On the Politics of Breaking Through

It's probably obvious by now that I've been thinking a lot about topics like sustainability, the role of infrastructure in society, and climate change for a while now.  Along the way, I've read a bunch of books on these and other topics.  I'll have to admit, I didn't get through all of them -- some were pretty dry and uninteresting and some mainly pointed out the problems without offering much in the way of solutions.  On the other hand, I did read some pretty outstanding, insightful, and useful books.  One in particular was "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.  Now, don't take the phrase "the death of environmentalism" the wrong way.  Both the authors have backgrounds as environmentalists and their politics seem to be somewhat to the left of center.  What makes them different however is their approach to dealing with the problems of sustainability and climate change.  They completely discard the old politics of environmentalism and come at it with an approach that is very pragmatic and quite refreshing.  I've referred to this approach previously as "pragmatically working the middle" between the ideological (and unproductive) extremes on either side of the of the argument. 

Right in the beginning, the authors propose that there are some preconditions that need to be satisfied in order for people to "think environmentally."  Their "break through" insight is that before people can begin thinking seriously about the environment in broad terms, they need to achieve a minimum level of prosperity:

"Environmentalists like to emphasize the ways in which the economy depends on ecology, but they often miss the ways in which thinking ecologically depends on prospering economically. Given that prosperity is the basis for ecological concern, our political goal must be to create a kind of prosperity that moves everyone up Maslow's pyramid as quickly as possible while achieving ecological goals.."

Speaking specifically about the American experience:

"What explains the postwar increase in recreational boating, camping, and hiking is not atavism--it's affluence. The satisfaction of the material needs of food and water and shelter is not an obstacle to but the precondition for the modern appreciation of the nonhuman world."

This insight -- that thinking ecologically depends upon economic prosperity -- might seem a little counterintuitive at first.  After all, you can point to the fact that it's the world's poor that live in the most ecologically distressed conditions.  But the authors make the point that:

"When environmental leaders respond that the poor suffer the most from pollution and benefit the most from environmentalism, they continue to miss the point: however bad the pollution and loss of nonhuman natures may be, hunger and insecurity are almost always more strongly felt."

Sustainability to the billions living in abject poverty is about keeping themselves and their families alive a little longer.  I really don't imagine they are concerned about the carbon spewed out from a power plant if it powers a pump that brings them clean water for their family and allows them to irrigate the crops they raise to feed themselves.  I don't think they lose any sleep if a new school or medical center disturbs the habitat of the local flora and fauna, endangered or otherwise.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus also have little patience for dividing the world between humans and nature.  For the authors "[w]e are Nature and Nature is us."

"Ecological thinking at its best sees complex relationships and interactions among industrial plants, workers, health care, energy, and pollution, and economic growth as no less part of the planet's ecosystem, and no less natural, than a rain forest...Once we abandon the belief that there exists a nature or market separate from humans, we can start to think about creating natures and markets to serve the kind of world we want and the kind of species we want to become."

In the end, their appeal to pragmatically "break through" is an appeal to politics -- yes, that's right, politics.  But politics in the true sense of the word, not partisan and ideologically driven arguments that pass for politics today.

Anyone who wants some arbiter that is above politics is either appealing to a theological authority or misunderstands what is meant by politics...If politics is our self-governance as a species, then it is the highest form of collective authority there is. The truth of the collective is that it is multiple, contradictory, and divisive. There is no single public interest. To deny the multiplicity, as many neo-Rousseauians do, is to miss something fundamental about politics. Politics is about making decisions.
[W]hat we need is not a new religion, especially not one grounded in a theological view of a harmonious nature. What we need is new politics, one capable of fully appreciating humans as evolving beings filled with messy contradictions, emotions, and rationalities who are constantly adapting to transforming their environments and their realities.

I really enjoyed the book and culled many important insights from it.  The authors have created an organization called the Breakthrough Institute.  Their web site includes news, articles, and other resources related sustainability and their approach to achieving it.  If you read the book and find that their point of view resonates with you, you'll probably like their blog as well.  It's informative in any event.

You may or may agree with the authors' politics, but it's difficult to deny the pragmatism they bring to the discussion.  In other forums, Shellenberger and Nordhaus have argued for a significant, focused, and long-term investment in clean energy.  They've proposed an Apollo project type of government investment.  Others will argue for a more market-oriented approach.  Some will argue that such a project should include not only renewable energy sources but others, such as nuclear and clean coal.  Other argue that renewables should be the only focus.  All these are reasonable differences to discuss, so let's engage our political processes -- real politics, that is -- to make some decisions and move forward.  It's time.