The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists

The Denialism of Progressive Environmentalists
by Bill Blackwater
Monthly Review, V64N2, June 2012

In 2003 Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two prominent environmental lobbyists, founded the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank dedicated to modernizing what they call “liberal-progressive-green politics.” Its focus is on winning support from mainstream businesses, politicians, and consumers with an attractive message: by developing the right technologies and policy tools, tackling climate change and increasing wealth can go hand-in-hand.

In their essay, “The Death of Environmentalism” (2004) and book, Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists (2007) Nordhaus and Shellenberger focus on educating and disciplining environmentalists to work with the grain of capitalism, rather than against it. Most of all, this has meant attacking that core principle of environmentalist thought—there are limits to economic growth. They say that this is both too negative in tone, and fundamentally wrong when it comes to tackling climate change. It will require massive investment in low carbon technologies, they argue, which in turn will depend on strong and ongoing growth.

In practice, the approach they have adopted to boost the influence of their message (and themselves in the process) is to characterize all opinion within the environmental movement that is redder or greener than theirs as marginal, unrealistic, immature, or elitist. Far from being alone in this, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are representative of a wider school that might be called “progressive environmentalists.”

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