Book Review: Break Through (Part 1)

Aluminum cans are one of those things that I really feel stupid throwing out because I've read that making aluminum from raw ore takes about 2% of the worlds energy and making it from recycled cans takes 95% less.

A few weeks ago I was helping do some repairs at a building that was being turned into a transition house for kids. It was simple demolition, construction and finishing work, and there were about 40 of us on site. After lunch
I tossed my soda can in the trash becasue they "weren't set up for recycling."

I'll get back to that story in a second...

My latest library book was Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. How's that for a sub-title?!?

In the book the authors (25 year veterans of environmental activism) systematically attack the tactics and claimed successes of environmental activists. They suggest that activists are no more than a special interest, have never actually succeeded, and in some cases suggest that their activism is counter productive.

The basis of their argument is as follows:
  1. People behave according to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You can tell people they should worry about global warming until you turn blue, but if they don't have food and safety they are not going to care.
  2. When you scare people they exhibit behaviors leaning towards fascism.
  3. The environmental movement was born because of an economic boom following WWII that enabled people to address their lower level needs thus giving them the time to start hugging trees.
  4. A politics of limits (CAFE Standards, using less stuff, etc.) has never been successful.
  5. Motivating people works best when you provide a compelling vision of the future. Trying to avoid a long term catastrophe and hugging polar bears" isn't a very powerful motivator.
They provide some compelling evidence for these points. But it was the Aluminum can memory that made it real for me.

When I was driving home from the house where I tossed that Aluminum can I felt really dumb. I'd been recycling everything for years, and out of my element for a few hours I didn't hesitate to toss one of the earths most expensive and useful material resources in the trash! I could have just grabbed a bag and brought everyones recycling home with me. It didn't even occur to me until I left. What a missed opportunity!

I didn't think my outlook on protecting my environment was the result of a comfortable standard of living but there it was. It didn't even phase me when I faced what I perceived as a more urgent need to finish the house.

It got me thinking... I imagine if I was doing that work for a living and had to worry about having money for food or medicine... I was a little surprised to conclude that if it came down to feeding and caring for my family over saving the polar bears, we'd have a house full of bear skin rugs, and probably some in a box in the basement in case heating prices went up.

And I think polar bears are wicked cute too! (image from wikimedia commons edited by me)


Seriously, polar bears are great, but if it means my kid's gonna starve...

So despite the cuteness of polar bears the first part of this book had some very compelling arguments defining the problems with the current face of environmental activism. But my review isn't all glowing praise and arctophobic rants. In the next post I'll go over their proposed solutions and share my thoughts on why **hugging polar bears might not be such a bad idea.

** Hugging in this context is meant figuratively. I do not suggest or condone the actual hugging of a polar bear as human bones have been shown to be bad for polar bear dental heath.