A few weeks back I was noodling around the internet and I came across The Breakthrough Institute, started by Michael Shellenberger (pictured here) and Ted Nordhaus, the authors of the controversial book Break Through: The Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Possibility, which I admire and have discussed before. I zapped off an email, never expecting to hear, but bingo! Shellenberger wrote me back.It turned out that, given that the first half of Breakthrough is a critique of the environmentalist “politics of limits,” Michael was a bit incredulous that I had either a) read the book or b) agreed with much of it. So he zapped me back–and I mean zapped–and pushed on this point and others. We got into a nice little debate (and you know, debating is something I usually avoid).
We decided we’d post the exchange on our respective web sites, and then continue the conversation in person after he and Ted appear here in New York to deliver a Focus the Nation talk at NYU on January 31. Below is the beginning of our exchange. We will continue to publish the back and forth this coming Thursday, Monday and Wednesday (every other day, in other words).
Michael: It’s great when we meet people who understand the very important point that action on global warming need not be about Nature or global warming, but could instead be about economic development, energy independence or something else.
I would also be interested in your take on a) our argument against the sacrifice framework in chapter 6, and b) our contention that we can’t reduce our way to 80 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. (and 50 percent worldwide) by 2050, by reducing our carbon footprint.
Colin: Well thanks for saying nice blog! I’ll get back to you on your questions, but to clarify, by question b) do you mean your contention that we need to institute new technologies and need massive federal funding to get them going?
Michael: Let me put it in a more pointed way. I don’t think we can convince very many Americans or Chinese to do what you’re doing. And I don’t think we should try because we’ll only alienate them. Instead I think we need to find ways to allow people to keep on consuming without generating emissions or depleting resources.
Technically, renewable energy and infinite materials recycling should make this possible. Both, however, remain expensive. Hence, the need for breakthroughs in performance and price.
Also, to be even more pointed, I don’t think you are a “no impact man,” as you claim. I think you’re probably a “lower impact man.” But that’s been made possible by living in a high impact society. You’ve been able to reduce your emissions drastically because a) your ancestors, grandparents, and parents prospered thanks to coal and oil; b) you received a good education (judged by your writing) that required fossil fuels consumption; c) you live in an astonishingly modern city built and sustained by fossil fuels so that even if you don’t directly consume fossil fuels, the garbage men, police officers, and school teachers who make your life and the life of your family possible, do consume fossil fuels; d) you pay taxes, and the government takes a portion and subsidies fossil fuels with it; and on and on.
Don’t get me wrong. I try to reduce my emissions as much as the next guy. But I believe my biggest contribution to overcoming eco crises will come neither from convincing others to do the same but rather from convincing Americans that a major investment in new technologies and infrastructures, here and abroad, will make their lives better and safer, and restore America’s founding purpose: greatness. That’s a fairly different project than asceticism, which I think can be creative and fulfilling but not a solution to the crises we face.
And that was Michael’s shot across my bow! You can be sure I answered him and was even–I hate to admit–a little rude (don’t worry, I apologized). Tune in Thursday for my reply to this email (rude bits expurgated). It turns out to be a great discussion.