Prizefight Tonite! No Impact Man vs. Michael Shellenberger

January 24, 2008

Line up for ring-side seats. Colin “No Impact Man” Beavan and author Michael Shellenberger go head-to-head. The topic? Climate change and the economy!

In One Corner: Shellenberger, co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. In the words of his website, he is “a national advocate for the U.S. to make a 10-year, $500 billion public-private investment into cutting-edge clean energy technologies to achieve energy independence and restore America’s economic competitiveness.”

Stance: Individual acts, even in bulk, aren’t enough. We need to invest in clean energy tech.

In The Other Corner: Beavan, known to most of the blogosphere — and those who read the NY Times — as No Impact Man, a family guy who forsook material goods, started riding his bike all over town, unplugged his fridge and freezer, switched to a 250-mile organic diet, and started composting his poop, all in Manhattan.

Stance: It takes a village, not just a handful of “policy wonks,” to use his term. Get The People on board, and you’re halfway there.

I have yet to read the abovementioned book, but the debate between these two gentlemen re: said book is endlessly fascinating. Both Beavan and Shellenberger posted portions of their above-board argument on their respective blogs. Read them now.

All done? Here we go, then. While I understand and agree with Shellenberger’s points, I also see Beavan’s: as he mentions, it seems that Shell is preaching to that proverbial choir, one that gives a hallelujah to his call for enviro-technology expansion, but doesn’t have the numbers to make that call heard.

On the other side, however, Shellenberger says it, flat-out and bold: “I don’t think we can convince very many Americans or Chinese to do what you [Beavan] are doing. And I don’t think we should try because we’ll only alienate them.” Well met, Shellenberger. In a previous post about the chichi milieu in which “green is the new black,” I considered the sustainability of our eco-obsessed consumerscape. Shellenberger’s point bears noting: We are a culture of consumers, plain and simple. It is unreasonable to expect that all 300 million of us U.S.’ers are going to fecundate our feces; quite possibly, it’s unreasonable to expect that 3,000 of us are going to do it. And if we ask the country to go TP-less, as the No Impacts did last March, I think we’ll get run out of town.

But — and this is the uppercut, here, folks — Shellenberger follows up with this:

Instead I think we need to find ways to allow people to keep on consuming without generating emissions or depleting resources. Technically, renewable energy and infinite materials recycling should make this possible. Both, however, remain expensive. Hence, the need for breakthroughs in performance and price.

Huh? Allow people to keep consuming without generating emissions? He says this is technically possible, and perhaps he proves it in the book. But I’ve got a jot of common sense, and that jot is hollering, “No way! NO WAY!” Doesn’t this perpetuate that nasty cycle of want more make more use more want more, ad infinitum? What gives, Shellenberger? Enlighten me, please, cause my common sense jot is going berserker on me.

Beyond all this, though, is the question of privilege that Shelly puts to The Beav. The specifics of Beavan’s privilege are irrelevant, but the fact that he does operate within the middle class, the fact that he has a steady job, an education, access to a computer, the funds and time to choose small-scale food producers, etc. — when it comes down to it, the fact that he has a choice to live a no-impact life — give me pause as well. Certainly, those who roam the “right” sectors and make enough dough to choose the ascetic life far outnumber those who don’t.

Yes, many studies have shown that purchasing food from farmers markets is cheaper. Purchasing used clothing and goods from thrift stores and craigslist is cheaper. Riding mass transit, as opposed to driving a personal vehicle, is cheaper, and walking is even cheaper than that. But how can I access craigslist if I don’t own a computer? How can walk to work if I can only afford to live in a sub-city?

These are the things I consider. What is your take?

Update, 1/25: TreeHugger’s Collin Dunn recapitulated my post here. The debate continues in the comments!


One Response to “Prizefight Tonite! No Impact Man vs. Michael Shellenberger”

  1. […] So? Why not? Why are we “drink[ing] the Kool-Aid,” as JustA11en says? Why are we persecuting those who challenge the belief that Science (with a Capital S) agrees that people-produced global warming is despoiling the Earth, instead of engaging in discussion and debate, à la No Impact Man and Michael Shellenberger? […]

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