Politics & Policy

A New Breed of American Environmentalists Challenges the Stale Dogma of the Left

Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger (center) (Image via TheBreakthrough.org)

While world leaders in Paris this month push for sacrifice and austerity to save the planet, one American environmental group is boldly pushing back. A new breed of environmentalists — including many former hard-core greens — is promoting “ecomodernism,” a fresh approach that challenges the dogma of the traditional environmental movement.

Ecomodernists have a more optimistic, capitalistic, and sensible world view than their old-guard counterparts. And if the Paris conference fails to produce results, ecomodernists could represent a new path forward on both environmental and global-growth issues. “Instead of viewing environmental problems as a sign of the coming apocalypse, we instead view them as unintended consequences of development,” says one of the movement’s founders, Michael Shellenberger. “We are not going to solve global warming with all of us trying to live with less.”

Shellenberger is a lifelong liberal activist who once worked for groups such as the Sierra Club and Earthjustice. His environmental cred is stellar: Even as a kid, Shellenberger would cast off paper boats lit with small candles every August to commemorate the Hiroshima bombings. During the anti-nuke 1980s, he was swayed by the documentary The Day After and other films that showed doomsday scenarios about nuclear proliferation. “I was anti-nuclear my whole life.”

RELATED: Fossil Fuels and Morality

Now Shellenberger is the standard-bearer for ecomodernism, which promotes — among other things — nuclear energy as the cleanest, cheapest way to power the planet, especially for off-the-grid developing countries. “When I looked at the challenge of global energy and development needs, I changed my mind.”

Nuclear power wasn’t his only epiphany. He eventually realized how out of sync the movement was with most Americans. In 2004, Shellenberger rebuked most of his peers when he co-authored a lengthy essay, “Death of Environmentalism,” that criticized the movement’s leaders for failing to consider core American values in its approach:

Environmental groups have spent the last 40 years defining themselves against conservative values like smaller government, fewer regulations, and free trade, without ever articulating a coherent morality we can call our own. Most of the intellectuals who staff environmental groups are so repelled by the Right’s values that we have assiduously avoided examining our own in a serious way.

Unlike the activists gathering in Paris who will blame human activity for every problem from melting sea ice to terrorism, ecomodernists embrace human ingenuity and modernity as the best way to mitigate the impact of a changing climate. But what’s most impressive about this group is how unafraid they are to take on their own former allies, and indeed even those with whom they are still otherwise politically compatible. “The Left went wrong in becoming anti-modern,” Shellenberger readily admits. “Only a small part of their agenda has to do with the environment. It’s kind of this romanticized, idealized reaction to modern life.”

Ecomodernists have no problem taking on the climate hypocrites who talk one way and act another.

The ecomodernist policy agenda is at odds with the world’s biggest environmental groups, including Greenpeace. Ecomodernists are pro-fracking. They advocate genetically engineered crops (GMOs) to help feed millions of malnourished and starving people and to relieve subsistence farmers from back-breaking agrarian work. They question how renewables such as wind and solar can scale up enough to eventually power a world with 9 billion people living in it. And they have no problem taking on the climate hypocrites who talk one way and act another; the group called their annual meeting this summer the “anti-Davos,” clearly a jab at the global elites who fly their private jets to Switzerland every year to hand-wring about global warming.

RELATED: Davos’s Destructive Elites

Most distinctively, the ecomodernists are pro-growth and pro–free markets. “The Kardashians are not the reason Africans are starving,” chides Alex Trembath, a senior researcher at the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, Calif., which advances ecomodernist ideas. Trembath is another hard-core convert; raised by liberal, Christian-theology professors who were also environmentalists, Trembath started to question the movement’s tenets in college: “Climate risks are real and we should aim to reduce fossil-energy consumption as quickly as possible” he says. “But fossil fuels are not without tremendous benefits and are not poisons forced upon us by some evil corporation.” Trembath resists the concept of shared misery, following a Reaganesque logic: “Let’s not all live in poverty, let’s lift everyone out of poverty. We need to pursue a capitalist agenda to succeed and learn from the past mistakes of modernization without throwing out modernization altogether.”

And although the ecomodernists are still climate-change adherents, they dispute the claim by President Obama and other world leaders that it’s the direst international threat we face. In their “Ecomodernist Manifesto” co-authored by Shellenberger and released earlier this year, the group clear-headedly asserts their priorities:

Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. For millions living without light and forced to burn dung to cook their food, electricity and modern fuels, no matter the source, offer a pathway to a better life, even as they also bring new environmental challenges.

There’s even a strain of patriotism often lacking in liberal dialogue about any issue. “Look at China, it’s making all the same mistakes we [the U.S.] have,” Shellenberger told an Australian audience a few years ago. “Such as longer life spans, greater energy consumption, and better medical access? We look at the next century and we are very excited about the potential.”

RELATED: The Environmentalists’ Civil War

The ecomodernists’ optimism might be contagious. This week, high-profile climate-conference attendees such as Bill Gates and President Obama seem to be echoing the can-do American spirit of the ecomodernists. On Monday, Gates announced a new initiative called (not ironically) the Breakthrough Energy Coalition to unleash a pool of private capital to spur R&D for clean-energy ideas. And after meeting with Gates in Paris, President Obama said Tuesday: “Human ingenuity responds when things need to get done. It spurs innovation.”

Now that kind of cheerfulness should not only drown out the doom-and-gloomers in Paris but might even get Republicans engaged on these issues once again. At the very least, it’s a refreshing and compelling departure from the 40-year blame game about climate change.

Julie Kelly is a food writer, cooking instructor, and owner of Now You’re Cooking in Orland Park, Ill. You can reply to her on Twitter @Julie_Kelly2.

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