Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why Beavan, Shellenberger and Nordhaus are Right ... and Why They Are Wrong

A few days ago, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published an interesting article in The New Republic entitled, "The Green Bubble." In it, Shellenberger and Nordhaus attack the current green social movement, for which, rightly or wrongly, No Impact Man's Colin Beavan is their poster child. Two days ago, Beavan published his own response in which he points to past successful social movements, and underlines the value of individual action.

So who's right and who's wrong in this little war of words? Well ... they're all right. AND they're both wrong. Sufficiently wrong, that I'm taking time out of my VERY HECTIC EXAM SCHEDULE to explain why they're wrong. Are you happy, Colin and Michael? If I fail my land reform question, I'm blaming you.

First, let's start with No Impact Man aka Colin Beavan. Beavan is right to point out that social movements can affect change: both societal change and policy change. But he fails to critically examine why it is that prior social movements have succeeded. A closer inspection of his example, the civil rights movement, reveals a few key factors. One, the civil rights movement was a coordinated effort focused on specific rights such as voting and access. Two, this empowerment that civil rights activists sought did not take away from other people's power. Instead, one can view power as variable, producing an outcome with many winners and no real losers. Sure, some could argue that white supremacists lost, but even they lost nothing really tangible.

By contrast, Beavan, and the social movement he represents, are disappated rather than coordinated. The attention on individual action and individual carbon footprints papers over the role of institutions in shaping those individual decisions. Beavan uses the metaphor of a single butterfly flapping its wings to prove the value of individual action, but what is the effect of thousands of butterflies flapping their wings at varied intervals and in various directions? For, the current green social movement is far from focused. Rather than trying to attain specific rights, the current movement aims to combat climate change by nothing much more concrete than hope, prayer, and line-dried laundry. As a member of this movement, I can attest to the dissatisfaction and helplessness that this strategy can produce.

But what Beavan really ignores, to his detriment, is the different power dynamic at work here. Whereas in the civil rights movement, power was variable, producing a result with winners and no losers, the green social movement operates under a Weberian assumption of invariable power. Power is literally fixed; consequently those of us with more of it have to give up some so those of us with less of it can have some. While personally, I absolutely commend Beavan for giving up some of his power, this is a scenario with winners and losers. Beavan may claim that living with less impact is not a loss, but frankly, a lot of people would disagree. And as someone who has tried and continues to try to live a less impactful life, I will say that in my experience, living lighter IS a sacrifice. I have spent an LA heatwave with no a/c and no fan because I couldn't find a used fan and couldn't buy a new fan. It's not an experience I relished.

So what about Shellenberger and Nordhaus? They're right too, that not all people have the same interests concerning global warming, or even the environment. I also personally believe they are correct in arguing that most people in the global North do not want to sacrifice some of their conveniences and liberty in the name of the environment. But they're also too dismissive of social movements, especially the prior environmental "bubbles" as they term them.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger paint a picture where in green bubbles grow and pop about once every decade, and the current bubble is no exception. But they provide no real explanation for why these bubbles burst:

This isn't the first time an eco-bubble has inflated and then burst. In fact,the modern environmental movement was born in a bubble. In 1969, an industrial pollution fire on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, generated national publicity and outrage. The first photographs of Earth in its entirety transmitted from outer space were received as signs of a new ecological consciousness. The first Earth Day was held in 1970, and, over the next three years, Congress passed and (a Republican) President Nixon signed into law sweeping environmental statutes.
But, in 1973, soaring oil prices pushed the country into recession. By the time Jimmy Carter suggested, a few years later,that profligate American lifestyles were partly to blame, the public reacted with resentment and ridicule.

There are two problems here with Nordhaus and Shellenberger's claim surrounding an eco-bubble burst. One, they fail to acknowledge a key reason for a potential eco-bubble burst: the green social movement attained their primary objective. Recall that one of the key elements of successful social movements are focused objectives. In this case, one could argue that given the fire on the Cuyahoga River, the primary objective of the environmental movement at the time was to get the Clean Water Act passed. When this was successfully accomplished, the energy of the environmental movement disappated as a natural consequence of achieving its primary objective.

But was there a burst of the bubble at all? Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that there was, pointing to the oil crisis of the 1970s, and the angry American response. But here Shellenberger and Nordhaus conflate several separate environmental issues to make their point. The environmental movement of the time was primarily focused on POLLUTION, not energy. Neither peak oil nor global warming were mainstream concerns of that movement.

In their second example, Nordhauss and Shellenberger repeat these mistakes, again failing to note that environmental movement of the late 1980s was primarily focused on acid rain and the ozone layer. Once again, the movement peaked once significant achievements were made in these primary focus areas: the Montreal Protocol governing ozone emissions and The Clean Air Act could both be chalked up as victories for this environmental movement.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus' bubble argument thus takes a wrong-headed view of social movements that skates over the arguable achivements of these movements. By conflating several environmental issues into one, Shellenberger and Nordhaus ignore how and why social movements are successful. Essentially, their argument is that the environmental social movements have failed because they all failed to achieve total success in all areas concerning the environment ever known to man. By setting the bar so high, they ignore the true value that social movements can produce. Worse, they ignore the current implications.

Tomorrow (or whenever I get around to it): Why the current situation is different from either of Shellenbergerg and Nordhaus's prior 'eco-bubbles' and what Nordhaus, Shellenberger and Beavan get right in assessing the current situation, and what they get very wrong.


Color Me Green said...

wow i just have to say that was so well thought out. i look forward to what you have to say next.

Joyce said...

I agree that the "bubble" didn't burst each time, but actually accomplished very concrete objectives and built momentum. Some of that momentum was the from young minds becoming interested in the pursuit of environmental science and law. We're reaping the benefit of that now that those folks are at the mature peak of their fields.
The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, the move to recycling, the shift by some auto maufacturers to more efficient cars, no till farming- it all grows out of those early years in a continuum. Yes, the progress is uneven, but it's real and significant.

Good post, Ruchi.

Anonymous said...

thanks, and looking forward for the next part!

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Rosa said...

This is awesome, thank you.

I keep seeing anti-environmentalists use "the so-called hole in the ozone layer" and "remember when we were worried about acid rain? I don't see pine trees dying of acid rain" as reasons they don't believe in global warming, and having to point out that the predictions didn't come to pass because we changed regulations doesn't seem to make a dent in their beliefs. It's very frustrating.

ScienceMama said...

thank you for such a lovely well written post! this was a fantastic and uplifting way to conceive the green movements of the past and gives us hope for the current crisis.

Anonymous said...

I agree with S & H - "the environmental social movements have failed because they all failed to achieve total success in all areas concerning the environment ever known to man". There really is not other standard we can measure by. We either succeed or fail/perish. There isn't another earth we can start over on if we make an environmental disaster out of this earth.