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A final rambling disquisition on Nordhaus and Shellenberger
For many days now I’ve been sitting on my planned review of Breath Through, the much-discussed book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger that lays out a vision of a new environmentalism rooted in an vision of human advancement. Possibly my foot-dragging is because I’d rather talk about the controversy that preceded the book’s release, which in some ways is more illuminating than the book itself.
Break Through is an elaboration of N&S’ 2004 essay, The Death of Environmentalism, which took the environmental movement to task for being mired in a “politics of limits” inadequate to addressing the problem of global warming. To attain the sort of global economic transformation required to deal with carbon emissions, N&S argued, environmentalists would have to root their project in an aspirational vision that reached across traditional divisions in the activist community.
The essay was provocative and, to my mind, largely effective. Despite some overreaching, it succeeded as polemic, raising useful questions and pointing in the direction of some possible answers.
N&S were clearly hoping to repeat this trick prior to the launch of their new book. In a series of magazine articles and blog posts, they once again laid out a critique of environmentalism and proposed a new paradigm to replace it. Only this time, rather than provoking a wave of soul-searching, they succeeded mostly in raising hackles.