Break Through

IN 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger circulated a now-infamous paper on the failures of mainstream environmental politics called “The Death of Environmentalism.” It quickly generated an intense discussion on what three decades of collective effort to solve our planetary crisis has actually accomplished. Their thesis: it is time for “environmentalism” as we know it to die so that a renewed political effort to create a brighter future can come into being.

This book is more than a full-length expansion upon that paper and its argument. While at times slightly overbearing in its criticisms and self-assuredness — and watch out, the authors take on everyone from Rachel Carson to Al Gore — Break Through is nevertheless an important analysis that aims to put transformative vision back into the center of progressive American politics.

While Nordhaus and Shellenberger tackle dire social and environmental problems by criticizing activists’ self-limiting strategies, they also successfully articulate how to move past such strategies toward pragmatic solutions: “The ecological crisis will replace the reductionist question ‘What must we do to save the environment?’ with ‘What new environments can we imagine and create?'”

To their credit, the authors are aware of the hubris behind that thought. But that is their point: environmentalism will never effect greater political change so long as its efforts are based on limits and the notion that a human-controlled and populated planet is an inherently bad thing, or anything but inevitable. Instead of denying the world we don’t want to see, the authors argue, we should empower ourselves to make it into something entirely new.

Break Through rightly asserts that the future is still largely what we make of it — not as a free pass to wreck our society and our home, but as a reminder that a world that is beautiful to our children, and a future politics that allows them to prosper, may end up looking very different from any picture we’ve convinced ourselves looks correct at the moment. And that is a very freeing thought.