Finished Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. First things first, this book is not claiming that environmentalism is dead. It is making the equally contentious but distinct claim that environmentalism, as it currently stands, should die.
To understand why Nordhaus and Shellenberger make this claim, it is first necessary to understand what they mean by environmentalism. According to the authors, environmentalism today is based on a "politics of limits". The mode of operation for environmental organizations is to limit or prohibit activities that are seen as harming the environment. This in itself is not problematic, but what is problematic, according to Break Through, is that modern environmentalism limits itself to these sorts of activities.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger given the example of harmful development in Brazil. They describe the environmentalist approach to saving the rain forest as limited trying to pressure the Brazilian government to pass laws that are beneficial to the rain forest. However, these actions ignore the reasons for Brazilian deforestation. Brazil actually has some protections in place (e.g., some percent of land must be left in tact by the owners), but those protections are not enforced (it is not easy to police a giant remote forest). Furthermore, violations of those protections are almost encouraged by other laws which say that homesteaded land can only be kept if it is used, leading people to large scale clearing of the land to show they are "using" it.
The second issue that the authors claim is ignored by environmentalists is the widespread poverty in Brazil. Going out and destructively homesteading the rain forest is appealing to many because there are not opportunities for them to make a good living in the cities.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger do not think that laws limiting destruction of the rain forest should be completely ignored. However, they criticize environmentalists for thinking that issues such as stable governments, poverty, and enforcement of the law are outside of the interests of environmentalists. Nordhaus and Shellenberger advocate policies that get at the root cause of environmental problems, not just the symptoms.
The authors claim that the politics of limits work even worse when it comes to solving a problem like global climate change. Deforestation, air pollution, water pollution, and other traditional environmental problems are very visible and, therefore, very easy to make people aware of. However, global climate change is not very visible. There are images of the effects of global climate change, but images (however sad) of polar bears lacking ice are not nearly as visceral are images of rivers on fire or pollution over Los Angeles.
The authors also claim that the politics of limits is a politics that only work when people feel secure. When people feel their job is secure, their mortgage will be paid, and they can put food on the table, they are willing to address at issues with more long term negative effects such as pollution or global climate change. When they fear for their jobs, homes, ability to put gas in their cars, as has recently been and currently is the case in the United States, they tend to focus on those primary needs and to reject anything that could threaten those needs in the short term (such as environmental limits). Nordhaus and Shellenberger are claiming here that modern environmentalism, despite its sometimes anti-development stance, is actually a product of prosperity and security.
This is why they propose replacing the "politics of limits" of current environmentalism with a "politics of possibility". They propose that environmentalism should have a wider range of interests that appeal to people's desire to have physical and emotional security. Thus, they propose shifting some, if not most, of the focus of environmentalism from limits to things like job creation and clean energy. These are things that people can get behind because they make them feel better about their lives, and they address root problems of many environmental problems. People in developing nations are not (and should not) going to accept being told that they have to continue living in poverty so that pollution does not increase. People in those countries, will support initiatives that help get them out of that poverty, and saving the world, under hopeful conditions, will just increase support.
I really enjoyed the core message of Break Through. I do agree that environmentalism should be about assessing and addressing root causes as well as obvious problems, and I do agree that a politics of possibility has a lot more potential than a politics of limits. However, I do have some criticisms of the book. The tone the authors use often implies that those people who are part of the politics of limits did a little that was useful and are now completely useless. I disagree with this implication. It is not bad for existing organizations to feel that they should stay focused on their mission statement. Instead of criticizing them, the authors should show them that there are more effective methods and they will either change or obsolete the existing organizations (note that the authors have started the Break Through Institute, so they are doing something. It is just their sometimes tone I find off putting).
My second criticism is of their desire for the "death of environmentalism". First, I do not think they really believe it. I think it is mostly an eye grabbing technique. However, if they do need it, I do not think it is called for. I think that the actions of current environmentalism have a place in a new environmentalism. That place may be less central, but the types of problems current environmentalism is effective at solving have not been completely solved, so the organizations are not obsolete.
However, overall Break Through is a very interesting and insightful read and was certainly worth my time.