The Audacity of Nope: George Will embraces the anti-environmentalism — and anti-environment — message of The Breakthrough Institute

[Note: I’d be very interested in hearing from environmentally-responsible Climate Progress readers about what you think of the claim by Will and Shellenberger and Nordhaus that you are just trying to make a statement, just trying to assuage your guilt.]

Two weeks ago I wrote, “I can’t imagine why any serious journalist would cite the work of The Breakthrough Institute (TBI) “” except to debunk it” (see “Memo to media: Don’t be suckered by bad analyses from TBI”).

But here comes George Will to show us all why a semi-serious anti-science journalist would cite TBI founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus: They have the exact same worldview. They are, to use the popular term, BFF. Will’s piece, Green With Guilt, is an extended diatribe against all environmental action. No surprise, then, that Will cites at length TBI’s New Republic piece, “The Green Bubble.”

Will loves the Shellenberger and Nordhaus piece, of course, and not for the reason you might think, namely that the S&N piece is a string of factually untrue, egregious statements just like his entire body of work. No, oddly enough, even though most of the media treats TBI as if it were part of the environmental movement, uber-conservative George Will share S&N’s entire Weltanschauung, which I call “The Audacity of Nope.”

Will and Shellenberger and Nordhaus say “nope” to all those of you who are taking individual action to reduce your environmental impact and global warming emissions — and they also say “nope” to any major government effort to take collective action to reduce global warming emissions. Future generations — you are on your own!

Will and Shellenberger and Nordhaus are the anti-Obamas, quite literally: Both Will and S&N have explicitly and repeatedly attacked Obama’s climate policies.

Note to media: Perhaps now, after the Washington Post has gone to all the trouble of publishing this engagement announcement from George Will, you can stop pretending that Shellenberger and Nordhaus are part of the environmental movement.

Here is Will’s big wet kiss to Shellenberger and Nordhaus:

In “The Green Bubble: Why Environmentalism Keeps Imploding” [The New Republic, May 20], Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of “Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists,” say that a few years ago, being green “moved beyond politics.” Gestures — bringing reusable grocery bags to the store, purchasing a $4 heirloom tomato, inflating tires, weatherizing windows — “gained fresh urgency” and “were suddenly infused with grand significance.”

Green consumption became “positional consumption” that identified the consumer as a member of a moral and intellectual elite. A 2007 survey found that 57 percent of Prius purchasers said they bought their car because “it makes a statement about me.” Honda, alert to the bull market in status effects, reshaped its 2009 Insight hybrid to look like a Prius.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger note the telling “insignificance,” as environmental measures, of planting gardens or using fluorescent bulbs. Their significance is therapeutic, but not for the planet. They make people feel better:

“After all, we can’t escape the fact that we depend on an infrastructure — roads, buildings, sewage systems, power plants, electrical grids, etc. — that requires huge quantities of fossil fuels. But the ecological irrelevance of these practices was beside the point.”

In short, Just Say Nope, environmentally-responsible human beings!

And when you add in their opposition to strong federal action on climate, why, Will and Shellenberger and Nordhaus leave you with nothing but blissful, guiltfree unsustainable consumption — at least until the global Ponzi scheme collapses.

“Apr¨s moi, le d©luge!

Will also backs up his anti-environmentalism, anti-environment message by quoting from “The Goode Family,” an animated ABC entertainment program. The irony may be lost on him, but I see a sort of poetic justice in Will citing an animated entertainment program and an essay by S&N in the same piece. Both are works of fiction.

Since Will bases his analysis on “The Green Bubble,” a disinformation-filled anti-environmental screed, I am once again reprinting a response by Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University “” and a widely published expert on the environmental movement:

[Note: Regular CP readers can skip the rest of this post.]

The New Conservatism or Ecological Romanticism: A False Dichotomy

In their recent essay, “The Green Bubble”, Nordhaus and Shellenberger launch a long attack against the green movement in the U.S. Based on a series of heroic misstatements, revisionist history, and unsubstantiated stereotypes, they construct an image of environmentalism based in liberal elite circles and searching for social redemption in premodern, aesthetic lifestyles. Thus much of what passes for “green” activity comprises little more than symbolic gestures to define an “alternative” lifestyle. Yet at the same time, environmentalists are also portrayed as dabblers in these bohemian lifestyles, floating in and out of aesthetic and consumerist roles. Hence environmentalism takes the form of fads or bubbles that come and go.

N&S critique the presumed attachment of environmentalists to romanticist premodernist images of society and celebrate economic modernization, along with the growing affluence, individualization, and freedom that this social process creates. The answer to ecological issues for all, they imply, is to increase economic modernization across the globe. For example, they note that “It is poverty, not rising carbon-dioxide levels, that make them (the poor) more vulnerable than the rest of us.”

One can easily critique their essay on a factual basis. Note the sparse nature of their data sources and their lack of reference to any existing environmental histories. They can maintain their interpretation of the U.S. environmental movement only by speaking in broad generalities, without citing specifics. The manuscript is rife with historical inaccuracies and fabricated statements. This essay is a political fiction in which facts are created to support their argument. For example, one of the most egregious statements is that “it has become an article of faith among many greens that the global poor are happier with less and must be shielded from the horrors of overconsumption and economic development — never mind the realities of infant mortality, treatable disease, short life expectancies, and grinding agrarian poverty.” Who or what environmental group has ever said anything of this nature? This statement is an out-and-out fabrication. One wonders if there are any fact-checkers at The New Republic.

While this lack of factual basis is an important critique of N&S’s argument, it is not the most central. Essentially, they are attempting to dichotomize the environmental movement between hopeless anti-modern romantic yuppies, engaged in symbolic activities, and the sober modernists (exemplified by themselves) who celebrate and promote economic expansion as the only real way to address environmental degradation. The space created by this dichotomy only allows for “responsible” environmentalism, based on economic modernization, and irresponsible, premodern romanticism, and eliminates all other possibilities. Thus the essay seeks to paint environmentalism with a universal brush, and delegitimate the entire movement.

The core problem with this analysis is that we are held between two competing and rigid ideologies. Apparently, in the view of N&S, the modern environmental movement has no ability to reason, or to calculate trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection. Neither, apparently, do N&S. They are imprisoned within their own ideology of an uncritical and unreflexive modernization, without any corrective capacity based on democratic governance. The idea of the Enlightenment was to subject our institutions, including both the market and the state, to collective democratic control. Our society’s capacity to learn, and change is enabled through democratic discussion. While economic modernization is one part of modernization, its uncritical application as the universal solution to whatever ails us is just another form of irrational ideology. Nowhere do we see any critical perspective on the limitations of markets, or the false freedom of consumer choice that N&S celebrate. How can one celebrate “individual choice” in a society permeated by a $300-billion-per-year needs-creation industry in the form of modern advertising? The so-called freedom and individuality lauded by N&S merely amounts to a false choice among consumer lifestyles, not a real and informed participant in our own governance.

N&S can only maintain their simplistic dichotomy by basing their argument on typifications, and ignoring the more complex reality of environmentalism in the U.S. Thus this is a false dichotomy. Thus Nordhaus and Schellenberger deny the legacy of the Enlightenment, and revert to a blind faith in the market and a celebration of the status quo.

There is a third alternative. Through democratic deliberations, we can define the shape of the world we wish to create, and then act collectively to realize it. Dealing with environmental degradation, poverty, and exploitation is a difficult task. But it will only be solved by looking truthfully at our situation, and rejecting easy and simplistic solution. Ideological diatribes only make a hard task more difficult.

We are not trapped in either hopeless romanticism, or at the whim of market dynamics. We can do much better than this.

And the media can do better than pretending that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are part of the environmental movement. They are part of the conservative movement stagnation.

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