Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ecology: The Dismal Science

Let me offer a respite from the unfolding crisis in Pakistan: the eventual end of humanity. In a 2004 call to arms, The Death of Environmentalism, two lefty political consultants, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (N&S), called out Democratic leaders, foundations, and the major environmental nonprofits for their narrowed perspective and fatalist views toward societal growth and ‘prosperity.’ The main driver of this finger wagging was global warming which, at the time, was in the cellar of public opinion. At that point it was polling in its importance to respondents below, for example, the Spears/Federline marriage.

In their new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, N&S swing for the fences again. What is intriguing about this book is how much it gets right. And I mean really right. They start with the language we use: what does “environmental” really mean anymore? If it means the natural world excluding people, then it is a pointless word (one that is a little misanthropic): the earth’s ecosystems are all being altered more and more by civilization which relies for its survival on the health of those ecosystems. If it includes people, then it is just a “poor synonym for everything.” (p. 10). On this point, I couldn’t agree more. Ecology has been a dismal, if absolutely necessary, science. All it ever does anymore is reveal humanity’s footprint and that, in turn, has locked “environmentalism” into a discourse of limits, risks, and doom.

In leveling this critique, though, N&S unfortunately swing at a few pitches in the dirt. They spend too much time demolishing things that have already been demolished (some by the very people they’re addressing). Jared Diamond’s deeply flawed book, Collapse, for example, was knocked out cold right after it was published—best by Partha Dasgupta in this LRB review. (Diamond was a pathbreaker in biogeography, but not so much in the “human sciences.”)

The other lifeless equine N&S flay is the “environmental justice” claims that corporate leaders intentionally aim pollution into communities of color and/or that pollution is a distinct, dire threat to people of color on the order of, for example, tobacco, alcohol, and diet. In the realm of fact, both of these claims have been in the “debunked” column for years. African Americans are at greater risk for many environmentally influenced diseases like asthma (and they care about ‘the environment’ about as much as white Americans—which is to say: not much). But pollution turns out to be a smallish contributor in the suite of environmental influences behind such diseases. (Public health professionals, incidentally, use “environmental” to include every outside influence on the body, including indoor air, diet, etc.) More importantly, though, like many other ailments afflicting different kinds of Americans, asthma pales in comparison to poverty, obesity, alcoholism, and diet-related cancer in terms of its impact on one’s health and happiness. (EJ as a discourse has evolved away from the intentional and toward the many forms of unintentional discrimination, perhaps because the factual record on intent is so thin.)

The distractions are unfortunate. Because what N&S have to say in the rest of this book is quite simply electrifying. We really must not conceive of global warming as an “environmental” or “pollution” problem. It is about our continued evolution, not pollution. If what we end up doing after taking so long to do anything about global warming is treat it like a pollution problem, we will commit a monumental error of likely catastrophic proportions. Americans treat their pollution as a gadget-on-the-end-of-the-pipe sort of problem. This response to (some) pollution has been relatively effective, although our successes are now being overshadowed by the inherent limits of such strategies. And for gases like carbon dioxide, sulfur oxides, methane, and water vapor (gases that are ubiquitous in a fossil fuel economy), such a strategy is no strategy at all. Not only will people lack the collective will needed to scrub these emissions effectively. We will probably lack the know-how for too long for any technological breakthroughs doing so to matter much.

N&S motivate most of their analysis, though, with a particular social-psychological theory: Maslow’s famous “hierarchy” of human needs. Material needs like food, shelter, and security come first. After that, esteem, belonging, status, and eventually purpose and fulfillment are sought. Maslow posited that people all attend to these needs in roughly the same order. Affluent people, N&S argue, are the only ones trying to protect the integrity of rainforests; they alone care about monkeys as something more than bushmeat. Wonder why the Amazon is so at risk? Because Brazilians, by and large, have only its short-term commodity values on which to eek out a living. Solve Brazil’s social, political, and economic ills and you’ll go a long way toward saving the Amazon.

And here’s where I’d like to ask for help. Do any Dorf on Law readers know of a real (whether psychological, sociological, or economic) overthrow of Maslow’s thesis? (This is where Dorf on Law schwag might come in handy!) I share the sense that people generally put little priority on what most conservationists believe is of obviously high priority. But do readers think there is something else going on there? You’d at least have my sincere gratitude for any responses!

Posted by Jamie Colburn


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


Perhaps you know this, but the N & S thesis sounds like recycled material from Ronald Inglehart's "The Silent Revolution in Post-Industrial Societies," American Political Science Review 65: 991-1017 and published as a book: The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

It's been over twenty years since I looked at this literature (I was doing research on 'the Greens' and other 'new social movements' in Eastern and Western Europe) but I would think one place to begin looking is at critques of Inglehart's thesis, which I think were made by Herbert P. Kitschelt (now at Duke) among others. Inglehart relied on Maslow's theory to explain the rise of new social movements in affluent societies. In any case, that's where I'd begin: examining critiques of Inglehart's thesis. Again, perhaps you've already thought of this (I'll get back to you if I think of anything else).

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


I forgot to ask: what is a schwag? I know I'm an old fart, but I've not heard my kids (well, they're young adults now) nor my students use this word.

And a quick search revealed two articles of interest:

Andrew Neher , “Maslow's Theory of Motivation: A Critique,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology (1991) 31: 89-112.

M.H. Wahba and L.G. Bridewell, “Maslow Reconsidered: A Review of Research on the Need Hierarchy,” Organizational Behavior and Human Performance (1976) 15: 210-240

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...


One last thing, I promise. Morris N. Eagle notes that, "On a strictly empirical basis, one can no more claim that the wishes and aims pursued by people are all variants of sexual and aggressive motives then one can say that they are uniformly and preponderantly self-realizing in nature. Both attributions are based largely on theoretical speculations and preconceptions regarding human nature rather than on empirical findings.” In other words, insofar as Malsow's theory of self-realization is a theory of human nature, it becomes self-confirming and not subject to evidentiary refutation since “one can render all behavior as self-realizing or as reactions against the frustration of this all-embracing pursuit.”

From his Recent Developments in Psychoanalysis: A Critical Evaluation, 1984.

AF said...

While we're handing out decrees about which books have been "knocked out cold," "debunked," or "overthrown," you might note that N&S's book itself has taken quite a beating in the press.

One of the most in-depth discussions is at The main criticism has been that N&S thoroughly failed to substantiate the thesis you call "electrifying" -- namely, that the regulatory approach to global warming is misguided. N&S responded to this criticism by saying . . . that they support regulatory solutions to global warming, but want renewable energy too.

To which their chief critic, the former head of the DOE's Renewable Energy Program, responds:
"Turns out you can tune out S&N and skip their new book, Break Through. They have nothing to bring to the table but petty attacks and historically-inaccurate straw men.

S&N spend far more time attacking the environmental community and Al Gore (and even Rachel Carson!) than they ever do proposing a viable solution. Worse, they don't even attack the real environmental community -- they spend their time creating a strawman that is mostly a right-wing stereotype of environmentalists.

Now it turns out they support the exact same thing the environmental community -- and energy technologists like me -- have been pushing for many years: an aggressive and intelligent regulatory strategy coupled with a significant increase in the energy R&D budget."

Jamison Colburn said...

My thanks to Patrick for the pointers -- I am a complete neophyte on Maslow! (Schwag is, in the argot, promotional junk).

As for AF, I think you have to read the book: where are the "petty attacks" on the people you mention? They don't "attack" any of the people that Romm is convinced they attack, either. Here's a choice quote from Romm's own blog:

"So why do S&N, who appear to care about the climate, attack the mainstream environmental community in such a vicious and distorted fashion? Who knows? Watthead points out, “it may be a great way to get attention for your articles and books, but it’s not a great way to build alliances with the kind of folks who you should be building alliances with."

Actually, what I found "electrifying" about this book is that it actually begins from a sincere premise: the people they engage haven't prioritized well. But that wasn't a "decree;" just an observation. And let me reiterate something else here: the band-aid strategies we've perfected in US pollution control simply won't work on global warming or deforestation or our other really big "environmental" problems--which are at base economic and social problems. I don't know what comprehensive political and/or legal strategy an "energy technologist" has. But if it has band-aid fixes for the internal combustion engine in it, I think you're missing the point of the book.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Maslow's thesis is intuitively attractive and more than plausible, especially for those of us who lean toward conceptions of human nature that speak of capacity and potential and are perfectibilist in a Godwinian (after the first philosophical anarchist, William Godwin) sense. However, it is based on arguable metaphysical and psychological assumptions, so it will rub some folks the wrong way. Gandhi expressed something like it when he said you can't speak to a starving man about God. The theory has survived rather long in the halls of humanistic psychology, with spillover effects in several nearby fields. I suppose its explanatory virtues need to be assessed against competing theories treating the same set of data, in which case there aren't too many alternatives. It's far easier to appreciate the downside, say, of conspicuous consumption and affluence, once you've had your fill of it: for those on the outside looking in, it understandably remains a tantalizing dream (and one reason patronizing environmentalist discourse emanating from Cities of Babylon [a la the Rastafarians] will likely have perverse effects, assuring the dream becomes a nightmare). I suspect only formal and informal educational efforts and enterprises (in conjunction with sincere and dramatic efforts in the Northern hemisphere that reveal a true depth of commitment to environmental change based on sound ecological principles) have any hope of persuading those who've yet to taste the sweetness of affluence that it leaves a bitter aftertaste and makes many of us--and our place of habitation--rather sick.

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