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A somewhat-less-rambling review (and giveaway) of Breath Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility


Break Through, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, is a vexing book. Others have commented on how they preferred one half to the other half. For me, it was more like every other chapter. Sometimes every other page.

The book is an attempt to diagnosis some of the failings of the environmental movement and to chart a path forward via an aspirational vision of a social movement that roots ecological goals in the broader framework of human development. It is also a work of polemic, and as such, I gave it perhaps the most charitable reading possible, glossing over its many analytical flaws and instead focusing more generally on whether I think it offers some useful advice to those who wish to advance the cause of climate change politically.

On those terms, the book is largely successful. As the authors note, climate change wraps together issues of economic development and economic equity in a way (and on a scale) that no other supposedly “environmental” problem has ever done before. Approaching the issue as primarily an emissions problem is bound to ignite massive fights over who gets to control the global commons. Approaching it as an opportunity for sustainable economic development, on the other hand, offers a platform for cooperation.

The book starts strong, opening with a fairly brilliant chapter on why Brazilians shouldn’t be expected to care about deforestation. It helps that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are sharp writers with an eye for good anecdotes. I mean no disrespect to the excellent science writers who have helped to elucidate the mechanisms of global warming, but scenes of police massacres in the slums of Rio are just inherently more gripping than, say, stories about bog gas.

Some of their other criticisms of environmentalism are less successful. The section on the role of science in the environmental movement, in particular, is a straight-up train wreck. The authors claim that environmentalists worship science in the same way that others treat matters of religious faith. Not only is this an incoherent slander, but it utterly disregards the contours of the global warming “debate” of the past decade, in which partisans have relentlessly attacked scientific truths they found inconvenient.

Some other arguments in the book are interesting, but not wholly convincing. In an otherwise entertaining attack on Robert Kennedy Jr., the authors claim that NIMBY environmentalism has reached its limits. Some of the recent maneuvers to block the construction of new coal plants make me wonder if perhaps reports of the death of NIMBY have been exaggerated.

Still, though, these flaws are generally more than matched by the book’s strengths. The authors are at their best when they break out their “I have a dream” rhetoric to paint a picture of a battle against climate change that is synonymous with a battle for global equity and economic development.

So check it out. For free. You know the drill (read here if you don’t). First commenter to claim it gets my copy of the book for free, on the condition that s/he passes it on when done. Remember to fill out the email field so that we can contact you.

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