Rachel's Democracy & Health News #997, February 5, 2009
THE EMBARRASSING DEATH OF ENVIRONMENTALISM
[Rachel's introduction: The essay, "Death of Environmentalism" has now been expanded into a book called "Break Through" in which two 30- something white guys claim they can show us the way to a new "politics of possibility" including "a new and better ecological movement." It's embarrassing.]
Review of: Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through; From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Boston and N.Y.: Houghton-Mifflin, 2007).
By Peter Montague
It's hard to scan the environmental movement without running into a little elephant in the room -- an essay called "The Death of Environmentalism" published in late 2004 by a couple of 30-something white guys, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Nordhaus is a pollster and Shellenberger identifies himself as a "strategist." Their essay lit up the horizon for a couple of years -- variously interpreted as a new day dawning or the glow from a fire bombing.
"The Death of Environmentalism" (which I call "Death," for short) criticized the environmental movement for
(a) separating "the environment" from issues like jobs, safe streets, and health care,
(b) offering a message that was too negative, and
(c) proposing solutions that were too technical and too narrow instead of offering an inspiring vision tied to values that voters hold dear.
"Death" caused a stir, perhaps because there was some truth to some of its claims. For the past 30 years, Big Green groups in D.C. -- who are "the environmental movement" in most people's eyes -- have focused on restricting harmful emissions rather than promoting a vision of a sustainable society. In general, they have not given two hoots about workers, people of low income, or people of color. They have advocated more efficient, less-polluting automobiles, without stumping for major investment in public transit. They have tried to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants, instead of embracing a vision of Solartopia. So "Death" was partly right.
"Death" was also partly self-serving. In 2003, Nordhaus and Shellenberger had helped start the "Apollo Alliance" and were dreaming up other projects, such as the "Breakthrough Institute" (where "The era of small thinking is over"), so they needed funding. One way to get funding for a new project is to bash the people who have the funding now. (The "Death" essay was first presented at a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. It worked. Funding was diverted in a pretty big way.)
Flush with notoriety, new funding, and invitations to speak, Nordhaus and Shellenberger then turned their essay into a book called "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility." When the book arrived, I was expecting "Death" warmed over, but what I found was something entirely different. Here's where it gets embarrassing.
The aim of the book, we are told, is to offer us nothing less than a grand strategy for remaking America -- a "politics of possibility," as the subtitle of the book says. The goals of the book are grandiose -- not only a new industrial policy for the U.S. [pg. 228] but a "new social contract" [pg. 40], all driven by a new and better ecological movement. [pg. 128]
To my surprise, between the "Death" essay and the "Breakthrough" book, the emphasis changed completely. "Death" was about the failure of big, national environmental groups to address global warming: "Over the last 15 years environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it." [pg. 6] And: "The institutions that define what environmentalism means boast large professional staffs and receive tens of millions of dollars each year from foundations and individuals." [pg. 11] "Death" was an attack on Big Green.
In contrast, in 344 pages the "Breakthrough" book mentions very few national organizations (Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and it even gets NRDC's name wrong [pg. 201]). No, the target of attack in "Breakthrough" is no longer the big corporate-funded enviros like NRDC and EDF; now it's the scrappy people-of-color environmental justice (EJ) movement and the grass- roots community-based environmental movement (which they call "place based" environmentalism). It's not clear why these young white guys chose to attack the people-of-color environmental movement -- perhaps it's as simple as an extended campaign to divert more funding, perhaps it's something even simpler and more historically American -- who can say?
After admonishing environmental activists for being too negative, "Breakthrough" mounts a lengthy and relentless attack against the people-of-color environmental movement, especially African-American organizations. Here's the outline of their argument (which I will then discuss below):
1. EJ activists see "conspiracies that don't exist." [pg. 72] Environmental injustices may exist but there's nothing deliberate about them -- stuff happens, so get over it;
2. There are far more important problems than environmental contamination in EJ communities, so EJ organizations should drop what they're doing and work on only the "most salient" issues,[pg. 74] defined variously as smoking, diet, alcohol, obesity [pg. 73], unemployment, crime, schools, health care [pg. 75], and cockroaches, mold and dust mites [pg. 79].
3. EJ organizations have tried to prove in federal court that their civil rights have been violated by disproportionate burdens of pollution. The courts have generally rejected these suits, which is further evidence that claims of environmental racism and injustice are false. [pg. 81]
4. The EJ movement is "complaint-based" and is therefore "poorly suited to dealing with large, complex and deeply rooted social and ecological problems." [pg. 68]
5. Focusing on a single cause of harm, such as diesel pollution and asthma, is "a strategy that goes against the science of public health, which today focuses on the risks of synergies among multiple risk factors not individual threats." [pg. 82]
6. The EJ movement has failed to develop a "compelling agenda," meaning the movement is small and lacks a mass following. [pg. 87]
7. The EJ movement has failed to expand the definition of environment. [pg. 82]
8. The EJ movement opposes the use of risk assessment because risk assessments prove that the movement is not working on the biggest problems facing people of color. [pg. 74]
9. The EJ movement advocates single-pollutant remedies instead of addressing cumulative impacts. [pg. 82]
At this point, many readers may simply want to give up in dismay or disgust. However, I ask you to walk with me down this path of exploration. There are people in this world who take these young white guys very seriously and some of them are important because they have millions of dollars to support environmental activism. Time Magazine named these two white guys "Heroes of the Environment for 2008" so we will take them seriously, too. We need to explore how these two white guys aim to end "the era of small thinking," which sounds like a worthy goal, doesn't it?
Here we go.
1. Nordhaus and Shellenberger start by defining the basis of "environmental justice" (or environmental racism) very narrowly; they define it as the consequence of malicious acts with racist intent. Then they deny that such things exist.
They write, "To be sure, poor communities have long been subjected to more pollution than wealthier ones, and communities of color have been subjected to more pollution than white ones. But these communities have not been targeted for pollution because of the race of their inhabitants." [pg. 72] They call it a "false accusation" [pg. 73] that corporations target communities of color or low income for siting unwanted facilities and they accuse EJ activists of imagining "conspiracies that don't exist." [pg. 72] (Curiously, they have chosen to ignore the smoking-gun Cerrell report [3 Mbytes PDF]).
This is embarrassing. Young white guys who write books offering a grand strategy for "creating a new progressive political consensus" [pg. 40] -- in a nation that is more than 30% people of color -- really could try to show some understanding of the dynamics of race and racism in American before preaching to people of color and the rest of us. Frankly, they seem clueless. Or is this just a pose?
In her long, illuminating essay, "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California" [10 Mbytes PDF] EJ researcher Laura Pulido analyzed the specific arguments put forward by these young white guys -- but she did it four years before "Death" was published. In other words, these young guys are recycling old, discredited arguments that white supremacists have been using for years. To give them the benefit of the doubt, they may not even know that's what they're doing.
Laura Pulido points out, "A final problem with a narrow understanding of racism is that it limits claims, thereby reproducing a racist social order. By defining racism so narrowly, racial inequalities that cannot be attributed directly to a hostile, discriminatory act are not acknowledged as such, but perhaps as evidence of individual deficiencies or choices." This is precisely what the "Breakthrough" book does.
Laura Pulido goes on, "Given the pervasive nature of race, the belief that racism can be reduced to hostile, discriminatory acts strains logic. For instance, few can dispute that U.S. cities are highly segregated. Can we attribute this simply to discriminatory lenders and landlords? No. Residential segregation results from a diversity of racisms. Moreover, there is growing evidence that racial responses are often unconscious...."
Rather than define environmental racism as malicious individual acts, Laura Pulido describes it as a byproduct of white privilege. What is white privilege? In her classic (and must-read) essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh described her own voyage of self-discovery as she came to realize that her whiteness was a major asset she didn't even know she had.
MacIntosh writes, "I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks." She then lists 50 specific ways in which she receives benefits every day without having do anything except be white.
Laura Pulido explains the power of white privilege to shape the urban landscape and create environmental injustices. She writes, "Evidence of white privilege abounds. It includes the degree to which whites assume ownership of this nation and its opportunities, people of color's efforts to 'pass' in order to access whiteness, whites' resistance to attempts to dismantle their privilege, and, conversely, even whites' efforts to shed their privilege. Consider the case of white resistance. White resistance to integrating schools, housing, and the workplace have all been well documented. This resistance is hardly surprising and is justified by any number of rationales. What is important is the fact that whites resist because they feel they have something to lose. According to Lipsitz, they have a 'possessive investment in whiteness,' meaning, whiteness pays off and whites wish to retain those benefits. Legal scholar Cheryl Harris has observed, 'The set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect and that those who passed sought to attain -- by fraud if necessary. Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and over time, these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and protected by law.' This 'pay off' can take the form of higher property values, better schools, or the ability to exclude people of color from the workplace. That whites feel they have the right to exclude others attests to the degree to which they assume ownership of this nation's opportunities. The privileged position of whites is visible in almost every arena, including health, wealth, housing, educational attainment, and environmental quality."
Pulido then offers an example of white privilege creating environmental injustice:
"A polluter locates near a black neighborhood because the land is relatively inexpensive and adjacent to an industrial zone. This is not a malicious, racially motivated, discriminatory act. Instead, many would argue that it is economically rational. Yet it is racist in that it is made possible by the existence of a racial hierarchy, reproduces racial inequality, and undermines the well-being of that community. Moreover, the value of black land cannot be understood outside of the relative value of white land, which is a historical product. White land is more valuable by virtue of its whiteness, and thus it is not as economically feasible for the polluter. Nor is it likely that the black community's proximity to the industrial zone is a chance occurrence. Given the Federal government's role in creating suburbia, whites' opposition to integration, and the fact that black communities have been restricted to areas whites deemed undesirable, can current patterns of environmental racism be understood outside a racist urban history?," Pulido asks rhetorically.
In America, some say, we now have "racism without racists." Yes, perhaps "only" 30 million or so Americans are still outright racists. But a subtler racism based on pervasive "white privilege" remains intact even as overt racism diminishes. Last October at the height of the Obama campaign, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that "a huge array of research suggests that 50 percent or more of whites have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to racial discrimination."
Example: "White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time."
Kristof describes the work of Yale psychologist John Dividio, whose studies of racism over many years have shown that "conscious prejudice as measured in surveys has declined over time. But unconscious discrimination -- what psychologists call aversive racism -- has stayed fairly constant." Aversive racists are people who don't think they're racists but whose behavior produces racist results.
Kristof: "One set of experiments conducted since the 1970s involves subjects who believe that they are witnessing an emergency (like an epileptic seizure). When there is no other witness, a white bystander will call for help whether the victim is white or black, and there is very little discrimination.
"But when there are other bystanders, so the individual responsibility to summon help may feel less obvious, whites will still summon help 75 percent of the time if the victim is white but only 38 percent of the time if the victim is black.
"One lesson from this research is that racial biases are deeply embedded within us, more so than many whites believe," Kristof concludes.
In this context, we can re-examine Nordhaus and Shellenberger's attack on the people-of-color environmental movement.
As we have seen, first they recycle discredited white supremacist arguments, defining environmental injustice and environmental racism very narrowly, which allows them to claim such things don't exist.
2. Next Nordhaus and Shellenberger offer a time-tested "blame the victim" argument: EJ groups have brought several lawsuits under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, claiming that excessive pollution in communities of color violates civil rights laws. These lawsuits have generally not succeeded. Instead of viewing this as a failure of Congress and the courts to provide justice, Nordhaus and Shellenberger offer this as further evidence that environmental injustices and environmental racism do not exist. [pg. 81] But to make this argument they had to ignore an important Title VI victory. In 2001 federal judge Stephen Orlofsky blocked the opening of a $60 million cement plant in Camden, N.J. in a highly-polluted neighborhood where 90% of residents are low-income blacks and Hispanics and where they were already living with a sewage treatment plant, a municipal garbage incinerator, three toxic Superfund sites, several malodorous recycling operations, and more.
In his decision, Judge Orlofsky wrote, "In the state of New Jersey there is 'a strong, highly statistically significant, and disturbing pattern of association between the racial and ethnic composition of communities, the number of EPA regulated facilities, and the number of facilities with air permits,'" quoting a study by Michel Gelobter.
The judge continued, "Much of what this case is about is what the NJDEP [N.J. Department of Environmental Protection] failed to consider.... It did not consider the pre-existing poor health of the residents of Waterfront South, nor did it consider the cumulative environmental burden already borne by this impoverished community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the NJDEP failed to consider the racial and ethnic composition of the population of Waterfront South." In other words, the judge acknowledged that these environmental injustices were real and violated the civil rights of the citizens of Camden.
The cement company appealed, arguing that mere citizens had no standing in court to oppose a polluter's license, because of the way N.J. laws are written. On that basis, the cement company won on appeal, despite Judge Orlofsky's finding of environmental racism. This miscarriage of justice did not erase Judge Orlofsky's decision from the historical record, nor did it in any way refute the legal finding of environmental injustice or racism in Camden. Thus it seems simply dishonest for Nordhaus and Shellenberger to claim that "every" Title VI lawsuit has "failed" and to offer this false assertion as evidence that claims of environmental racism and injustice are "false accusations." Nordhaus and Shellenberger cherry pick facts that allow them to blame the victims of environmental racism and environmental injustice instead of blaming the perpetrators. As the labor song asks, which side are they on?
3. Next, Nordhaus and Shellenberger attack the EJ movement because it is "complaint based" [pg. 68] and therefore "poorly suited to dealing with large, complex and deeply rooted social and ecological problems," they say. Again this distorts the historical record. There is abundant historical evidence that "complaint-based" movements can prevail against "complex and deeply rooted social and ecological problems." Think of the history of New World slavery, the British empire and the Caribbean sugar and rum industries. For that matter, think of child labor, women's suffrage, or the emergence of the public health and labor movements in the U.S. These were all complaint-based movements that ultimately turned the existing order on its head. One of the major obstacles all such movements have to overcome is naysayers -- one is tempted to say ignorant naysayers -- like Nordhaus and Shellenberger, who seem willfully innocent of historical knowledge and who seem to prefer blaming hapless victims of environmental crimes instead of blaming the perpetrators. It seems an odd way to end the era of small thinking and start building a new progressive consensus.
4. Still not satisfied, Nordhaus and Shellenberger then attack the EJ movement (specifically, the WE ACT organization in Harlem, N.Y.) for focusing on the problem of diesel engines as a cause of asthma. They deride this as a "strategy that goes against the science of public health, which today focuses on the risks of synergies among multiple risk factors not individual threats." [pg. 82]
Excuse me? Because asthma can be triggered by several different pollutants, we should not try to reduce diesel pollution? What kind of cockamamie public health strategy is that?
Here is how the New York Times in 2006 described the diesel-and- asthma problem in Harlem where WE ACT works:
"Wendy Agustin, a Dominican mother of five who has lived in New York most of her life, never opens the windows of her cramped, two-bedroom apartment in a drafty six-story building opposite the 126th Street Bus Depot. That is because fumes from the nearly 200 buses that circulate daily through this tiny block, between First and Second Avenues, are making her children sick.
"Recently, Ms. Agustin rushed her 3-year-old, Joshua, to Metropolitan Hospital Center when he started wheezing while strolling outside her building.
"'If I don't keep those windows closed,' she said, 'that smell rises up and comes in, a smell like diesel, a nasty stench. I feel bad that I can't get my kids out of here, so they can breathe a different air. If I could pack up and leave tomorrow, I would.'
"As she spoke, she leaned over her kitchen sink and soaked an asthma mask, which delivers medicine in mist form and is shared by her five children."
The Times story goes on to mention that WE ACT had organized local citizens to testify at a public hearing aimed at reducing diesel fumes in Harlem. Nordhaus and Shellenberger consider it a "strategy that goes against the science of public health" to organize citizens to help Wendy Agustin and family and neighbors fight to eliminate diesel fumes. Here, Nordhaus and Shellenberger have moved beyond embarrassing and dishonest to a realm that could rightfully be labeled cruel and vicious.
5. But these vicious young white guys don't stop there. They continue to denigrate and deride EJ activists who work to reduce diesel fumes or oil refinery emissions because, they say, diesel emissions, refinery pollutants, and asthma are not the most important problems facing communities of color. [pgs. 86] They say "there is simply no evidence that air pollution in general, or diesel exhaust from buses in particular, is the number one preventable cause of childhood asthma..." [pg. 81]
They ride this particular hobby horse relentlessly. They say people of color should only organize around the "most salient" issues [pg. 74], which they say would not include diesel fumes. And of course these young white guys claim to know what's salient for people of color.
Really, to hear these young white guys tell it, there's no need for an EJ movement at all because pollution only creates "relatively insignificant health threats" to the poor and people of color, they tell us. [pg. 88]
It's hard to know where to begin answering these arguments, they are so disconnected from the realities of life in U.S. cities. Let's just say that it is becoming clear that these are not just a couple of vicious young white guys, these are well-to-do, ignorant, vicious young white guys who are preaching down to us all from a tower of protected privilege.
First of all, fine and ultrafine particles -- the kind produced by diesel engines -- kill an estimated 60,000 people in the U.S. each year, and most of these deaths occur in cities where people of color are numerically dominant. So reducing diesel pollution provides a major benefit immediately -- saving lives now.
Inhaled fine particles not only trigger asthma, a problem that disproportionately strikes children in communities of color and kills blacks at about three times the rate of whites. Inhaled fine particles also thicken the blood, leading to fatal or debilitating heart attacks and strokes. Fine particles like diesel soot are also a major contributor to global warming.
In New Jersey, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates that fine particles (such as diesel soot) kill as many as 1200 N.J. citizens each year (that's three funerals every day of the year), but also cause 6000 emergency room visits and 68,000 asthma attacks.
But Nordhaus and Shellenberger mock people who work to eliminate diesel pollution and fine particle pollution because, they say, there are bigger problems in America's cities. [pg. 81] Working to save 60,000 lives each year, preventing millions of asthma attacks, simultaneously reducing the threat of global warming and providing political impetus for mass transit and energy conservation are not "salient" for people of color, according to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.
It is apparent that these two young white guys believe they know better than people of color what problems people of color should be working on. This is an all-too-familiar picture from American history: white people who claim to know what's best for darkies. But it does seem just a bit out of place in the 21st century, especially coming from young white guys who are trying to persuade us to adopt their "progressive" agenda to end the "era of small thinking."
6. Next these two privileged white boys attack the EJ movement because it has "failed to develop a meaningful and compelling agenda." [pgs. 87, 88] By this they mean that the movement hasn't attracted a mass following and remains small. Here again, they are blaming the victim.
The EJ movement is even younger that Nordhaus and Shellenberger are, having gotten off the ground around 1981-82. This social movement is just getting started. How long did it take a citizens' movement to end slavery? A hundred and eighty years. How long have women in the U.S. been fighting for equal rights? Since 1848 -- 160 years -- with equal pay for equal work still not achieved. How long did workers have to fight -- literally fight, with clubs, guns and sit-down strikes -- for a 5-day work week and an 8-hour day? At least 200 years.
These two young guys don't seem to know much about the history of social change movements. They attribute the civil rights movement of the '60s to the rise of affluence among blacks after World War II [pg. 164]. They seem not to know that blacks in North America started fighting -- often with only their bare hands for weapons against armed whites -- for their civil and political rights in the 1660s in Virginia, and they've never stopped fighting. The visible civil rights actions of the 1960s continued a 400-year history of unbelievably courageous struggle that was not engendered by rising affluence. It was engendered by white oppression. But again these two white guys either don't know history, or forget to mention it whenever it suits their argument to do so. Shocking ignorance? Rank dishonesty? Hard to say.
And here once again we find Nordhaus and Shellenberger blaming the victims of environmental racism and environmental injustice -- an old, familiar trick that has worked well for generations of white supremacists but is jarringly unworthy of young white guys who claim to want to spark a progressive political rebirth in America and "end the era of small thinking."
7. But it doesn't stop there. Next they attack the EJ movement because it has not "expanded the definition of environment." [pg. 82]
This is rich. These two white guys are evidently too young to remember the referendum vote of the Sierra Club's membership in 1968. The question was whether the Club should consider "urban environments" as part of "the environment." A majority of the Club's membership voted against it. Cities were not part of "the environment" in 1968 so far as the Club was concerned. And, then as now, the Sierra Club was at the progressive end of the spectrum of environmental organizations in 1968.
During its brief existence, the environmental justice movement has totally changed the environmental agenda in the U.S. I consider it the movement's major achievement to date and an exceedingly important one. In New Jersey today "environmental justice" concerns are invoked by even the most stiff-necked, narrowly-focused conservationists. The urban environment is now front and center in environmental policy debates. Health disparities, the social determinants of health, so- called "brownfields" (contaminated sites), safe sites for schools, sprawl, urban design, transportation policy, cumulative impacts of multiple stressors -- these are the issues that now dominate the environmental agenda. The EJ movement (and the "place-based" environmental movement that grew from the toxics activism begun by Lois Gibbs in 1978) made all this happen. I don't know whether to laugh or cry when these young white guys accuse the EJ movement of not having changed the nation's environmental agenda. Either they're too young and self-absorbed to recognize how radically it has changed in 30 years, or they are once again pulling their favorite stunt of pretending ignorance and making stuff up just so they can bash the EJ movement (for purposes that remain mysterious).
8. They next attack the EJ movement for opposing the use of risk assessment: "EJ leaders know that pollution is a far smaller threat than smoking, alcohol, and diet, which is why they have long resisted using the established public health tool of risk assessment to guide public policy." [pg. 74]
No, fellas. Once again, you've missed the boat completely. Community- based grass-roots activists oppose the use of traditional risk assessment because...
First, it is a quantitative technique that omits anything that can't be turned into a number -- which is most of the things people actually care about.
Secondly, in the past, the numbers in risk assessments have often been manipulated by risk assessors to achieve a pre-determined political goal.
Third, the science involved in even a simple ecological problem is so complicated that much of the data needed to really assess risks isn't available. That data gap is filled by "best professional judgment" which is a fancy term for guesswork, or, more often, the missing data are assigned a value of zero and simply ignored.
Fourth, even when they aren't intentionally fudging the numbers for a political purpose, two equally qualified groups of risk assessors, given one set of fairly simple data, can (and do) reach vastly different assessments of a particular "risk." We know risk assessment is not a scientific exercise because its results cannot be reproduced from one laboratory to another. Risk assessment is a political tool dressed up in a lab coat, often wielded by the powerful against the weak.
Fifth, because risk assessment is a numerical decision technique, most people cannot participate in it -- so it excludes the public. This is undemocratic in the extreme.
Sixth, risk assessments typically imagine a "most exposed individual" or a "most harmed individual" as the subject of the assessment. If the assessment finds that this individual will not be unreasonably harmed, then the project gets a green light. By this means, millions of "harmless" decisions have been given a green light -- adding up to an endangered planet.
Seventh, traditional risk assessment has no way to take into account the cumulative impacts of multiple stressors, so it cannot accurately assess risks in the real world. As a decision-making device, risk assessment is fatally flawed and therefore is opposed not only by EJ groups but by many scientists and policy analysts as well. In many parts of the world, traditional risk assessment-based decision-making is giving way to precautionary decision-making, which is what EJ groups generally favor in the U.S.
I want to ask, Where have these guys been for the last 20 years as traditional risk assessment has been revealed as an inadequate basis for decisions? Bashing EJ groups for opposing the use of risk assessment sounds like an argument dreamed up by corporate lawyers for Dow Chemical in 1980. These two white boys need to get out more.
9. The final attack on the EJ movement offered by Nordhaus and Shellenberger is that it focuses on single pollutants, a "strategy that goes against the science of public health, which today focuses on the risks of synergies among multiple risk factors not individual threats." [pg. 82] (We encountered this argument above in #4.)
This is the most perplexing attack of all. Are these guys joking? (Unfortunately, there is no indication of humorous or ironic intent.) Anyone who has been following environmental policy over the past 20 years knows that it is the EJ movement that has been blazing this trail for the scientific and policy communities, insisting that cumulative impacts of multiple stressors must be taken into account.
The EJ movement has consistently, aggressively opposed the evaluation of individual environmental threats in a vacuum -- the way traditional risk assessment does it.
Two states are leading the way in this policy research -- California (where I believe these two white guys live) with its "Cal/EPA Cumulative Impacts and Precautionary Approaches (CI/PA) Work Group" and New Jersey with its Environmental Justice Advisory Council (EJAC), which will soon release a report on cumulative impacts. WE ACT and many other EJ groups are actively engaged in meetings, conferences, discussions, document-drafting, and internal movement debates over cumulative impacts and precautionary approaches to decision-making -- all aimed at ending the era of small thinking in risk assessment-based decisions.
To accuse the EJ movement of erroneously focusing on single stressors is ignorant, wrong-headed, unbelievably misinformed, and embarrassing -- unless of course it's another example of studied and willful ignorance in which case it is cruel, vicious, dishonest, racist, and reprehensible.
The politics of possibility
Overall, "Breakthrough" offers ideas for the industrial redevelopment of the U.S., many of which Barry Commoner and others proposed in the 1970s. (Of course Commoner is given no credit in the book. Again, ignorance? Intellectual dishonesty? Hard to say.)
But "Breakthrough" also claims to offer us more -- it offers us a new "politics of possibility." What does that mean? First, they tell us, it means creating the carbon market that the Wall Street banks have been salivating over -- a traditional cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions. These two white guys tell us cap-and-trade "offers us one of the best opportunities to evolve to the 'politics of possibility.'" [pg. 120] Worse, they tout cap-and-trade with offsets.[pg. 121] Yikes! These two guys don't actually argue that cap-and-trade with offsets will reduce carbon emissions in time to avert climate chaos, but they must believe it or they wouldn't assert it as a cornerstone of their new politics. This is embarras- sing. I am reminded of Peggy Lee's song, "Is that all there is?"
No, there's more. Secondly, the politics of possibility means telling people what they want to hear instead of telling them the truth. Time and again the book bashes truth-telling as a political dead end. People don't want the truth, these two white guys seem to believe -- people want dreams and reveries. They want endless promises of endless growth. Growth is not wrecking the planet -- growth is good! [pg. 271] We should not try to limit "intrusions upon nature" [pg. 39] because "Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises." [p. 15]
Unfortunately, the unpleasant truth is that, in many ways and in many places, the human economy has already grown so large that it is stressing the biosphere beyond the biosphere's capacity to recover. We are drawing down the resources of the planet, and with it, the future. And of course we do this at our peril. We humans are entirely dependent upon the biosphere for everything we have and everything we are. So far as anyone knows, Earth is the only place in the universe that provides suitable habitat for our species. The Earth is our only home and we had better take care of it or we're goners.
Another unpleasant truth is that we humans don't understand the biosphere well enough to discern the limits that we must not breach. We are flying blind. We came dangerously close to making the surface of the planet uninhabitable for humans when we started releasing CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] from our air conditioners and refrigerators, thereby thinning the earth's ozone shield. We caught a lucky break -- a series of lucky breaks, actually -- and so we abandoned CFCs in time to cause only a few hundred million skin cancers in humans. Will we always be so lucky?
To avoid surpassing and breaching crucial ecological limits that we can't fully perceive -- many of which we doubtless cannot yet perceive at all -- our only hope is to try to stay as far away from those boundaries as we can and still enjoy the fruits of modern technologies. This means limiting the human enterprise with a precautionary decision-making regime, not fooling ourselves by pretending that our risk assessments and cost-benefit analyses can guide us safely into the future.
These two white guys couldn't accept such an argument, which they would denigrate as just more negative "politics of limits." Instead, they think humans should blunder ahead, intruding into ecosystems at will. And if we wreck the planet as a suitable place for human habitation, what then? In that case, they say, we can escape by "bioengineering ourselves and our environments to survive and thrive on an increasingly hot and potentially less hospitable planet." [pg. 253] So this is the real "Break Through" -- the one original Big Idea in the book.
Here we have moved beyond the merely embarrassing to the truly chilling. If this continues to be thought of as "environmental heroism," we're in far deeper trouble than any of us has yet imagined.
To give these two young white guys the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the blame for this travesty of analysis -- this "Breakthrough" book -- lies with the unnamed editor at Houghton Mifflin who encouraged and allowed these guys to put so much arrogant, mean-spirited, ignorant, small-minded misinformation and disinformation into print -- all in service to a Big Idea that would (if anyone were dumb enough to take it seriously) only accelerate humankind's slide down a blind path to extinction.