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