Monday, November 7, 2011

Book Review: "Break Through"

Book Review

Nordhaus, T., & Shellenberger, M. (2007). Break through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility [Kindle version]. New York: Houghton Mifflin. Retrieved from

This book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger advocates dealing with the climate crisis through investment, not through regulation. Acknowledging that rapid climate change is a technological challenge, they argue that the best way to do deal with it is the way we’ve dealt with other technological challenges: by public investment in R&D and government procurement of promising energy technologies. In addition, they argue that environmental groups focus on pollution regulation is really misplaced because it has become a dogma of putting a price on carbon and economic sacrifice to avoid apocalypse, rather than a framework of economic opportunity and innovation.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a strong case that environmentalism has failed to accomplish its goals because it approaches the subject from the perspective of placing limits to growth on humanity. They instead suggest that the Malthusian limits to growth are particular to affluent societies and can be overcome by innovation and strong pragmatism. They insist that, “To direct our focus on collapse not only makes for a distorted view of human history, it risks undermining the security, confidence, and optimism required for progressive social and political change” (p. 150).

They state that the time has come for America to embrace a new story about itself. A story focused on aspiration rather than complaint, on assets rather than deficits and on possibility rather than limits. That, “modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, just die so that something new can live” (p. 9).

I object that the book does not clearly define what Environmentalism is; rather it is a term with which the authors play. For example, “If ‘the environment’ includes humans, then everything in environmental and the concept has little use other than being a poor synonym for ‘everything.’ If it excludes humans, then it is scientifically specious, not to mention politically suicidal” (p. 10). Which is it?

The real thesis of this book is that it’s a geoengineered planet that we live on and the solutions to its problems lie in investment in technology. A simpler way to support the authors’ thesis would be to explain that because the environmentalism discourse currently reflects a particular ethical view of the world, that ethical framework is inadequate to address the expanded number of discourses relevant to the climate change debate. But the authors fail to point out that there are no ethical systems adequate to guide behavior to remedy climate change. We need a planetary ethic to guide the investments to which Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate. Moreover, it is not clear that we can innovate our way out of climate change due to the law of diminishing returns on investment in R & D.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make a good case for why we should not leave saving the planet to environmentalists. Their investment based solution is very interesting because they seek to deny the Malthusian hypothesis and doomsday models. Theirs is the conventional economic perspective that has a strong faith in the law of infinite substitutability. I’m guessing that their definition of Sustainability is straight out of The American Heritage Dictionary: “To keep in existence”. They are pretty sure we can still innovate our way out of problems, again, again, and again. Are they right? The law of diminishing returns says no.


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