The Temperature Transcends Race

article image
photo of Michael Shellenberger

The following article is part of a package on the new green justice movement. For more, read Environmental Justice for All and Global Warming is Color-Blind. And for the complete interview transcript, click here.

When Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus distributed their incendiary essay “The Death of Environmentalism” at an eco-conference in 2004, greens everywhere quickly got their organic-cotton knickers in a twist.

The young consultants had declared that it was time for the movement to stop organizing around single-issue, regulatory politics: an approach that led to cleaner air, cleaner water, wilderness conservation, and other victories. This old-school strategy, they argued, would not be enough to stave off climate change–a problem of unprecedented size and scope.

As the essay made the rounds, the unconvinced suggested to Nordhaus and Shellenberger that the environmental justice movement–born in the 1970s to battle toxic dumping in communities of color–embodied the very sort of expansive environmentalism they were calling for. After conducting dozens of interviews and in-depth research, the two concluded just the opposite.

In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Shellenberger and Nordhaus dedicate a chapter to critiquing the environmental justice movement; they argue that despite a “rhetoric of expan­siveness,” it’s traditionally been beholden to single-issue politics that make it “smaller, not larger.” Instead, they call for a wider-ranging approach that recognizes the interplay between ecology, economics, social issues, and pure politics. It’s a solution that depends not on scaring or guilting people into change (or proving institutional racism), but in creating opportunity in the workplace and at home.

Utne Reader recently spoke with Shellenberger about Break Through. The conversation began with a back-and-forth about younger, “post-environmental justice” activists who are focusing on issues such as job training, livable wages, health care, and sustainable communities.

You lob some pretty harsh criticisms at the environmental justice movement in the new book.

What started out as an effort to make environmentalism more expansive ended up making it even more narrow. The challenges facing poor communities of color go way beyond air and water pollution. They have far less access to healthy food; they have less health care security, less child care security. They’ve got crappier schools. There’s more stress and disempowerment. To create a politics that’s centrally focused on toxic contamination or diesel bus pollution is reductive and speaks to a set of things that are very low priorities in comparison to the much bigger factors driving health and life outcomes.

There’s a new breed of environmental activists–Van Jones in Oakland and Majora Carter in the Bronx, for example–who are focusing on more comprehensive approaches, like training low-income people for green jobs, and creating safer green spaces. Will they succeed where you think their predecessors failed?

What is exciting about it is that they are taking a more expansive view, in which economic development is at the center of the agenda. The challenge that they and all of us face is creating a politics that is comprehensive enough to deal with the many factors driving concentrated poverty.

In the book we point to the excellent work of Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone. He’s taken a truly ecological approach in that when he deals with a problem like childhood asthma, he attacks all of the causes: everything from lack of health care to dilapidated housing to cigarette smoking to diesel bus pollution.

The same thing has to be the case in creating prosperity and security for poor communities of color. It’s not enough to, for example, just do job training. There also has to be significant government investment to make sure that there are actually jobs for the people who get the training.

The new energy act allocates $125 million toward green job training. Is that enough?

It might be enough for job training; it’s certainly not enough to create a new clean-energy economy. We’re going to need to secure much larger investments to do things like buy down the price of solar power, so that there is a viable economics for installing solar on homes and businesses.

You’ve called for a massive government investment on the scale of the space program in the 1950s.

The thing to remember about the U.S. government is that it’s the biggest buyer. In the late 1950s microchips cost about $1,000 each. The federal government decided that it needed microchips for the space race with the Soviet Union, and it literally bought so many microchips over less than 10 years that the price came down to just $20 a microchip.

There’s a very similar situation today with another silicon-based product, and that’s solar panels. Every time you double the production of solar, the price comes down 20 percent. We ought to spend what experts suggest will be between $50 billion and $200 billion to buy down the price of solar so that it’s cheaper than coal.

Is that realistic, economically and politically?

Absolutely. When you do focus groups and polls around global warming, energy independence, and economic development, the support for government investment into new technologies and infrastructure is far higher than public support for raising the cost of energy, which is effectively what a regulation-centered approach to global warming would do.

A paradigm shift needs to happen to move traditional progressive and Democratic politics away from a politics of limits and toward a politics of possibility. It’s hard because a lot of the people who are in charge of global warming policy today, from big environmental groups to members of Congress, came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when a politics of limits worked pretty well dealing with past environmental problems like smog in Los Angeles and river and lake pollution.

Faced with a problem like global warming–which is centrally connected to economic growth, since energy is the lifeblood of the economy–those folks need to have a fundamentally different way of seeing the world. It’s not obvious to us that the baby boomers are going to be able to make that change or whether the change is actually going to have to be made by people who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and have a far greater appreciation of complexity, globalization, and the challenges that the new energy economy is going to pose.

What advice do you have for emerging environmental justice leaders?

One of the natural and totally understandable tendencies among social-change agents is to reduce their focus to a set of things that they decide are manageable. They’d say: If I’m going to deal with childhood asthma, I just don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the causes, so I’m going to focus on the diesel buses because that’s all I have funding for and that’s what environmental foundations want to support.

The challenge for this new crop of progressive leaders–I wouldn’t call them environmental justice leaders, by the way–is to constantly maintain an eye on the big picture and seek ways to focus that don’t require reducing multiple causes to singular causes.

Van Jones has been working for some time on community development in Oakland, but he has said that it wasn’t until he started talking about “green” jobs that the media and others really started to listen.

There’s something very powerful about having civil rights leaders like Van and Majora stand up and say, “We want green for all.” [The clean-energy economy] can’t just benefit a few venture capitalists and help us white yuppies feel better about our consumption. It’s got to be more transformative than that.

To read the complete interview, visit

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.