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Village Greens

Shellenberger and NordhausAttention sustainable blogosphere: Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus don't dislike you. They just don't care much about you.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are the authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, a book building on their 2005 grenade-in-the-form-of-an-essay, "The Death of Environmentalism" (PDF). The conceit of both the essay and the book is that environmentalism, as it has been practiced, has failed to achieve its goals, and should be abandoned in favor of a new model of dealing with the planet's problems, one that emphasizes solutions, optimism, and the utility of technological progress and economic growth as engines of environmental repair. It's an interesting argument, but it's one based not on the rich history of innovations in environmental policy and politics, but on the entrenched inside-the-Beltway culture that has become known among political bloggers as "the Village."

I got a chance recently to see Shellenberger and Nordhaus in person at a GBN event; accompanying me was my former WorldChanging colleague (and new Bay Area resident) Dawn Danby. (I took the picture accompanying this post during this event.) After the presentation, I managed to snag a few minutes of Ted Nordhaus' time, and my thoughts here reflect my take on the evening.

During their talk (and my subsequent conversation with Nordhaus), my reactions flickered between strong agreement and painful frustration. If you peel away the way that Shellenberger and Nordhaus (hereafter S&N) deliver their message, much of what they say makes good sense, and in fact parallels what the WorldChanging team has been arguing since late 2003. Talking about solutions and the pathways to success with a tone of "clear-eyed optimism" (as Alex called it) can be much more persuasive and empowering than talking only about the unfolding disasters. New technologies, markets, and political realism are important parts of these solutions, not instead of behavior changes, regulation and knowledge but in addition to. A planet of seven billion should be able to live at a high quality of life without destroying our future. The old models of establishment non-profits taking your donations and sending you annual pretty pictures doesn't cut it any longer.

But while WorldChanging spoke to the large numbers of people who felt a strong desire to embrace the new models of social networks and bottom-up organization to make environmentalism stronger, S&N's audience seems to be the power elite most threatened by these models. S&N targets for attack the environmental movement as it's seen in Washington, D.C. -- sluggish institutions that don't play the lobbying game well, with memberships largely comprising rich boomers who write checks every year (but that's about it). Moreover, to the degree that their view acknowledges the role of citizen stakeholders, it's in the form of "DFH" protestors still stuck in 1973. While web activism, green blogs, and the like certainly exist, their only real useful role is either as sources of funding or as mouthpieces for the establishment. That's my paraphrasing of their argument, to be sure: S&N, as long-time D.C.-based political strategists, are much more diplomatic than that. While they'll happily agree that green blogs (and web-based activism, social networks, and the like) are "really important," they don't go much further than that; all of the strategies and ideas they want to discuss focus on the leadership and power of the incumbent political and corporate institutions. The citizens are just a footnote.

I realized, about a third of the way through the presentation, that S&N are fully paid-up members of The Village, the acid term for the Washington, D.C. coterie of strategists, pundits, media figures, and policymakers, all more interested in ensuring their mutual approval than actually confronting problems. The Village has set narratives, and information or opinions that run counter to these set narratives are variously declared "irresponsible," "offensive," or (worst of all) "un-serious." The point of the Village is to perpetuate the Village; political figures who don't pay obeisance to the Village and its narratives are either ignored (if they're insufficiently powerful) or venomously attacked.

Much of the discussion of the Village (at Digby's, at Orcinus, at Atrios) focuses on the Village's jihad against anyone opposing the war, especially the DFHs who opposed the war from the outset. But this same mindset -- of focus on establishment power (political and corporate), of dismissal of grassroots action, of ignorance (and abuse) of opinions that didn't come from fellow Villagers -- fits the perspectives that S&N embraced at the GBN event.

S&N seemed like affable, smart people, and I am convinced of their commitment to wanting to bring about a sustainable world. But they seemed stuck in a previous era, and didn't really seem to notice that the world of political organization, the distribution of information, and citizen power has changed. As incumbent institutions across the business and political spectrum have discovered, this ignorance can be dangerous.

It's possible that it's just a pose. Bashing fellow environmentalists was, in this way, something of a "Sister Eco-Souljah" tactic: demonstrating one's legitimacy to the establishment by attacking outsiders who agree with you. If so, it could be a smart move for S&N, if more than a little Machiavellian. There is a clear need for the power centers in Washington, D.C. to make faster and more aggressive moves towards dealing with the climate emergency. If environmentalists Shellenberger and Nordhaus (and they are environmentalists, of that I have no doubt) need to repudiate other environmentalists and dismiss the netroots in order to be heard by the rest of the Village, then I'll weather the attacks.

I hope that this is the case, because if not -- if S&N are undermining the people who have been fighting for the environment for decades while simultaneously spiting those of us who have adopted participatory technologies to open a new front because they really believe they're right -- that's just depressing.


They haven't created anything. Their critiques are shallow and self-serving, intellectually flabby and unhelpful. So why all the attention? Waste of time in my opinion. Better to stick to the Real Work.

Connecting S & N to Digby's and Duncan's critiques of the Village feels so right to me, and helps me name this nagging feeling I've had about them (as do many of the students I've assigned their work to in my courses this term, interestingly enough).

S&N may think Sustainability Takes A Village (Lovelock's "eco" nuke shilling may connect to this as well, ie, an incumbent interest broadcast/industrial model response to climate change rather than p2p models like solar rooftops, co-op windfarms, etc.), but when Permaculture Meets Peer to Peer, When Appropriate Technology Meets Appropriable Technology (AT + a2k) we catch a glimpse of a People Powered Planetary Green with a new story to tell.

Sorry to sound like such a Mouseketeer about this, but I liked this post, it made me cheerful.

David, in principle I agree, but I've had enough people ask me about the picture of S&N on my Flickr feed that I felt I needed to spell this out.

Dale, I'm happy that you liked this!


This is a very enlightening perspective. Part of being in the village is that you only see what happens inside the gates of the village (and pay no heed to the barbarians/DFHs outside).

On that count, Nordhaus and Schellenberger are quite justifiably angered that on climate change, all the lobbying power of the environmental establishment goes into establishing a cap-and-trade system (and the details of that system). This is still the case, as far as I can see.

The initiative they backed (the Apollo Alliance), meanwhile, did not the backing that they wanted. So, yes, there is some spitefulness behind their account, but I can understand that.

At the same time, the framing they use to argue their account is very suspect and is moving more and more to the right. Linda Hirshman wrote two excellent posts on that in the discussion on TPM Cafe.


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