Techno-Optimistic Environmentalism

Reframing the dismal science of ecology for the 21st century


In their 2004 essay "The Death of Environmentalism," activists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus famously declared, "We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live."

What killed environmentalism? Man-made global warming. The pair argued that the problem of global warming is too big to be handled by green incrementalism. Switching to bioethanol and compact fluorescent lighting simply won't do. Something much bigger is needed. And they argued that modern environmentalism was not up to the task.

They blamed environmentalism's political ineffectiveness on the fact that environmentalists were perceived as being little more than another special interest group. In addition, the two excoriated movement activists for their "failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision." Environmentalists turned off possible supporters because they were invested in telling the public doom-and-gloom "I have a nightmare" stories rather than delivering "I have a dream" speeches.

For Shellenberger and Nordhaus, the huge problem of global warming offers an opportunity to escape the green ghetto. Global warming is a poverty problem, a jobs problem, a food problem, an industrial problem, and an energy problem as well as an ecological problem. In their analysis, when environmentalists called for raising corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, they didn't seek solutions that would also work for industry and unions. This political cluelessness means that CAFE standards have not been raised for over 30 years.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have a model in mind for renovating environmentalism and making it politically relevant. That model is modern conservatism. They praised conservative foundations and think tanks for their alleged single-mindedness in getting the public to adopt their values and programs over the past 40 years. They urged their green confreres to mimic that success by adopting a similar single-mindedness on global warming. But above all, they correctly noted, "If environmentalists hope to become more than a special interest we must start framing our proposals around core American values."

Shellenberger and Nordhaus have now launched an effort to expand the frame of political environmentalism to encompass core American values. Earlier this year the dynamic duo issued a new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, in which they attempt to outline a positive vision for the future. Shellenberger and Nordhaus identify an emerging faultline that they argue will divide the environmentalist movement of the 21st century. On one side stand the traditional anti-immigration, anti-globalization, and anti-growth greens. They believe these neo-Malthusians "will seek to establish and enforce the equivalent of an international caste system in which the poor of the developing world are consigned to energy poverty in perpetuity." Eternal limits to growth for the already impoverished.

One the other hopeful side, according to Nordhaus and Shellenberger, stand "those who believe that there is room enough for all of us to live secure and free lives. It will be pro-growth, progressive, and internationalist." Nordhaus and Shellenberger see this new positive environmentalism as embracing markets and technological innovation in order to create prosperity and protect the natural world. Central to their positive pro-growth version of environmentalism is the development of cheap low-carbon energy technologies. Not only will such technologies prevent dangerous global warming, but they will also lift billions of people out of poverty by the end of the century. But how to get there?

In a new paper, "Fast, Clean, & Cheap: Cutting Global Warming's Gordian Knot," to be published in the Harvard Law and Policy Review in January, they argue that traditional regulatory environmentalism won't solve the problem of cooling the planet while producing abundant energy. They accept that the United States must cut its emissions of carbon dioxide by 80 percent—and the world must by 50 percent—by 2050 in order to forestall the possibility of dangerous interference with the climate. Specifically, they argue that proposals that aim to cut emissions by setting a price on carbon emissions (the chief global warming gas produced by burning fossil fuels) will fail politically.

First, they point out that countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol have essentially failed to cut their carbon dioxide emissions. They then refer to voluminous evidence that Americans in all walks of life strongly oppose higher energy prices and taxes. They cite a study suggesting that the price of carbon dioxide would have to rise to $190 per ton in order to induce the U.S. to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent. This would increase the price of electricity two-and-half-fold. While such an increase would be politically unacceptable in the United States, it would be ruinous in developing world. "Given that increasing energy use and consumption are highly correlated with longer life spans and higher living standards in developing nations," they write, "a high carbon price would increase energy prices and thus represent a major obstacle to economic development for poor countries."

So what they do recommend? A massive government-financed clean energy research and development program. "We are proposing a ten-year, $300 billion public investment into accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy," they write. This nets out to $30 billion annually. They liken such a program to the government support for creating the Internet, subsidizing the development of microchips in the 1960s, or launching the Apollo moonshot effort. Rather than inflict excessive economic pain by boosting the price of energy, they instead recommend handing out far more politically palatable research contracts and subsidies to universities and corporations. The goal is to create new low and no-carbon energy technologies that can economically compete with cheap fossil fuels.

Let's set aside until another time whether or not their examples of government R&D success are real and germane. Government can certainly also hinder technological development. Breaking up the government mandated telephone monopoly in the 1970s was also crucial to the eventual creation and spread of the Internet. Nordhaus and Shellenberger correctly note, "Energy is arguably the least innovative sector of the economy." However, they fail to acknowledge that energy innovation is retarded, in part, because it is one of the most heavily regulated industrial sectors in the United States and the rest of the world. But again, let that go for now.

What's fascinating is that people who usually are demonized by old-fashioned neo-Malthusian environmentalists are also proposing massive government-financed clean energy research and development programs. For example, in his new book, Cool It, skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, advocates that .05 percent of global GDP—about $25 billion—be invested annually on the clean energy R&D. In addition, the Bush Administration is promoting the Asia Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate. The six countries—U.S., China, India, Japan, South Korea and Australia—pledged to "cooperate on the development, diffusion, deployment and transfer of longer- term transformational energy technologies that will promote economic growth while enabling significant reductions in greenhouse gas intensities." The signatories identified promising clean energy technologies such hydrogen, nanotechnologies, advanced biotechnologies, next-generation nuclear fission, and fusion energy. The Asia Pacific Partnership agreement does not make any specific R&D funding commitments, but it does seem to fit within Shellenberger's and Nordhaus' notion of a positive technologically innovative energy vision.

Shellenberger's and Nordhaus' naïve trust in wise government bureaucrats guiding technological innovation is problematic, to say the least. On the other hand, they clearly understand that conventional environmentalist demands for sacrifice and deprivation are not a winning political strategy. "The energy challenge has been framed thus far as a forced choice between poverty and environmental ruin," they write. This framing makes ecology the true dismal science. In contrast, their environmental vision, in which human creativity expressed as technological innovation solves global warming and other pressing human problems, is most welcome.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.