Apparently I’ve been a bit slow on the uptake, or at least too busy to look up, because my Q&A with Break Through co-author Michael Shellenberger appeared in last week’s Honolulu Weekly, and I just saw it yesterday.

I interviewed Shellenberger about his and Ted Nordhaus’ book, the Break Through thesis, and applications to Hawai`i’s future. One topic we focused on was solar–in his words “What the hell is one of the sunniest places on earth doing getting its power from coal?” Last night he posted that on his blog, delving further into the solar issue (which centers on cost), and in about two hours there were already over 60 comments. For the full scoop, read the Weekly Q&A below, then take a look at Shellenberger’s post.

Q&A: The Eco-Optimist
Interview by Christine Thomas

Environmentalist and author Michael Shellenberger turns the Earth-first paradigm on its head.

In 2004, two well-known environmentalists released a pamphlet at a donor and grantee conference on Kaua`i, calling on greenies to replace “doomsday discourse” with a powerful, positive vision ala Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. To their surprise it was debated not just among insiders, but a diverse global audience. Now Nordhaus and Shellenberger have expanded their treatise in Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, breaking down why sacrifice-based solutions such as reducing emissions won’t succeed, and presenting a practical vision of how to address global warming.

Shellenberger spoke to the Honolulu Weekly about the future of politics and Hawai`i.

I’m sure you’ve been asked this a lot, but in Break Through why do you and Nordhaus assert that current environmental politics must die—couldn’t they just be rehabilitated?

What needs to die is the insistence that “the environment” be at the center of our politics. When it comes to dealing with global warming and rainforest destruction, what we need is a new vision for economic development, one focused on clean energy and people living in livable cities. That’s a very different kind of politics than the nature protection kind we had under both conservation and environmentalism.

Because of this, many environmentalists have labeled you and Nordhaus bad-boy naysayers—part of the problem, not part of the solution. Is this just defensive hyperbole in response to a call to change?

The negative reaction is coming from different camps. Some of it comes from people who believe that there just isn’t enough planet Earth for everyone to live like we live—it’s a mentality of limits, not possibility. Some of the negative reaction comes from the environmental establishment, which believes that new pollution regulations will solve global warming—a strategy that has already failed with Kyoto and in Europe. Still others are upset that we describe the ways in which environmentalism is too much like a religion and not enough like a church. Nature and science aren’t “telling us what to do”—we have to decide for ourselves. And achieving that means creating new kinds of community that can create a new politics.

Hawai`i’s culture is rooted in love and respect of the land, yet paradoxically we depend on coal for energy, have limited mass transit, strong opposition to growth and change, and few environmental measures in place—not even curbside recycling. Are we thus in a great position to start creating a new politics in the “right” way, or do we have just as much work to do to eliminate the old paradigm?

It’s crazy that such an incredibly sunny place like Hawai`i relies so heavily on coal. Going solar would allow Hawai`i to reduce its dependence on coal and would create thousands of new jobs for local electricians and builders installing solar panels. Solar is cost-competitive when the electricity costs are spread out over a 10 – 20 year period. One tool might be a “revolving fund” that lent money to homeowners and business owners seeking to finance their solar system. A small group of Hawaiians could probably convince the state legislature to set something up like this—the best argument is probably that it’s good for the local economy and will clean up the air.

Don’t some elements of environmentalism, particularly nature protection and limited growth, have a place in this new politics? Obviously here, where the Islands’ natural beauty drives our tourism-based economy, preserving them is central to prosperity.

Humans are natural beings. No matter how badly we develop our environments, it’s always natural. The question is thus, what kind of relationship do we want with the nonhuman world? This is a profound existential question that goes way beyond land conservation. Respecting Hawai`i’s natural assets requires some kind of development, even if that development consists of protecting wild areas from human development. Solar panels on rooftops are another kind of development required to protect Hawai`i’s clean air. Our argument is that for any ecological politics to succeed, it must focus on the wider set of questions around development—livable communities, good jobs, respectful tourism—and not nature protection alone.

In the book you talk about prosperity as a precondition for this kind of progressive politics, as well as ecological consciousness as a whole. Why is prosperity so important?

There are two different things related to prosperity. The first is that ecological concern is a “postmaterial” concern—it emerges after we get our material needs for food, shelter, and security met, as well as a set of lower-order postmaterial concerns, such as self-esteem and a sense of belonging and purpose. It is for this reason that environmentalism emerges in wealthy communities and nations before poor ones. The second thing we have to understand about prosperity is progress. People become more generous and win-win oriented when things are improving. So what matters is both absolute and relative prosperity.

Besides increasing prosperity, what else do communities need to create dynamic solutions instead of regulating and limiting?

It’s important to start with the big picture: what kind of Hawai`i do you want? What’s in the vision and what’s not? What kind of development do you want and what kind of development don’t you want? This act of imagining and visioning is so basic and yet many of us who are in politics forget to do it, or we assume that we’re all operating from the same vision.

So your vision, then, is instead of scaring us with the fear of impending disaster, inspiring the United States to greatness?

The first thing we have to do is remember concrete things we’ve done to overcome past challenges. We pulled ourselves out of the Great Depression. And after World War II we made strategic investments in new technologies like medicine, aerospace, microchips and the Internet, which have been good for the country. Today, we have new challenges—Iraq, oil addiction, a lagging economy, and global warming. Overcoming them demands shared investment in promising new technologies, like solar, that could create millions of new installation jobs in the U.S., while freeing ourselves from oil and dealing with global warming.

So in a sentence?

We must invest in clean energy innovation, for it is the most important tool we have for overcoming the crises we face while allowing us to take the next stage in our evolution toward excellence and greatness.

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