Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility + The Landscape of Reform: Civic Pragmatism and Environmental Thought in America

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
2007, 344 pages.


The Landscape of Reform: Civic Pragmatism and Environmental Thought in America
Ben A. Minteer
Cambridge: MIT Press
2006, 264 pages.

In 2004, the essay “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World,” rocked the environmental community. Its authors, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, dared to doubt that the recent efforts of major environmental organizations were the best way to advance environmental protection, thereby sparking a heated international debate. Break Through is its sequel. And while sequels are rarely more notable than the original hit, in this case, the sequel works.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger continue their argument against “small-bore campaigns” – efforts that seek incre- mental legislative and regulatory improvements. More specifically, they rail against isolating environmental issues from other important political concerns, such as economic security and social fairness. Environmental progress today, according to this pair of environmental strategists, requires broad political support, as well as large-scale economic and political transformation.

Organizations that encourage citizens to send postcards to political leaders who are hostile to environmental protection are fruitless efforts according to Nordhaus and Shellenberger. Neo-conservatives resist any new environmental initiatives. Such politics can only be reversed at the ballot box or through the mobilization of broad-based socio-political movements, not in capitol corridors hick with ambitious legislators and predatory lobbyists.

The politics of fundamental change prescribed by the authors does not necessarily come from the far left. What is envisioned is a movement that combines environmental protection with social and economic needs. This new movement’s message would not be about tomorrow’s environmental horrors, and it would not be sold as frugality and cutting back. It would be about harnessing American ingenuity, capability and entrepreneurship, providing quality jobs, and fixing what needs to be fixed.

In The Landscape of Reform, Ben Minteer reviews more than a century’s worth of American environmental thought. His findings suggest that what Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue is similar to previous assertions made by major environmental thinkers. Minteer takes a new look at the works of Liberty Hyde Bailey, Lewis Mumford, Benton MacKay and Aldo Leopold, and concludes that the roots of American environmentalism include a pragmatic strain that sought neither the preserva- tion of nature for its own sake, nor the enhanced extraction of resources, but rather a balanced improvement of our way of living within cities and within nature.

Carrying this view forward, Minteer considers how this “third way” applies to today’s environmental activism. As he puts it, “… a union of environmentalist discourse and the public interest not only would enhance the ability of envi- ronmentalists to contribute more effec- tively to environmental policy discus- sions, but it could also work explicit environmental commitments into substantive definitions of the public interest….” He elaborates on this view using two examples of contemporary activism – natural systems agriculture and new urbanism – both of which simultaneously advance human quality of life and the well-being of nature.

This approach, in Minteer’s words, “avoids the excesses of … a purely economic anthropocentrism in which the environment is seen as a fount of resources to be harvested for material benefit and … a moralistic ecocentrism in which human values and interests are rejected a priori as destructive forces that inevitably undermine nature’s intrinsic value.”

Minteer’s civic environmentalism is in the same spirit as Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s call for a new approach to environmentalism. Both focus on ways to improve human society while simultaneously protecting nature.

Robert Paehlke’s new book about the politics of climate change, Some Like It Cold, will be published shortly. He has never sent a postcard to a conservative politician.

Originally published in Alternatives Journal’s Subscribe to Alternatives Today!