Book Review: Break Through (Part 2 of 2)

This is part two of my review of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. You have to respect their commitment to a verbose subtitle...

This podcast from FORA TV where the authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus discuss the book and elaborate on some of their positions is an excellent companion to the book.

In the first part of this review I covered their premise of why environmentalism is dead including Maslow's hierarchy of needs and why polar bears, while cute, are crappy mascots for fighting global climate change. If they said it once they said it a hundred times; "Limit based politics do not work." And they gave lots of examples to that point. Now on to part II.



They follow their observations with a proposal that in order to save our environment we should:

  1. Invest in improving the quality (health care, education, etc.) of life for everyone so we get people past the lower level needs.

  2. Massively increase (to $30 billion a year) our investment in new technology and (clean) energy production methodologies such that we break the connection between carbon output and energy and have more energy than we know what to do with.

  3. **Both Obama and Clinton's energy policies support ~$15 billion a year. I desperately wanted to say that McCain supports grinding up baby seals for use as fuel but his website says McCain supports limiting carbon output to push the market towards new technologies. Not the best answer by my standards, and also less funny.

  4. Redefine the eco-activist rhetoric to focus on striving towards a great future rather than trying to get people to avoid an apocalyptic wasteland littered with the corpses of drowned polar bears.


(image from wikimedia commons edited by me)


In the last chapter there are some really cool examples where they take famous speeches and rewrite them to show how their proposed rhetoric change would sound. Speeches with positive rhetoric are switched to use negative rhetoric and vice versa. The technique is very powerful and the results are, in my opinion, stunning.

The irony is that the majority of the book is focussed on stating how environmentalists are counter-productive, outmoded, virtually useless bags of flesh that should adopt a more positive rhetoric style and join the authors Apollo Alliance to make a better future through the use of technology.

In short, "You all suck at your jobs so do what I say and don't forget to smile."


And that's the tragedy of the book. The author's New Apollo Plan makes a lot of sense. I agree with everything except the hydrogen infrastructure build out, but perhaps I'm being short sighted. Unfortunately the people most likely to support the plan are the very people the authors attack in their book.


Breakthrough employs the ever successful "Kick `em in the balls to win them over" technique. It's a popular one, but rarely works.

As a result of their writing style, people incorrectly interpret their views to translate to:
  1. All environmentalists are morons.
  2. Don't bother recycling you're wasting your time.
  3. It's no big deal if you want to be an uber consumer and the producer of tons of needless waste. In the end it won't matter.
  4. Technology will be our savior and all we need to do is wait till our government starts investing in tech and all will be well.
And it's not hard to come to these conclusions having read the book. They pick on so many people for so many things that if you've ever recycled a can they put you on the defensive. But this is not what the authors are trying to say and you get a more nuanced approach if you listen to them talk live in this FORA Podcast Episode.

Even so I can't help but mention this idea that's been floating around in my head. (Perhaps I'm being defensive?):
If part of the goal is to drive government investment, then doesn't having individuals taking small actions to protect their environment (recycling, switching to tap water, etc.) the sort of thing that helps codify political support for larger investments? I'm thinking the answer is yes and Michael Pollan wrote an article called Why Bother? that answers this question quite elegantly.

I went into this book expecting to be presented with ideas that didn't fit with my world view and got what I was looking for. It made me reconsider my approach of limiting "My Ecological Footprint". I still have an aversion to waste, but I find myself looking for ways to do things in a renewable way rather than not doing them at all.

While I didn't care for their approach I thought they made some excellent points so
this book gets 4 out of 5 exploding balls of hydrogen.