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Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility Hardcover – October 4, 2007

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Amazon.com Review

In the fall of 2004, two young environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born. Now, three years later, Break Through delivers on the authors' promise to articulate a new politics for a new century, one focused on aspirations, not complaints, human possibility, not limits.

If environmentalists and progressives are to seize the moment offered by the collapse of the Bush presidency, they must break from the politics of limits, and grapple with some inconvenient truths of their own. The old pollution and conservation paradigms have failed. The nations that ratified the Kyoto protocol have seen their greenhouse gas emissions go up, not down. And tropical rain forest deforestation has accelerated.

What the new ecological crises demand is not that we constrain human power but unleash it. Overcoming global warming demands not pollution control but rather a new kind of economic development. We cannot tear down the old energy economy before building the new one. The invention of the Internet and microchips, the creation of the space program, the birth of the European Union--those breakthroughs were only made possible by big and bold investments in the future.

The era of small thinking is over, the authors claim. We must go beyond small-bore environmentalism and interest-group liberalism to create a politics focused as much on uncommon greatness as the common good.

Break Through offers more than policy prescriptions and demands more than casual consideration. With its challenge to conventional environmentalist, conservative, and progressive thought, and its proposal for a politics of possibility, Break Through will influence the political debate for years to come.

Questions for Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

Amazon.com: Your book grew out of an essay you wrote, "The Death of Environmentalism," that had an impact on the environmental discussion beyond even your own expectations, I assume. What did you argue in the essay, and why do you think it struck a chord?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We wrote the essay thinking that it would generate discussion among grantmakers and environmental insiders. We really didn't expect it to go viral and to be read by environmentalists and liberals all over the world. The essay was mostly about the failure of the environmental movement to make much progress on its agenda over the previous decade, but we could just as well have written it about any of the other liberal interest groups over that period. In the months after George W. Bush's reelection, a lot of liberals and environmentalists were ready to take a hard look at their political agenda, the Democratic Party, and the interest groups they supported. For that reason, our essay really did strike a chord.

In the essay, we argued that the great successes of the modern environmental movement in the '60s and '70s had laid the seeds of their failure in the early years of the 21st century. That they had built institutions filled with lawyers and scientists well suited to lobby policy makers who basically shared their world view. This worked well when liberals controlled the Congress and much of the federal bureaucracy, and when the politics of the time were more supportive of active government efforts to regulate the economy and clean up the environment. But as social values shifted through the '80s and '90s, as modern conservatism rose to power, and as the electorate became a good deal more skeptical of both government and environmentalists, these strategies, and the institutions that were created to prosecute them, foundered.

We argued that environmentalists needed to rethink the entire project, that these problems would not be solved simply with better PR and spin. Most especially, we argued that environmentalists needed to stop imagining that they were representing a thing called Nature or the Environment, separate from us (e.g. humans) in politics. It was for this reason that we argued that environmentalism had become a special interest, incapable of addressing large, complex, and global problems such as global warming.

Amazon.com: You wrote the essay three years ago. What have you learned from the response it got?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: First and foremost, we learned that there was a generational component to the debate that we really hadn't been conscious of when we wrote the essay. Those who came of age in the '60s and '70s, when the environmental movement, along with the larger liberal political agenda, was ascendant, were most defensive and critical of the essay. Their identities as environmentalists, and their identification with the environmental politics and strategies of that era, were most resistant to the idea that environmentalism needed to die so that a larger, more expansive politics might be born. Younger generations were much more open to our thesis and excited to get to work creating a post environmental movement. This remains the case. As we travel the country speaking to audiences about Break Through, it is younger audience members who are most inspired by our message and most committed to building a movement and a politics that not only saves us from global warming apocalypse but is also equitable, free, and prosperous.

Amazon.com: On one hand, you argue that global warming is a "monumental" crisis that demands a response beyond the more limited (and limiting) environmental policies of the past. On the other, you acknowledge that, despite a great deal of press attention, "global warming" still ranks at the very bottom of voters' concerns. How do you confront a crisis that voters don't care about?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: By getting it out of the global warming/environmental ghetto. We know that things like energy independence, getting off oil, getting out of the Middle East, and creating jobs and economic development in the new clean energy industries of the future are much higher priorities for most voters than capping carbon emissions or taxing dirty energy sources. So why not redefine our agenda as the solution to those problems? We can still cap carbon, but that needn't be at the top of the agenda that we communicate to voters. Making big investments to get off oil, making clean energy alternatives widely available and cheap, and creating millions of new jobs in clean energy industries is a winner with American voters and can carry the whole suite of policies that we need to address global warming.

Amazon.com: It seems that in the 2008 election, the possible candidates who have most identified themselves with environmental issues, like Al Gore and even Newt Gingrich, are sitting this one out, and it hasn't yet become a central issue among the declared candidates. Barack Obama did just give a major speech on the environment that has gotten some attention, though--do you think, despite voter apathy on the subject, that the issue could move the needle for a candidate?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We don't think that environmental issues, traditionally defined, including global warming, are likely to be make or break issues politically in this election. Voters simply have too many other pressing concerns, from health care, to energy prices, to the war in Iraq. The key, as noted above, is to reorient our agenda around those higher priority concerns. The good news is that all three leading Democratic candidates have made big commitment to large public investments to build the clean energy economy. Hilary Clinton has announced plans to invest $50 billion dollars, John Edwards recently announced a commitment to invest $13 billion annually, and just last week Barack Obama announced a $150 billion investment plan. The candidates read the same surveys we do. They know that there is extraordinary opportunity politically when we redefine our agenda around clean energy investment.

Amazon.com: I was fascinated by the section in your book in which you look favorably on Rick Warren's small-group evangelical movement [see The Purpose-Driven Life] as a possible model for providing belonging in our bowling-alone society, but you don't provide many specifics about what a similar environmental movement would look like. Do you have some ideas? Birdwatching? Boy Scouts?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: We don't provide a lot of answers because we really don't have them. We wrote Break Through not to tell our readers what to do but rather as an invitation to join us in asking the right questions and experimenting with answers. For secular, liberal environmentalists, maybe we will find those "strong ties," through health clubs, or internet chat rooms, or mom's groups, or public service projects. What is key is that we understand that in a highly mobile and autonomous post-industrial society, we need to find easy ways for people to find connection and relationship with other people whom they may never have met, the literal equivalent of the evangelical service that is conducted several times every day, where people can come and go as they want, with child care and dry cleaning and whatever else liberals need to integrate that kind of regular activity into their everyday lives, and then we need to find ways to deepen those ties and connections, in ways that support and affirm secular values and personal autonomy. That is the starting point for creating a powerful secular political movement that is grounded in something more personal than direct mail campaigns, telephone appeals, and email alerts.

Amazon.com: Some skeptics of your technological optimism argue that the kinds of breakthroughs you expect as a result from massive investment just don't come easily in the energy sector. Solar power, nuclear energy, hydrogen fuel cells: they have all been around for decades without weaning us from oil and coal. What makes you think that the next decades will be different?

Shellenberger and Nordhaus: They are right in part; energy is a sector of the economy that has been particularly resistant to innovation. This is precisely the problem. It is why we are still dependant on energy sources that are 100 to 150 years old while virtually every other sector of the economy has transformed itself. This is why we believe that the faith that many environmentalists still hold that carbon regulations and taxes will drive sufficient private sector investment into energy markets to create the kind of innovation we need is unfounded. It is worth noting that virtually every alternative energy source we have--solar, wind, nuclear, and battery and fuel cell technologies for storage--resulted from public innovation and R&D, not private. The problem is that we haven't done enough of it, and we have done it inconsistently. After a brief couple of years in the late '70s, public funding for clean energy technologies dried up and has been on the decline ever since. The levels of technology investment in the energy sciences pales compared to the kinds of investment we make in the computer and bio-sciences. Skepticism about the potential to achieve the kinds of breakthroughs we need has been a self fulfilling prophecy. We don't make the investments we need to make, the sector fails to innovate, and then we conclude that it can't innovate. All of the barriers to innovation in the energy sector are arguments for a big commitment to public investment. Only the public sector can make the kind of long-term, common investments that we need to overcome those barriers to innovation.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Three years after their contentious, seminal essay "The Death of Environmentalism" advocated a radical reassessment of the global warming delimma, career environmental activists Nordhaus and Shellenberger present the book version, which mines post-materialist thought for solutions that fall somewhere between the death threats and band-aid solutions they say are currently masquerading as debate and progress. Arguing that preservation requires something "qualitatively different from limiting our contamination of nature," Nordhaus and Shellenberger contend that, as Americans, we must collectively sacrifice our standard of living to reverse the inevitable, a seemingly impossible but necessary task in a nation plagued by affluence envy and credit card debt. Referencing a wide array of current political and environmental work, Nordhaus and Shellenberger show how current pop-environmentalism (think Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth) is mired in a "pollution paradigm... profoundly inadequate for understanding and dealing with global warming." True progress, they contend, requires embracing a pragmatic approach to the constantly changing world, rather than a stubborn belief that "all things have an essential unchanging nature" which can be protected or restored. Though their plan to sell the largest middle class in history on "a new vision of prosperity" (defining wealth by "overall well-being") seems like a long shot, their big-picture ideas are important and intensely argued, making this a convincing, resonant and hopeful primer on "postenvironmentalism."
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co; First Edition edition (October 4, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618658254
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618658251
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.8 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #991,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Malvin VINE VOICE on December 26, 2007
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"Break Through" by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger is a stirring manifesto for the postenvironmentalist movement. With remarkable erudition, maturity and precision, the two veteran environmentalists condemn the failed politics of limits to the dustbin of history but go on to sketch out a bold new politics of possibility. Brilliantly conceived and passionately written, this inspiring work helps us visualize how humanity might yet achieve greatness on earth.

Mr. Nordhaus and Mr. Shellenberger remind us that post war prosperity created the postmaterialist conditions that allowed the social and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s to flourish. However, the authors fault the narrowly-focused, complaint-based liberalism of today for its inability to reverse the deteriorating economic conditions that are the root cause for a host of environmental ills. The authors do not shy from taking aim at some of the environmental movement's most esteemed spokespeople including Robert Bullard, Al Gore and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and fault them for deploying unproductive disaster discourses to promote a largely uninspiring and outmoded pollution control agenda.

Pointing to the success of mega churches in creating community out of social and economic anxiety, the authors contend that a postenvironmentalist movement that empowers individuals to imagine and create change is required to tackle the enormous problem of global warming; in fact, they believe that only a dramatic program on the scale of the Apollo project can inspire America's increasingly individualistic and creative citizens to participate in developing a new, renewable-energy based economy and thereby reshape the world.
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This is an important book. Certainly, for anyone concerned about environmental politics, including the politics of climate change, it is a must-read. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, long time environmental activists, challenge most of the precepts of green politics in the U.S., including its claim to draw authority from its position as "Nature's voice," its over-reliance on science as a motivator for politics, and its habitually dismal message. Following their publication of the essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," in 2004, their arguments caused considerable controversy among environmentalists. This book, an extension and refinement of the original essay, is sure to cause more controversy.

The argument here is wide-ranging, drawing on historical case studies, philosophy, public opinion studies, and more. It is hard to imagine that anyone will agree with every angle of the book's approach. But the central insight, as I take it, deserves to be taken seriously by every environmentalist. It is an explicitly political insight: the years of defeats and frustrations suffered by environmentalism cannot simply be brushed aside as a consequence of the power held by the movement's adversaries. Environmentalists need to freshly examine the movement's assumptions and habits - habits of both thought and action. Despite the recurrence of the phrase "death of environmentalism" in the subtitle, this book is not another of the long string of conservative attacks. It arises from sincere and serious contemplation by two articulate and committed activists (who, I should note in the spirit of full disclosure, are friends of mine).

The book's also a lively read, with dramatic stories and engaging puzzles. It's the sort of book you will want to debate with friends and family. It seems possible to me that the book is that rare event, a world-changer whose influence will be cited for decades.
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When I originally read the book "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn back in college in 1997, it helped throw me into a huge depression as I realized the huge problem we have as a culture.

Recently I read a book called "Break Though" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. I wish I had had this book available to me then.

The basic message of "Break Through" is that people who are concerned about environmental/social issues spend so much of their time complaining about what is wrong with the dominant culture that they have lost virtually all impact on actually making anything better. ("Conservatives" complaining about "liberals" who complain about everything and who are not willing to work for anything is one thing you'll hear.)

The authors of "Break Through" point out that at the beginning of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, he had told of all the oppression and all the hurting he had witnessed--it started as an "I have a nightmare" speech. Then, someone said to him, tell us about the dream! And of course, that is the part of the speech we all know today.

The authors of "Break Through" also say that most of us misunderstand the motives of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian rubber tapper who was assassinated in 1988. In fact, they talk about Brazil as a symptom of the dominant culture's problems.

The authors want to start a new Apollo project to get the United States on track with new energy efficiency technology with a $30 billion annual investment. (Compare that to the spending in Iraq....)

Daniel Quinn said we can choose to stop participating in what he calls Mother Culture by simply walking away from it.
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