By Verena Paepcke
(Originally published on Friday, March 7, 2008 in The Chronicle)
In Fall 2004, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote an essay that opened up a great debate: “The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World.” The title alone could have opened a can of worms, but because both authors had spent their careers working for large environmental organizations, they were after something positive, something big. Originally they intended to just stir up conversations among “environmental insiders,” but instead the spark went across the globe and involved a diverse audience, from corporate executives to students, from the United States to Asia and beyond.
In the essay, Nordhaus and Shellenberger applied Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech as a metaphor for how environmentalists go about their work in the wrong way. They pointed out that “doomsday discourse” has proven not to work anymore. Nobody wants to see another cute, little, helpless baby seal beaten to death, another giant iceberg falling into the water, or pelicans with their wings covered in oil. No, people don’t like to feel guilty; that’s the wrong way, indeed. People want to feel good about what they do.
Interestingly, what Nordhaus and Shellenberger didn’t know in the fall of 2004, but learned afterward and published in their 2007 book “Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibilities,” was that King actually started out with an “I have a nightmare” speech, which created very negative reactions. They wrote that only after Mahalia Jackson reminded him to tell the folks gathered at the Capitol about his dream, did he turn the negative force into a positive statement that still has tremendous meaning and strength today.
The essay and book are too potent to be summed up in a short column; I can only recommend reading them. They opened my eyes, and I found myself nodding, as if the book cared that I agree. There is no doubt that economy is dependent on ecology; however, in order to have the freedom to think, ecologically healthy economics are mandatory. According to the authors, “Given that prosperity is the basis for ecological concern, our political goal must be to create a kind of prosperity that moves everyone up Maslow’s pyramid as quickly as possible while also achieving our ecological goals.”
Ecology, economy, equality and education all are interdependent — and it is up to us to make it work