Magazine | July 18, 2011, Issue

An Environmental Reformation

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
Standing up to Pope Carl

When Gregg Easterbrook’s voluminous book A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism was published in 1995, it received the predictable reaction from the environmental community: outrage. Despite — or probably because of — Easterbrook’s bona fides as a mainstream-liberal writer for The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Newsweek, the environmental lobby swung into full distort-and-denounce mode. The Environmental Defense Fund, for example, alleged the existence of factual errors that “substantially undermine his thesis that many environmental problems have been overstated.”

Something similar happened in 2001 when Bjorn Lomborg published The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, which also argued that most environmental problems were overestimated and most global conditions were stable or improving. The favorable publicity Lomborg received — even the New York Times wrote well of The Skeptical Environmentalist — sent the environmental community into a rage, and the counterattack was swift. Scientific American devoted a special issue to a tag-team assault that it represented as “science” “defending” itself against Lomborg, as if Lomborg were the Vatican censuring Galileo. The tacit premise of the attacks on Lomborg seemed to be that environmental optimism is “beyond the pale of respectable discourse,” as The Economist put it.

Lomborg’s most egregious heresy was over global warming. Although Lomborg conformed to the conventional green view that global warming is happening and may have a serious impact a century from now, he departed from the script when he pointed out that Kyoto-style emissions reductions failed any reasonable cost-benefit test. This venture into “the emperor has no clothes” territory inspired Rajendra Pachauri, the head of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to say the following to a Danish newspaper in 2004: “What is the difference between Lomborg’s view of humanity and Hitler’s? . . . If you were to accept Lomborg’s way of thinking, then maybe what Hitler did was the right thing.”

The examples of rigidly enforced conformity could fill several volumes, and no amount of criticism from outside the environmental citadel is likely to break though the walls. So, is there any chance that reform will come from within?

Perhaps. There have been some signs that the stranglehold of environmental orthodoxy is weakening, beginning with the provocative jeremiad about “the death of environmentalism” that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger delivered at the 2004 annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the left-leaning conclave of funders who fork over the green for the greens. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are two veterans of left-liberal causes, having consulted for labor unions, advocates of tax increases, gay-rights groups, and the whole rainbow of environmental organizations, including Earth First! So, needless to say, when they unleashed a scathing critique of the environmental movement, Nordhaus and Shellenberger were denounced every bit as much as Easterbrook and Lomborg had been. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope, perhaps the most doctrinaire member of the environmental politburo, pronounced himself “angered” by the “death of environmentalism” critique, and further blasted Nordhaus and Shellenberger as self-promoters, which may be the most extravagant example ever of the pot’s calling the kettle black.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger kept at it, though, extending their critique into a 2007 book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, which I reviewed, mostly favorably, here in NR (“Green Death?” Dec. 31, 2007). In brief, the book argued against the essential Malthusianism of environmentalists, spoke up for economic growth, and blasted the environmental lobby for having become a narrow and unthinking special interest. The empire struck back again against the “bad boys of environmentalism” (as they became known), but the script hasn’t played out the same way. Slowly and quietly, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have been gaining fervent allies among journalists, scientists, and even some figures of prominence deep inside the environmental establishment itself. While not embracing the skeptical view of global warming, the duo fiercely rejects the climate campaign’s agenda of deep emissions reductions, and in 2009 produced some of the most withering critiques of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. They’ve also dumped all over Obama’s “green jobs” fraud; the pair called it “green jobs for janitors” in The New Republic. It is almost as if they nailed their 95 theses to the door of the Green Church, and set off a Reformation.

#page#In my review of their book four years ago, I noted: “By the end it becomes clear that Nordhaus and Shellenberger aren’t just trying to save environmentalism; they are trying to save liberalism, which they consider nearly as intellectually dead as environmentalism.” Lately this ambition has taken wing, with their modest think tank, the Breakthrough Institute (based in Oakland, Calif.), sponsoring a conference called “Modernizing Liberalism” and launching the quarterly Breakthrough Journal. I attended the conference as the conservative provocateur; it seemed to be concentrated wholly on ideas, with no grubby calculations about how to keep liberal interest groups happy.

In their inaugural essay in Breakthrough Journal outlining what is meant by “modernizing” liberalism, Shellenberger and Nordhaus offered a number of departures from current liberal orthodoxy, including: “A new progressive politics must take liberalism’s commitment to broadly-shared prosperity forward while leaving the old, redistributive agenda behind.” Despite these and other tergiversations, the duo resist the label “neoliberal,” not simply out of discomfort with the symmetry of the now-dreaded “neoconservative” but also because they think the neoliberalism of the 1980s and 1990s conceded too much to minimal-state libertarianism. They still believe in a strong role for the state as a modernizing force, but correctly perceive that liberalism’s current power brokers (such as labor unions) are in fact reactionary forces, standing in the way of modernization, whether midwived by the state or by the private sector.

But their work on environmentalism remains the point of the spear in this effort. Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, is an ally, speaking enthusiastically of nuclear power, genetically modified crops, reviving extinct species through genetic engineering, and other “environmental heresies,” as he put it at a conference. Brand delights in pointing out that a single organic farm in Germany has recently killed more people than have all the nuclear power plants Germany is rushing to shut down. Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, and two co-authors have a paper slated for the next issue of Breakthrough Journal that will smash many of the established icons of the standard-issue environmentalism, such as the cliché about the “fragility” of nature — “an obsolete paradigm of traditional conservation.”

Beyond the growing movement Shellenberger and Nordhaus have catalyzed, there are additional signs that at least a few within the environmental establishment are starting to have some long-overdue second thoughts. There are starting to appear serious books from major publishers that not only break with standard environmental orthodoxy but verge on outright optimism about the planet’s future. Perhaps the most surprising is British journalist Fred Pearce’s The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. There’s not much left standing of Malthus and his epigones (especially Paul Ehrlich) after Pearce gets through mauling their factual and conceptual errors. And David Roberts, the deep-green writer for who coined the term “climate hawks” to describe the most dedicated global-warming crusaders, wrote recently in The American Prospect that “after 20 years, it may be time to admit that the climate movement’s fundamental strategy, not a deficit of personal courage or heroic striving, is behind the lack of progress.”

The reform liberalism and realistic environmentalism contemplated in this effort won’t sweep all before it, and, to extend the analogy offered above, the Counter-Reformation of the established interest groups will be ferocious. Part of what is going on here is a generational transition (Shellenberger and Nordhaus are in their 40s), and the fossils of the environmental movement — the Al Gores and Carl Popes — won’t change their minds or their ways. And to be sure, even a modernizing liberalism will have many points of friction with conservatism. But this seems the most promising effort at self-criticism by our liberal cousins in a long time.

I happened by chance into a conversation with a program officer for one of the major liberal foundations in New York a few months ago, and asked, “So — what do you think of Shellenberger and Nordhaus?” He responded: “They’re a couple of a*******!” Pause. “But they’re very smart.”

– Mr. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends.

Steven F. Hayward is a visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He writes daily at

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