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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  1. DoubtingThomas - November 6, 2007

    Interesting review. I would like to read the book to see what makes it “vexing” (among other things). Am I first in queue? Thx.

  2. Adam Stein - November 6, 2007

    Yep, you’re the winner. Good news to other hopefuls, though. If there’s a lot of interest, I’ll buy some extra copies of the book and send those out to the first few respondents.

  3. Beth Terry - November 7, 2007

    I’m another hopeful, just a bit later. And I’m hoping for another chance at that book.

  4. Alan - November 7, 2007

    I read about the authors in Wired a few weeks back and I’ve been mulling it over ever since. I’d also like to take a crack at it.

  5. Bennett - November 7, 2007

    Book sounds like a good read, especially with the mixed reviews I’ve seen. If for no reason than it should stir more debate among the Environmental community. And between myself and my girlfriend, if we’d still be able to get a copy?

  6. Rebecca - November 7, 2007

    I would be interested in reading it as well if there enough copies to go around. Thanks.

  7. Christina W - November 7, 2007

    Ditto on the Wired piece on the authors..would love to read & debate this with some people at work who think “green” is waste of time/resources/money and dig @ me for being an enviromentalist.

  8. Patrick Leclerc - November 7, 2007

    By any chance are there any copies left? How much do they cost?
    Patrick Leclerc (hopefully, one day, an EV engineer),

  9. Amber - November 7, 2007

    Hi – I’d like to be next on the list.
    Reminder to those above, there is 1 copy of the book (maybe 2 if Adam buys a second copy). He read it, now sends it to you, then you read it, and send it on down the list. If you don’t want it when it gets to you, remember there are others further down the list waiting. So Read Fast ! Thanks!!

  10. Anonymous - November 7, 2007

    To whom it may concern:
    Typo in the headline for this review lists the book’s title as Breath Through instead of Break Through.

  11. Georgie - November 7, 2007

    Sounds like a very interesting book. I am sure I will enjoy it and will pass it on when I am done reading it.. See, I already think I won it :)

  12. Susan P Dillon - November 7, 2007

    put me on the list for the book. I am quite interested in reading and sharing it.

  13. Stephanie - November 7, 2007

    I am very excited about this book. I heard an interview with one of the authors on Air America Radio. As Conservation Chair of my local Sierra Club group, I look forward to re-thinking how we approach the subject and to examining the criticism of the Sierra Club the authors offer. This book will be my pick for our next book on the list of our Conservation Book Club.

  14. Steve Cook - November 7, 2007

    I am pretty conservative politically and have always been conservative on my views of the environment. Rather, that we should conserve/preserve or better yet, balance our use of resources. With the news of a barrel of oil reaching $97, change is coming whether we want it or not. As history shows us, profound change usually occurs as a result of economics.

  15. Ben Brown-Steiner - November 7, 2007

    I would love to get a copy of the book. I am studying environmental engineering, but can see how the environmental movement is shooting wildly about, winning some battles, losing others. There needs to be a common goal and methodology. If Break Through can even provide a small portion of that, it would be well worth reading.

  16. Tim Hurst - November 7, 2007

    I too have been holding back on writing a review of N&S’s book. Mostly because I am not sure how to react to it. I think you are correct that the book is brilliant at times, and clearly wide of the mark at other times. Not to mention that the book seems to be a year or two late.
    I might add that N&S’s polemic about the pitfalls of moralizing as an environmental strategy is spot on. However,they spent considerable effort constructing a mythical environmentalist, one that is frozen in a politics of limits ala Garrett Hardin, or Paul Ehrlich. Unfortunately they waste much of their energy in this book on employing the classic straw-person argument — thereby falling guilty of the very essentializing they critique.

  17. Adam Stein - November 7, 2007

    Agreed. I tried and failed a number of times to get this review out, because it’s tempting to start picking at the various loose strands in their argument. Why, to take a single trivial example, would they waste time beating up on E.O. Wilson?
    But once you start doing that, you can’t really stop. It’s an odd book. Some really useful stuff, a ton of strawman arguments, some unnecessary digressions. I think this is a common problem with big-picture thinkers. Thomas Friedman is often the same way.

  18. Steve D. Parker UK - November 8, 2007

    All rather sad really, If a books worth reading get a copy from the library then its always recycled.
    The point’s about inconsistencies in N&S content almost certainly reflect the need for the book to connect with a general audience- specialists can always poke derisively at commentators who need to be less specialised. What matters is that the message -that the battle against global warming must be intertwined with the economics of growth and development if we are to win the battle is in the ascendance. The very fact that its still percieved as novel speaks volumes about the need to make the message more accessible to a wider audience

  19. Adam Stein - November 8, 2007

    Yes, Steve, sharing books on climate change is rather sad. Thanks for pointing that out. All of the people on this thread should be ashamed of themselves.
    Have you actually read the book? The inconsistencies have nothing to do with the need to generalize. N&S have a very specific axe to grind, and they grind away. You could drop the entire chapter on the role of science in environmentalism and it wouldn’t change their overall argument at all.
    Some of their message is helpful, and some of it is quite unhelpful. I think this is a worthwhile thing to point out.

  20. Aaron A. - November 9, 2007

    Steve, are you familiar with how these book giveaways work? As discussed on the Storm World giveaway, each reader finishes the book, then sends it on to the next person via U.S. Mail. They’re not buying new copies for every single person on the list; at the moment, Adam only has but one copy to pass around.
    You can argue the merits of visiting a library to obtain a copy vs. adding two pounds of cargo to an existing distribution system, but I wouldn’t think TerraPass is doing any significant damage by sharing a single used book.
    — A.

  21. Marc - November 13, 2007

    I read the book (before passing on my copy) and I thought it was wise, thoughtful and quite brilliant even though it is arresting because it challenges core aspects of how I’ve thought and acted historically. So it’s a bit bracing, and like any lively/meaningful/worthwhile conversation of course there will be things to take issue with, but in my mind that adds to the value.
    I think the most provocative part of the book isn’t its arguments but the identity issues that it challenges. Simply put, it’s a book that may be off- putting to its natural readership because it provides a strong critique of environmental beliefs and strategies to date. It’s hard to read that not take it personally if you’re an environmentalist.
    That said, the core arguments strike me as fairly irrefutable:
    1.If we’re going remedy global warming at the pace and scale we need to, we can’t get there by conservation alone and business/technology innovation must play central role.
    2. Despite people caring about the environment time and again people prioritize shorter-term economic priorities especially in situations of greater economic need such as developing economies. It’s ultimately more viable to work with that then attempting to change people’s values/needs/priorities on a massive scale. So, the only way to get whole societies to develop more sustainably, make the costs of environmentally priorities cheaper
    3. While there is plenty of cause for alarm, positive aspiration makes for more galvanizing and enduring motivation.
    So, my take is that I can continue to commune with nature on a spiritual level, or partake in small scale conservation efforts, or evidence my commitment to sustainablity in a host of other ways. There are many reasons to do so. That said, I accept that what’s needed to effect grand changes is very much in line with what Nordhaus and Shellenberger articulate.

  22. RebeccaK - November 20, 2007

    I would love to have a copy of this book, if you are still planning on distributing more free copies. The fact that your rules include passing along the book when finished made me think about another website I love – bookcrossing.com. Are you all at Terra Pass aware of it? It’s a great site. I encourage you to check it out. I think it’s a great way to live green and meet new like-minded people.