Wired Calls for the Death of Environmentalism

May 21, 2008 | Michael Shellenberger,

Wired just went live with a powerful challenge to environmentalists as its cover story for its June 2008 issue.

Dave Roberts at Grist is, predictably, freaking out. (You can always tell when Dave finds something exciting because he goes on and on about how boring it is.)


The special issue is the opposite of boring. It's totally provocative and interesting. While I don't agree with all of it (I'd like our few remaining old-growth forests to remain standing!) Wired nails a bunch of hugely important issues that greens (that means you, Dave) still haven't grappled with.

Invest in clean energy manufacturing in China. How do we create a win-win economic relationship with China that drives down the price of clean energy as quickly as possible? Wired points out that China has the potential to radically drive down the price of manufacturing clean technologies like wind and solar. The problem, as we argue in a forthcoming issue of Democracy Journal, neither Kyoto nor any other cap-centered plan will do this. A better U.S.-China accord would be centered on technology and infrastructure investments, not pollution limits.

Get over your agrarian nostalgia. Enviros need to get over their agrarian nostalgia. Dave insists they already have. I'd say that many post-boomer greens have. But not all. This nostalgic quote below is typical of the discussion at the youth climate web site, It's Getting Hot In Here:

Why is electricity necessary to lift people out of poverty? Have you considered that people can live rich, fulfilling lives without electricity or with subsistence, agrarian lifestyles?

Over the last three years I've visited a couple of dozen colleges and universities, and spoken to hundreds of students. I'd say that the climate and student movement is about evenly split between those focused on limits and possibility. What sometimes gets expressed as an anti-capitalism is often more a farrago of anti-modern views than the Grundrisse. It goes something like this: indigenous people were closer to Nature. Our distance from the land makes us incapable of dealing with ecological problems. We all need to do with less. If only we lived on farms.

Which leads to other item Wired says greens need to get over:

Biotech. We need to invent things that will burn clean or eat carbon.

Organics. Conventional ag often emits less carbon (though I must say it's not clear to me how thoroughly Wired sourced this one).

Preparedness and Adaptation.

A no-brainer -- or at least it should be.

Here's Wired:

In his 1992 best seller, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore derided adaptation as "a kind of laziness, an arrogant faith in our ability to react in time to save our own skin." Better to take Stewart Brand's advice from the opening page of the original Whole Earth Catalog: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it." We're in charge here. Let's get to work.

Can I get an amen?

Wired must have known that it's issue would hit the stands just as the Senate was taking up climate legislation. Here's Wired's twist of the knife:

Carbon Offsets Don't Work

A few fun facts: All the so-called clean development mechanisms authorized by the Kyoto Protocol, designed to keep 175 million tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere by 2012, will slow the rise of carbon emissions by ... 6.5 days. (That's according to Roger Pielke at the University of Colorado.) Depressed yet? Kyoto also forces companies in developed countries to pay China for destroying HFC-23 gas, even though Western manufacturers have been scrubbing this industrial byproduct for years without compensation. And where's the guarantee that the tree planted in Bolivia to offset $10 worth of air travel, for instance, won't be chopped down long before it absorbs the requisite carbon?

As usual, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke provides the factual kicker (does that guy ever sleep? Last time I checked he was in a huge debate over climate modeling -- and both Roberts and Romm, masters of the innuendo, used the debate as another chance to imply that Roger is a skeptic -- without ever coming out and saying so.)

Four Fault Lines on Climate

The argument of Break Through is that climate change is creating new fault lines in the society and in politics, ones that no longer fall along the "environmentalist/anti-environmentalist" dichotomy. Wired -- whose whole special issue is motivated by the threat of climate change the failure of greens to deal with it -- arrives at a similar place.

I would define these fault lines as:

1. Limits to Growth vs. Green Growth. If you think economic growth is only a problem and not also a solution, you are a limits-person. If you think we can limit our way to 50 percent emissions reductions worldwide by 2050 -- a time we are expected to have doubled our energy consumption -- you are a limits-person. If you think China will slow its growth because of climate change, you are a limits-person.

But, if you think that the only way out of the crisis is to grow our way out of the crisis -- both with markets and government investment, regulation, and adaptation -- then you are a green growth person.

2. Investment-centered or regulation-centered. If you think we can price and regulate our way to a clean energy economy, you're regulation-centered. Regulation-types like Romm and Roberts believe in some modest public investment in technology and infrastructure. Both believe investment should be a small part of the equation, and a low political priority. Both see emissions caps as the main policy play.

Breakthrough Institute holds a different perspective. For us, investment in tech and infrastructure is the main play. Regulation can help, but ultimately what's required are massive public investments, on the order of $30 to $80 billion per year from the U.S., and somewhere closer to $150 billion from all developed countries, every year. And it's far better politics to invest to make clean energy cheap rather than regulate to make dirty energy expensive.

3. Technology. Some of us -- like Breakthrough and Romm -- are open to coal or natural gas with carbon capture and storage (it was odd that Wired didn't mention this one), nuclear, and GMOs. Others -- at least half if not more of the environmental movement -- is against these things.

4. Adaptation as Important as Mitigation. Most greens don't believe adaptation is as important as mitigation. (Exhibit A: Joe Romm on Katrina.) Happily, this is changing. It turns out that Lieberman Warner would put a whopping $20 billion a year to it, showing that the national environmental groups who wrote Lieberman-Warner have embraced adaptation but still haven't embraced investment (which gets a measly $10 billion per year).


Taka, thank you for your comment.

There are certainly dangers associated with uranium mining, as with any other form of mining, and those dangers are further exacerbated by risks associated with radiation exposure (although coal and other hard rock miners are often exposed to radiation as well, and the burning of coal releases relatively large amounts of uranium and other radioactive materials into the atmosphere as well).

We did not include a factoid for recent fatalities from uranium mining, and much of the earlier mining impacts, such as those in the article you cited, were fueled by demand from the military nuclear weapons apparatus, not later civilian nuclear power operations. Like the early history of coal mining (which we don't include here), the early history of uranium mining is clearly much worse than today's operations, although both coal and uranium mining still have their impacts.

It's also worth noting in this context though, that pound-for-pound, uranium is a couple orders of magnitude more "energy dense" than coal, meaning much much less uranium must be mined, processed, 'burnt' and then reprocessed or stored to produce a given amount of energy, compared to coal. In other words, whereas coal ore, fuel and waste are measured in quantities of hundreds, thousands or even billions of tons, 'equivalent' quantities or uranium are probably described in terms of hundreds of pounds or dozens of tons. Much of the environmental and human impacts of mining and waste thus scale proportionately.

In the end though, as you clearly understand, all forms of energy have their risks and impacts (which was much the point of this post), and the key is to examine their relative risks and impacts to make informed decisions about our energy supply options. Thanks for stopping by Taka. Cheers...

By Jesse Jenkins on 2010 05 17

Michael -

Good luck on the technology deep dive. I know a lot of folks in the energy engineering area if anyone needs some technical assistance.


By R Margolis on 2008 05 23

Richard - Glad to hear you'd consider a CCS loophole for the coal moratorium. It's notable that while I disagree with guys like Joe Romm on a lot things, we both support CCS, as does James Hansen and, as Lindsay and Teryn pointed out in their posts, the IPCC.

In opposing CCS I think the environmental movement is being reflexively rather than thoughtfully anti-technology. Why? Because it's hard to see any movement shutting down coal burning in China and the rest of Asia any time soon. Indeed, this is never even proposed as a scenario in the IGHIH comments. Rather, there is a lot of stuff about the heartbreak, which I can appreciate, over MTR, and the value of pre-modern life, which I do not appreciate, mostly because I spent a significant amount of time in my twenties living in Latin American, occasionally in peasant communities, and thus fairly quickly got over whatever romantic view I had of pre-modern living.

Given the challenge of stabilizing emissions by 2025 (or earlier) to avoid rising above 500 ppm (or higher), I think there is likely to be a very important role played by deploying carbon capture devices near burning smokestacks to sequester the carbon. Air capture tech doesn't require compatibility, and thus has the advantage of being deployable with existing coal plants.

My understanding is that from an engineering perspective it's not that hard to do -- what's been missing has been the public or private money to do it.

But beyond the merits of any given solution, what I think is important is that the climate movement (student and otherwise) answer the question: what really matters given the reality of climate change and China's demand to modernize?

I think Wired was trying to answer that question, and even if you don't agree with all of it, the impulse to focus on what matters is laudable.

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 05 22

Well, Michael...if you had noticed my use of the future tense "we can't let the coal industry become a undead industry" - I mean that if we get a serious carbon cap bill, which is what I was discussing, the coal industry knows that it could mean their elimination (in the United States) so they are trying to guarantee any bill will sustain their industry through massive payouts. I certainly did not mean that they are 'currently' an undead industry. But hey, this is a blog and we make quick reads sometimes.

I think I did mention your concern about a few of their statistics...but I am worried that you jumped to trumpet a story that to me seemed poorly researched or written.

Finally, I am not anti-technology and have overseen an investment driven approach to climate change on my campus. However, many of the technologically savvy people that I work with have expressed tremendous concern about the rhetorical positioning of CCS as a solution, particularly when it is probably not immediately applicable to start bending the carbon curve down. I have made myself clear that I am willing to consider a CCS loophole in a coal moratorium if they have to compete on a fair playing field with renewables and gas, especially as you have noted coal is rising in price.

Lastly, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about China on both sides, both yours and people mythologizing some pretty abject poverty. I wrote my thesis on China, but I think I will try and get some Chinese youth voices to tell their story about sustainable development - even though it will be tricky.

By Richard Graves on 2008 05 22

Teryn and Jesse deserve credit, anyway. So far they seem pretty alone.

This summer, our 14 Breakthrough Fellows are going to be taking a deep dive into technology policy for dealing with the energy and climate challenge. None of us are engineers, but we're going to do our best to understand the state of a few different technologies anyway, as case studies in what it would take to stabilize emissions. Wish us luck!

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 05 22

I will certainly give IGHIH kudos for looking more holistically at the energy issue. When I was in college discussing energy, coal was often ignored. The ideals of the world living off of pastoral organic farms, off the grid power, and no capitalism pre-date even my college days. wink

... and it would also be nice to see more folks with an engineering background on IGHIH. Increased technical discussions would give a better idea of the challenges of reaching a low carbon world.

By R Margolis on 2008 05 22

"It seems perfectly reasonable to me to call international 'development' genocide."

--ItsGettingHotInHere Contributor

Just because you were the ItsGettingHotInHere blogmaster, Richard, does not mean this is your fault. But it does raise questions about how we can form a more thoughtful and educated youth blogging community.

By Teryn Norris on 2008 05 22

Pseudo-Marxists, Richard, pseudo. Actual Marxists aren't anti-moderns. And I'm not suggesting everyone there is anti-modern -- clearly, Jesse and Teryn aren't -- but from the looks of the comments Teryn and Jesse's posts received, it seems most IGHIH commenters are.

It warms the heart to see Millenial greens carrying on the tradition, started by their parents, of insisting that poor people, in this case the Chinese, shouldn't want prosperity.

As for fact-checking, I made it clear that I disagreed with some of the Wired items.

Speaking of shoddy research, your claim that the global coal industry is on life support ("what I think we all agree we can't afford is to let the coal industry become a undead industry") and will die without subsides from cap and trade ("kept alive only by the subsidies it sucks out of a carbon auction scheme to develop carbon capture and storage to outfit their new plants") is belied by the global coal boom, not just in China but in Europe as well. In the face of growing demand, coal prices have risen from $23/metric ton in 2003 to $134/metric ton. All of that happening without cap and trade.

Please keep me posted as to how your efforts to convince the Chinese to stop burning coal work out.

By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 05 22

Hey Michael,

Thanks for characterizing It's Getting Hot in Here as being a bunch of agrarian Marxists. We picked our logo as young people lifting up a wind turbine, echoing Iwo Jima, because the Energy Action Coalition doesn't believe in Energy.

Also, kudos for promoting a story that was so shoddily researched it is appalling. I noticed you were worried about their research on old-growth forest.

Well, how is this for an example. They compare a single window mounted air conditioner for a house in Arizona to be comparable to central heating for a house in the Northeast. Their A/C quote source: http://www.thegreenguide.com/calculators/ac-co2.mhtml
See the article: http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/16-06/ff_heresies_02ac
Seriously, this is ridiculous.

By Richard Graves on 2008 05 22


By Michael Shellenberger on 2008 05 22

I dunno, Michael, I gotta say, I found it sort of boring too.

1) Cities vs Rural, I'm not freaking kidding you. I totally read that in Glamour (or was it Cosmo) a year ago. Sorry Wired, scooped by Glamour. Again.

2) A/C is okay. Are people seriously out there demonizing A/Cs? I don't use mine, but I also don't use my heat either. Gotta love LA.

2) Organic vs Local. Don't they know? Local is the New Black.

3) Farm forests. This one was just dumb. Moving on.

4) China is the answer!! Seriously, does Wired think that they really are the first to come up with these ideas? And that they're really that heretical? Heretical isn't China might develop alternative energy technology! Heretical would be: global warming is awesome and we should all be thrilled to bits for Canadian mangoes!

5) Genetic engineering. Okay, this one was sort of interesting. I'll give them that one. Not sure I buy it, but it was interesting.

6) Blah blah blah, we know.

7) Nuclear power, call me when you solve NIMBYism.

8) Used cars: umm, given the number of non-consumerist enviros, I'd say this is hardly controversial.

9) Adaptation. I'll give them this one too. Not because I think it's anything new, but I think people should be paying more attention to this.

I dunno. I was really excited to check this out when I read your post, but, personally, I didn't find anything in it particularly controversial or innovative. I guess for a mainstream mag it did a decent job though....

By arduous on 2008 05 22

The Wired article is a reminder that some of the debate is as much ideological as it is technical or economic. So often I hear that carbon is the big problem, but don't use CCS, or don't use nuclear, or don't... To an outsider this sounds like carbon must not be such a problem if the change advocates can be so choosey. grin

By R Margolis on 2008 05 21