Ted Nordhaus: Rethinking environmentalism

On Tuesday, I attended a talk at Powell’s by Ted Nordhaus, an author and long-time environmentalist. I recently read an article about him and co-author Michael Shellenberger in Wired that piqued my interest in their book “Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility“.

Ted’s main idea is that the current efforts of the environmentalist movement are unrealistic in their expectations and ineffective in their long-term goals. By fighting lots of little battles (cutting car emissions, capping carbon output, reducing consumerism), the movement has lost sight of the bigger picture. Without large scale, systemic change, we might be able to slow the destroying of our planet, but not prevent its untimely demise.

He pointed out that the solution of cutting back to save the environment is an appeal by the middle/upper classes of developed nations to others in a similar socioeconomic class. It’s easier to convince middle class families in Oregon to pay a slight premium for wind power than to convince a rural village in China to not build a coal power plant. Both would have similar impacts on carbon emissions, but only one would result in being left behind without electricity. It’s not that the Chinese villagers don’t care about the environment; their priorities are more centered around immediate survival and economic development.

The solution: a massive development effort to bring down the cost of alternative energy sources to a level that will compete with traditional sources. Until the price of solar/wind/nuclear/hydroelectic/geothermal power is competitive with coal, developing nations such as India and China simply aren’t going to “go green”.

There’s a lot more Ted said in his talk that I’d like to share, so I’ll continue to post while I read the book. Also, I recorded the talk, but don’t know of a good way to share it. Any ideas?


4 Responses to Ted Nordhaus: Rethinking environmentalism

  1. James says:

    I wonder how to actually implement a massive change. The only way that seems possible to me is if the government did an about face and introduced ground-shaking new legislation that completely overhauled our emissions/energy usage/environmental impact. That type of change is not possible right now. I look forward to reading the book or hearing the talk.

    As for ways to post it? I guess the best way would be to make it into a Podcast. (But that just may be my new MacBook talking.)

  2. Ben says:

    It indeed would require a massive, collective effort to reverse climate change, and would require the financial support of the government. The figure Ted threw out at the talk was a $300 billion project to fuel the technological innovations necessary to make a lasting, global positive impact on the environment. Seems like a lot to me, but taken in the context of keeping the US economically viable, while improving our environmental impact and homeland security, it is almost reasonable. It would also probably make the rest of the world hate the US less than our $400 billion/yr war effort (http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2006/tables.html).

  3. […] Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Most of the critiques of this one were similar to comments at Ted’s talk, with a stronger focus on the authors’ negativity towards the current environmentalist […]

  4. dshypheng says:

    Ben, I would like to hear the talk if you still have the file. What format is it in and how big? Could you email it to us? Or I could post it on my website or something.

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