Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Long Death of Environmentalism

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger went to Yale last month, for a retrospective on their ideas about the "death of environmentalism." I spent a lot of time on their book in the early days of this blog, so I felt obligated to look pretty carefully at their current views.

There's a lot of cogent and provocative analysis here, obviously a challenge to greens to do some hard thinking about values, priorities and strategies. As a resident of the coal-dependent Midwest, I'm keenly aware of the hole we've dug for ourselves and what it's going to take to dig ourselves out.

But while I have a lot of misgivings about "An Inconvenient Truth," I can't tell whether Nordhaus and Shellenberger think Gore was substantively mistaken about the need to "change our lives" or whether they see it simply as a strategic error. Is Gore wrong to think we need to change, or is he wrong just in saying so out loud?

This matters because N & S--no doubt in the interest of being provocative--tend to reduce environmentalism to the issue of climate change, and then to find the key to climate change in energy policy. The policy debate then gets overshadowed by the need for pragmatic action. End result: the future lies with industrial agriculture and nuclear power--the only two substantive proposals I can find in N & S's 12 Theses.

In other words: if environmentalism isn't dead, it should prove it by committing suicide. Give up your fantasies about protecting nature. Oh, and don't worry, be happy. :-) Is that the sort of "breakthrough" N & S are looking for?

N & S are certainly right to emphasize that the link between science and policy is immensely problematic, with no direct lines to be drawn. And I'm sure that grass-roots greens are at fault for harboring naive views about the scale and pace of any transition to a post-carbon economy. But I wonder whether N & S are not unnecessarily narrowing the argument, and sacrificing the trees in the name of a global view of "forest strategy."

"System justification" can be a useful concept, but it has a functionalist bias and shouldn't be used to discredit politics. Look around: lots of people are talking about change, and about how other people are afraid of change. We disagree about what needs to change, and why, but one way or another, it's happening.