The Spock Twins: The Death of the Death of Environmentalism

categories: Cocktail Hour


In my new book, My Green Manifesto, I take on another book, Break Through by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.  Nordhaus and Shellenberger are two lifelong environmental-advocates best known for creating an attention-grabbing paper called The Death of Environmentalism.  That paper, which sparked lively debate on websites and editorial pages, advocated breaking environmentalism out of its granola ghetto and tackling global warming head on, which, according to the authors and contrary to most conservatives, could actually create jobs and ultimately help the economy.  I picked up the book because I thought it might fit my present surly enviro mood, and I’d heard that Nordhaus and Shellenberger, like me, have grown tired of both musty mysticism and hysterical apocalypisim, favoring a more practical, hard-headed brand of environmentalism. 

I found myself nodding as the authors criticized yet another manner of speaking about nature, that of the technocrat, but it gradually dawned on me that the two authors were railing against the technocracy in their own form of techno-speak.  I wanted to like the book, I really did, but while I was full of admiration for these two men, mostly for their willingness to jab a stick in the environmental hornets’ nest, as I read on it seemed to me that they ultimately lack the larger “vision” they kept calling out for.  They wanted “greatness,” they said, which they conveniently defined as their own Apollo energy proposals. 

One thing that astounded me as I made my way through their text, a text that quickly began to sound a whole lot like a sociology lecture, is that I didn’t encounter a single rock or tree or bird.  And though they wrote about nature, they didn’t seem to like places. Yes, it’s true, believe it or not. They liked the world, or at least they claimed to, but local places, actual neighborhoods or street corners or copses of trees with squirrels in them struck them as, well, kind of yucky. I pictured them up there on the shiny, clean bridge of the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock, or maybe, in their case, Spock and Spock, gazing placidly at a planet on the view screen but never quite wanting to beam down and leave their antiseptic ship.

Their book claims that what drives those of us interested in nature—which they consistently and ridiculously define as “hiking”—is a kind of post-materialist affluence, mocking anyone who might have more complex reasons to seek out the non-human world.  Meanwhile they happily ridicule the contributions of old time enviro heroes like Rachel Carson.  They seem to believe that human beings started to think about nature in the 19th century, around the same time Thoreau did, conveniently forgetting, or misplacing, the million years or so when we lived in the natural world. 

I do admire their willingness to criticize their august environmental forefathers and to suggest that the problems of poverty and environmentalism are deeply intertwined.  Whether or not you agree with them, their take is refreshing in that they try to shake things up, and, for the most part, attempt to translate environmental policy into English while eschewing the gloomy rhetorical style that environmentalists have been known for since the days of Jimmy Carter and his sweater. 

Overall, however, I found the book hard slogging.  The authors constantly stressed the need for a larger “vision,” using the word again and again, but their own vision remains a little murky.  They seemed to suffer from conservative think tank envy, waxing poetic about the Republicans’ ability to appeal to our self-interest through “core values,” as if values were merely strategic and vision merely a selling point.  They suggest, for instance, that environmentalists focus more on “the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building inAmerica.”  Well retrofitting is nice, but not exactly visionary. 

     Disdain might be too strong a word for how the authors feel about artists, but it’s pretty close. I remember reading an interview in the on-line Environmental magazine Grist with these two where they were asked why they’d exhaustively interviewed leading activists but not a single visionary thinker or writer–someone, for instance, like Wendell Berry. Nordhaus replied, “We interviewed the people in the environmental movement who are deciding how to spend tens of millions of dollars annually. . . . I’m sorry, Wendell Berry isn’t the person deciding how the enviro movement is going to construct its campaign to address global warming.” 

     And there it is. When it comes to their number one priority, forming a vision of a new environmentalism, Wendell Berry is not relevant. Wendell Berry, who has spent the last forty years or so fashioning an original, idiosyncratic, and brilliant body of work that often focuses on committing to, and fighting for, the places where we live. Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue against the false separation and specialization of different groups, but they apparently think they have nothing to learn from a mere writer. Which is more than a little problem. After all, if you are going to construct your argument around the need for a “vision,” can you really ignore visionaries?


            Then there’s a much larger problem.  The authors tell us that environmentalists don’t acknowledge the potential of human beings, and that they, on the other hand, hope to free our great human potential.  But their view of human beings is reductive, cobbled together from a mish-mash of humanist psychologists, neo-conservative critics and what they keeps stressing are the great breakthroughs of social psychology over “the last fifty years.”  What does it all add up to?  That they sell human beings way short.  Specifically, they do this by discounting, for all their talk of vision, the power of ideas.  Take environmentalism, for instance.  According to the authors it came about in the 1960s because we as a society had become “post-material” and affluent, which led to the great liberal agenda that environmentalism was part of.  They dismiss as antiquated and dusty anyone who buys into the old mythos, anyone who dares believe that actual thinkers and writers, like Rachel Carson, had an influence on how people acted. Carson’s story in fact is just the sort of cobwebbed tale they think we must get rid of.  They don’t exactly explain why this is so, nor do they rebut the impact of her ideas on her times—how, for instance, Carson’s book led directly to the congressional hearings that would lead to the banning of DDT or the founding of the EPA, but we are supposed to buy their premise, based on a crazy quilt of sources, that environmentalism’s flowering owed nothing to ideas but was a mere sociological byproduct of wealth.  

The most thought-provoking chapter in their book is that onBrazil, but it follows an argument that is deeply confusing.  It goes a little like this.  Americans are really only concerned about the environment because we are affluent and “post-materialist” (not because human beings evolved in nature) and other countries will only care about the environment once they become post-material.  Therefore it is imperative that we, rather than in any way try to restrain growth, encourage other nations, likeBrazil, to follow us down the post-materialist path.  So how can we help save the rainforest?  Since only post-materialists can care about the environment, we need to create economic stimulus packages (like the authors’ Apollo initiative)  so that other countries become affluent, and post-material, and therefore are ready to save their environment that—ooops—will have disappeared in the process of becoming post-material.  They claim we are hypocrites not to try and help others to have what the United States has, but then again they acknowledge that if others have what we have the world will be ruined.

            Shellenberger and Nordhaus begin their book by citing Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and end by again claiming that what we need is vision.  But Martin Luther King’s vision was a clear and passionate one: all men should be treated equally and fairly.  Here is their dream: “Countries should achieve an abundance similar to the United Statesand gradually achieve a post-materialism that will allow them, gradually, to get interested in environmentalism (and hiking.)”  Not quite as catchy as King’s you must admit.  It makes you wonder why they so dislike the old dream—the one about “saving the world.”


  1. Dave writes:


    You might be going psychic on us…..1. The next place I’m heading with my internal wrestling match is fiction and 2. We will be discussing Freedom here soon…..Your comment is right on. DG

  2. John Jack writes:

    Dave, I’m sensing a consistent thread warping and wefting through your posts. You seem to be on the horns of a personal dilemma. One one hand, you’re deeply conscious of your environmental obligations. One the other hand, you’re resistant to routine reactionary, radical, militant environmental ideologues. On another hand, you three-handed son of a bob, you’re feeling a strong need to go all reactionary yourself, though through a fresh, vigorous, proactive approach that will actually yield progressive results. You’ve got one heck of a dramatic complication there I feel you’re seeking to finalize. Something’s gotta be done about the environment now, before it’s too late. What, I don’t know, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has questions, complications, answers, and outcomes Walter Berglund realizes.