As you know if you read this blog, I've been involved in an email quasi-debate with Michael Shellenberger, co-author of Break Through: The Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Possibility. Scan below to the non-italicized text, for the latest installment, Michael's second email to me. You can read the first two installments here and here.
A little background: for Michael's part, he argues that what he calls the "politics of limits"--the conservation of resources--is neither culturally acceptable nor environmentally sufficient. We need, he thinks, huge investment in renewable energy sources in order to allow consumption to continue at present levels. For my part, I think his emphasis on investment is correct, but I think it is insufficient.
Conservation of resources and reduced consumption are also important elements in the equation. We both agree that the conversation is not about the preservation of some "environment" or "planet" which is separate from the human race. Instead, what we are talking about is how to preserve and develop human health, security and happiness.
In reply to my last installment in the email debate, Michael Shellenberger wrote to me:
Well, I agree and disagree.
I agree that introspection is important. I agree that taking responsibility is crucial to human survival and thrival. And I agree that community is crucial, which is why we wrote chapter 8 on belonging and fulfillment in affluent if somewhat lonely societies like ours.
I agree that asceticism can be creative and vital (as Nietzsche points out in the third section of the Genealogy of Morals -- which might make for an interesting reflection in your book). I agree that we should reduce our individual carbon footprints. I even agree that radicals like you, in the tradition of Thoreau, are pioneering things that might be useful to the rest of us.
And I even agree it will all make for an interesting blog and book (and an interesting trend story for reporters, along with those no-shopping people in Minnesota or Wisconsin, I can't remember which). If it's a way to get folks focused on what it will take to get to sustainability, that's great. Of course I support it.
My concern is that the message people will hear is that they have to sacrifice and suffer if we are to do something about global warming, and I don't believe sacrifice and suffering will motivate people to support the kind of transformative policies that you and I both support (investments in clean energy, regulations, efficiency, conservation, etc.). Moreover, from a strictly technical perspective, I don't believe sacrifice and suffering can get us to 80 percent emissions reductions in the U.S. by 2050.
If all of this makes me a "wonk" that's fine by me -- it's where I end up when thinking about things like global warming.
Like you I'm also interested in the research on the decline of self-reported well-being (happiness) in market economies since WWII. We mentioned it briefly in the book, but I'm not sure what to take from it. What we know is that people ranked their relative happiness higher on surveys in 1946 than they do today. But do we really think that things were *better off* in 1946? Of course not. Jim Crow. Shorter lives. Worse medical care. Fewer choices for women.
It's hard to tease out causation from correlation here. The relevant question is: does that fact that self-reported rates of happiness in the U.S. were higher in the 1950s mean that we'll be happier when we have less stuff? I'm not so sure. We know that when people take an *unchosen* reduction in their standard of living they report lower, not higher levels of happiness (see Schor's book on this). They tend to get meaner, more conservative, and even reactionary (e.g., Hutus before the genocide, Germans before the Holocaust, and Americans after 1975, etc.).
Not that it matters: we live in a democracy and Americans (and all other human animals, from the Chinese to Brazil's indigenous tribes) will consistently *choose* greater material wealth over material poverty. Alas, that is history, both Rousseauean and Hobbesian versions.
Don't misunderstand my acknowledgement of your wealth. I point out your (and my) privilege not because I'm trying to catch you in a contradiction, or accuse you of hypocrisy (that would be silly given that I acknowledge consuming more than you and remain concerned with climate change) but rather because it tells us something about the Chinese, and thus about climate change. There are 500 million of them who would love what you have, even at your reduced consumption, and they're not asking us for our permission to have it (or three TVs, either, for that matter). I say this not as some guilt trip but rather because I believe we need a politics focused less on reducing our carbon footprints than on breaking the connection between energy consumption and emissions.
I'm grateful for our wealth and privilege (yours and mine both). I'm grateful we can send our kids to relatively good schools, that they are safe, and that we will (as wealthy *and* assertive dads) find ways to get them the best available medical care, damn the emissions, when they need it.
These feelings of gratitude put me in a good mood, a mood that wants high levels of wealth and health for all humans. It's also a mood that convinces me -- perhaps irrationally -- that we humans are ingenious enough to creative relatively high standards of living for all humans without over-heating the earth.
Will "industry change fast enough"? Not if we don't do anything to help it change. That's the argument we make in the book. Private energy companies won't and can't do it alone (no industry ever has affected a tech revolution without government help). It is for that reason that we make the argument for major investments in clean energy (and other newer cleaner industries).
This is the agenda that most serious energy experts acknowledge, but it has never been pushed politically. Why? In a word, the paradigm of limits. It imagines we can reduce our way out of this crisis. I don't think you believe this, but I worry that your lifestyle may lead people to believe this is what you're saying. Of course, you have a book and blog where you can introspect and reflect on what it will take to really deal with the crisis. I applaud that, and congratulate you on your success speaking to a wider audience than, say, me.
Do we have anything to talk about? Sounds like we do. It's not often that a postmodern-day Nietzschean gets to talk to a postmodern day Thoreauean about a thoroughly postmodern problem like global ecological crisis through postmodern technologies.
If you're game, I'd be up for turning this email exchange into a back-and-forth on our blogs. I'd suggest we can both agree it's a conversation we, collectively, need to have.
Tune in on Wednesday for my response and the last installment.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.