Get green or die tryin’

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute.

— from the Introduction to “Breakthrough. From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

To stop global warming, we need to get everyone on board, facing the same direction, and optimistic about the process. That’s where traditional greens and the left lose their potential audience. They scold that we must cut back, reduce growth, accept a greatly reduced lifestyle – then wonder why many are hostile to their ideas and nothing happens.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus, both longtime environmentalists, have a different plan. Launch a New Apollo Project with the federal government spending 300 billion on research for new non-polluting energy sources. They estimate private enterprise would then add 200 billion more and real solutions could certainly be found. They polled the public on their idea and found almost universal acceptance, Texas rednecks as well as Bay Area enviros were in approval.

Sadly, traditional environmental groups ended up opposing it, because it stepped all over their sacred cows (and donor base, no doubt.) So now the authors have an institute, new book, and book tour, and plan to spread the word.

“If this book doesn’t piss off a whole lot of conservatives and a whole lot of liberals, we’ve failed,” Nordhaus says.

I like their attitude.

Wired has a must-read article on this, and for me it was a real eureka moment. Yes, with a plan like this we have a real chance of both stopping global warming and solving the peak oil problem – and really, what’s the alternative? Wait for the oil to run out and the seas to rise bemoaning our fate all the way as endless wars for oil and water rage across the planet?

Socialists say this kind of change can only happen when a new form of government takes power, but that takes too long and then you’ve got years of fighting those forced from power. We don’t have twenty years. We need to start now. Free marketers think the market can do it alone, but this is illusion. Only governments have the resources and power to pull off a plan like this.

What if the economic solution to environmental disaster weren’t a matter of stepping on the brakes but of stepping on the gas?

Indeed. (I’ll be reviewing the book as soon as it arrives from Amazon.)


  1. “There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute.”

    Uh, we found ways to cut ours by 70% without a meaningful change in lifestyle–not including carbon offsets. While I look to technology to eventually bring us the last mile, I also cannot stand by and say there’s nothing we can do. There is, and my wife and I (among others) are proving it.

    Moreover, to suggest that conspicuous consumption is a sacred cow that should not be challenged sounds like the sort of thinking that drives the Bush global warming (non)agenda. The U.S. uses twice as much energy as our fellow industrialized nations, ten times as much as the developing world. If we don’t question that, we’re buying into the same growth-based economy that got us in the current mess, assuming resources are not limited when in fact they are (as is the carrying capacity of the planet).

    Technology may give us a breather– as it has while the world’s population grew far past its previous carrying capacity– but the limit is out there. Much like death itself, we can delay it but not abolish it, nor should we.

    I’m not saying that reduction is the only solution. Indeed, what irks me about the global climate change discussion is that everyone seems to be looking for a single solution, when in fact we need to integrate all the solutions available.

    Besides, IMO conspicuous consumption is a spiritual disease that has helped destroy the fabric of our national community. If we want to survive as a nation and culture, we’d best reign it in– and that assessment has nothing to do with the envirnoment.

  2. They argue that if China and India build and use as many coal plants as they plan to, then it matters not if everyone in the States goes to zero emissions.

    Yes, Of course we need to cut emissions as much as possible! And conspicuous consumption is not a good thing. They would agree with that.

    What they are saying is if you tell everyone they need to cut back and business and industry will need to be downsized, then don’t be startled when no real action happens.

    Instead, get everyone working together on energy solutions. Because new sources of non-polluting energy are needed. Now.

  3. Also, while you may be able to cut emissions 70% (an admirable act), energy generating plants currently can not do that and still produce anywhere near the same amount of power.

    Ditto for all the manufacturing and trucking that brings us our cars, appliances, your solar power, the chips in our computers, etc.

  4. I find it troubling that you used the word “admirable” to describe our reduction efforts, for several reasons. First, I can’t find any argument against trying to reduce– it’s something we should all be doing. Second, IT’S NOT THAT HARD.

    Most people I talk to have no idea how much CO2 they produce, nor where it comes from. (Do you?) They have a variety of reasons for not knowing, most of which boil down to this: they can’t be bothered to do the math. Obviously if we don’t know what we’re doing that creates CO2, we can’t even begin to talk about meaningful reductions. We’re not talking about threatening lifestyle change here, we’re talking about lack of willingness to look at information.

    This baffled me, until I realized that, despite their protestations to the contrary, most Americans are adherents of the Religion of American Capitalism– not Adam Smith’s economic theory which describes relationships between people, but rather the religion of Capitalism with a capital “C” which says I should be able to burn as much resources as I can damn well afford to, and to hell with the consequences.

    To be fair, some actually believe that everyone in the world ought to burn 8.5 TOE of energy like we do. But they don’t believe it hard enough to go out and help them do it. And others may not really believe in the Religion’s dogma of waste, but they act as if they do because of cultural programming.

    IMO, the reason we don’t reduce has nothing to do with whether we can or not. We believe at a very deep culural level that we shouldn’t have to.

  5. Not to sound like one of those environmentalist scolds or anything, but our predicament is so dire and our denial so profound that we each need to cut back our personal emissions by 70 per cent or more AND we need the New Apollo Project.

    I work in a field where I deal with raw materials quite a bit, and I am hearing suppliers starting to talk about peak copper, peak silver and peak nickel in addition to peak oil. The fact is that industrial civilization is chewing through the planet’s fossil fuels and mineral resources at an astonishing rate — and now we’re talking about chewing through our remaining top soil just to keep the idiotic SUVs running.

    I was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the New Apollo Project — still am — but I am sick of hearing how we need to sugar coat the bad news so that the average infantile American consumer will listen to us. It’s time for this country and all of industrial civilization to grow the fuck up. Actually, I have come to the conclusion that neither environmentalist’s dire warnings, nor the “positive” message of the New Apollo Project will be enough to stir us from our complacent wastefulness. It’s gonna take a full-blown, park-the-SUV energy crisis to do that.

    And when — when — that energy crisis hammers the world economy, Joe NASCAR is going to start looking for answers. One of those answers will come from the current totalitarian neocon Bush-Cheney-all-war-all-the-time axis: let’s kick some ass and keep the gas. Another answer will come from those of us who can model satisfying low-energy lifestyles, and groups like the New Apollo Project who can show a pay-off for investing billions, if not trillions, in clean technologies.

    Unfortunately I can’t predict how this nation (and others) will choose. But we’ve got to at least pave a path, or there will be no vote but the Pentagon’s.

  6. DJ. It’s admirable because you a) are doing it, unlike many, and b) posted a 10-part series about it on your blog telling others how to do it too.

    From the notes on their website about their upcoming workshops

    “Much of progressive advocacy is premised on the notion that people are essentially rational actors carefully calculating facts before they make decisions. It is for this reason that so many ‘public information campaigns’ by advocates are naively rationalistic: give people the facts, and make the right arguments, the logic goes, and voters and policy makers will make the right decisions.”

    You may well assume that if people have the correct information they will act on it. I often do the same in my antiwar work. But it’s not really so, is it?

    That’s why we need new approaches. What we’re doing isn’t working.

    John (and DJ): Absolutely we need to do both, cut consumption and fund billions in research.

  7. Great discussion!

    We have posted a response to various reviews of our book, Break Through, on our blog, and at Grist. Would love your reaction!


  8. In line with the idea of positive action, I would call attention to the short item published this month by the Pacific Research Institute:

    Hysteria’s History: Environmental Alarmism in Context
    PRI Study
    By: Amy Kaleita, Ph.D, Gregory R. Forbes

    Listening to the global-warming alarmists, one gets the idea that humanity faces a critical and certain danger from the rising global temperature, which will raise sea levels and swamp major cities, reduce arable land to desert, impoverish billions, and end civilization as we know it.

    It is not really as bad as it sounds. The major point is that positive is effective and that chicken little alarmism is not. It will however be used by every global warming denier to justify their blindness.

  9. A project like:
    “………A New Apollo Project with the federal government spending 300 billion on research for new non-polluting energy sources. They estimate private enterprise would then add 200 billion more and real solutions could certainly be found……..” End of quote

    CalmRon’s comments:
    Such a project could be real good.
    It also could be real bad.

    The MAIN (by allmeans not only) problem with the polluting technologies, is not the technologies…
    … but the greedy entities that care less for life and the environment that supports it…
    … and seek profits only.

    Lots of research, before Reagan, DID go into making the PER WATT price of
    photovoltaic cells cheaper. And in a few short years the price pper watt came down from over $20 per watt, to less than $4 per watt*. Then Reagan terminated that research and the money went into “increasing the efficiency” of the photovoltaic cells.
    Few people stopped to ask “Why do I need more efficinet p.v cells?
    Think about it. If you could get something that would supply all of your household electrical needs for $5000…
    …but it was half the size of your roof…
    … As opposed to something that generated exactly the same amount of electricity, took less space than a breakfast tray, but cost $5,000,000…
    Which one would you want?
    But the “energy companies” (the term was not even around in 70’s and 80’s) want the “more efficient” one. Because then YOU can’t afford to generate your own, and they can control it.

    I don’t just want clean, alternative, sustainable methods of energy generation.
    I want DECENTRALIZED, clean, alternative, sustainable methods of energy generation**.

    When it is on every roof top, it is terrorism proof, vandalism proof and best of all: The REAL villains don’t control it.

    * I am not writing a PhD dissertation. I just have a few minutes for this discussion. Please do not ask that I do YOUR homework and dig up references and citations. I have, for many years now, made a decision to quit being drawn into that game. People who are interested in knowing, will have no trouble finding as much data, and more, as what I can give them. People who are not interested in knowing, will have fifteen times more demands if I do a bibliography search on the subject. Tanks for asking, if that is what you were going to do.

    **Yes, I have done it, and it can be done for a lot cheaper than any quote you get from installers. I will be writing a book on how to do it, with lots of actual pictures, and will sell it CHEAP.

  10. Wow, so much discussion, so little time.

    In 1982-1983, I worked on the shipping dock of an industrial gas company that no longer exists. One of our big clients then was TRW, and one of their labs bought huge amounts of liquid helium from us. Our truck drivers talked with their receiving people, and information began to emerge that TRW, with government funding, was building a secret fusion reactor. (As anyone who’s worked in the TRW orbit knows, many secrets are not all that secret.) Then we heard that they had the reactor working! Well, shortly thereafter, they quit buying helium. The Reagan administration had pulled the plug on the project.

    Rumors coming out of a top-secret facility are always suspect. But their consistency (and the fact that some of the drivers didn’t have the background to understand what they’d heard) leads me to believe that there was in fact a working fusion reactor. And it was killed by an administration that had no interest in such things. And, like so much other work done at TRW, it never came to the public view. (I used to drink with some TRW employees, and laughed at announcements about the launch of “communications” satellites– these guys had worked on the same satellites, and said they definitely weren’t for communications.)

    Bob: Human beings do not always act rationally. Any stock market investor knows that. Yet one of the main barriers to action is denial– the willful ignorance of facts. If people become willing to look at their own CO2 production, there is a greater chance that they will do something about it than if they refuse to know. Surely the greatest fear is that our convenience is threatened, and if enough of us prove that reduction doesn’t have to be inconvenient, they may get the message. (To be effective, if technology and voluntary reduction don’t pull through, we may yet have to move to inconvenience– and beyond, to mere survival. But peak oil will probably drive that one, as we move beyond choice to necessity.)

    I’m all for research, and lots of it as soon as possible. But I also maintain we can’t afford to wait for new technological answers– or for a world planning committee. When new (cost effective) technology arrives, it will help us. Meanwhile, we don’t have competent leadership, so WE need to lead the way– with actions and examples, not just words.

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