Sunday, November 20, 2016
Break Through: Why We Can't Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists
Book Review: Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists – by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (Mariner Books, 2007, 2009 ed)
This was a very good and very interesting book by the founders of the think tank, Breakthrough Institute. They identify the key drivers of environmental improvement and innovation and show that the most important influences are economic affluence and better quality of life.
In the preface to the 2009 edition they note that solving the global issue of climate change around the world is not the same as solving air and water pollution problems of wealthy Western countries. For one it would involve slowing development for the global poor in developing countries. Decarbonizing requires low cost, low carbon technologies, they note. With Obama’s 2008 $150 billion clean energy investment it remains clear that renewables require government help to be economically implementable. China just recently announced $1 trillion in funds available for clean energy investment. So the authors’ “post-environmental” politics world involves development in tandem with environmental concerns. For example, development in the Brazilian Amazon needs to be in tandem with environmental concerns such as mitigating decrease of carbon uptake from deforestation, loss of habitat, soil erosion, etc.
This book came about from an essay by the authors called “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” in late 2004, released in pamphlet form at the annual conference of environmental donors and grantees. The most resonant part of the essay with readers was their insistence that a doomsday, pessimistic environmentalism was in no one’s best interest. They noted in the essay that had Martin Luther King given a “I have a nightmare” speech instead of the famous “I have a dream” speech, things may have ended up differently. They later found out that King did give such a speech but it was augmented toward optimism by encouragement from Mahalia Jackson. The authors contend that while the “rights-based liberalism” of the 60’s and 70’s gave us many necessary improvements, that phase of work is basically done. We now have better civil rights, racial relations (despite current concerns), and a cleaner environment.
The authors look at environmental and social needs through the lens of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” They relate how these “needs” are expressed differently as social “values” depending on where one is (or thinks one is) on the hierarchy. While environmentalists have tended to see economic growth as the cause of environmental problems there is abundant evidence that, especially in developing countries, it becomes (after a time) the solution to environmental problems. Once the basic needs for food, shelter, and income are met in a society, then that society can better focus on higher needs like environmental quality. “Old-style” environmentalism is overly focused on stopping the bad and under-focused on creating the good, say the authors. They compare global warming to pollution – pollution is more visible, certain, and immediate and local in negative effect while climate change is more global in scope, complex, more uncertain, and less readily evident. Thus, depicting global warming in the same terms as pollution will not be as readily adoptable by policy-makers and the population. Even so, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act does give the EPA authority to regulate CO2 as a pollutant. The authors note four inconvenient truths about global warming: 1) in the first 20 years after the Kyoto protocol all 41 countries that ratified it failed to decrease emissions but increased them; 2) developing countries like India and China are in no position to reduce emissions as they electrify and technologize; 3) there is not a coherent strategy to tackle deforestation, which is responsible for 25% of global warming; 4) global warming effects are already happening and more drastic ones will happen even if we decrease emissions now (there are uncertainties about this one I add).
The authors argue for a new environmental narrative, one based on aspiration rather than complaint. They also argue that as post-industrial wealth increased, so did insecurity. They call this “insecure affluence.” This is different than poverty. Poverty is lower on Maslow’s scale. However, this insecure affluence has moved the corresponding social values back toward the lower-order survival values so that it mimics poverty. Thus for years we have the narrative that the EPA and regulations are killing jobs when it is often obviously market forces that are doing so. Globalization is not the problem, they say, but individualism and lack of a new social contract that would bind the concerns of the newly minted ‘individual’ to the concerns of society. The authors break away from traditional environmental depictions of the split between humans and nature, individual and community (?), and government and market and especially the far too ingrained notion of “limits to growth,” what they call a “politics of limits.” They argue for a pro-growth environmentalism. They argue for innovation and a technological fix for climate change over a ‘pollution control’ approach. They say we have choice between a politics of limits and a politics of possibility.
Part 1 of the book begins with a study of the politics of limits, which is basically a history of environmentalism. Later in Part 2 comes the politics of possibility. Beginning with Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, in 1962 and through LA smog, the Cuyahoga River burning, the formation of the NRDC, and the transformation of the Sierra Club into a lobbying organization, an environmental history is explored. Those efforts in the 60’s and 70’s resulted in several great American laws which cleaned air and water, and protected species. They make an interesting argument: rivers, including the Cuyahoga, had been burning for a century and LA smog was present in the early 1950’s, so why hadn’t anything been done to clean things up then? Their answer is that it was not disgust at the defiling of nature that enabled the environmental movement but the arrival of widespread wealth and affluence. People began communing more with nature and exploring its beauty because they were able to spend less time meeting their basic survival needs. They also demonstrate that the environmental movement was not so much countercultural but was often implemented by liberal government officials, mostly Democrats but often of both parties. Though Nixon was not an environmentalist, he spoke about the dangers of smog, water pollution, and noise pollution. They also mention 2005 Duke University bipartisan polls, Pew Research Center, and Nicholas Institute polls that noted that while Americans overwhelmingly have concern for the state of the environment, it is not one of their top priorities. Thus, as social values, environmental concerns are not high on the list. Economic downturns can especially lead to more adopting of survival values like the need for jobs and abandoning of fulfillment values like environmental quality. The authors call it the ‘prosperity-fulfillment connection.’ Environmentalists have not embraced such a connection, instead seeing growth only as a cause of environmental degradation but not a solution to it. The general anti-materialist approach of environmentalists has often been met with scorn and ridicule by those who seek economic prosperity. We see it in the logging and fossil fuel industry where “tree-huggers” have caused job losses in some cases of arguable regulatory overreach. The authors see the development of the environmental movement as a product of industrialization rather than a reaction to it as many in the movement see it.
The next chapter heads to Brazil, from the slums of Rio de Janeiro where poverty, violence, corruption, and crime are rampant to the Amazon where resource exploitation and deforestation are rampant. Brazil is a wealthy country with abundant land resources and industries. But the affluent own the land. There is major income inequality with consequential economic classism. Brazil suffered massive inflation problems from 1950-1985. After the 1964 military coup and the oil shocks of the 70’s the country borrowed heavily and has remained indebted ever since. By 2007, Brazil owed debtors $511 billion. So, basically the destruction and deforestation of probably the greatest carbon sink in the world is happening to pay off debt to lenders due to some bad decisions far in the past. Brazilian migrants seeking a better life head to the Amazon to log, build roads, mine, cattle ranch, and farm. Next they tell the story of Brazilian rubber tree tapper Chico Mendes, a labor organizer who was gunned down in the late 80’s. While environmentalists credit him as a socialist hero in his efforts to save the rainforest, the authors note that his real goal was opportunity, community, and prosperity for peasant workers. They say he adopted the discourse of environmentalism for tactical reasons. He advocated more for land reform. His concern was not what would happen to the planet but what would happen to local people who depended on the forest for their often traditional livelihoods. While the Brazilian government officially promotes conservation of the Amazon in light of global environmental concerns, in reality such conservation is lax and rarely enforced. Brazil is a global agricultural powerhouse. In 2004 it had the largest trade surplus in the world. The authors note that what Brazil needs most is a solution to their old dictatorship debt rather than small micro-projects to conserve forest while people flock to develop the other parts to survive. The environmental movement has tended to see the debt resolution as a bargaining chip in a “debt-for-nature” exchange. The Brazilian government has argued that such deals encroach on the country’s sovereignty and that the old (and they say quite unfair) debt should be forgiven outright. They don’t wish to ‘internationalize’ the Amazon, which is their sovereign territory. Brazilian politicians on the right see it as “eco-invasion,” and as a conspiracy to force them to forego economic development of their own resources. The authors criticize the Amazonian political aims of conservation biologists Thomas Lovejoy and John Terborgh who seem to advocate that economic prosperity and conservation are mutually exclusive. Terborgh describes rural peasant settlements (often slash-and-burn agriculturists) in Peru as cases of overpopulation when in reality those people are trying to do what they can to meet basic survival needs. He advocates the government relocating these indigenous people and bringing them opportunity elsewhere. In 2007, then Brazilian president Lula da Silva noted that the while wealthy Western countries rail against deforestation, it is easier for them since they already deforested their own lands which helped them to prosper. The bottom line, say the authors, is that we need to help the poverty situation in Brazil, help the poor to meet their basic needs, before we can protect the Amazon.
The next topic is the environmental justice movement that took off in the 80’s and 90’s which focuses on observations that toxic waste facilities, landfills, and other sources of pollution tend to be sited near low-income and minority communities. While in many cases this is true, I have also seen such charges baselessly leveled at fracking operations, which obviously occur where the resource occurs. The authors argue that the environmental justice movement, while being correct sometimes has failed miserably to change things. Christopher Foreman of the Brookings Institute, investigated environmental justice for the Clinton administration and reported in his 1998 book, The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice. What he found was that environmental justice cases were considerably weaker than depicted by the movement. He also concluded that the EJ movement was more of a distraction, taking attention away from the more important social and economic concerns of minorities and the poor. Critics of the movement tend to be like Foreman himself, a liberal scientist, rather than industry greenwashers as the movement depicted. Foremen also successfully predicted that the EJ movement would fail in its efforts to sue on the basis of civil rights. In fact, trying to make environmental issues into civil rights issues continues today – most recently in Bill McKibben’s and Jesse Jackson’s depiction of the Dakota Access Pipeline as environmental racism against Native Americans. I don’t think any court would agree. The authors also give other environmental justice studies such as the one by the National Law Journal and one by attorney Mark Atlas, which both found no link between environmental enforcement and communities of color or different incomes. While it may be true that poor and minority communities have been more subjected to pollution than wealthy white communities, there is basically no evidence that any intentional targeting was involved. Poor people certainly have less means to move away from polluted areas and to protect themselves. They also tend less to organize against things like the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) protests more common with affluent people. The lead-tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is a recent example, but there were no deliberate actions to deceive there aside from the delay in reporting the problem after discovery, which is indeed significant. That delay could be seen as an environmental justice case. The real problem, however, was in evaluation of the water chemistry, the failure to predict that the new water source would be more corrosive to the predominantly lead pipes that make up the town’s infrastructure.
The authors also note that context is important in how the word environment is used. Things like diet, tobacco use, and alcohol use cause vastly more deaths than the environment does. However, epidemiologists and cancer researchers often lump smoking, poor diet, and other lifestyle factors as environmental factors. Poor people and minorities are more likely to smoke say the stats and with the ad targeting, at least in decades past, one might even say they have been more targeted, say the authors – so that could be a clear environmental justice case – but one not emphasized by EJ activists. Pollution is quite obviously and indisputably far less of a risk than smoking. They also note asthma studies, where blacks and Latinos tend to have much greater emergency room visits for asthma. They note that asthma is quite treatable and the greater amount of emergency rooms reflect more the medical care availability to minorities than their disproportionate exposure to pollution. Lack of access to health care access is the real problem. Other asthma studies in poor areas noted many other factors: mold, indoor air pollution, second-hand smoke, dust mites, cockroach feces, and dust. One study that involved forced housing improvements by landlords resulted in very significant reductions in asthma. Other EJ campaigns targeted siting of diesel bus terminals as a source of asthma in minority communities were found to be basically bogus. Of course, they are more likely to live near the bus routes but that is due to socio-economic conditions, not pollution targeting. Public health studies, they note, need to be conducted scientifically, with detailed medical people involved such as epidemiologists, rather than a few statistics thrown together to try and find correlations that can then be suggested as causality, especially with glaring headlines. Many recent studies around fracking have taken such formats, and even though conducted by scientists and medical personnel and coming up with quite inconclusive results, the headlines have oddly and quite deceptively suggested otherwise. The EJ movement’s goal is to connect racial injustice and pollution. The authors suggest that the economic and social concerns of minorities and the poor are far more important to them and to society as a whole than industrial pollution exposure. The authors sum up the general failure of the environmental justice movement as follows:
“The environmental justice movement has failed to develop a compelling agenda because it continues to see the environment as a thing separate and distinct from everything else. Why else would environmental justice advocates direct their efforts toward reducing exposure to toxic chemicals from refineries but not from cigarettes? Why else would they focus on eliminating diesel bus emissions that contribute to childhood asthma but not improving dilapidated housing that contributes at least as much to the same epidemic?”
Next subject is NIMBYism. They start with NRDC’s Robert Kennedy Jr.’s 2005 opposition to the Cape Cod offshore wind farm plans, called Cape Wind. Kennedy invoked bird deaths and the use of 40,000 gallons of oil (actually possibly less toxic mineral oil) to lubricate the turbine gears as further reasons for opposition. He didn’t point out that it would blot the view from his own property, which has been suggested was the real reason for his opposition. Cape Cod was/is actually burning oil delivered via single hull tankers for electricity and as a result has the worst air quality in Massachusetts. A tanker spilled 100,000 gallons nearby which killed hundreds of sea birds. He made other claims, about fishing effects and visibility, which were proved to be false. One also has to see the tankers, but only when they are passing by. The authors see this as a clear example of NIMBYism but Kennedy apparently could get away with it – opposing renewable energy and still being seen as a powerful environmentalist. They also see it as a case of seeing human technological development as separate from nature, as a stain on the beauty of nature, as a clash of the ‘conservation ethic’ and the urge to save the planet from carbon emissions and reduce pollution. But really the conservation ethic by definition involves seeking out the best way to develop natural resources. The so-called ‘preservation ethic’ might be a better term, which refers to the primacy of non-development and non-impact over any human development of nature and its resources. The authors see much of NIMBYism as an avoidance of ‘hard choices’ by presenting ‘false choices.’ Is an aesthetic view more important than energy efficiency? That would be a hard choice. A false choice would be presenting all preservation as a fundamental good and all growth and development as a fundamental bad. NIMBYists tend to be concerned with protecting views, property values, and conveniences over development, even if the proposed development is energy efficient, involves renewable energy, and/or reduced pollution and carbon. Thus, they say, NIMBYism and ‘place-based environmentalism’ can be a double-edged sword. Local people are for development as often as against it and do not always know best, as place-based environmental advocates often suggest, nor do those wishing to impose regulations on them always know best. People in Ireland and Scotland have gotten well used to offshore wind turbines, so attitudes can change as well. The same can be true for oil and gas wells and infrastructure, high voltage wires, phone towers, buildings, solar farms, etc.
Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, was deliberately apocalyptic, presenting a dire and pessimistic paradigm in order to spur people to action. One result, say the authors, was to make people feel rather helpless against the forces of climate change, as if buying fluorescent light bulbs and pointing our fingers at fossil fuel producers is all we could do. Our sins against nature were coming back to haunt us. While Gore may have thought such a narrative necessary to present global warming as a moral issue to spur action, it need not be so, say many of us. Those on the political left tend to see global warming as a bigger immediate priority than those on the right, due much to political spin on the subject. The authors still see the global warming problem being presented in the format of the pollution paradigm. In December 2004, then Sierra Club leader Carl Pope wrote a response to the authors’ essay – The Death of Environmentalism – explicitly stating global warming as a pollution problem. But CO2 is not a pollutant in the classical sense. Some of it is good and necessary while only too much of it is bad. Real pollutants are basically ideally undesirable at any level while a certain amount of CO2 is required for life and the biosphere to thrive. The authors see the difference from the pollution paradigm as follows:
“… the fact that overcoming global warming demands something qualitatively different from limiting our contamination of nature. It demands unleashing human power, creating a new economy, and remaking nature as we prepare for the future. And to accomplish all of that, the right models come not from raw sewage, acid rain, or the ozone hole but instead from the very thing environmentalists have long imagined to be the driver of pollution in the first place: economic development.”
Despite being committed in spirit, Europe has made little headway in emissions reduction. The idea that reductions in the developed world would offset growing emissions in the developing world also flopped as China and India grew and continue to grow their economies – although there has been some positive response in recent years due to technology, efficiency, fuel switching (mostly from coal to gas), and increasing renewables penetration. As the Chinese economy grows and people become wealthier they are becoming more concerned with environmental quality. They can literally taste the effects of coal pollution in their throats and since they are less struggling for their next meal they are more enabled to speak out about it. The 2006 Stern Review, a global warming policy recommendation issued by U.K. politician Nicholas Stern, advocated a carbon tax, increased renewables investment, and preparation for the impacts of climate change. The authors suggest that the investment part has been lagging, although it has increased in recent years, since this book was out. They see this as an example of their politics of possibility rather than one of limits, to unleash human activity rather than constrain it. They see the possibility of global emissions trading more as economic development opportunity than a mere limit on emissions and think it should be structured and presented as such. They note that big technology improvements in the past such as computers and the internet were advanced with government money, often due to security concerns. They agree with the Stern Review that more government money is needed for research and implementation of clean energy.
The authors see the common recommended approach to climate change as another in a series of responses to what are perceived as “eco-tragedies,” crises which began with Rachel Carson’s pesticide crisis in Silent Spring. “Catastrophe,” “collapse,” “emergency,” “crisis,” and “apocalypse” are common ways to describe climate change. Such eco-tragedy narratives often end in quasi-authoritarian politics directed by the left, something the political right has strongly rejected. There is the false suggestion that nature without technological humans is harmonious and benign and all attempts to control nature will end in tragedy, which is simply untrue. The authors analyze and rebut the conclusions in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. They especially debunk Diamond’s claims that Greenlanders starved because they refused to eat fish (which was abundant) for cultural reasons because they were Christian farmers and beef and pork eaters. This certainly seems odd. The authors see Diamond’s book as more biased for the so-called human/nature split rather than as a scientific set of stories.
Many environmentalists believe that science was the main factor in enacting the successful environmental laws of the 60’s and 70’s. The authors tend to disagree, saying that affluence was a much bigger factor than realized. They mention Michael Crichton’s 2004 novel, State of Fear, about environmentalists that imposed totalitarian rules on society. They see it not as anti-environmental but as pro-contrarian. Crichton spoke out about the potential dangers of politicized science – that it then can be reduced from science to scientism. They make the same argument against environmentalist theologians like Thomas Berry as they did against Diamond – that he emphasizes the human/nature split and sees nature as something divine that can only be defiled by humans and their development. They also criticize Edward O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia” – that we have an innate desire to commune with non-human nature and that tends to heal us. They ask – Why only non-human? The authors argue that much of environmentalism has become sectarian, claiming special knowledge, whether from science, nature, biophilia, place, racial identity, or indigenous ethnic identity. They argue that their authority comes from their unique perspective and so is more informed than that of others. The authors acknowledge such views of being above politics, of superiority, as being dangerous. It is almost as if they are saying in order to be pro-nature, we need to be anti-human – since the two are somehow incompatible. Diamond thinks it impossible and unwise for Third World humans to gain First World conditions, due to planetary limitations. Is it really fair to exalt nature over humans? The authors see Diamond’s goal of responding to his eco-tragedy narrative as having backfired – that the more afraid people become the more they tend to hold on to their old worldviews rather than shift to new ones. Environmentalists have often seen our longer lifespans and growing population as tragedies rather than as triumphs. We have made significant progress in overcoming starvation, disease, war, poverty, and oppression. So too can we make progress in overcoming ecological collapse, say the authors. In moving to part 2 of the book they note that a new politics requires a new mood – one of optimism rather than pessimism.
Now we come to part 2 – The Politics of Possibility. They get back to the idea of ‘insecure affluence,’ which affects people in the so-called post-material world, where their basic needs are met but they still have to live with many social uncertainties, which cause many to retreat back into the safety of traditionalism, and go politically to the right. The authors say we need a post-environmental politics to address this post-materialist situation. While environmentalism began as a progressive movement, it has since been adopted in varying forms by non-progressives and that needs to be taken into account. The inner-directed values based on met needs of the optimistic post-war years gave way beginning in the 70’s to a more pessimistic worldview and further on led to outer-directed values based more on meeting materialistic needs due not to lack of affluence but due to insecurity. What is needed they say is a politics that is both pragmatic and inspiring. Just as environmentalism rose from material prosperity so too did liberalism arise from scarcity, they state – particularly the scarcity of the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s New Deal was the first manifestation, a ‘materialist liberalism’ which helped feed people and meet their basic needs. By contrast, the post-war years saw massive economic growth and low unemployment. This prosperity also fueled new inner-directed values based on met material needs, such as civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, and an expanding safety net. Empathy and generosity increased drastically in times of prosperity, says economist Benjamin Friedman. However, he also noted that rising insecurity, despite still being prosperous, tends to cancel that out. He also noted a return toward security and fulfillment values as prosperity improved again in the early 1990’s. However, the authors think that insecurity has stayed around and has also been expressed as fears in the form of xenophobia. This can be seen as quite self-evident today as Trump and his agenda of pandering to white nationalism and deporting immigrants takes center stage. They even suggest that obesity, once a problem of the rich, is now mainly a problem of the poor, and that this may well be due more to insecurity than cheap food. Insecurity is exemplified by our current employment situations – we have higher-paying jobs but they are often less secure. Companies are sold, downsized, and made obsolete by technological improvements. The desire to rise in status can lead people to live beyond their means and when combined with frauds like predatory lending their problems are exacerbated. People have been going into debt to keep up with materialist lifestyles of those higher in status than them. Our needs are really less material and perhaps more psychological. The authors think we need a new social contract to alleviate our insecure affluence. We need health care security, retirement security, child care security, and job security. The right’s depiction of welfare and even social security as unearned “entitlement programs,” has ate into the safety nets once regarded as proud accomplishments. Our parents were often able to keep the same jobs for decades. Not so these days. They suggest we now experience the world more as a consumer, an individualistic one. The left tends to see this new individualism as a loss of caring compared to the sense of community of the past while the right tends to see it as a loss of the responsibility of the traditionalism of the past. Thus, the left tends to seek communitarianism while the right tends to seek a more authoritarian type of fellowship. The authors see the need for a new social contract as more important than the need for a social safety net since we still have a strong safety net that is just slightly weakened. Part of their new social contract involves more efficiency/less bureaucracy, better preventative health care, and universal health care of some sort so that if ones loses a job, one does not necessarily lose their family health care as well. Liberals tend to blame lack of progress on health care and the environment on corporate corruption, which is certainly part of the problem but not all of it. The authors are just giving more examples here of a politics of limits resentment, and victimization coming from the left. They favor a new politics of gratitude, possibility, and overcoming.
They next get into the subject/chapter – Belonging and Fulfillment, going though political trends like ‘moral values conservatism,’ ‘New Deal materialism,’ and ‘Clinton-era neo-liberalism.’ They compare eco-tragedy narratives to apocalyptic evangelical Christian narratives – both involve “falls” – from nature or from God and both end up with adherents feeling morally superior. The differences, they note, are that the newly successful moral values of evangelical conservatives have had a more optimistic tone than the eco-tragedy spinners. They note that modern affluence and the demands of the new service and information economies require that people are more mobile in their search for work and so generally less local and community-oriented than they were in the industrial economies of the small towns of the past. Perhaps things like mega-churches have capitalized on such loss of a sense of community by providing for those “lost souls.” Richard Florida wrote a book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which noted that while this new class had less strong social ties, they had more so-called “weak ties.” This seems to me the situation where many of us have less close friends but more acquaintances, which has its advantages and disadvantages. Next they go through the success of Pastor Rick Warren’s, The Purpose-Driven Life, another testament to the new dedicated socially close-knit evangelicals, where people seem to have gotten a sense of belonging, despite the soft bigotry and the mega-rich preachers. The authors compare the evangelicals to environmentalists. The evangelicals are more dedicated with a “thick” identity. While about 70% of people say they support clean air and clean water (I mean who wouldn’t really – the question is perhaps the issue) only a few million are dedicated to environmental organizations – which gives them a “thin” identity overall. While evangelical meetings may be inspiring, environmental organizational meetings are mostly depressing or involved with expressing antagonism toward something. Our sense of belonging is enhanced by activities where we find “flow,” a kind of trance-like state of artists, athletes, and others, and from service to others as well as simply being with others. These enhance our sense of a meaningful life, our post-material needs, as the authors say. Social change is not likely to come through marketing and policies.
“Liberals and environmentalists have thus tended to be issue based and complaint based, while conservatives have tended to be values and needs based.”
Values approaches have tended to lead to more close-knit and coherent societies.
“… all politics is about determining what should be public, what should be private, and what should be banned altogether.
The authors invoke philosopher Richard Rorty in their comparison of public and private interests. They say he put too much emphasis on the prevention of cruelty as a means of solidarity rather than the development of a sense of belonging. Perhaps this is true, although if so it seems unfortunate to me as I think prevention of cruelty is one of the most important things to strive for in life, although it may well not be the best solidarity grounds for politics. Liberals tend to see a divide between individual and community and they lament the erosion of social intimacy but that is not necessarily the case, the authors say, we simply need new identities – and indeed so-called identity politics is a major factor now – 7-9 years after this book – as people seem to want to be defined in identity terms – perhaps to tap into some sort of status or social role where they seem useful, but hell I really don’t know what it is they are or want.
Pragmatism is the next subject/chapter, and I think it is a very important one. The first example is the story of psychoanalyst Aaron Beck, who in the 1960’s was making no progress with his depressed patients. He then abandoned the technique and developed his own technique of re-narrative around their needs which became ‘cognitive therapy.’ The idea was, as Thomas Kuhn described in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, that if a paradigm no longer explains anomalies, it needs to be augmented or changed.
Pragmatism as a philosophy was developed by William James, Charles Saunders Pierce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes in the 19th century and further elaborated by John Dewey and Richard Rorty in the 20th century.
“Pragmatists view beliefs as tools for shaping reality rather than mirrors for reflecting it.”
Pragmatism, say the authors, was one of the forerunners to modern American liberalism. People change and the needs of the times change. So too should institutions change, and be organized flexibly enough to do so. The authors argue for a pragmatic approach and against an “essentialist” approach which is concerned with stasis and inflexibility. Many have indeed argued for a pragmatic approach to the environment and perhaps the compromises we see between economic and ecological interests can be seen as such an overall effect, although the approaches are often defined by more contrasting extremes. Pragmatism acknowledges that there are different perspectives from which to view and address problems. Pragmatism acknowledges the social and psychological aspects of problems and potential policies addressing them. Global warming has such aspects: the effects are slow and gradual and not immediately evident, people can feel guilty about contributing to it or self-righteous about opposing it, and people can feel hopeless to do anything useful toward alleviating the problem. The authors like the approach of developing global warming preparedness as it is sensible, can be empowering, and gives people a way to cooperate practically toward natural disaster prevention. Both Al Gore and Carl Pope talked down about preparedness, Gore calling it lazy and Pope calling it useless. But it’s happening anyway and happening successfully. While some aspects of it may not work, we humans have done much with technology and will and can do much more. We really have no choice, adaptation and preparedness are necessary.
The authors tell the story of the CAFE fuel standards which in the 70’s and early 80’s was supported by the auto industry as people were demanding higher mileage vehicles to meet the needs of higher gas prices but as gas prices dropped again and affluence and SUVs popularized in the 90’s the standards were relaxed. Subsequent efforts were taken on by environmentalists without the help of the auto industry and became more of a battle than a collaboration, although in recent times it is somewhere in between as the standards are set to improve incrementally through time as the technologies have caught up. The authors here got together with then senator Obama and others and drafted a Health-Care for Hybrids Act for the auto industry to link increased fuel efficiency with help from the feds with auto-industry health care costs which were bringing companies closer to bankruptcy back in 2005 – long before the actual bailouts due to the economic downturn.
Essentialism tends to deride all efforts to control nature, much as Rachel Carson derided such attempts that resulted in pesticide poisoning. Thus “non-impact,” or not affecting nature at all has become an ideal among leftist environmentalists. Science informs nature. The essentialism of conservatives is about control of the market – that any attempt to control or regulate the free market and flow of goods within it is tantamount to fraud and to be disparaged. Economics informs the market. Thus we see similarity with these declarations of the sacred and profane within each context. In reality, these are overgeneralizations. Neither nature nor the market are fundamentally good or bad. In reality, markets require rules to function and nature requires control in order for it to be useful for us. They see the designations and arguments for and against corporations and capitalism as more or less meaningless overgeneralizations based on essentialism. Nature and markets are not really separate from humans and so we can create our own natures and markets to fit our values and aspirations. As an example of the failure of both left and right fundamentalism they give the example of the dictatorship debt of Brazil – the left wants to use it as a bargaining chip while the right wants it to continue because fair is fair according to the market. The authors say it should be forgiven – it was unfairly accrued by cruel and incompetent dictators, it helps continue massive poverty, and it obstructs the preservation of the Amazon. Ordinary Brazilians continue to pay a decades old debt made by scoundrels so it would be a justice to forgive the debt, say the authors.
While many environmentalists proclaim that global warming should be above politics, the authors say:
“If politics is our self-governance as a species, then it is the highest form of collective authority there is. The truth of the collective is that it is multiple, contradictory, and divisive. There is no single public interest. To deny the multiplicity, as many neo-Rousseauians do, is to miss something fundamental to politics. Politics is about making decisions.”
The authors suggest that American conservatism has gotten better at changing the world than American liberalism. They mention the famous neoconservative Francis Fukuyama, who stated that modernity has finally become established and developmental history is now history – meaning that the human path away from deep dictatorship, deep defiance, and totalitarianism was done. In his book, America at the Crossroads, he pointed out mistakes made about the Iraq war, changing his previous conclusions. He concluded that it was not liberal Democracy that people wanted but the aspiration to live in a modern world with all of those conveniences (except maybe the anachronistic religious fanatics). Thus as Iraq taught, democracy could not be imposed from outside, only developed from inside. The authors agree with Fukuyama on that point but disagree with him that modernization can be reduced to a single essence that is augmented by limits on personal freedom and creativity. Fukuyama and other conservatives like Daniel Bell advocate a return to ‘traditional family values’ or in Bell’s case ‘Protestant values’ and while that may give strength and coherence to people it is not the wave of the future. Richard Florida noted that the new “creative class’’ is what the Protestant ethic has morphed into – the ‘creative ethos.’ Fukuyama sees hedonism as a threat and the solution as individuals giving their ‘freedom’ back to societies and accepting intolerances – but that ruins it and it ain’t gonna happen on any large scale since the cat has long been out of the bag. The authors contrast these views with Nietzsche who advocated an end to Judeo-Christian moral values but he also thought that only aristocratic societies could come to greatness.
“Americans today aspire to be unique individuals, to be autonomous and in control of their lives, and to be respected and recognized as such by those around them.”
Basically, they suggest that modernity and prosperity has propelled the bulk of us, especially those of us in developed countries, to the level of aristocrats. Wealth, power, and the mastery of nature, are not inherently evil as liberals and environmentalists suggests, but potentially liberating and inspiring, say the authors. They see Fukuyama as an anti-environmentalist who thinks we are separate from nature and rewarded for exploiting it while someone like Rachel Carson sees us as also as separate but being punished for controlling nature. Both positions rely on this illusion of separation. Certainly we are both rewarded and punished for controlling nature and we must be vigilant, adaptive, and address problems and opportunities as they arise. We must be pragmatic. Ideologies are illusory and often impractical. Both environmentalism as practiced and neo-conservatism are essentialist ideas that are philosophies of limits that will continue unresolved conflicts.
“There can be no project of international solidarity and compassion that does not also aspire to human greatness. The new politics should have no utopia, no place, and no end. A politics of greatness demands that we aspire not to an end of history but rather to beginning of new ones.”
In envisioning a new politics the authors invoke questions asked by Richard Nixon: “What kind of country do we want? How can we achieve it?” Or as the authors put it: In what should we invest our efforts, money, and resources? The authors worked with a congressman to put forth a clean energy investment policy called Apollo which received endorsements but an overall lukewarm reception from liberals and environmentalists because it was void of things like binding limits on carbon and CAFÉ standards. Labor also gave it a lukewarm reception because they are more concerned with preserving the status quo of the old rather than embracing the new, say the authors. This is all old hat now and before the economic downturn with the subsequent stimulus packages that included clean energy investment and so-called “green-collar” jobs that didn’t really make a dent. The arrival of shale gas and fracking took more wind out of those sails but also saved us billions. The success of political arguments, the authors contend, often depends on how the argument is advanced, whether inspiring or depressing, whether as a dream to pursue or a nightmare to battle. They compare Tony Blair’s lame argument to take global warming seriously to Churchill’s inspiring speeches.
Global warming will change environmentalism, contend the authors. Stabilizing the climate will require equalization of per capita emissions globally which will require equalization of global living standards. Such connections cannot be ignored. Global warming as an issue, thus, firms up the connection between prosperity and ecological concern. However, simply invoking anti-growth cannot equalize. Taking from the rich to give to the poor – wealth redistribution – which the right accuses the left of wanting to do in the name of climate change – will not be well received and will basically not happen since it is not necessary. A pragmatic politics that acknowledges the needs and also the values of those affected is the best approach and I agree.
I think this is a great book on pragmatic politics, conscious capitalism, and sensible environmentalism.