Break Through

BREAK THROUGH….I’ve been putting this off, but I suppose I really ought to offer up some comments about Break Through, the critique of global warming activism published recently by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. I’ve been avoiding it, I think, because rarely has a book left me more schizophrenic. I loved the first half, but hated the second.

I’ll start with the high points. In the first half of the book, N&S make a number of trenchant criticisms about our current approach to global warming:

  • Poor people don’t care about environmentalism. They’re too busy caring about their next meal, keeping a roof over their head, and staying employed.

  • Partly because of this, and partly for nationalistic reasons, we’re never going to get poor countries like India and China to agree to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions via regulation. It’s just wishful thinking to suppose otherwise. In fact, the only way we’ll ever get poor countries to care about environmentalism is to make them rich countries first. That means supporting economic growth all over the globe, which in turn means more energy production, not less.

  • However, even in rich countries like ours, it’s hard to sell people on making any kind of serious sacrifice to cut down on carbon emissions, especially when the most damaging effects of global warming are fairly far in the future and will most strongly impact other countries.

  • What’s more, as liberals themselves acknowledge, fear is fundamentally a conservative weapon. People who are afraid usually turn inward: They don’t take chances, they look first toward their own safety, and in cultural matters they tend to revert to traditional norms. Apocalyptic global warming scenarios have the same effect. Rather than inspiring people to support change, they tend to make people feel fatalistic and ungenerous — precisely the opposite of what we want.

These are good points, supported by some interesting narratives, and you don’t have to buy every single one of them in every detail to see that, as a whole, they add up to a powerful case that current global warming activism could benefit from some refocusing. So what should we do instead?

This is where the book falls apart. For starters, way too much of the second half devolves into an idiosyncratic mix of New-Agey jargon and weird eco-speak. Take this, for example:

As the earth warms, forests disappear, and the Arctic melts into the oceans, new natures will emerge all over….Just as modernity has replaced the question “Who are we?” with “Who shall we become?,” the ecological crises will replace the reductionist question “What must we do to save the environment?” with “What new environments can we imagine and create?”

Pluralizing singular categories is a simple way to free ourselves from essentialism. In abandoning Nature, we can embrace the multiplicity of human and nonhuman natures. In abandoning Science, we can embrace the various kinds and practices of the sciences. In leaving behind the belief in a single objective Reason, we can better understand that we have multiple ways of reasoning about the world. In rejecting an essentialist view of the Market, we can embrace the power of markets to achieve our social and ecological goals.

There’s an awful lot of stuff like this, and it just left me cold. Your mileage might vary, of course, but I guess I was hoping for a little less dorm room philosophy and a little more in the way of practical advice. As in: what should we do about global warming?

Which, it turns out, they never answer. I was fully ready for N&S to offer up a fairly weak policy brew, but I wasn’t ready for them to literally offer up no policy suggestions at all. In fact, their entire prescription can be summarized in one sentence: we should spend $30 billion per year developing new, green energy technologies. They spend an entire chapter telling us that complex problems require complex systemic solutions, but when it comes to global warming, that’s all they have. One sentence.

But it’s even worse than that, actually. Working to bring down the price of green energy production is, at least, an idea, even if N&S don’t flesh it out. But how about the other side the equation, making dirty energy sources more expensive (with carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes, for example)? N&S support this, but unless I missed a hurried paragraph or two somewhere, it gets precisely one sentence on p. 119. Instead we get pointless critiques of The End of History and the Last Man and A Tale of Two Utopias that basically left me mystified. I never did figure out what they were doing there, frankly. Ditto for much of the rest of the final three chapters.

The authors may have more substance to offer elsewhere, but Break Through isn’t an 800-word op-ed, it’s a book. There are no space restrictions. Instead of a few sentences, Break Through needed some genuinely persuasive arguments about conquering global warming via government-directed basic research. The fact that it never really makes those arguments makes it, in the end, a disappointment.