The Consultants' Republic
In the conventional telling, environmentalism’s modern history begins at spring. It is silent. Or, at least, it would be silent, if only the destructive din of postwar industrialism would subside long enough to reveal the stillness of a vacant, dying natural landscape. A lone female voice manages to pierce through this din, seizing the American consciousness with careful but passionate prose, documenting our toxicological sins and imploring us to return to the holistic, ecological worldview that once animated our moods and moves. The unregulated market is an unhealthy system, the voice tells us, since it fails to attend to the long-term consequences of its constantly escalating patterns of production, consumption, and dispossession, its presentist, materialist, and individualist biases. As her message begins to reach deeply into our culture, this writer of science and poetry finds herself attacked by unscrupulous defenders of the unsustainable status quo, who challenge her expertise and cast aspersions on her character in an organized campaign of suppression, disinformation, and manipulation. But to no avail: the public has awakened to the truth about its chemical legacy. Now, it is only a matter of time before the crafters of law will respond, bringing us back from a precipice of irreversible environmental loss.
In reverential tones, environmentalists tell this story — of Rachel Carson and her book, Silent Spring — as a reminder of how the movement’s modern successes began. The latest entrants to this carnival of consultants are Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and self-described “research, policy, and strategy consultants to environmental andprogressive foundations and organizations” (pp. 278–79 n.9). Nordhaus and Shellenberger first achieved notoriety by releasing an essay in 2004 entitled The Death of Environmentalism, in which the authors brashly proclaimed that “modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.” As the publisher of Break Through — again, Houghton Mifflin — proudly notes in the book’s publicity materials, Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s essay “triggered a firestorm of controversy,” due in substantial part to the essay’s release at an “annual conference of environmental donors and grantees.” This staged event enabled Nordhaus and Shellenberger later to be depicted as “the bad boys of American environmentalism” who upset the complacent mainstream of the movement by shouting with “the voice of the post-boomer generation.”
In short, what Nordhaus and Shellenberger needed, but failed, to do was to describe and theorize a constitution for their consultants’ republic — a set of structural provisions that would govern the nature of the products and the level of competitiveness present in a market for meaning creation, along with the appropriate liberties and protections that individuals might require within such an overdetermined and highly manipulable social imaginary. The authors instead simply proclaim that “[t]he crises we face demand . . . that we dream differently” (p. 272), never explaining how it is we know that these “crises” exist, or how we can be confident that the politicians, consultants, and other “dream” purveyors who come to our aid will not induce a collective nightmare.
This Review proceeds in four Parts. Part I provides a fuller rendition of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s critique, along with the authors’ proposed alternative to conventional environmentalism, which they dub the “politics of possibility” (p. 15). Part II demonstrates that Nordhaus and Shellenberger, by relying on a monolithic and unsupportable depiction of the environmental movement, have failed to follow their own advice of “[p]luralizing singular categories [as] a simple way to free ourselves from essentialism” (p. 239); as a consequence, they overlook the diversity that exists within the environmental movement and that, to a large extent, anticipates the themes they claim to be introducing. Part III argues that the authors’ Rorty-inspired romantic irony ultimately provides little to respond to the crisis of meaning they have asserted, most notably because their conception fails to consider which actors will be ironizing, to which audiences, and with what values and purposes in mind. Part IV takes a more constructive turn, situating Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s account within the legal and political theory literatures from which they have sampled and suggesting some vital questions that a truly postenvironmental politics would be required to answer in order to avert the nightmare of the consultants’ republic.