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Daniel Clark Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Break Through is many things. It's another book about global warming. It's a liberal critique of environmentalism, and of today's liberalism in general. It's a proposal for new forms of environmentalism and liberalism. It's a philosophical treatise on Nature and the Self. And it's a rallying cry for a certain class of Americans to recognize their existence as a class, and to band together in a new force for the future evolution of humanity. The goal is ambitious: to create a political movement that grows out of a community with shared values. The values Nordhaus and Shellenberger espouse might be summed up as ecohumanism. Humanism is many things, too, varying according the intent of the one professing it. But its most widely accepted position is that morality is inherent in each human, and does not need to be received from a transcendent source. A corollary is humanism's respect for reason as the proper avenue for approaching the truth. Humanists are rationalists. Prominent humanists have included Protagoras, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Singer, and Gloria Steinem. EcoHumanism is a term that's been used by a few scholars lately. Protagoras declared that "man is the measure of all things," and ecologists have suspected humanists of being anthropocentric - a major transgression. To tailor their convictions to fit the cosmocentrism of the age, some humanists have pronounced themselves ecohumanists. Nordhaus and Shellenberger don't use the term. Nor do they refer to humanism itself. They consider themselves to be pragmatists. But when they wax philosophical, they are also ecohumanists. In their comments about this book, others have chosen to focus on the authors' proposals for Federal energy policy. On the Gristmill blog and elsewhere, long discussions have ensued on emissions trading, 30 billion dollars, and so on. I'm grateful that so many people so much more qualified than I are tackling these practical issues. I'm grateful, too,
because it appears the theoretical arena is left wide open for me to play ball in. Positive visions - affirmations of prosperity and inventiveness - abound here. Nordhaus and Shellenberger present "an imaginative, aspirational, and future-oriented" (p. 2) approach to topics that often evoke a "doomsday discourse." (p. 2) They make a convincing case for a new style of environmental politics. It is true that so much of it up to now has been pretty glum. Scare tactics and quasi-religious Jeremiads from atop moralistic mountains have been the standard. The authors point out that making the public fearful tends to achieve the wrong result. Fear of social instability and fear of death freeze up people and prevent them from changing the way they think. A fearful public is also susceptible to the enticements of strong-arm dictators. Thus, we get the post-9/11 acquiescence to the actions of George W. Bush. They argue that prosperity must precede environmental action. In their chapter on the Brazilian situation, they make it clear that Brazil's poverty, and their government's opening up the Amazon region for development to deal with the poverty, caused the destruction unfolding there. Furthermore, agencies from more wealthy countries, trying to make the Amazon their own international project, offend the dignity of Brazilians, most of whom are far more concerned about where their next meal is coming from. Therefore a successful program to alleviate ecological disruptions must be predicated on economic growth for the human population. In contrast to those who say things have to get worse before they get better, Nordhaus and Shellenberger propose that "things have to get better before they can get better." (p. 36) I was really pleased to see them refusing to rely on the undefineable concepts of "Nature," "natural," and "unnatural" as ethical or political guideposts. Some years ago, on a deep ecology listserv, I expressed my own disenchantment with those terms. My answer was to refer to "the world," "the creation," "atoms-and-space," "the material world," "the animal-vegetable-mineral world," "the cosmos," "the
universe," "the totality," or maybe "everything" - anything to avoid those loaded "Nature"-based words. Nordhaus and Shellenberger agree that we shouldn't make a distinction between us and That, which is what the word "Nature" is all about. They could quote the Hindu aphorism tat tvam asi - That Is You. On the other hand, they don't stop using the N word. If they can't replace it with something better, then a doubt creeps in: have they really gone beyond that limiting factor? Well, they have their own concern: "to imagine Nature as essentially harmonious is to ignore the obvious and overwhelming evidence of Nature's disharmony." (p. 144) Sounds good at first. But wait. Environmentalists don't say nature is harmonious. (Anyway, one thing can't be harmonious. You have to have two or more.) And they certainly don't say that nature should harmonize with us. Environmentalists say humans should harmonize with nature. Some want a radical-wilderness way of life, others, most of them, simply want to minimize the dissonances. It may be true that many have gazed back at a putative golden age in the past when humans supposedly lived in harmony with nature. Well, that's wishful thinking. But I doubt any ecologist was ever unaware of the pain caused to humans by what we call "natural disasters." There can be no doubt about the intensity of the authors' feelings on this topic. The two ecohumanists protest strongly against the existence of a monolithic, unitary, capital-lettered Nature. "The way environmentalists think of Nature is as metaphysical - and as authoritarian - as the way monotheists think of God." (p. 141) And, "What use is there in referring to what Nature wants, other than as a strategy to short-circuit democratic politics by asserting authority from a higher power?" (p. 144) And higher people, too - they decry "claims to privileged knowledge and authority" (p. 145) by those who claim to hear the voice of Nature and speak on its behalf. They would change the upper case first letters of certain troublesome nouns and make them plural: Nature becomes natures, Science becomes sciences. "We are Nature and Nature is us," (p. 143) they boldly declare. Do they mean we are part of...That, or do they mean "man is the measure of all things?" They really
snuggle up against anthropocentrism when they go on to say, "Whatever actions we choose to take or not to take in the name of the survival of the human species or human societies will be natural." (p. 143) They're heaping confusion upon confusion, employing terms they reject as meaningless ("Nature" and "natural") to justify practically any and all human activities. Now we get to their most interesting proposal. "Embracing a pragmatic, ecological, and scientific multinaturalism demands that we let go of the outmoded idea of the singular, natural, and essential self. We are a welter of genes, ideas, chemicals, mental organs, instincts, emotions, beliefs, and potentials colliding inside and outside of our skin." (p. 152) Self becomes selves. The "I" is we. It turns out, then, that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have cast their lot on the determinist side of the determinism vs. free will debate. There is no free will because there is no center of intention, no motivating agent. Another way of stating this opposition is nature vs. nurture. In this book there is no nature, either outside us or inside us. It's all nurture. Liberals tend to emphasize this aspect of life - Marx's "economic determinism," for instance - but rarely to such an extreme. Break Through rests on this response to what the psychologist Gordon W. Allport called "The Dilemma of Uniqueness." (Becoming, 1955, p.19) Here is the conceptual core of the book. Out of that core grows their critique of environmentalism as we've known it. And it's the basis for their desire to create "a new postindustrial social contract" (p. 16) where "self-creation" (p. 179) is the standard. We are open-ended beings, unlimited in our potential. (But who is the self who's creating the self?) Don't think this is merely a minor digression in a book dedicated to energy policy. Not at all. "This book is an argument against the politics of essentialism and for a politics of pragmatism...all knowledge is perspectival and all realities are constantly in the process of changing and becoming something else." (p. 219) When they assert that "there is no center or essence of any given ecosystem... there is no single meaning of global warming" (p.220), and "There is no single spirit or essence that defines us...we
contain multiple natures, we abandon the idea that humans are essentially anything" (p. 152), they are also saying that nothing has a single meaning attached to it. Everything is pluralistic and relative to anyone's point of view. That's only one step short of declaring that nothing in the "outer" world exists, only our "inner" subjective impressions exist. In the terms of classical philosophy, this is an epistemological tradition known as Idealism. We do not perceive objective facts, we perceive subjective ideas. Perhaps their motivation for such an extreme psychologizing of reality stems from their feeling that "Putting any particular nature, rationality, or instinct at the center of our being strangles our potential." (p. 152) Nordhaus and Shellenberger don't want to be tied down. They're young, they're bursting with new ideas, and they insist on breaking away from the old authorities, the old limits. In fact their aversion to limits drives them to distort the heritage of the environmentalists, and to exaggerate the differences Nordhaus and Shellenberger claim make them unique. They don't like the "pollution paradigm" because the usual response to pollution is to impose limits on the pollutants, or the polluters. Limits are negative, pessimistic, and involve sacrifice. Though they admit limits have worked to improve air and water quality, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, progrowth cheerleaders to the max, display a deep-seated antipathy to restrictions. I don't know if they have kids, but raising children should wake them up to real life's necessity for the "don'ts" as well as the "dos." Of course, it's mainly young people they're making an appeal to - young people and a young culture of mobility and flexibility characterized by employment in the knowledge and service sectors, less unionization, identification with management not labor, individual choice, interactivity, distrust of authority, and direct communication with power. (p. 175) They're making their pitch to the "new high-tech businesses and the new creative class." (p. 16) "And with young and grassroots environmentalists more inspired by a vision of creating a new energy economy than regulating the old one, there's new hope that we will soon see the emergence of a more expansive, relevant, and powerful ecological movement." (p. 128) These are the people they want to join them in telling their "new story about America." (p. 13)
As a person who works in the high-tech knowledge sector (a computer specialist in a public library), I warm to their rousing cheer. But there are too many things about the book that bother me. One involves gratitude. Nordhaus and Shellenberger say, "we should see in humility not timidity but gratitude - a gratitude for the achievements of our ancestors, the emergence of our species, and the gift of our existence." (p.272) Nice, but I'd like them to show a little gratitude for what pioneers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson did to create a new mode of consciousness, an ecological worldview - a foundation for their own Breakthrough Institute program, for example. Among the hundreds of other predecessors I want to mention Amory Lovins. In his 1977 book, Soft Energy Paths, he wrote, "It is the conservation, solar, environmental and related social programs, not the refineries and reactors, that yield the most energy, jobs, and monetary returns per dollar invested." (SEP p. 9) Lovins' insistence through the years that appropriate technology can power a strong national economy prefigures Nordhaus and Shellenberger's promise of prosperity through innovative clean energy solutions to deal with global warming. Yet, do they utter a peep of deference to him or the others who've paved their way? No. The authors come off like adolescents carping about how stupid their parents are. Who knows - in doing that, they may be angling for the adolescent vote, cagily mimicking the behavior of their prey. Which they do to a fault. It's peculiar to read their long litanies of complaints about "the environmental movement's complaint-based approach." (p. 1) More important, they accuse the earlier environmentalists of making a fundamental distinction between humanity and the rest of the world. "Environmentalists are constantly telling nostalgic narratives about how things were better in the past," they state correctly, but then make the claim that "These stories depict humans not as beings as natural as any other but as essentially separate from the world." (p. 25) I find that claim to be absurd. Let's look at the words of the aforementioned Muir, Leopold, and Carson.
John Muir wrote of his kinship with his dog, Stickeen: "He enlarged my life, extended its boundaries. I saw through him down into the depths of our common nature." (Travels to Alaska) Muir was so in tune with Yosemite Valley that he'd climb to the tops of tall pines during violent snowstorms and ride them as they whipped around in the gales, surrendering to those "higher forces" Nordhaus and Shellenberger demean. Aldo Leopold's famous expression "thinking like a mountain" from A Sand County Almanac hardly drives a wedge between us and the land. As he said, "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land." Rachel Carson, who gets harsh treatment from the new guys in town, lays down a basic ecological principle in the first sentence of the second chapter of Silent Spring: "The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings." No mention of a separate role for humans. Indeed, those who "supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man" (SS p. 297) get a strong condemnation from Carson. Nordhaus and Shellenberger criticize Carson's evocation of a mythical past "harmony," and do manage to make a case for an intelligent control of the environment in contrast to her calling the desire for control "arrogance." In doing so, however, they avoid the plain truth that Carson, like almost all environmental writers, assumes that humans are part of the world, and not apart from it. After all, the first principle of ecology is the interdependence of all living things in our global biological system. The rationalist authors of Break Through still have a tinge of irrational adolescent ungratefulness to get over. I suspect it is the holistic aspect of ecology that bothers Nordhaus and Shellenberger. The interdependent parts of the whole can control the whole to some extent. But the whole is a larger entity, and thus in general the whole controls the parts. The present authors rankle at the thought of such an "authoritarian" setup. Thus we get no in-depth discussion of ecology from them. For if they were to do that, they would have to accede to the notion that the totality is a "higher power." And they'll have none of that. So they are left with feeble attempts at building a new mysticism. "Couldn't the mystical feelings we experience while with other human animals be mobilized to support a
politics capable of dealing with ecological crises?" (p. 144) I'd really appreciate an elaboration. Yes, inter-human relationships can be mystical. D. H. Lawrence, despairing of our dwindling contact with the vastness of the untamed nonhuman world, emphasized the human sex force as a pathway to the wild. And on the opposite side of the coin, the guru-disciple relationship is famously mystical. So there is much to be said on the subject. But the authors don't help us here. Even less convincingly, they ask, "Is the pleasure we get from buying trinkets at the mall any less innate than the pleasure we get from walking through an ancient redwood forest?" (p. 143) They're toying with the term "innate," but at least for myself, I can say that the forest provides me with a much deeper and more intrinsic pleasure. They might counter, "Intrinsic, eh? Intrinsic to which of your countless selves?" Well, things can get "perspectival," can't they? These two ecohumanists gaze longingly at the strong bonds among the Christian faithful, seeing church groups providing the social network for a vigorous conservative movement. They quote conservative columnist David Brooks, who said "nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true." (p. 34) Taking their cue from the conservatives, Nordhaus and Shellenberger declare that "environmental leaders steadfastly ignore the central role that evolving values play in shaping society and politics." (p. 35) So, it's up to the authors. They will uncover the values. They will create a new, values-based progressive liberalism. What are the new values? They do not fail us here: - The post-materialist needs described by Abraham Maslow. - The "rejection of the idea that any of us have an essential being or identity that constrains our possibilities" (p. 217) in Aaron Beck's cognitive therapy.
- The Rise of the Creative Class described by Richard Florida. Nordhaus and Shellenberger gather together these and other strains into a values platform for a contemporary culture. For their own version of a "church" where fellow ecohumanists can gather, they have a site on the Internet, Breakthrough Institute, with opportunities for interaction among those who wish to join the community. By January, 2008, their blog had accumulated a modest number of comments. Will Nordhaus and Shellenberger succeed? Will they change the character of the environmental dialog? Will they build a mass movement with political clout? Will they get bills passed and subsidies distributed? Let's hope so. I've been involved in environmental advocacy since the 1970s. Break Through presents social and political messages that take a refreshing new tack. Yet, the rigid exclusion of religious feelings does not gain my support. My Nature Religion (yes, I dare to capitalize) does not separate me. It unites me with everything in the universe. There are millions of Americans who feel that way - and not only Neo-Pagans or Native Americans or back-to-thelanders, but also members of Christian and other world religions, a great many young people among them. I wouldn't want the brave, hopeful message that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have for us to be rejected because of their atheistic humanism. But a careful reading of their book might turn away many prospective advocates. What should remain with us is their energetic call: "overcoming global warming demands something qualitatively different from limiting our contamination of nature. It demands unleashing human power, creating a new economy, and remaking nature as we prepare for the future." (p.113) Through the intelligent application of science and technology, we can remake our relationship with the rest of the cosmos - not only to solve the global warming problem, but also to build a better and more prosperous human society. © 2008 Daniel Clark