Recently, The New Republic published an article by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute calling the trend towards lower consumption coupled with the search for meaningful life no more than a public opinion bubble that has burst. They argue that individual lifestyle change–of which I am one of the chief national proponents, according to them–is meaningless as our culture attempts to grapple with the environmental crises.
Here is my reply:
Nordhaus and Shellenberger run a firm called American Environics that studies public opinion. They are, in other words, top-notch experts in determining what is politically possible. The problem, in the case of our climate crisis, is that we cannot content ourselves with the goal of doing what analysts like Nordhaus and Shellenberger tell us is politically possible. Instead, we need to change public opinion so that we can make possible what is scientifically necessary.
To wit, NASA’s top climatologist tells us that to avoid the most cataclysmic effects of the climate crisis, the human race must reduce atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million (ppm) by the end of the century. We are already at 387 ppm. The rub is that, because of the rate of societal and infrastructure change required to achieve this goal, most anybody in the know will tell you that 350 by 2100 may not be politically possible—yet.
But let’s take a step back in history. In the 1950s, opinion analysts might well have said that it was crazy to imagine that Americans would embrace the civil rights movement. Pollsters might easily have disparaged the actions of Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger: “You need to be more aware of the public opinion backlash your actions cause.” But Rosa Parks didn’t care about polling data. She cared about what was right and that integrity of belief and action helped inspire a grassroots movement that changed the country.
Sixty years later, modern-day pollsters Nordhaus and Shellenberger are making the mistake of trying to dismiss another grassroots movement—the kind that could also change the country. The kind of movement that will not follow public opinion but will help lead it. The kind of movement, in fact, that may well help make politically possible the climate mitigation measures we need to take (huge investment in new energy technology, carbon capping, and—yes—lifestyle change).
That movement is “just another green bubble,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger tell us. What Nordhaus and Shellenberger have missed is that the surge is not only a “green” movement but also a “quality of life” movement. Its members are asking, Is it just possible that we can develop systems that are both better for the planet and better for the people? Because without caring for the habitat we depend upon for our health, happiness and security there can be no real quality of life for people.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus rest their entire thesis on the idea that public opinion will never embrace planetary happiness over human happiness. They are right. Where they err is in conflating human happiness with the ever-increasing societal throughput of energy and material—economic growth. They fail to consider the possibility—embraced by the burgeoning quality of life movement—that human happiness is not entirely dependent on throughput and resource use.
After all, we know that 40% of growth in GDP ends up in the hands of the richest 1% of the people. We need, therefore, something much more nuanced than plain old growth to help the global underprivileged. Meanwhile, according to the excellent work by Dalton Conley, quoted by Nordhaus and Shellenberger themselves, even the wealthy are suffering under the current paradigm—they’re making more money but questioning whether the quality of life sacrifices are worth it.
So let’s return to that backyard vegetable gardener who is part of this quality of life movement and who Nordhaus and Shellenberger disparage as ecologically insignificant.
The question is, what if, like Rosa Parks, the gardener believes—to hell with the public opinion analysts—it’s important to do what is right? And what if, through his or her dedication to looking for a better way to live, the gardener’s friends and family begin questioning, too? What if, in our questioning, we all begin to wonder whether planetary human well-being might be achieved directly instead of as a spin-off of how much we shop and use resources? Wouldn’t that represent a big step forward?
Nordhaus and Shellenberger skillfully but erroneously use the tools of rhetoric to dismiss the individual actions of this burgeoning movement’s membership. But we know from chaos theory that the flap of a butterfly’s wings can start a hurricane. We know from Rosa Parks that an individual action can be the falling domino that starts the chain reaction. So what if this quality of life movement helps people believe that a happier planet makes for happier people?
Whatever Shellenberger and Nordhaus tell us about the center of the bell curve of public opinion, the tail of the bell curve is thickening. None of this is to undermine the contributions that Nordhaus and Shellenberger make to the environmental discourse. It is to say that they should not deploy their rhetoric against a swelling grassroots movement that may help shift public opinion to make politically possible what is scientifically necessary. It is to say, in other words, that Nordhaus and Shellenberger should, for all their fancy words and naysaying, join in and pick up a hoe.