In fall 2006, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the (now-) Breakthrough Institute appeared at Lewis & Clark College as featured keynote speakers for our annual Environmental Affairs Symposium. Their talk, “The Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Overcoming,” was provocative enough, but they also recorded a video while on campus titled “Not Your Parent’s Paradigm.” As you’ll see below, theirs was a passionate, in your face repudiation of many elements of sustainability college students take for granted.
I’m a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, which basically means that I’ve had over a decade now to listen to, learn from, and argue with them. I’m not sold on everything they sell—for instance, decoupling, a recent kick they’ve been on that huger scholars than I have found puzzling. But their instincts were sound: much of what passes as environmentalism is out of date.
Last week, our Environmental Engagement course considered contemporary environmental scholarship, and what we read was a richer, more hybrid, more in-progress (and can I say more hopeful?) way of navigating environmental issues than the classic environmental scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. Gone are (with apologies to Al Gore) the slam-fist-on-table Inconvenient Truths; here to replace them are not only the truths we negotiate with reality, but the process by which we come at those smaller-t truths.
I have found that one element of contemporary environmental scholarship in particular, its focus on connection, resonates with our students, and here I offer a quick note of caution, so that our contemporary scholarship retains its cutting edge. Connection can mean many things, and of course it is not new in environmental scholarship: witness the famous Barry Commoner adage, “Everything is connected to everything else,” of the early 1970s. Perhaps the biggest Big Word on campus these days is intersectionality—sort of Commoner meets radical identity politics. Students are drawn to its sense of “and” vs. “or,” its coalition potential, its seeming expansiveness and comprehensiveness.
But my former geography colleague Waldo Tobler made a good point years ago: some connections matter more than others. The task of scholars—as our ENVS students do via, for instance, ANT-inspired concept mapping—is to clarify the connections that especially matter. There are many good reasons to do so: it helps us understand why things are they way they are; it helps us imagine how to possibly change them; it offers analytical clarity vs. inspirational fuzziness; it acknowledges that time and money are finite and we cannot do everything.
Onward, contemporary environmental scholarship!—the torch now passes to my students.