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Bright Greens, Straw Dogs and the New Generation
Alex Steffen, 4 Oct 07
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If you want to get noticed in the media, attack your allies. This is particularly true for the environment: claim alliance with eco-activists and then accuse them of being stodgy and out of touch, and the press will come running. Bjorn Lomborg has made a career out of declaring himself an environmentalist and then proceeding to offer poorly-documented (many would even say dishonest) "proofs" that environmentalists are wrong about, well... everything, and that they don't get it about poor people and AIDS. More recently, Stewart Brand raised a ruckus by declaring nuclear energy our last, best hope and saying that enviros don't get it about people in cities. Now Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have seized the heretic baton with a bold new theory that we really, really need clean energy, and that greens just don't get it about people wanting things.

In their "Manifesto for a New Environmentalism" (a lead-in to their new book), the duo lay out their latest reasoning on why environmental movement is supposedly failing to get action on global warming:

Increasing energy use is the primary cause of global warming, but it is also a primary cause of rising prosperity, longer life spans, better medical treatment, and greater personal and political freedom. Environmentalists can rail against consumption and counsel sacrifice all they want, but neither poor countries like China nor rich countries like the United States are going to dramatically reduce their emissions if doing so slows economic growth. Given this, the challenge we face as a species is to roughly double global energy production by mid-century while simultaneously cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half worldwide (and about 80 percent in the United States), so that we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

How could such a massive undertaking be achieved? Not, as environmental leaders insist, by limiting human power but rather by unleashing it. ...Environmentalism is not the solution to the crisis of global warming.

Distilled from its rhetoric, their argument comes down to this:

People want things.

Increasingly, more people want more things.

It takes energy to make things.

Making more things takes more energy.

Making energy heats the planet, but new forms of clean energy don't.

Therefore, we need a massive program of U.S. government investment in clean energy, which would solve the problem, and which we could have if only those environmentalists weren't all hung up on regulating greenhouse gasses and being concerned about pollution.

One wants so much to be polite about these things, but this argument isn't so much full of holes as just full of it.

First, let's talk about energy and stuff.

One of the central breakthroughs of the last twenty years has been the idea of "decoupling." Put simply, we now understand that through efficiency and good design, it is possible to use less and less energy to make better and better things. We can decouple economic growth from growth in energy use (improving our energy intensity). In many cases, it is more profitable to reduce energy use than buy more energy.

Making more things does not need to mean using more energy. Throughput and outcome are different things. The amount of material and energy that go into a given product or service (the throughput) do not predict how useful it is (the outcome): a car made with five times as much metal as another car is not necessarily five times as enjoyable, while a computer which uses a tenth as much energy as another computer may offer comparable or better performance more cheaply (especially if cost over time is considered).

Because the major product of our industrial systems is waste -- waste in vast, staggering, difficult to imagine amounts -- we can improve the performance of nearly every product in our society while dramatically slashing its energy and material usage. This is true now, with existing technologies and emerging design approaches, and it's true even before we start to think about closing the loop at the end of those products' lifecycles through concepts like zero waste planning and producer responsibility.

Now let's talk about the things people want. Many of the systems on which we now depend do a piss-poor job of delivering the outcomes we seek. We want some milk, so we get in the car, drive through side streets to arterial highways to a big box store, park on a sea of asphalt, buy our milk and then repeat the process in reverse. The easiest and most efficient way to reduce the river of negative impacts in this process is not to wait hopefully for some miracle eco-car but to design our neighborhoods so that a store is close by, substituting access by proximity for mobility. We know how to do that, and we know how to make it profitable. We also know that rebuilding our neighborhoods into compact communities offers a lot of ancillary benefits, from improved health to fairer economies.

Lots of other examples exist -- for instance, Netflix delivers videos without the video store while other product-service systems replace private gyms, cars, power tools and art collections with better shared alternatives. Indeed, once you start looking for ways to better deliver outcomes, rather than improve delivery systems, it's easy to see that we can hack that curve a hell of a lot more than we are.

To be more accurate, we should back up even a little further, to the idea that what people want is things. Our current conception of affluence, defined entirely by GDP growth and the ownership of material goods, has very little to do with either real prosperity or actual happiness. I for one don't think it's too much to ask that when we're talking about building the future, we plan to build one that actually makes people happier. Things do not equal wealth, and most people know it.

None of which argues against a massive effort to switch over to clean energy for that energy we do use. I don't know anyone at any point on the political spectrum who thinks this is a bad idea. I certainly don't know any environmentalists who are opposed to clean energy.

In fact, most people I know understand another key point that Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to miss: regulation defines the energy market. Currently, through everything from lack of environmental laws to tax loopholes to infrastructure give-aways to direct subsidies, regulators define the playing field entirely to the advantage of fossil fuels. Massive government investment in clean tech research will not necessarily change that. If we are serious about a massive uptake of clean energy technologies, we need to use regulation to tilt the playing field in the direction of those technologies, or each new breakthrough will be like rolling a rock up a hill. We want absolute global caps on carbon not only because we need absolute reductions, but also because such caps will spur innovation. We want serious new regulations, including real carbon pricing, because we understand how technology actually gets made.

Last, but certainly not least, Nordhaus and Shellenberger set up, in the words of ally Brandon Keim put it on his Wired blog, "a windmill-sized straw man."

Who exactly are these apocalypse-fixated environmentalists who talk about problems but don't suggest solutions? Have the authors been asleep for the last five years, during which green went mainstream? Do they think that America's energy policy is written by freegans?

Exactly. Like the argument that we should cheer small steps and not frighten people by talking about real change, the argument that greens are anti-technology, anti-business and anti-innovation might have been true in 1999. It's not now.

Now sustainable innovation is the only game in town.

There are surely still pockets of crusty old deep green people-hating bioregionally-obsessed luddite enviros grumbling out there, but they're about as far from the mainstream of the environmental movement as its possible to get. You can also certainly find plenty of hackneyed activists and jaded philanthropic bureaucrats and uninspired academics in the ranks of the environmental movement, just like you can find plenty of jaded, hackneyed and uninspired businesspeople, engineers, doctors and clergymen. But there's a sea-change rolling around us, and most of the greens I know these days -- in business, in government and in NGOs -- are smart, dedicated and innovative people. Hell, even most of the crunchy-chewy, bike-riding, hemp-wearing hippies I know have are polishing business plans, proposing legislation and eco-pimping their pads.

Everywhere I travel, I meet a new generation of bright greens who are earnestly and systemically and with great practicality working away at the task of redesigning civilization ASAP. These folks -- with their bursts of optimism and ingenuity, their networked collaborations and media savvy, their systems-level thinking and entrepreneurial zeal -- are not on the fringe of the movement. Whether or not they've ever written a check to an environmental NGO (and many don't for entirely understandable reasons), today they are the movement. The new environmentalism is already alive and kicking, blogging and lobbying, designing and seeking investors.

So, unfortunately, the people who come off as most out-of-date and out-of-touch in Nordhaus and Shellenberger's "Manifesto" are the authors themselves. That's too bad, because they're smart guys, and the new enviros need sharp-eyed critics. But Nordhaus and Shellenberger chose instead (as it's said) to nail their theses to the door of a church long ago abandoned.

Image: flickr/stormz

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Great post, you might make me a Bright Green yet.

(in the past i've sensed a pollyanna stream in bright green that put off my native cynicism, but this post is very real, and very nuts and bolts.)

Posted by: odograph on 4 Oct 07

Bravo, Alex. Well said. Always beware of "allies" bearing certitude!

Posted by: Ted on 4 Oct 07

Nice one.

It's funny, I wrote a piece last year that laid into the Wired "neo-green" feature that you were in. I felt that bright/neo greens were creating straw men out of stereotypes of "old school" activists as a way of bolstering the drama of the "new wave". It just seemed to be incongruous reading stuff about the "hair shirt" mindset of the old school when the anti-corporate green activists I know are among the most pleasure-positive, creatively hedonistic people I've met. It's just that their pleasures don't conform to the glossy images in the media.

I also thought the idea that the old school had "failed" and it was time for the smart new pro-business set to come in, sleeves rolled up, and sort it all out was wrong and arrogant. I feel the old school has created the cultural soil in which the current mainstream environmentalism is made possible. I thought a tree metaphor was apt. The Bright Green leaves collect the light and the flowers attract the pollinators to spread the seeds, but the gnarly, less obvious and aesthetic roots support the whole thing, doing "the dirty work". I think it's profoundly un-ecological to split the two realms apart absolutely; they do work in different realms, but towards the same goal.

I wondered if Bruce Sterling's idea of the "Viridan Hate Object" factored into this antagonism against radicalism?

In any case, I kind of knew your Wired piece was slightly more glib than your stuff here of necessity. It's good that others are taking up the cause of the ostensibly pragmatic "we can't do anything other than grow, grow, grow" position, and that it's drawing out the more critical, challenging aspects of your stance.

Posted by: Gyrus on 5 Oct 07

I am puzzled by the "New Environmentalist" insistence that we need more and more energy. Do we need more and more energy so that we can be even MORE profligate in wasting it? I work in Washington DC. At midnight, K street is aglow in fully lit empty office buildings. Upscale shops in Georgetown prop their doors wide open in the acrid DC summer, figid air wafting out into the street. Near empty bars and restaurants have blaring wide screen TVs in every corner, being ignored.

This waste has become part of the backgound noise of daily life. Like any background noise, we become numb to it. We have gotten to the point where turning out a light when leaving the room is an act of rebellion.

The "New Environmentalists" must think that this is an entitlement - that energy should be so ubiquitous and cheap that we can treat it as though it has zero value.

It is a classic externality problem. If the shop in Georgetown had to internalize the cost of air conditioning the street, they would not do it. Actually, our children will pay the costs in a few decades, but the shop will be long closed by then.

According to the New Environmentalists, to have progress is to eliminate the internalization of costs.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 5 Oct 07

"At midnight, K street is aglow in fully lit empty office buildings."

I noticed this week that some of the street lamps in the 'work' parking lot now have motion detectors. They turn on as you drive by, and then off again.

I think that's fairly 'smart grid', and in conservative Orange County to boot. Must save money, eh?

Posted by: odograph on 5 Oct 07

You should know better, Alex; those are some serious fighting words for a site dedicated to positive solutions. Based on the first sentence of your own post, it would seem like you’re looking for some attention.

Whether or not you agree with their policy suggestions (I don’t either), the bigger point of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s message is that environmentalism needs to be rooted in ingenuity, consensus-building, and hope. No, that’s not a cutting-edge message anymore. Yes, you and your buddies have been doing it for years. But guess what? Most of America still doesn’t know that, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger's new book is attempting to explain the movement you’ve been describing to a larger audience.

And as for those "crusty old deep green people-hating bioregionally-obsessed luddite enviros" that are "about as far from the mainstream of the environmental movement as its possible to get” – just who are you talking about? And what’s with the venom?

I go to school in lower Manhattan – arguably the epicenter of mainstream American culture – but I’m a firm believer in local economies. I’m not afraid to collaborate with the Man (I meet with NYU admins pretty much every day), but I won’t get in a car or an airplane. I’m not anti-technology, but I’m profoundly skeptical of its ability to transform our society for the better. So which one am I? A “crunchy-chewy, bike-riding, hemp-wearing hippie?” Or the movement?

In the end, there’s no “old” and “new” environmentalists. There are just people (and more of them every day) who care about the fate of our future, and are putting their talents towards making it livable for us all. The methods we choose are bound to be different; basic ecology tells us that the more diverse our tactics, the better off we’ll be.

I think we can all agree that the combative approach of 70s-90s environmentalism will get us nowhere. But “crunchy” ideas like bioregionalism, relocalization, and permaculture are only getting bigger - and by the very same methods that you claim as belonging to the bright greens: networked collaboration, a focus on solutions, and engagement with the public and private sectors.

You’re a uniter, Alex, not a divider: you’re at your best when you focus your passion and intelligence towards highlighting positive change. So take a hint from Nordhaus and Shellenberger, and try and see how we can all make this happen together.

Posted by: Adam Brock on 5 Oct 07

You've pretty much said it all... May I add personal psychology, as yet one more angle to add to your analysis? This is a subject of great interest to me, so much so that I have made it the sole focus of my green blog. I am finding there are so many layers to the ecopsychology puzzle. Cognitive, cultural, psychodynamic, evolutionary, systemic, emotional, unconscious, spiritual, biological, behavioral, interpersonal... I would love to hear your thoughts, and other readers'thoughts on the subject.

marguerite manteau-rao

Posted by: marguerite manteau-rao on 6 Oct 07

over the course of the day yesterday i wrote a loose response to this and its many parents, siblings and offspring:

i bet a lot of what i wrote has been covered hereabouts but it didn't show to me, in this piece, and i want it to be included in the discussion that "teaching people to fish" in the USA will require old-fashioned coalition-building, school curricula, and some pretty blatant missionary work. k thx.

Posted by: hapa on 14 Oct 07



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