BREAK THROUGH: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility

By Zimmerman, Sacha | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

BREAK THROUGH: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility


Zimmerman, Sacha, Stanford Social Innovation Review


BREAK THROUGH: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility Ted Nordhaus & Michael Shellenberger 256 pages (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

Reviewed by Sacha Zimmerman

We've all been told that global warming is perhaps the single greatest existential threat the Earth has ever faced. And we have all been told that we can each make a difference. Al Gore encourages us to use carbon offsets when we travel - neat little guiltassuaging donations that promise freshly planted trees and enough new clean oxygen to "offset" your, say, 3,000-mile jet fuel-polluting trip to Las Vegas. Leonardo DiCaprio promotes everything from recycling to solar panels, like those mat grace the roof of his multimillion-dollar Hollywood home. And even the queen of consumerism, Oprah Winfrey, has ditched her orgy of products - the "Oprah's Favorite Things" episode - in favor of a greener attitude; she even handed out nontoxic cleaning products, smart light bulbs, and organic cotton "O" grocery bags last Earth Day.

If you think all of this activism seems well-intentioned but woefully naive, you're in good company. Career environmental strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have expanded their controversial 2004 essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," into an important and powerful new book, Break Through. Given the rapid advance of global warming and the scope of the imminent climate crisis, shouldn't we, ask Nordhaus and Shellenberger, insist on a much grander solution than the household-by-household "what you can do" approach we've been asked to embrace by the environmental movement? In other words, the planet is in severe danger and biodegradable flatware isn't going to, well, cut it.

It's not that small ideas are bad ideas or that creating a green atmosphere at home is silly - at the very least, most small green ideas are actually better for your health; but if we are going to solve the climate crisis, something on the order of a Manhattan Project is needed. So far, our efforts to curb climate change have been too meek

So what do we do? Well, for one thing, according to the authors, we need to undergo a complete mental paradigm shift in the way we think about the problem. The authors argue for an end to the negative reinforcement of the environmental movement as we know it: the conserve, recycle, save, reduce, and sacrifice model - what Nordhaus and Shellenberger call the "politics of limits."

What we need instead is a little American can-do attitude, one that starts with clean energy (i. …

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