal need for hardware and software that would enable mobile lightweight communication equipment, intercontinental ballistic missiles and a nuclear-proof communication network. And where budgets had no ceiling. Even a climate-change investment strategy would have a clear budget and must develop a far broader range of technologies, virtually none of which has direct military applications.

Public investment might be a useful component of a climate-change strategy. But there's little justification in thinking that it should be the exclusive or even primary focus. Over the last 25 years, worldwide public R&D spending on energy has dropped by 40 percent. During that period renewable energy technologies have grown from a cottage industry to a mighty industrial sector that has a real seat at the energy policy table.

The government should establish the rules that channel human genius and investment capital in directions that achieve our goals. At that point, the marketplace and entrepreneurial energies can and should take over.

5. "In the end, place-based campaigns are simply a neutral tactic, one that can be turned against wind farms as easily as against coal-fired power plants." "We no longer believe it is justified to confine our affections to or reserve our loyalties for a particular race. Why, then, do we believe we are justified in reserving our loyalties for a particular place?"

For the authors, place-based organizing is inappropriate. The title of one of their chapters says it all. "The Prejudice of Place." The authors oppose communities with strong internal bonds. Certainly strong, tightly-knit communities are parochial and resistant to change. But they are also places of mutual aid and watchful eyes that establish and maintain the social mores.

And it is social mores that we need to change. As Willie Nelson says, referring to the motto of a military police friend of his, "Patrol your own area." We need to persuade communities to patrol their own area in an era of climate change. We can do this, to take a page from the author's playbook, by accentuating the positive because most of the solutions to climate change -- improved efficiency, renewable fuels -- will benefit communities. Biking, walking, backyard geothermal, rooftop solar cells, regional wind energy and biofuels, not only help reduce global warming but make households and communities more independent for remote fuels and suppliers.

The authors' aversion to place seems less than absolute. They vigorously support one of the most place-based of all institutions, the church. They fondly quote the Rev. Rick Warren about how this place-based institution could become a powerful and effective global network for positive change. "The biggest distribution network in the world is local churches," says Warren. "Put together they could be a force for good."

One of the reasons that communities tend to be irresponsible when it comes to larger environmental issues is that they do not have the authority to deal with larger environmental issues. I would argue that the marriage of authority with responsibility at the community level could be a major factor in reducing global warming.

Consider how Michigan approached the problem. In this case the problem was the tsunami of wastes from Michigan's households and businesses that was overwhelming their landfill capacity. In a classic example of the NIMBYism that Nordhaus and Shellenberger decry, communities fought against any new landfill. In response, in the early 1980s the state legislature passed a law requiring every county to develop a solid-waste reduction plan and an in-county landfill sufficient to store the area's remaining solid wastes. In return for requiring its counties to accept responsibility for the environmental impact of their consumption habits, Michigan granted them the authority to prohibit out-of-county and out-of-state wastes from being dumped in their landfills.

The coherence of this legislation, tragically, was ended when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law as an interference with interstate commerce. As a result, counties could still be required to build in-county landfills, but they could not be given the authority to prevent outside waste from coming in. Which meant that maximizing recycling and reuse by the county didn't necessarily extend the life of the landfill because imported waste would fill it up.

As we say at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's New Rules Project, "We make the rules and the rules make us." Whether it is solid waste, renewables, job creation, healthcare, or global warming, the rules we create will make all the difference. And strengthening and empowering communities can be an important objective of the new rules.

All in all, after reading this book, I wondered, in the words of an old TV ad line, "Where's the beef?" The authors' desire for public investment in renewable energy and higher efficiency is an arguably reasonable piece of an overall strategy to battle global warming. But why do they need to make it by bludgeoning their natural allies and embracing the arguments of their natural enemies?


Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger Respond

Few things annoy sixties-era progressives more than when you accuse them of misunderstanding their own history. At least that's one of the lessons we've learned in the almost two months since the release of our new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin 2007).

David Morris complains about the way our book diverges from the conventional story about the New Deal and post-war era. The civil rights movement, he argues, was born from the anger of African Americans who fought for freedom during World War II and returned to segregation in the U.S. Conservatives succeeded in the seventies and eighties, he says, by opposing changing values, not embracing them. And it is the poor in worsening conditions, not the middle-class in improving conditions, who are more altruistic, generous (and, apparently, better tippers).

In short, Morris resists the well-established connection between prosperity and moral progress. He claims that "World War II, not rising affluence, galvanized the modern civil rights movement." The effect of fighting for freedom abroad and being denied it back home no doubt had a huge impact on black G.I.s. But the widespread struggle for desegregation didn't get started until almost 10 years after the end of World War II. The Montgomery Bus Boycott began in December 1955. One reason so many African Americans and whites alike had the courage to stand up against desegregation was because rising wages had empowered them. There's little doubt that the war played a role, but if Americans had slipped back into another Great Depression there's also little doubt that blacks would have been more quiescent and whites less receptive to desegregation.

Morris points out -- melodramatically -- that poor blacks also fought for civil rights, something we would never deny. But he ignores that the movement was instigated and led by the middle and upper-middle classes. Martin Luther King, Jr. came from a family of preachers and earned his Ph.D from Boston University. The first black anti-desegregation youth leaders were upper-middle class football stars and beauty queens.

Beyond civil rights, consider that: the first feminist leaders were middle to upper class intellectuals -- not maids and waitresses; the first environmental leaders were Ivy League graduates -- not factory workers; and the first gay rights leaders were intellectuals, artists, and professionals -- not rednecks in Kansas.

There are no iron laws of history, but rising prosperity and optimism about the future are strongly correlated with greater altruism, generosity, and progressive social change. Thus, it is the highly empowered -- not the down and out -- who tend to start social movements.

Why does all of this matter? Because those who do not understand history try to repeat it. Morris wants another New Deal. But people are not standing in bread lines and obesity is a greater threat than hunger. We certainly still need government -- we just need it to do different things -- and do them differently -- than in the thirties and sixties.

Morris imagines that conservatives swam against and changed American social values. In fact, modern conservatism, like liberalism before it, emerged from changing American social values. Americans became both more affluent and more insecure through the 1970's, 80's, and 90's. The rise of insecure affluence, and the combination of materialistic, status-oriented, survival values that rose with it, created a social and cultural environment that suited conservatives well. Liberals didn't move on from their New Deal poverty-focused politics and became increasingly unable to speak to the needs and values of the aspirational middle class.

Break Through is as much about contingency as history. At the level of history, we must recognize that America has changed since the 1930's and the 1960's. The vast majority of Americans are rich, not poor -- and powerful, not victims.

At the level of contingency, we must stop scaring Americans with forecasts of economic scarcity and ecological apocalypse in a counterproductive effort to motivate them politically. We must articulate a vision of the future that is every bit as bright as the present situation is dark. And must celebrate the great accomplishments of 20th century liberalism -- and then move on.


David Morris Responds

Since the authors don't mention it in their response, readers should be reminded of their central proposition: the only effective strategy for dealing with modern environmental problems is for governments to give corporations enormous sums to do the right thing. Their virtual dismissal of other government strategies (e.g. regulation) leads them to take on the entire notion of governmental effectiveness, which in turn leads them to take on the New Deal, which is synonymous with activist government.

In the book and in their response, the authors declare New Deal principles and policies inappropriate in 2007. Astonishingly, the book never actually describes these principles or policies. They simply ask us to trust their simple argument. We are no longer suffering a convulsive economic depression, therefore New Deal thinking is inappropriate.

This is frustrating. For the sake of my rebuttal, let me go beyond my review and list what most of us would consider key elements of the New Deal.

The centerpiece was a belief that an unfettered free market doesn't work in the public interest and a confidence that government intervention could promote growth while stabilizing economies and making them more transparent and equitable. Key measures included: regulating and monitoring the financial sector to prevent fraud and excessive speculation; protecting small depositors through deposit insurance; offering fixed rate long term mortgages to facilitate home ownership; protecting the right of workers to organize into unions; creating social security for the elderly; massively investing in public infrastructure.

The economic and social conditions today certainly are dramatically different than they were in 1933. But that per se wouldn't rule out New Deal-like strategies. Indeed, a survey of the US circa 2007 might lead many to conclude that now more than ever we need New Deal thinking.

The authors' second key assertion is that almost all of the good things that have occurred in the last 40 years have happened not because of government intervention but because of economic growth and increased wealth. Increased wealth makes us more generous and more tolerant.

Increased wealth unquestionably offers us the capacity to be more generous. But there is little historical evidence that it actually makes us more generous. Per capita income grew only slightly slower between 1890 and 1929 than it did during what the authors' view as the golden age of 1950-1973, but no one would call the 1920s an era of generosity and tolerance. Per capita income dropped significantly in the l930s but, through government actions, one could argue that decade was the most generous (although not the most tolerant) in our nation's history.

Consider that in 1948, a desperately poor England introduced universal health care. In1948, the US, the world's richest nation, rejected universal healthcare.

Which brings us back to the authors' preferred strategy. Bribes not mandates. The authors insist that today an effort to effect universal health care is inappropriate, and an effort to compel car companies to build more efficient cars is inappropriate. Instead they recommend we pay the multi-billion dollar health insurance premiums of car companies in return for their improving the efficiency of their vehicles.

That in a nutshell, is their breakthrough.

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