Michael Shellenberger started the discussion by explaining, “We didn’t say that environmentalism is dead. We are saying that environmentalism should die.” Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, co-authors of the now infamous “The Death of Environmentalism,” essay, are promoting its literary expansion, a book entitled “Break Through.” I had the opportunity to see the two environmental bad boys speak at UC Berkeley last night in an event moderated by investigative journalist and food pundit Michael Pollan.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus advocate the destruction of crisis-centric environmentalism. In other words, instead of using big problems to frame potential solutions, use big solutions to understand the problem. Their 2004 essay reads: “Environmental funders can take a page from the world of venture capitalists who routinely make and write off failed investments, all while promoting an environment of vigorous debate over what worked and what didn’t.” Looking for an environmental moonshot, the two shun regulation and embrace public investment. Lots of public investment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s essay, originally distributed at an October 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, posited that the environmental movement thus far had failed to achieve its major goals and would fail to make any progress unless it changed its rhetoric. Both authors are seasoned political consultants, and their essay and new book highlight how policy that ends with “because if we don’t, global warming will kill us all” will never succeed. Rather than focusing on doom and gloom, their philosophy is to invest and innovate our way to a cleaner future.
The authors advocate projects like The Apollo Alliance, whose tag line reads “3 million new jobs. Freedom from foreign oil.” This is the solution-based framing that environmental policy sorely lacks. “Apollo stresses the need for greater public-private investments to establish Amerasian leadership in the clean energy revolution — investments like those America made in the railroads, the highways, the electronics industry and the Internet,” “Death of Environmentalism” reads.
Investment, Nordhaus and Shellenberger say, is the “third wave of environmentalism.” Citing green-collar proponent Van Jones, they explain that the first wave was conservation and the second wave was regulation. The problem is many environmentalists are trying to ride this second wave all the way in.
This shouldn’t be news to the savvy venture capitalist. But it does demand an epochal shift in environmental political rhetoric that would have a huge impact on the economics of cleantech. As Shellenberger proposes, why not make energy independence a priority in the exact same way John F. Kennedy told us we’re going to moon? We need to invest money in building solutions, not get stuck in a political quagmire trying regulate the problems. Shellenberger said it best: “Don’t make dirty energy more expensive, instead make clean energy cheaper.”