On November 12, 2007, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger appeared at the CU Law School to give a lecture and to field questions in connection with publication of their new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Sarah Krakoff, associate professor of law at CU Boulder’s Law School, ably served as commentator. The question and answer session was lively, as might be expected in a community full of self-described environmentalists faced with authors stating that Old Time Environmentalism—based on limits, regulation, and litigation—will not work in connection with dealing with global climate change.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N/S) gained notoriety a few years ago when they published their provocative article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” on which their new book is based. N/S maintain that in order to deal with global climate change, we have to move beyond pollution-control models that worked in some cases, and also beyond the “limits to growth” attitude and “doom and gloom” scenarios that characterize much of environmental rhetoric in the past thirty years. To move beyond the status of another liberal special interest group, environmentalism must become affirmative in its outlook, celebrating human creativity, and harnessing human energy in the search for alternatives to carbon based fuel. It is crucial, so N/D maintain, to admit that China and India will continue modernizing (and thus using lots of coal) no matter what we do. What we can do is to put into action what amounts to a kind of Manhattan Project that would spend upwards of $70 billion per year in creating technically and economically viable alternatives to carbon fuels, especially to coal.
In the Q&A session, both Professor Krakoff and several others took exception to the divisive tone of Break Through, which argues that major environmentalist groups remain committed to policy approaches that may have worked for pollution control, but which won’t work in the case of anthropogenic global warming. Environmentalists need to demand enormous investment in clean energy proposals that have as their goal not only slowing global warming, but also helping to produce greater wealth for billions of people who are still living in difficult material circumstances. Hitching environmentalism to a progressive vision of political emancipation, personal empowerment, and material well being would certainly transform the environmental movement.
The discussion contained some very interesting moments, including Ted Nordhaus’ discussion of how in his remarks leading up to his famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. had been making gloomy predictions about the future if Civil Rights legislation failed to pass. In the background, Mahalia Jackson can be heard saying “Tell them about the dream!" Fortunately, MLK, Jr. listened. According to N/S, environmentalists need to give their own version of that speech. “We have a dream—that billions of people can be lifted out of poverty and can gain personal/political freedom, even while we discover how to generate the non-carbon emitting modes of energy production needed to end poverty and promote freedom.”