Environmentalism, like politics in general, is depressingly polarized these days.
On one side, alarmists like the activist Bill McKibben, climatologist James Hansen and blogger Joe Romm warn that if we don’t cut way back on fossil fuels—now!—civilization may collapse. On the other side, deniers, including most of the current GOP candidates for president, won’t even accept a causal link between surging carbon emissions and warmer temperatures. (Newt Gingrich advocated countering global warming in 2007 but now, sucking up to conservatives, calls global warming an unproven “theory.”)
Forced to choose, I’d go with the alarmists, who at least are guided by science and concern about humanity’s long-term future. But some greens, notably Romm, are so shrill and hyper-partisan that they harm their own cause. Just as many voters yearn for a third party that transcends the fractious old politics, so I and many other people are eager to hear fresh, creative approaches to global warming and other enviro-threats.
That’s why I’m a fan of Ted Nordhaus (left in photo) and Michael Shellenberger, iconoclasts who run a think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, in Oakland, Calif. While most green—and anti-green—activists preach to the converted, Nordhaus and Shellenberger challenge basic environmental assumptions and values. Even if they don’t totally convince you, they should force you to reconsider your views on, for example, the debate over fracking.
In their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” and 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin Co.), they chastised greens for suggesting that perils such as global warming can only be addressed by curbing human progress. Economic development and technological innovation are essential, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argued, to help us overcome ecological crises.
I thought this message would resonate with faculty and students at the engineering school where I teach. And so in 2008 I brought Nordhaus and Shellenberger to my school to have a public conversation with Andy Revkin, then a New York Times reporter and now author of the influential Dot Earth blog. Later I chatted with Shellenberger on Bloggingheads.tv.
Now, I’m happy to report, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are back with an e-book, Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene (Breakthrough Institute, 2011), in which they and other thinkers–including the French philosopher Bruno LaTour, whose riff on Frankenstein gives the book its name–re-envision environmentalism in upbeat terms. What I like best about the book is its optimism, which I’m coming to believe is a prerequisite for progress. What follows is my email interview with Michael and Ted about their new book.
John: Love Your Monsters makes the argument that the Anthropocene, the age of man, is something we should embrace. What do you mean by that?
Michael: What we mean is that don’t have any choice. We are now the dominant ecological force on the planet and that means that we must ever more actively manage our environment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity and it demands that we actually make hard choices. If we want more forests and more wild places, then we’ll need more people living in cities and more intensive agriculture. If we want less global warming, then we’ll need to replace fossil energy with clean energy, including a lot of nuclear energy. If we want to save places like the Amazon rainforest then we have to recognize that, over the next 50 years, a lot of the Amazon is going to be developed. The choices will come down to where we want development, and what we might save in the process.
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