The Green Bubble
Why environmentalism keeps imploding.
T e d N o r d h au s and M i c h a e l s h e l l e N b e r g e r
ometime after the release of An Inconvenient the risk of curbing economic growth.” Soon thereafter, Shell an-
Truth in 2006, environmentalism crossed from politi- nounced it would halt its investments in solar and wind power.
cal movement to cultural moment. Fortune 500 com- Policymakers took note. As gas prices continued their up-
panies pledged to go carbon neutral. Seemingly every ward trajectory, climate legislation to cap carbon emissions gar-
magazine in the country, including Sports Illustrated, nered less support in the U.S. Senate last summer than it had
released a special green issue. Paris dimmed the lights on the in 2003 and 2005. Confronted by chants of “Drill, baby, drill,”
Eiffel Tower. Solar investments became hot, even for oil com- Senate and House Democrats, led by candidate Barack Obama,
panies. Evangelical ministers preached the gospel of “creation embraced offshore oil exploration, reversing nearly a quarter-
care.” Even archconservative Newt Gingrich published a book century of opposition. When it came time to justify stimulus
demanding action on global warming. investments in energy efficiency and renewables, the president
Green had moved beyond politics. Gestures that were once did so in the name of job creation, not polar bears. And, last
mundane—bringing your own grocery bags to the store, shop- month, after floating the idea of forcing cap-and-trade legisla-
ping for secondhand clothes, taking the subway—were sud- tion through Congress as part of the budget, the White House
denly infused with grand significance. Actions like screwing in quickly backed down in the face of opposition from Senate
light bulbs, inflating tires, and weatherizing windows gained Democrats, especially those from the hard-hit Midwest.
fresh urgency. A new generation of urban hipsters, led by Colin Today, Beavan and others pitch green lifestyles as thrifty ways
Beavan, a charismatic writer in Manhattan who had branded to make ends meet in a difficult economy. And, no doubt, many
himself “No Impact Man,” proselytized the virtues of down- Americans are seeking out some form of (in)voluntary simplic-
scaling—dumpster-diving, thrift-store shopping, and trading ity in response to the financial crisis. But making virtue of ne-
in one’s beater car for a beater bike—while suburban matrons cessity is not the same as making necessity of virtue. Whatever
proudly clutched copies of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food romanticized vision of a simpler life that might have existed a
and came to see the purchase of each $4 heirloom tomato at year or two ago has largely been replaced by a fearful vision of
the farmer’s market as an act of virtue. a life of poverty or, at least, greater insecurity. Today, the Times
For those caught up in the moment, the future seemed to and other newspapers run stories about how Americans are
promise both apocalypse and transcendence in roughly equal coping with their economic, not ecological, anxieties.
measure. The New York Times and San Francisco magazine ran Of course, environmentalism itself has not disappeared.
long feature stories on the uptick of upper-middle-class pro- Earth Day was celebrated last week, magazines and market-
fessionals who worried to their therapists about polar bears or ers continue to use green to sell to upscale audiences, and leg-
who dug through the trash cans of co-workers to recycle plas- islation to cap carbon emissions, albeit heavily watered-down,
tic bottles, as though suffering from a kind of eco-OCD. At the could still pass Congress. But the cultural moment marked by
same time, folks like Pollan and Beavan provided a vision of the ubiquity of green self-help, apocalypse talk, and cheery uto-
green living that seemed to offer not just a smaller carbon foot- pianism has passed. It is tempting to reduce this retrenchment
print but a better life. Amid the fear was the hope that the eco- to economic pressures alone, with concrete short-term con-
logical crisis would bring us together and make us happier. cerns trumping more abstract worries about the future. But
And then, almost as quickly as it had inflated, the green bub- a closer look at the causes of the green bubble reveals a more
ble burst. Between January 2008 and January 2009, the per- complicated story, not just about the nature of environmental-
centage of Americans who told the Pew Research Center for ism but about modern American life itself.
the People and the Press that the environment was a “top pri- Andrew Johnson/istockPhoto
ority” dropped from 56 percent to 41 percent. While surveys his isn’t the first time an eco-bubble has inflated and
have long showed that enthusiasm for all things green is great- then burst. In fact, the modern environmental movement
est among well-educated liberals, the new polling results were was born in a bubble. In 1969, an industrial pollution fire
sobering. For the first time in a quarter century, more Ameri- on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, generated national
cans told Gallup in March that they would prioritize economic publicity and outrage. The first photographs of Earth in its en-
growth “even if the environment suffers to some extent” than tirety transmitted from outer space were received as signs of
said they would prioritize environmental protection “even at a new ecological consciousness. The first Earth Day was held
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in 1970, and, over the next three years, policy. In the late 1960s, the Vietnam positional than the Toyota Prius, whose
Congress passed and (a Republican) War motivated student militancy at home, advantage over other hybrid cars was its
President Nixon signed into law sweep- which then combined with the civil rights, distinctive look. A 2007 survey that ap-
ing environmental statutes. feminist, and gay freedom movements to peared in The New York Times found that
But, in 1973, soaring oil prices pushed open up a social divide that would last a more Prius owners (57 percent) said they
the country into recession. By the time half century. In the 1980s, Reagan’s con- bought the car because it “makes a state-
Jimmy Carter suggested, a few years later, frontations with the Soviets and his proxy ment about me” than because of its better
that profligate American lifestyles were wars in Central America split the country, gas mileage (36 percent), lower emissions
partly to blame, the public reacted with and the old cultural divisions reemerged (25 percent), or new technology (7 per-
resentment and ridicule. Three years with a vengeance. cent). Prius owners, the Times concluded,
later, Ronald Reagan was tearing Cart- George W. Bush’s administration, “want everyone to know they are driving
er’s solar panels from the White House much like the Nixon and Reagan years, a hybrid.” The status effects were so pow-
and blaming trees for pollution. was a time in which American liberals erful that, by early 2009, Honda’s new In-
The second green bubble began to felt alienated from the White House. But, sight Hybrid had been reshaped to look
grow in the summer of 1988, when while the first and second green bubbles like the triangular Prius.
NASA scientist James Hansen testified were co-opted by the Republican presi- Of course, for many greens, healing
to Congress about the arrival of global dents of the time, Bush resisted the third. required more than a new kind of con-
warming. Coupled with images of the The war in Iraq, the crackdown on civil sumption, however virtuous. In The New
Amazon in flames and record heat and liberties at home, and the president’s stri- York Times Magazine’s 2008 Earth Day
drought across much of the United dent nationalism combined to create a issue, Michael Pollan argued that cli-
States, it was easy for the press to wrap story line in which Big Oil, imperialism, mate change was at bottom a crisis of life-
global warming in an end-of-times nar- and global capitalism threatened apoca- style and personal character—“the sum
rative. The following January, Time mag- lypse well before Gore warned of a “day of of countless little everyday choices”—and
azine eschewed its usual “Man of the reckoning.” The green cultural moment, suggested that individual actions, such
Year” profile and declared Earth “Planet with its emphasis on redemption, har- as planting backyard gardens, might ul-
of the Year.” In 1990, President Bush mony, and healing, was less a response timately be more important than govern-
signed a Clean Air Act amendment on to the fear of future ecological disasters ment action to repair the environment.
acid rain, and, two years later, he signed than to present-day social ones. Pollan half-acknowledged that growing
a global-warming treaty at a United Na- At the same time that liberal profession- produce in your backyard was ecolog-
tions meeting in Rio de Janeiro. als were feeling estranged politically, they ically irrelevant, but “there are sweeter
But the bubble had already begun to were also feeling alienated personally and reasons to plant that garden,” he wrote.
deflate. In 1990, California voters rejected socially. For perhaps the first time in his- “[Y]ou will have begun to heal the split
a sweeping environmental initiative by a tory, according to New York University between what you think and what you
two-to-one margin. The recession of 1991 sociologist Dalton Conley’s new book, do, to commingle your identities as con-
and 1992 mostly pushed green issues off Elsewhere, U.S.A., American elites were sumer and producer and citizen.”
the table, and Gore, in a move that would working longer hours than the poor. They It’s easy enough to point out the in-
foreshadow his own run for president were making more money, but the price significance of planting a garden, buying
eight years later, would spend much of they paid was longer commutes, the com- fewer clothes, or using fluorescent bulbs.
his vice-presidential campaign with Bill modification of everything (from private After all, we can’t escape the fact that
Clinton downplaying his role as a leading schools to bottled water), and less time we depend on an infrastructure—roads,
environmental advocate. In 1994, Clin- for themselves, their families, and their buildings, sewage systems, power plants,
ton’s proposed energy-consumption tax friends. Inequality skyrocketed during the electrical grids, etc.—that requires huge
played a significant role in costing Dem- 1990s, resulting both in new affluence for quantities of fossil fuels. But the ecological
ocrats control of the House of Represen- the wealthiest 20 percent and in height- irrelevance of these practices was beside
tatives, and, three years later, the Senate ened social anxiety. In these conditions, the point. What downscalers offered was
unanimously rejected the Kyoto treaty upper-middle-class liberals started ques- not a better way to reduce emissions, but
before Gore could even fly to Japan to tioning and resenting hyper-materialism, rather, a way to reduce guilt. In 2007, we
negotiate it. even while enjoying the status and com- asked environmentalists in focus groups
Much like the most recent episode, fort it offered. about green consumption. None thought
each of these past bursts of environmen- Little surprise, then, that they would that consuming green would do much of
talism waxed and waned with the rise and start buying a whole new class of products anything to address a huge challenge like
fall of the economy. But, perhaps more to demonstrate their ecological concern. global warming. They did it anyway, they
significantly, the green bubbles inflated Green consumption became what soci- said, because it made them feel better.
during highly polarized periods in Amer- ologists call “positional consumption”— Utopian environmentalism has, to
ican society and politics, often fueled by consumption that distinguishes one as some extent, always promised to heal the
disastrously violent episodes in foreign elite—and few things were more eco- alienation wrought by modernity. But,
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during bubbles, increasing numbers of move toward greater individuation, is Pollan and Beavan offer so compelling.
Americans become captivated by the twin universal and largely positive. Colin Bea- But, while planting a backyard garden
thoughts that human civilization could van and Michael Pollan lament, respec- may help heal the eco-anxieties of affluent
soon come crashing down—and that we tively, the loss of community and the loss greens, it will do little to heal the planet
are on the cusp of a sudden leap forward of connection between humans and the or resolve the larger social contradictions
in consciousness, one that will allow us to land. But both choose to live alone with that it purports to address.
heal ourselves, our society, and our planet. their families in cities, not on agricultural Even in the United States, different
Apocalyptic fears meld seamlessly into communes, and both express themselves interests help shape different attitudes:
utopian hopes. The end of the world is as unique thinkers and writers. Poorer Americans in states more depen-
near—unless we heal all that divides us. Green anti-modernism brings with it dent upon cheap coal electricity are far
other contradictions. Despite the rhet- less likely to support policies that would
o observe that green bubbles are oric about “one planet,” not all humans cost jobs or significantly increase energy
fueled by the discontent of upper- have the same interests when it comes to prices than are wealthier Americans on
middle-class liberals is not to dis- addressing global warming. Greens often the coasts, whose energy supply is already
miss environmentalism as elitist. Against note that the changing global climate will much cleaner. Believing that our common
nostalgic accounts like Howard Zinn’s A have the greatest impact on the world’s interest in halting global warming should
People’s History of the United States, most poor; they neglect to mention that the bring us together, Al Gore spent some of
social-change movements are started and poor also have the most to gain from de- the $300 million he raised from his movie
directed by the relatively affluent and velopment fueled by cheap fossil fuels and rock concerts on magazine and TV
well-educated, from the preacher-led civil like coal. For the poor, the climate is al- ads attempting to overcome partisanship.
rights movement to modern feminism to ready dangerous. They are already sub- His ads showed famous people who dis-
gay rights. The problem is not that most ject to the droughts, floods, hurricanes, agreed—such as Nancy Pelosi and Newt
greens are elites, per se, but rather that and diseases that future warming will Gingrich—sitting down together on a
too few of them acknowledge the mate- intensify. It is their poverty, not rising couch. He called it the “We Campaign.”
rial basis for their ecological concern and carbon-dioxide levels, that make them We might disagree on politics, the ads
that too many reject the modern project more vulnerable than the rest of us. By said, but we can all agree that we need
of expanding prosperity altogether. contrast, it is the richest humans—those to do something about global warming.
Recall that the inconvenient truth for of us who have achieved comfort, pros- But Gingrich recently testified against the
which Gore named his movie was “that perity, and economic security for our- climate-change legislation Gore favors.
we have to change the way we live our selves and for our children—who have The idea that a common connection to
lives”—and nobody could have the im- the most to lose from the kind of apoc- nature might allow us to overcome our di-
pression, after watching the movie, that alyptic global-warming scenarios that visions and transcend the essential messi-
it would be for the better. No new tech- have so often been invoked in recent ness of politics is an idea that is as old as it
nology could save us—we would have to years. The existential threat so many of is fantastical. Politics will always involve
live differently. The public got the mes- us fear is that we might all end up in a conflict, contradiction, and compromise.
sage. Of the 67 percent of voters who told kind of global Somalia characterized by Fashioning a way forward will require us
the Pew Research Center for the People failed states, resource scarcity, and chaos. to frankly acknowledge our different in-
and the Press in 2006 that it is possible It is more than a little ironic that at the terests as well as our common interests.
to reduce the effects of global warming, heart of the anti-modern green discourse While utopianism has a bright side—it is
nearly twice as many said it would re- resides the fear of losing our modernity. a way of imagining a better world—it also
quire major sacrifices than said it could Nonetheless, it has become an article of has a dark side characterized by escapism
be done with technology. When emi- faith among many greens that the global and a disengagement from reality that
nent physicist Freeman Dyson suggested poor are happier with less and must be marks all bubbles, green or financial.
in The New York Review of Books in 2008 shielded from the horrors of overcon- Whether or not environmental leaders
that we could deal with global warming sumption and economic development— are able to recalibrate their politics for a
by creating carbon-eating trees, he was never mind the realities of infant mortality, post-bubble moment, all of us would do
widely ridiculed. What critics seemed to treatable disease, short life expectancies, well to be suspicious of revulsion at mod-
find most offensive was the idea that a and grinding agrarian poverty. The conve- ern life and our longing to transcend it.
big environmental problem like climate nient and ancient view among elites that The low-grade dissatisfaction that almost
change might be overcome without sig- the poor are actually spiritually rich, and all of us have felt is not a reason to for-
nificantly altering modern life. the exaggeration of insignificant gestures sake our modern lives but rather an ines-
There are, to be sure, negative and dis- like recycling and buying new lightbulbs, capable consequence of the extraordinary
orienting aspects of modern life: pollu- are both motivated by the cognitive disso- choices, opportunities, and security that
tion, alienation, loneliness, inequality, nance created by simultaneously believing envelop us—and of the self-awareness
and the proliferation of choices. But the that not all seven billion humans on earth and individualized identities that mo-
truth is that, while we often talk of our can “live like we live” and, consciously or dernity itself makes possible. As such, the
desire for greater community and inter- unconsciously, knowing that we are un- contradictions that drive our dissatisfac-
connectedness, we choose ever more pri- willing to give up our high standard of liv- tion and desire for transcendence are irre-
vacy, autonomy, and personal freedom. ing. This is the split “between what you solvable. And this we should celebrate. d
Few of even the most ardent greens could think and what you do” to which Pollan
seriously imagine subsuming their indi- refers, and it should, perhaps, come as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
vidual identities to a pre-agrarian tribe, no surprise that so many educated lib- are the authors of Break Through: Why
or abandoning their office jobs for a life erals, living at the upper end of a social We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to
of hard agricultural labor. The retreat hierarchy that was becoming ever more Environmentalists and founders of the
from older forms of community, and the stratified, should find the remedies that Breakthrough Institute.
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