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Breaking Through to EcoHumanism

Daniel Clark
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the
Politics of Possibility, Ted Nordhaus and Michael
Shellenberger, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

Break Through is many things. It's another book about global


warming. It's a liberal critique of environmentalism, and of
today's liberalism in general. It's a proposal for new forms of
environmentalism and liberalism. It's a philosophical treatise
on Nature and the Self. And it's a rallying cry for a certain
class of Americans to recognize their existence as a class,
and to band together in a new force for the future evolution
of humanity. The goal is ambitious: to create a political
movement that grows out of a community with shared
values. The values Nordhaus and Shellenberger espouse
might be summed up as ecohumanism.

Humanism is many things, too, varying according the intent


of the one professing it. But its most widely accepted
position is that morality is inherent in each human, and does
not need to be received from a transcendent source. A
corollary is humanism's respect for reason as the proper
avenue for approaching the truth. Humanists are rationalists.
Prominent humanists have included Protagoras, Albert
Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut,
Peter Singer, and Gloria Steinem.

EcoHumanism is a term that's been used by a few scholars


lately. Protagoras declared that "man is the measure of all
things," and ecologists have suspected humanists of being
anthropocentric - a major transgression. To tailor their
convictions to fit the cosmocentrism of the age, some
humanists have pronounced themselves ecohumanists.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger don't use the term. Nor do they
refer to humanism itself. They consider themselves to be
pragmatists. But when they wax philosophical, they are also
ecohumanists.

In their comments about this book, others have chosen to


focus on the authors' proposals for Federal energy policy. On
the Gristmill blog and elsewhere, long discussions have
ensued on emissions trading, 30 billion dollars, and so on.
I'm grateful that so many people so much more qualified
than I are tackling these practical issues. I'm grateful, too,
because it appears the theoretical arena is left wide open for
me to play ball in.

Positive visions - affirmations of prosperity and inventiveness


- abound here. Nordhaus and Shellenberger present "an
imaginative, aspirational, and future-oriented" (p. 2)
approach to topics that often evoke a "doomsday discourse."
(p. 2)

They make a convincing case for a new style of


environmental politics. It is true that so much of it up to now
has been pretty glum. Scare tactics and quasi-religious
Jeremiads from atop moralistic mountains have been the
standard. The authors point out that making the public fearful
tends to achieve the wrong result. Fear of social instability
and fear of death freeze up people and prevent them from
changing the way they think. A fearful public is also
susceptible to the enticements of strong-arm dictators. Thus,
we get the post-9/11 acquiescence to the actions of George
W. Bush.

They argue that prosperity must precede environmental


action. In their chapter on the Brazilian situation, they make
it clear that Brazil's poverty, and their government's opening
up the Amazon region for development to deal with the
poverty, caused the destruction unfolding there.
Furthermore, agencies from more wealthy countries, trying
to make the Amazon their own international project, offend
the dignity of Brazilians, most of whom are far more
concerned about where their next meal is coming from.

Therefore a successful program to alleviate ecological


disruptions must be predicated on economic growth for the
human population. In contrast to those who say things have
to get worse before they get better, Nordhaus and
Shellenberger propose that "things have to get better before
they can get better." (p. 36)

I was really pleased to see them refusing to rely on the


undefineable concepts of "Nature," "natural," and "unnatural"
as ethical or political guideposts. Some years ago, on a deep
ecology listserv, I expressed my own disenchantment with
those terms. My answer was to refer to "the world," "the
creation," "atoms-and-space," "the material world," "the
animal-vegetable-mineral world," "the cosmos," "the
universe," "the totality," or maybe "everything" - anything to
avoid those loaded "Nature"-based words.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger agree that we shouldn't make a


distinction between us and That, which is what the word
"Nature" is all about. They could quote the Hindu aphorism
tat tvam asi - That Is You. On the other hand, they don't stop
using the N word. If they can't replace it with something
better, then a doubt creeps in: have they really gone beyond
that limiting factor?

Well, they have their own concern: "to imagine Nature as


essentially harmonious is to ignore the obvious and
overwhelming evidence of Nature's disharmony." (p. 144)
Sounds good at first. But wait. Environmentalists don't say
nature is harmonious. (Anyway, one thing can't be
harmonious. You have to have two or more.) And they
certainly don't say that nature should harmonize with us.

Environmentalists say humans should harmonize with


nature. Some want a radical-wilderness way of life, others,
most of them, simply want to minimize the dissonances. It
may be true that many have gazed back at a putative golden
age in the past when humans supposedly lived in harmony
with nature. Well, that's wishful thinking. But I doubt any
ecologist was ever unaware of the pain caused to humans
by what we call "natural disasters."

There can be no doubt about the intensity of the authors'


feelings on this topic. The two ecohumanists protest strongly
against the existence of a monolithic, unitary, capital-lettered
Nature. "The way environmentalists think of Nature is as
metaphysical - and as authoritarian - as the way monotheists
think of God." (p. 141) And, "What use is there in referring to
what Nature wants, other than as a strategy to short-circuit
democratic politics by asserting authority from a higher
power?" (p. 144) And higher people, too - they decry "claims
to privileged knowledge and authority" (p. 145) by those who
claim to hear the voice of Nature and speak on its behalf.
They would change the upper case first letters of certain
troublesome nouns and make them plural: Nature becomes
natures, Science becomes sciences.

"We are Nature and Nature is us," (p. 143) they boldly
declare. Do they mean we are part of...That, or do they
mean "man is the measure of all things?" They really
snuggle up against anthropocentrism when they go on to
say, "Whatever actions we choose to take or not to take in
the name of the survival of the human species or human
societies will be natural." (p. 143) They're heaping confusion
upon confusion, employing terms they reject as meaningless
("Nature" and "natural") to justify practically any and all
human activities.

Now we get to their most interesting proposal. "Embracing a


pragmatic, ecological, and scientific multinaturalism
demands that we let go of the outmoded idea of the singular,
natural, and essential self. We are a welter of genes, ideas,
chemicals, mental organs, instincts, emotions, beliefs, and
potentials colliding inside and outside of our skin." (p. 152)

Self becomes selves. The "I" is we.

It turns out, then, that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have


cast their lot on the determinist side of the determinism vs.
free will debate. There is no free will because there is no
center of intention, no motivating agent. Another way of
stating this opposition is nature vs. nurture. In this book there
is no nature, either outside us or inside us. It's all nurture.

Liberals tend to emphasize this aspect of life - Marx's


"economic determinism," for instance - but rarely to such an
extreme. Break Through rests on this response to what the
psychologist Gordon W. Allport called "The Dilemma of
Uniqueness." (Becoming, 1955, p.19)

Here is the conceptual core of the book. Out of that core


grows their critique of environmentalism as we've known it.
And it's the basis for their desire to create "a new post-
industrial social contract" (p. 16) where "self-creation" (p.
179) is the standard. We are open-ended beings, unlimited
in our potential. (But who is the self who's creating the self?)

Don't think this is merely a minor digression in a book


dedicated to energy policy. Not at all. "This book is an
argument against the politics of essentialism and for a
politics of pragmatism...all knowledge is perspectival and all
realities are constantly in the process of changing and
becoming something else." (p. 219) When they assert that
"there is no center or essence of any given ecosystem...
there is no single meaning of global warming" (p.220), and
"There is no single spirit or essence that defines us...we
contain multiple natures, we abandon the idea that humans
are essentially anything" (p. 152), they are also saying that
nothing has a single meaning attached to it. Everything is
pluralistic and relative to anyone's point of view. That's only
one step short of declaring that nothing in the "outer" world
exists, only our "inner" subjective impressions exist. In the
terms of classical philosophy, this is an epistemological
tradition known as Idealism. We do not perceive objective
facts, we perceive subjective ideas.

Perhaps their motivation for such an extreme psychologizing


of reality stems from their feeling that "Putting any particular
nature, rationality, or instinct at the center of our being
strangles our potential." (p. 152) Nordhaus and
Shellenberger don't want to be tied down. They're young,
they're bursting with new ideas, and they insist on breaking
away from the old authorities, the old limits. In fact their
aversion to limits drives them to distort the heritage of the
environmentalists, and to exaggerate the differences
Nordhaus and Shellenberger claim make them unique. They
don't like the "pollution paradigm" because the usual
response to pollution is to impose limits on the pollutants, or
the polluters. Limits are negative, pessimistic, and involve
sacrifice. Though they admit limits have worked to improve
air and water quality, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, pro-
growth cheerleaders to the max, display a deep-seated
antipathy to restrictions. I don't know if they have kids, but
raising children should wake them up to real life's necessity
for the "don'ts" as well as the "dos."

Of course, it's mainly young people they're making an appeal


to - young people and a young culture of mobility and
flexibility characterized by employment in the knowledge and
service sectors, less unionization, identification with
management not labor, individual choice, interactivity,
distrust of authority, and direct communication with power.
(p. 175) They're making their pitch to the "new high-tech
businesses and the new creative class." (p. 16) "And with
young and grassroots environmentalists more inspired by a
vision of creating a new energy economy than regulating the
old one, there's new hope that we will soon see the
emergence of a more expansive, relevant, and powerful
ecological movement." (p. 128) These are the people they
want to join them in telling their "new story about America."
(p. 13)
As a person who works in the high-tech knowledge sector (a
computer specialist in a public library), I warm to their
rousing cheer. But there are too many things about the book
that bother me. One involves gratitude.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger say, "we should see in humility


not timidity but gratitude - a gratitude for the achievements of
our ancestors, the emergence of our species, and the gift of
our existence." (p.272) Nice, but I'd like them to show a little
gratitude for what pioneers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and
Rachel Carson did to create a new mode of consciousness,
an ecological worldview - a foundation for their own
Breakthrough Institute program, for example.

Among the hundreds of other predecessors I want to


mention Amory Lovins. In his 1977 book, Soft Energy Paths,
he wrote, "It is the conservation, solar, environmental and
related social programs, not the refineries and reactors, that
yield the most energy, jobs, and monetary returns per dollar
invested." (SEP p. 9) Lovins' insistence through the years
that appropriate technology can power a strong national
economy prefigures Nordhaus and Shellenberger's promise
of prosperity through innovative clean energy solutions to
deal with global warming. Yet, do they utter a peep of
deference to him or the others who've paved their way? No.
The authors come off like adolescents carping about how
stupid their parents are. Who knows - in doing that, they may
be angling for the adolescent vote, cagily mimicking the
behavior of their prey. Which they do to a fault. It's peculiar
to read their long litanies of complaints about "the
environmental movement's complaint-based approach."
(p. 1)

More important, they accuse the earlier environmentalists of


making a fundamental distinction between humanity and the
rest of the world. "Environmentalists are constantly telling
nostalgic narratives about how things were better in the
past," they state correctly, but then make the claim that
"These stories depict humans not as beings as natural as
any other but as essentially separate from the world." (p. 25)
I find that claim to be absurd.

Let's look at the words of the aforementioned Muir, Leopold,


and Carson.
John Muir wrote of his kinship with his dog, Stickeen: "He
enlarged my life, extended its boundaries. I saw through him
down into the depths of our common nature." (Travels to
Alaska) Muir was so in tune with Yosemite Valley that he'd
climb to the tops of tall pines during violent snowstorms and
ride them as they whipped around in the gales, surrendering
to those "higher forces" Nordhaus and Shellenberger
demean. Aldo Leopold's famous expression "thinking like a
mountain" from A Sand County Almanac hardly drives a
wedge between us and the land. As he said, "Conservation
is a state of harmony between men and land." Rachel
Carson, who gets harsh treatment from the new guys in
town, lays down a basic ecological principle in the first
sentence of the second chapter of Silent Spring: "The history
of life on earth has been a history of interaction between
living things and their surroundings." No mention of a
separate role for humans. Indeed, those who "supposed that
nature exists for the convenience of man" (SS p. 297) get a
strong condemnation from Carson.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger criticize Carson's evocation of


a mythical past "harmony," and do manage to make a case
for an intelligent control of the environment in contrast to her
calling the desire for control "arrogance." In doing so,
however, they avoid the plain truth that Carson, like almost
all environmental writers, assumes that humans are part of
the world, and not apart from it. After all, the first principle of
ecology is the interdependence of all living things in our
global biological system.

The rationalist authors of Break Through still have a tinge of


irrational adolescent ungratefulness to get over.

I suspect it is the holistic aspect of ecology that bothers


Nordhaus and Shellenberger. The interdependent parts of
the whole can control the whole to some extent. But the
whole is a larger entity, and thus in general the whole
controls the parts. The present authors rankle at the thought
of such an "authoritarian" setup. Thus we get no in-depth
discussion of ecology from them. For if they were to do that,
they would have to accede to the notion that the totality is a
"higher power." And they'll have none of that.

So they are left with feeble attempts at building a new


mysticism. "Couldn't the mystical feelings we experience
while with other human animals be mobilized to support a
politics capable of dealing with ecological crises?" (p. 144)
I'd really appreciate an elaboration. Yes, inter-human
relationships can be mystical. D. H. Lawrence, despairing of
our dwindling contact with the vastness of the untamed non-
human world, emphasized the human sex force as a
pathway to the wild. And on the opposite side of the coin, the
guru-disciple relationship is famously mystical. So there is
much to be said on the subject. But the authors don't help us
here.

Even less convincingly, they ask, "Is the pleasure we get


from buying trinkets at the mall any less innate than the
pleasure we get from walking through an ancient redwood
forest?" (p. 143) They're toying with the term "innate," but at
least for myself, I can say that the forest provides me with a
much deeper and more intrinsic pleasure. They might
counter, "Intrinsic, eh? Intrinsic to which of your countless
selves?"

Well, things can get "perspectival," can't they?

These two ecohumanists gaze longingly at the strong bonds


among the Christian faithful, seeing church groups providing
the social network for a vigorous conservative movement.
They quote conservative columnist David Brooks, who said
"nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its
entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think
that movement's views about human nature and society are
true." (p. 34)

Taking their cue from the conservatives, Nordhaus and


Shellenberger declare that "environmental leaders
steadfastly ignore the central role that evolving values play in
shaping society and politics." (p. 35) So, it's up to the
authors. They will uncover the values. They will create a
new, values-based progressive liberalism.

What are the new values? They do not fail us here:

- The post-materialist needs described by Abraham Maslow.

- The "rejection of the idea that any of us have an essential


being or identity that constrains our possibilities" (p. 217) in
Aaron Beck's cognitive therapy.
- The Rise of the Creative Class described by Richard
Florida.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger gather together these and


other strains into a values platform for a contemporary
culture.

For their own version of a "church" where fellow


ecohumanists can gather, they have a site on the Internet,
Breakthrough Institute, with opportunities for interaction
among those who wish to join the community. By January,
2008, their blog had accumulated a modest number of
comments.

Will Nordhaus and Shellenberger succeed? Will they change


the character of the environmental dialog? Will they build a
mass movement with political clout? Will they get bills
passed and subsidies distributed? Let's hope so.

I've been involved in environmental advocacy since the


1970s. Break Through presents social and political
messages that take a refreshing new tack. Yet, the rigid
exclusion of religious feelings does not gain my support.
My Nature Religion (yes, I dare to capitalize) does not
separate me. It unites me with everything in the universe.
There are millions of Americans who feel that way - and not
only Neo-Pagans or Native Americans or back-to-the-
landers, but also members of Christian and other world
religions, a great many young people among them. I wouldn't
want the brave, hopeful message that Nordhaus and
Shellenberger have for us to be rejected because of their
atheistic humanism. But a careful reading of their book might
turn away many prospective advocates.

What should remain with us is their energetic call:


"overcoming global warming demands something
qualitatively different from limiting our contamination of
nature. It demands unleashing human power, creating a new
economy, and remaking nature as we prepare for the future."
(p.113) Through the intelligent application of science and
technology, we can remake our relationship with the rest of
the cosmos - not only to solve the global warming problem,
but also to build a better and more prosperous human
society.

© 2008 Daniel Clark