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No breakthroughs here: A review of Break Through, by Nordhaus and Shellenberger

Posted by Rich Sweeney on March 1, 2008

I started off taking a lot of notes while reading this book, with the intention of writing a comprehensive review for CT. But as I got further along, I realized that no major insight or concrete ideas were coming, and by the end I basically wished I could have those 7 hours of my life back. What follows is a brief summary of my thoughts.

In 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published an essay called “The Death of Environmentalism.” In it they argued that the political language and tools which served as the cornerstone of the environmental movement since the ‘60s were insufficient to tackle a problem as large and complicated as global warming. More specifically, they claimed that environmentalists defined their causes too narrowly and ignored the interplay between these issues and more general human wants and aspirations. Break Through builds on this diagnosis by suggesting a way forward and promoting a new way of thinking about global warming specifically, and politics more generally. This new way of thinking recognizes that environmental concerns are post-material, and must therefore be promoted by addressing material concerns on the lower end of society, and tied more concretely to post-material desires on the higher end.

While the authors make a lot of good individual points, I found the overall argument unconvincing and uninspiring. Most of the meat of the book deals with tearing down seemingly marginal boogey men, from “anti-choice liberals” to environmental justice attorneys to the Cape Wind detractors. While some of these individual gripes are compelling, their link to the greater dilemma is tenuous at best. Moreover, in drawing lessons from these idiosyncratic examples to make their case, the authors consistently gloss over the real complexities which define the larger issues. Perhaps the most interesting section of the book was on deforestation in Brazil. The authors describe how abject poverty and massive foreign debt combine to encourage Brazilians to pillage their forests. Yet while this helped to make their point about environmental concerns being post-material, Nordhaus and Shellenberger take this example as support for alleviating third world debt, as if that would simply solve the problem. Illegal logging and local corruption would still be profitable, and Brazilians would still be far from wealthy. Future borrowers would be punished unfairly and would face a conflicting set of financial and democratic incentives. This, in a nutshell, characterizes my main complaint about the book. In trying to make a nuanced point that is fundamentally about tone and rhetoric, they completely understate the real constraints and consequences at play.

I agree that fatalism is politically unhelpful, but Nordhaus and Shellenberger take optimism to an equally unhelpful extreme. This book is clearly the work of two dudes who have spent a lot of time studying surveys and demographics, and believe that marketing holds the key to harnessing human desires. Yet they seem to forget that at the end of the day marketing is more reflective then constructive. What people really respond to is incentives, and “limits”, for lack of a better term, are one of the best tools we have for shaping incentives. The authors deride Al Gore and his lot for their “failure of imagination”, but completely ignore how effective such campaigns have been in bringing climate change to people’s attention. In fact, Gore’s approach has arguably showed us that the opposite of Nordhaus & Schellenberger’s initial claim is true, that global warming is better suited to the politics of limits than previous environmental causes, not worse. Issues like arctic drilling and illegal fishing/ hunting are so site specific that most voters only encounter them in the abstract. Global warming on the other hand, impacts us all. The more people learn about this impact, the more they ask “what’s the limit?” It may not be sexy, but it works.

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