Environmentalism is Dead: Why Doomsday Doesn’t Work

The new environmentalism is based on prosperityPrincipals have no real force except when one is well fed
-Mark Twain

For many years I’ve harbored a nagging sense of futility in what I’ll call my “environmentalism”. For every plea to help forestall another environmental catastrophe comes the growing, somewhat melancholy, understanding that long-term solutions don’t lie in constantly reacting to current crisis.

The home improvement project will have to wait until after we put out the fire. But there’s always a fire.

That there is another way to look at what we call environmentalism is the subject of the book Breakthrough by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

“Complaint-based” environmentalism focuses on the fatalism of an overpopulated world constantly in the throes of the next ongoing environmental catastrophe; that ultimately, in terms of our energy-intensive modern society, things are as good a they’re going to get and will naturally get worse much faster for those it was never that good in the first place. It is a belief in limits, NIMBYism (or here), and anti-growth, dooming the impoverished of the world to perpetual struggle.

Based on Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs the “birth” of environmentalism grew out of the vast economic boom in the wake of World War II. With affluence came environmentalism.

An alternative view – the death to environmentalism –  is a fundamental shift in focus and with it the serious notion that this world and universe are truly a place of abundance, if we only learn how to tap into it. From one “energy order” to the next, there is a place at the table for all 7+ billion of us (foregoing, for the moment, the second law of thermodynamics). Despite the hint of the metaphysical, it’s as fundamental as E=MC2, and perhaps as radical an idea now as Einstein’s eloquent expression of the visible universe was in 1905 (and then with general relativity in 1915).

In their 2005 book The Bottomless Well (The twilight of fuel, the virtue of waste, and why we will never run out of energy), Peter Huber and Mark Mills reinforce this idea by presenting energy not as a problem, but as a solution. The assertion is that both the Cornucopians (less is more, efficiency is the answer) and Lethargists (less is really less, we are at the end of the energy boom) are wrong. Energy, while abundant – even “infinite” – is not the key. What will unlock this inexhaustible source of energy is the logic of power.

To paraphrase on old saying, what does any of this have to do with the cost of carbon in China?

Global Warming, Politics, and Environmentalism

In a recent post on Breakthrough blog, the authors make the argument that the growing realization that global warming is here and needs to be dealt with will force a political realignment that cuts across non-traditional lines of opposition, centered around what we mean when we say environmentalism. Limits or growth, expansion or retreat, fatalistic or progressive. To get to a new world order takes more than just tearing down the old world order. You have to grow the new one at the same time. And the engine of that growth will come from a new environmentalism of global cooperation, carbon equity, and technological innovation.

The only way to get global cooperation is if everyone prospers. And the way everyone prospers is through carbon equity.

But what if you’re just a little fatalistic by nature? I cut my environmentalists chops on the likes Paul Ehrlich and Jeremy Rifkin, or later, James Kunstler and Richard Heinberg. I have a firm foundation in limits and doomsday. I’m loads of fun at parties.

Even the proponents of the “new” environmentalism accept that by staying on our present course we are headed for a dead end.

There are two ways a society can collapse: By putting on blinders to the world around them, failing to understand or accept the impending catastrophe and thus doing nothing about it until, perhaps, it is much too late; history abounds with such examples.
Or by seizing on a fatalistic premonition of doomsday and relentlessly focusing on it, retreating into fear, and unwittingly hastening its arrival. Contracted thinking in both instances.

The prosperity of the post war expansion I grew up in (I’m a young boomer) drove the concept of environmentalism, and it will be through a changed environmentalism that drives a new prosperity.

By shifting focus, and thus our actions, through innovative and creative thinking, as evidenced by this very blog, and holding to a firm belief in progress, that is the key to a sustainable and prosperous future – for everyone. It is, then, the death of environmentalism.

Mark Twain had it right all along.


Tom Schueneman writes on environmental issues at GlobalWarmingisReal.com and Hugg.ca. He is also the publisher of the History Blog Project


Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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