Not Dead Yet

Looking back on the Long Death of Environmentalism Twenty Years Later

Last week, at the final Breakthrough Dialogue, we celebrated and looked back upon the Death of Environmentalism, the essay that gave birth to the Breakthrough Institute, Ecomodernism, and anticipated the contemporary shift in climate policy toward technology and investment centered efforts to address climate change. I opened the event with some reflections of my own, which are published below. It has been a privilege to have worked over so many years to figure out what we really meant by the Death of Environmentalism and an honor to have had the opportunity to work with so many other like minded people.

Thinking back 20 years, to the summer of 2004, when I was writing the Death of Environmentalism with Michael Shellenberger, the thing that I am most struck by is not how clever or prescient we were but how naive. Armed with a ten point plan and some promising polling data, we believed that we had built a better mousetrap and simply couldn’t understand why our colleagues in environmental NGOs and philanthropy weren’t jumping at the chance to get on board.

Even then, it was clear that the mainstream green agenda, which was to regulate emissions in the same way that we had regulated conventional air pollutants, would not work for CO2. It was also clear that trying to make that medicine go down a little easier with some market-based policy instruments would not solve the central political problem, which was that one way or another, deeply cutting pollution and emissions would require substantially raising energy prices.

And yet, when we shopped the idea around Washington, the leading lights of the federal environmental community again and again told us that we had no idea what we were talking about. John Kerry was going to be the next president of the United States and would then, in short order, pass an economy-wide cap and trade program that would put us on the path to beating climate change.

They weren’t entirely wrong about the first part. We really didn’t know what we were talking about. The notion that the federal government could kick America’s fossil fuel habit with a ten year $300 billion investment in clean energy was preposterous. So too the idea that we could do it primarily with wind and solar energy. And that you could revitalize the economy by creating jobs in the energy industry. We weren’t energy experts, after all, we were, respectively, a pollster and a PR guy.

No, the problem wasn’t that we weren’t experts on the subject, it was that they ostensibly were. And they didn’t actually disagree that we could rapidly cut carbon emissions, do it entirely with renewable energy, or get rich in the process. They just believed that all these things would magically materialize once the federal government got on with the business of regulating carbon emissions. “Our job,” the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Director memorably told us, “is to protect the environment, not to create an industrial policy for the United States.”

And yet, the thing that is most remarkable about the Death of Environmentalism, the reason that it has endured, is that despite getting many of the particulars wrong, it got almost all of the big questions right. Global warming is centrally about building a new world, not restricting the old one. It is primarily a technology, investment, and infrastructure challenge, not a regulatory problem. Success requires swimming with, not against, the currents of social, economic, and technological modernization. Climate politics works best when we focus on delivering real social and economic benefits in the here and now, and often when we don’t even talk about climate change at all, not when we threaten apocalypse. It works, in other words, when we tell people about the dream, not the nightmare.

We talked a lot throughout the essay about the need to be guided by a clear vision and set of values and to be radically flexible about everything else. And it was the Death of Environmentalism’s vision and values that ultimately proved correct.

That doesn’t mean that those ideas, that vision, have yet won the day. The dedication to catastrophism among environmentalists is, if anything, more extreme than ever. The suspicion of consumption and development remains and the misanthropic conviction that people are really the problem never lurks far beneath the surface. And even as the basic investment-centered formula for climate progress has largely been adopted by the climate movement, the effort to smuggle in sweeping regulatory mandates along with it appears to be evergreen.

Environmentalism is still very much alive, if not well.

Ultimately, the idea that ecomodernism or some other alternative expression of ecological politics would displace environmentalism is, perhaps, a fool's errand. Environmentalism is, on one level, as much an emergent feature of global modernity as is climate change or urbanization or mass consumption. It can no more be argued with than can a hurricane.

And yet, it must be argued with.

There is a view of ecomodernism that it is just another flavor of environmentalism, bright green with some nuclear energy and biotechnology sprinkled on top. But my view is that this is not the case. The difference between environmentalism and ecomodernism is that one places a thing called the environment at the center of its “ism,” proposing to represent the interests of nature in politics, while the other places modernization at the center, seeing continuing modernization—urbanization, agricultural intensification, energy density, and industrialization—as the key to a future in which both humans and the natural world might thrive.

The decoupling of human material well being from ecological destruction in this view, is inseparable from, and literally the same process as, economic growth. Multifactor productivity growth, to use the technical term, is the thing that both creates economic surplus and spares nature over the long-term.

So against the core environmental idea that economic growth and environmental preservation trade off against each other, ecomodernism tells us that they are in fact each necessary to the other. Continuing economic growth requires technological change that substitutes for or uses resources more efficiently. Sparing nature requires the same. Technology mediates the relationship between material production and consumption and environmental impacts. It is the lever that allows continuing economic growth in the face of resource scarcity and that increasingly liberates human material well-being from the availability of resources and dependence upon ecosystems.

When I think about the journey that I and Breakthrough have been on over the last 20 years, it has been from that initial naivete - and the conviction that something was simply not right, or at least off, with the way that environmentalism’s most powerful institutions and leaders thought about the problem of climate change - to a sense that the trouble with environmentalism had something to do with the placement of this thing called the environment at the center of ecological politics and then, finally, toward a fundamentally different view of the relationship between human well-being and the natural world that sees human liberation from nature not as the end of nature but its salvation.

I don’t think that environmentalism will ever exactly die. It is the secular religion of the post-industrial knowledge classes, grounded in genuflection toward an older relationship between humans and nature that no longer exists for most people on Earth. But what is clear is that ecomodernism is alive and well and a growing force, sometimes explicitly and implicitly, in efforts to actually solve environmental problems. That is the difference between swimming with the current of modernization and imagining that one could ever swim against it. Insofar as ecological politics offers real actionable ways to accelerate technological change and decoupling in this world, it is definitionally ecomodernist. Insofar as it embraces one variant or another of utopian nihilism, it is not. Increasingly, we will all, at least all of us dedicated to accelerating technological change to address both human and environmental challenges, be ecomodernists.

Other Thoughts:

1. I was very happy to be joined at the Dialogue by Peter Teague and Adam Werbach, who both featured prominently in the development of the Death of Environmentalism thesis and its aftermath. We gave Peter the final Breakthrough Paradigm Award. A brief excerpt from my presentation of the award to Peter:

But Peter’s impact on climate and environmental politics goes far beyond the Breakthrough Institute. It has been protean. He was the first Apollo Project funder. The first Green Jobs funder. He was the first environmental funder to recognize that energy poverty was a problem and try to do something about it. We know not to tell people not to think of an elephant because Peter thought to tell the world, and the rest of philanthropy, about George Lakoff. Oh, and also, without quite knowing what he was getting into, Peter was the first person in environmental philanthropy to support nuclear energy.

You can watch the full interview below. Adam has published a very thoughtful reflection on his role at Linkedin that is worth reading too.

2. Roger Pielke Jr has posted some reflections of his own on the Death of Environmentalism at Twenty as well as posting the text of Jesse Ausubel’s remarkable talk on the environmental trinity. You can watch his full talk and presentation here:

3. “If I had a choice between having a politician tout that he helped fund a battery factory or tell people that he wanted to defund the police, I might prefer that he told people that he wanted to defund the police.”

David Shor presented a lot of eye-opening data at the Dialogue on the demographics of the mythical climate voter (Liberal, educated, and already likely to vote) and the political priorities of young voters (much more like the median voter than the mythical climate voter). But by far the most memorable line from his talk was the one above.

Shor’s data on the extreme unpopularity of electric vehicles has surprised a lot of people and has gotten a lot of attention since multiple Dialogue participants tweeted about it. It was not terribly surprising to me, as multiple Democratic pollsters have privately told me the same thing over the last eight months. I suggested this would be the likely outcome of the effort to tie IRA subsidies for EV production and purchase to ambitious regulatory mandates early last year in a Wall Street Journal essay that a lot of EV and IRA boosters took great umbrage at.

You can watch Shor’s presentation, and his discussion of these issues with Ruy Teixeira, Celinda Lake, and Omar Wasow below. Notably for those familiar with the controversy that has linked Wasow and Shor, this panel marked the first time that the two of them had ever met in person.

4. Finally, in the spirit of “not dead yet,” the Union of Concerned Scientists Ed Lyman and a cadre of long time nuclear opponents from the non-proliferation world have published acommentary in Science claiming that the High Assay Low Enriched Uranium (HALEU) fuels that many advanced non-light water reactors will need significantly increase proliferation risk. These fuels are enriched as high as 20%, versus low enriched fuel (LEU) for conventional light water reactors that typically are enriched to around 4% and weapons grade material, which is typically enriched to over 90%.

In reality, there is nothing particularly different from a proliferation perspective between HALEU and LEU. Both require enrichment capability to produce, which is the starting point for any civilian or military use of fissionable uranium. HALEU is somewhat more enriched than LEU, but that just means that theoretically, you need a bit less of it to make a bomb.

Practically, the technical challenges even for state actors, much less non-state actors, to turn either HALEU or LEU into a weapon are very high. First, you have to remove it from a reactor or otherwise commandeer it, while shielding personnel from significant doses of ionizing radiation. Then you have to remove it from its housing, reprocess it, arrange it in an entirely different geometry, and pack a metric ton or so of it into a bomb housing. Then you have to figure out how to pre-ignite it, a technically difficult and extremely precise process without which all that fissionable material won’t detonate. All of this would require a large facility and have a significant radiological footprint, making it difficult to do on the down low. Should you succeed at all of this, you would then have a weapon weighing several tons that is difficult to deliver.

So while such an effort is theoretically possible. The task is not made appreciably easier with HALEU than it is today with LEU and it is not at all clear why any actor with the technical and financial means to do so would choose this pathway, given that there are far more effective ways to develop nuclear weapons capability.