Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Bad Boys"? Whatever, nerds.

I don't normally like posts that consist of nothing but a plug, but in this case I'll make an exception to my general aversion. Break Through is a really important book, and everyone even remotely political or environmental needs to read it.

The short version of Shellenberger and Nordhaus' idea, first set forth in their essay "The Death of Environmentalism," is that the environmental movement, whatever its original intent and founding efficacy, has become a culture of complaints and ineffective restriction. The subtitle of the book is "From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility," and that's definitely the spirit in which they write. Environmental protection requires the luxury of critical thinking, no matter whether it's inspired by aesthetic virtue or enlightened self-interest, and critical thinking doesn't occur much in people who are hungry, terrified, or even existentially insecure; therefore to go forward, environmental protection and sustainability must go hand-in-hand with improved standards of living, growth, and progress.

Essentially - and I know this seems like an obvious idea to many of us, but you'll note that it hasn't been done yet and that modern environmentalists and especially politicians still speak in terms of "limits" and "protections" and "repair" - in order to get the world to embrace the idea of protecting the world and thinking in the long term, we'll have to offer them something that will look appealing, and very few long-term benefits are going to look appealing so long as their lower-order needs are unfulfilled.

This is why technologies like photovoltaics are so vitally important, and why it's equally important that we get both people and leaders of people to realize that a massive investment in those technologies is necessary, not only to jump-start clean energy, but to create accompanying economic growth through diversification and, yes, to ease security concerns by reducing dependence on foreign energy sources.

This isn't an unconditional endorsement of Break Through or of Shellenberger and Nordhaus' ideas. I have my issues with them, and especially with their attitude that everything and everyone that's antedated them in environmentalism is rather petty and backwards. I dislike the way they dismiss luminaries like E.O. Wilson and Al Gore without so much as a word of recognition of the many good things they've done. All in all, though, I do agree with them, and I do think that even if it's sometimes aggravating and maybe even offensive, their book is a very important one.

I rather want to buy a copy and go hit Hillary Clinton upside the head with it. "Here, Madame President-to-be. You'll need this."


Michael Shellenberger said...

Dear John,

Thanks for the post!

I like this from the title of your blog: "I can promise only this: I will say smart things, and I will never, ever use nostalgia as a substitute for wit."

Potent promise!

John Marshall said...

You have got to be kidding me.