Ecology (4): "Break Through" paradigm shift

Even though this may look like yet another book review, Ted Nordhaus' and Michael Shellenberger's book "Break Through" 1) picks up the trail of musings about human experimentation and happiness in a different way: "Environmentalism and other progressive social movements of the 1960s were born of the prosperity of the postwar era and the widespread emergence of higher-order postmaterialist needs. [...] This powerful correlation between increasing affluence and the emergence of quality-of-life and fulfillment values has been documented in developed countries around the world." 2)

"Break Through" describes the traditional approach of the environmentalist movement which is based on the idea that humans are disjoint from nature and, therefore, uses strategies to limit development, preserve the present state, or restore past states. That concept may work for populations that are content, perhaps affluent, but secure enough in their living circumstances that they have the luxury of attending to other, "external" issues like environmental protection. However, populations that struggle with day-to-day survival will not worry about their actions' influence on the environment until they have won the struggle and left the worries for their lives behind. "It is unreasonable to expect individuals whose basic material needs haven't been met to care strongly about the nonhuman world. Likewise, until the populations of China and Brazil have achieved a minimal level of economic development and security, it is unreasonable to expect those countries to sacrifice economic development for the purposes of reducing pollution and protecting nonhuman ecosystems." 3)

Building on Maslov's idea of the hierarchy of needs 4) and supported by additional and also more recent research results, "Break Through" makes the point that for success of environmental policies it is important to understand humans as integral part of nature, and that only multi-dimensional strategies will work. Strategies must address improvement of the human condition as integral part of any environmental improvement strategy or are bound to fail in the long term. "And herein lies the anomaly that most frustrates the environmentalists' pollution paradigm: the fact that 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. And to accomplish all of that, the right models come not from raw sewage, acid rain, or the ozone hole but instead from the very thing environmentalists have long imagined to be the driver of pollution in the first place: economic development." 5)

Nordhaus and Shellenberger are optimistic: "There is quickly emerging a new political lobby and movement for clean-energy investment that is unburdened by either the pollution paradigm or the politics of limits." 6) They are also clear about the outlook if this changed approach does not gain the traction necessary to achieve both, economical and environmental improvements: "The questions before us are centrally about how we will survive, who whill survive, and how we will live." 7) [italicized in the original.] "Many environmentalists imagine overcoming global warming to be about saving the planet. But the fate of the planet is not in question. The earth has survived meteorites and ice ages. It will certainly survive us." 8)

They analyze in depth the current condition of U.S. environmental policy and come to the conclusion that "[r]ising status insecurity and the continuing move away from traditional forms of authority [...] all helped create the conditions for a powerful conservative backlash against [...] environmentalism." 9) The recognition that absolute necessity does not drive attitudes but the perception of the security of one's status does, may currently be a strong driver of policies. The authors suggest that it is necessary to restore or create people's sense of security, that in the current, postindustrial and postmaterial times 4) it is essential to play to the strengths of the American people, not to their fears and insecurities. 10)

The authors observe: "Even if humans had stopped emitting greenhouse starting in 1988, when NASA scientist James Hansen announced the Congress that global warming had arrived, all of the changes today resulting from global warming [...] would still be under way. There is so much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that even if humans stopped emitting new greenhouse gases tomorrow, the planet would continue to heat up for several more decades and probably longer." 11) Therefore, they advocate that one of the activities in which we should engage is global warming preparedness. 12)

While they first attempt to deconstruct the concept of "The Nature" as an independent self-evident truth that could direct us "We are Nature and Nature is us. Nature can neither instruct our actions nor punish them." 13) they also question in similar fashion the idea of "The Market" as a personified independent actor in the world: "The market, for conservatives, like nature, for environmentalists, is a thing separate, sacred, and inviolable." 14) [italicized in the original.] "All markets are constructed and shaped by humans through laws and regulations as well as through values." 15) This deconstruction seems necessary to overcome the ideological divide that has stood in the way of effective steps which require broad bipartisan support because of the immensity of the tasks ahead of us.

While the task ahead of us may be immense, the authors claim that there is a possible way if we embraced Greatness in a fashion similar to the Apollo program in the sixties. 16) We need to take heart and face the current challenge like the USA faced the challenge to send humans to the moon. In 2003 the authors helped create a proposal for this new Apollo project on clean energy, requesting $30 billion per year for ten years, with Representative Jay Inslee as sponsor in Congress. Investments would flow predominantly into the clean-energy market, wind, solar, etc, but also mass transit. 17) Concrete descriptions of the initiatives are available on the internet at the Apollo Alliance, the Apollo Challenge, Representative Jay Inslee's web site, and Apollo Fire, a new book about this initiative.

In "Break Through" the authors dare to expand from the USA perspective 18) to a more global perspective, starting with their description of the situation in Brazil 19) and ending in conjecture by presenting a fictitious speech that Tony Blair could have delivered -of all places in Columbus, Ohio. 20) It is rather important to emphasize the authors also point out that "the developing world will not agree to any international approach that constrains the economic aspirations of their people -- nor should they. [...] [T]he implications of this are momentous: to equalize global carbon emissions is, in the end, to equalize global living standards." 21)

It is perhaps difficult to agree with everything the authors write. In parts they themselves seem to be unable to escape habitual labeling, partisanship, and perhaps resentment that they weren't immediately successful in 2003. That could detract from the overall optimistic and encouraging message of their book: multi-dimensional approaches with a focus on international policies addressing poverty and domestic policies supporting public investments in sustainable infrastructure including renewable energy projects may provide us with the best way forward.


1) Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger: "Break Through", Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY 2007.
2) ibid. pg 6
3) ibid, pg 52
4) definition of Abraham Maslow's work and "postmaterial" needs are on pages 5 through 7.
5) ibid, pg 113
6) ibid, pg 128
7) ibid, pg 142
8) ibid, pg 143
9) ibid, pg 167
10) ibid, pg 187
11) ibid, pg 221
12) ibid, pg 223
13) ibid, pg 143
14) ibid, pg 233
15) ibid, pg 234
16) ibid, pg 257
17) ibid, pg 257
18) a very specific US-perspective is mentioned on pg 257 ff and elsewhere in the book
19) ibid, pg 40 ff
20) ibid, pg 268; in Columbus, OH: how much more ficititious could they have made it?
21) ibid, pg 269