NGO Activist Award


The Breakthrough Institute (Oakland, Calif.) for critiquing the narrow thinking and overly alarmist perspective of much of the U.S. environmentalist movement and challenging environmentalists to take a broader focus that incorporates support for economic development, social justice and technological and engineering approaches to solving global warming.

In their groundbreaking 2004 essay, The Death of Environmentalism, Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger urged environmental leaders to stop focusing on unwinnable policy fights, like getting the U.S. Senate to ratify Kyoto, and instead to seek common ground with labor by supporting clean energy policies that would create jobs; instead of emphasizing the apocalyptic consequences of global warming-engendering "helplessness and isolation among would-be supporters"-they should articulate "a positive, transformative vision" of a clean-energy economy.

In later papers, speeches and books-including Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism (2007) and Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene (2011)-Nordhaus and Shellenberger have deconstructed the environmental movement's founding myths, pointing out that it emerged not just in response to unprecedented pollution but when middle-class prosperity allowed Americans to experience and appreciate the environment as never before-and gave them the time and flexibility to organize.

To expect Brazilians or Chinese to choose "a development path fundamentally different from the one pursued by the West is Naïve," say Nordhaus and Shellenberger. Yet many western environmentalists living with "unprecedented levels of wealth and security … reject economic growth as a measure of well-being, tell cautionary tales about modernity and technology and warn of overpopulation now that their [their societies] are wealthy [and] no longer growing."

In Love Your Monsters, Nordhaus, Shellenberger and other writers argue that the "eco-theological" viewpoint that says "ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate 'nature'" must be replaced with a "modernization theology" that celebrates "the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve" and embraces genetic engineering of drought-resistant crops, carbon capture and storage, massive coastal protection infrastructure and other technical and engineering solutions to adapt to climate change.

Climate Pragmatism, a 2011 paper by the Hartwell Group and co-authored by Nordhaus and Shellenberger and other scholars, urged activists and policymakers to stop arguing with climate change skeptics about whether recent weather disasters are the result of anthropogenic climate change. Instead, governments should get on with the business of funding measures to make communities and economies-especially in vulnerable developing countries-more resilient to extreme weather of all kinds.

In April 2012, Breakthrough broke with the U.S. renewable power industry to say that it was time for production subsidies-which they tallied at $150 billion so far-to sunset and be replaced with innovation funding that would allow wind and solar in particular to achieve "subsidy independence." In November 2012, Nordhaus and Shellenberger issued a paper (based on a speech to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association) urging the gas industry to embrace tighter regulation and environmentalists to "consider whether [expanding domestic gas consumption] might be a different path to significant emissions reduction from the one they have pursued over the last 20 years."

Writing on in December 2012, former Audubon editor Keith Kloor, called Nordhaus and Shellenberger key figures in an emerging group of "modernist greens" who "don't catastrophize [and] are even optimistic about the future."

"[They] recognize that the nature-knows-best, technology-averse philosophy has bred some unfortunate tendencies that make 20th-century environmentalism ill-suited to address 21st-century problems and needs," wrote Kloor. "If modernist greens are successful in prodding their peers, environmentalism will be reborn and continue to play a vital role in making the world a more sustainable place for all."