Book Review: Break Through – The Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Possibility


The doom and gloom of present day environmentalists has created a culture of fear and anxiety not conducive to progress on issues as large and complex as global warming. Environmental policy experts Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger contest this status quo with the concept of the “politics of possibility”. Break Through: From the Depth of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility is an expansion of their 2004 article “ The Death of Environmentalism” where the concept was first introduced. In the book they argue that the current strategies of the environmental movement are based off of restraint and sacrifice when instead a more prosperous life needs to be the center of new policy. Their book focuses on highlighting these flaws and outlining ways to create effective environmental policy that takes into account the evolving world.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger bring up three basic distinctions that need to be made by the environmental movement: creation vs. preservation, material vs. post-material survival, and outer vs. inner-directed needs for purpose. They make these distinctions by showcasing case studies such as the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, the misunderstood environmental justice movement within the United States, and the social structure of the rising evangelical church.
Material and post-material needs are the basis off of which the authors launch their philosophy. Poverty, the authors explain, looks a lot different in the current age of the United States and the rest of the western world than it did back in the era of the Great Depression and material scarcity. The essential material needs of food, shelter, and safety, have already been met due to our progress and evolution as a human society. Now, more complex post-materialist needs such as fulfillment and belonging are at the forefront. Caring for the environment satisfies these needs by allowing people to feel they are working towards something greater than themselves, but as environmentalists push the idea of limitation and land preservation, they are blocking creative thought and innovation and that got the western world to the place in society it is today. Basically this line of thinking is counterintuitive.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger use their first half of the book to go further in depth about the history of environmentalism and its miscalculations in the new century. By separating economics and the environment, towns from forests, and humans from nature they are bringing us further away from cohesive solutions. Skewed poll statistics and hyper-focused legislation on the generalized problem of pollution and carbon caps will not work in a time when American’s have other issues at the top of their agendas. Crude visuals and imagery of destroyed natural systems do not motivate, but actually associate stress and doom with the idea of environmentalism and result in avoidance of the issues.


An example of a factsheet I was handed from an environmental activist group on campus. This plays to Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s point on fear-based scare tactics popular in today’s environmental movement.

Looking at the example of Brazil and environmentalists attempts to end deforestation gives a better understanding of the authors’ stance. Brazilians in the cities like Rio de Janerio are starving, without shelter, and live in violence. They seek economic growth to get out of this situation and are only more stifled by the idea that they should not be able to utilize their natural resources to meet their material needs. By separating humans from nature and seeking perfect harmony within the natural world that is doubted to have ever existed, current environmentalists are not selling their point. Without finding a way for Brazilians to meet their material needs, the environmental movement to stop the destruction of the Amazon will never prevail.
In the second half of the book Nordhause and Shellenberger flesh out a plan that involves more progressive ideas that will result in more effective policy change. Environmentalists must expand their worldview and take a good hard look at other issues that are standing in the way of reaching their goals. The authors’ plan for the Apollo project for clean energy calls for high investment in clean energy, adding jobs to the global economy, promoting innovation and creative thought, and raising private capital. Environmentalists need to work together with the groups they typically consider their enemies, get rid of their utopian view of a pristine nature separate from humans, and start celebrating the present time in history for human’s progress and recognize what has gotten society here today. The project calls for market based solutions that work with the economy to meet material and post-material needs in a globalized market.
This book is an excellent resource for academic courses and should be a required reading of anyone going into the field of environmental policy, investment, and environmental studies. The extensive bibliography provides reference to experts in sociology, economics, history, and science. In contrast to popular environmental books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s Break Through gleams with hope. It provides a broad overview of the progression of environmentalist thought up to this point in history and gives direction on where to go in the future. Through politics of possibility, progress on climate change can be made that celebrates human kinds victories and leads to a more fulfilled life for all beings on Earth that does not discriminate by place or kind.

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