The Big Picture.

Break ThroughI’ve been tracking a bit some online debates over Breakthrough, From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of the seminal and highly controversial paper, “The Death of Environmentalism“. If you haven’t read the latter, you should.Personally, I agree with much of Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s arguments, namely, that the environmental movement has failed to meet its objectives due to a poor political judgment and the lack of effective messaging. When it was published in 2004, the paper sent off a firestorm in the environmental community, leaving some strongly in the camp that vehemently disagreed with the authors’ take, others feeling that they had given voice to their own disappointment, and many others caught between.

N&S have taken the “old guard” environmental movement to task for failing to build a big tent platform that made it safe for labor groups and others to align themselves (even if that meant compromising on some issues), and (in my mind, most critically) doing a piss-poor job of engaging mainstream Americans according to their values and priorities: Essentially, meeting them where they are.

There’s been change afoot, sparked largely I think by the growing realization that climate change, above all other environmental issues, demanded new strategies. The story of Adam Werbach, former head of the Sierra Club and now consultant to Wal-Mart, is instructive, both as an example of a new strategy and also the blow-back of the environmental establishment.

In their new book, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that the key to solving the climate crisis is massive ($300 billion) government investment in new technologies and a vision espoused by Democratic Party leadership and the environmental community that focuses on energy security and job creation rather than environmental preservation. (Quick disclaimer: this is my take based on reviews and blog postings by the authors… I have not yet read the book.)

The time is ripe for progressives and environmentalists of all stripes to come together around American Power agenda for a major investment into clean energy. Not only is a large public investment crucial to bringing down the price of clean energy, an investment-centered agenda will serve the purpose of unifying Americans under a vision for energy independence and economic revitalization, one that will appeal to California and New England progressives and environmentalists and Midwestern Reagan Democrats alike.

Massive investments in clean energy offers a way of defining the source of American power around our capacity to dream better futures — and invent our way out of crises. Oil-funded terrorism, global warming, economic insecurity — these are challenges that America will overcome through our ingenuity and our capacity to reinvent ourselves every fifty years.

While I largely agree that the approach and messaging of climate change initiatives has to focus on “mainstream” American values and lifestyles (our entire approach with Climate Changers is built around the belief that we have to support the unengaged by meeting them where they are and helping them take their first steps to living more sustainably), I don’t think we can invent our way out of this problem.

Sacrifice or Opportunity?
Ultimately, we can’t sustain our current lifestyles. Even if we were able to redraw our entire global energy infrastructure from fossil fuels to renewable resources, natural resources are finite. The only two options that eventually present themselves are these:

  1. The relative prosperity afforded to those in the developed world remains with us and only us. The natural course of this paradigm is increased imperialism, military force, global unrest, violence on a massive scale, and a growing gap of inequity.
  2. Global resource allocation becomes increasingly leveled… rising in the developing world and decreasing in western countries. Ulimately, birth rates will need to drop across the board, consumer indulgences curtailed, and economic/health/educational benefits spread more equitably.

Granted, #2 sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky. It can also sound like I’m advocating voluntary sacrifice on the part of Americans and other “wealthy” global citizens… a wholly unrealistic expectation. But, frankly, does this sound less appealing or imaginable than genocide in Darfur, the Iraq War, etc. but on 10-fold scale?

In my mind, while we’re debating how to best invest financial and political resources to tackle global warming and energy insecurity for 2030 or 2050, why not lay the groundwork for a shift in cultural values? How? By employing some of the same strategies:

  • Reach people according to their most critical values. In the case of renewable energy investment, the message is job creation and freedom from Middle East oil. In the case of more sustainable lifestyle choices, the message is saving money and quality vs. quantity.
  • Provide people with a hopeful vision, a sense of wonder and possibility, and call upon the big American memes of innovation and industry. Again, in the case of energy investment, it’s amazing new technologies. In the case of more sustainable lifestyle choices, it’s cradle to cradle and recycled products.

Arbor TandemCradle-to-Cradle Holdings is already selling greeting cards that are made of a plastic material, 100% of which can be used as backing for carpeting. Each greeting card comes with a pre-stamped return envelope (like Netflix) that sends the card to Shaw Industries. The potential of this model is vast and breathtaking. And there are some amazing and beautiful products out there that recycle or reuse materials. For example, this beautiful loveseat, made of post-industrial automotive seatbealts and bags by the shoemaker Keen that incorporate leftover aluminum and rubber materials. My wife has one of these and absolutely loves it.Are we talking silver bullets here? No, we’re talking starter steps. But I believe they can lead us somewhere.

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