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Wanted: better manifestos


I was pretty excited to read the “manifesto for a new environmentalism” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the latest issue of TNR. The authors know how to do good polemic. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” is still stoking conversations three years later. More importantly, the teaser for the manifesto is a sentiment that is both true and massively underplayed: conservation is not going to be the long-term solution to climate change.

And the piece starts out promisingly enough, noting that the worldwide energy consumption is set to quadruple by the end of this century, as standards of living continue to rise worldwide. Given this reality, the authors correctly prescribe a shift to low-carbon sources of energy as the only way out of our climate conundrum.

Then they get into the policy specifics and go deeply, weirdly, 100% off the rails. Based on the fuzzy logic that Americans hate regulations, they suggest we scrap the idea of pricing carbon, and instead invest a few billion in R&D in the hopes that we can outsmart the problem.

The piece is so confused that it’s not really worth the effort of unpacking all the errors. For example, at different points the article comes out both for and against carbon taxes/cap-and-trade. But one paragraph did jump out:

We did not invent the Internet by taxing telegraphs nor the personal computer by limiting typewriters. Nor did the transition to the petroleum economy occur because we taxed, regulated, or ran out of whale oil. Those revolutions happened because we invented alternatives that were vastly superior to what they replaced and, in remarkably short order, became a good deal cheaper.

This is one of the central confusions of the piece: N&S don’t seem to grasp the distinction between technology development and technology deployment. We already have the means to generate low carbon energy. The problem at this point is primarily one of cost. Energy from fossil fuels is too cheap. Fix that problem, and much of the rest will take care of itself. And by failing to grapple with that problem, N&S really don’t really leave themselves with much to say.

I really am a fan of N&S generally speaking, in the sense that I think their opinions are important, even when I don’t always agree with them. But it’s not so surprising that they go astray when the get into policy details. They have in the past criticized the environmental community’s “policy literalism,” the tendency to focus on narrow technocratic solutions.

It is our contention that the strength of any given political proposal turns more on its vision for the future and the values it carries within it than on its technical policy specifications.

Unfortunately, the alternative they’re offering is something akin to policy poetry, positions chosen more for the rhetoric they inspire than the solutions they offer. I see a lot of merit in their diagnosis, but it seems we need to look elsewhere for a cure.

Totally awesome monkey photo by Jill Greenberg.

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