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February 21, 2013

Thoughts on ‘Break Through’ by Nordhaus and Shellenberger

, February 21, 2013

By Michael D. Beevers

The publication of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility in 2007 provided Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger a platform from which to add specificity to their provocative 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism”.   It also gave them space to detail their policy proposals, which emerged with much fanfare as the “new Apollo Project”.  In the book, Nordhaus and Shellenberger tackled head-on the sacred cows of many environmentalists (technology bad, Carson good, affluence bad, we are screwed), and as a result they were scorned by some and embraced by others. I wrote a book review with colleague Brian Petersen (now at Michigan State) in which we commended the book for its message of hope and optimism but argued that the message stands on shaky foundations (Beevers and Petersen 2009).  Given Michael Shellenberger’s visit to campus – in which he reiterated many of the book’s central arguments – I thought I would revisit and expand on some central critiques.

First, we suggested that the monolithic categorization of “environmentalists” was not only too narrow but that this narrowness limited the universe of ideas that can be applied to the problem at hand. People can argue about the right “path” for addressing climate change but, in truth, we will need a diverse group of movements and networks that collectively pursue new approaches while challenge old ones.  Second, we found hubris in the belief that massive funding propagated by government is virtually all that is required to innovate and build the new technologies that will deal with our climate and energy problems. It is too simplistic, and perhaps even lazy, to equate building the internet, rebuilding Europe after World War II and constructing the trans-continental railroad as parallels to the challenge of mitigating and adapting to a changing climate. While technological change is certainly part of the solution, any robust and just social change must be set within a framework of “ecological democracy” (Dryzek 1997). What this means, in part, is that people must free to act collectively to change or challenge existing structures about appropriate technologies (and the risk associated with them) to ensure  decisions are not centralized but discussed and debated in the public sphere.

Third, we took exception to the correlation between environmental “progress” and affluence that much of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s work rests upon.  Carbon dioxide emissions increase substantially with affluence, which was facilitated in the US, Western Europe and Japan, by cheap oil. According to Cavlovic and her colleagues (2000), for example, per capita income would have to reach nearly $200,000 before people would be compelled to burn fewer fossil fuels.  The focus on affluence also assumes that the poor, who are without material wealth and what Inglehart (1997) calls “post- modernization” values, lack environmental awareness.  This view renders invisible most of the world’s people. Finally, we were critical of the book’s lack of global economic perspective except for an overly simplistic and misleading chapter on Brazil. I suspect Shellenberger, in his talk, did not discuss it for this very reason. What is missing is any acknowledgement that capitalist economic growth requires production and consumption, which by its very nature raises questions about equity and justice. When environmental problems are framed in terms of  economics and technology, it blinds us from the fact that decisions are political and about values.  That is, environmental problems cannot be reduced to “incentives”,  “prices” or even “investors” since they are fundamentally about how power is exercised.  What is “right” or “good” is a matter of ethics embedded in politics — not markets or technology.

Two other things are worth noting. Much of the book seems overly simplified. The authors take complex ideas, including cognitive therapy and the work of philosopher Richard Rorty, and paint each a way that only supports their arguments. At the same time, they over-generalize multifaceted concepts like “security”, “fulfillment” and “belonging”.  It is also revealing that even as the authors accused Rachel Carson of being a prisoner of a “tragedy” narrative (and, as such, trapped by a social construction about the causes and solutions to environmental “problems”), they failed to reflect on the probability that they themselves are situated in a set of discourses and narratives about human progress (i.e., economic growth, technology, individualism and status) that have been dominant for the last 40-years.

All this goes without saying: I admire Nordhaus and Shellenberger immensely. They have managed to write a book and propose ideas that are being widely discussed and debated. It is something I can only aspire too. They are challenging us to not accept ad nauseum our environmental “story” (which, let’s admit, is also part myth-making of which many of us contribute) and are among a growing cadre of commentators asking whether it is more productive for our environmental future to consider humans as a part of nature. Most importantly, they are asking us to revisit our technological skepticism (and its evolution) and reevaluate how we perceive risk in a rapidly modernizing and climate disrupted world. We undoubtedly need new ideas, and even novel ways of thinking, in order to respond to climate change.  Nordhaus and Shellenberger should be applauded for moving the conversation forward.


Beevers, Michael D. and Brian Petersen. 2009. “Review of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.” Society and Natural Resources 22: 783-787.

Cavlovic, Therese et al. 2000. “A Meta-Analysis of Environmental Kuznets Curve Studies.” Agricultural and Resources Economics Review 29: 32-42.

Dryzek, John. 1997. The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Inglehart, Ronald. 1997. Modernization and Postmodernization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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