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Book review: Derber’s “Greed to Green”

(also available at Voices on the Square and at

Book Review: Derber, Charles. Greed to Green: Solving Climate Change and Remaking The Economy. Boulder CO and London: Paradigm, 2010.

Someone over at recommended this book to me (sorry, I don’t remember who), as an alternative to analyses of abrupt climate change which focused entirely upon hard science while relying upon potted analyses of society. It’s a worthwhile read. I haven’t been able to find a book review of “Greed to Green” in the archives of, but has an interesting book review here.

At any rate, this book appealed to me as an easily-accessible take on abrupt climate change by a sociologist. Moreover, Charles Derber’s book has recommendations by Bill McKibben, Ralph Nader, Ross Gelbspan, and Juliet Schor, and no doubt a plug by Howard Zinn approved by his estate. It is, however, dated — it appears to be full of the optimism felt by many at the beginning of the first Obama administration, and so it needs an update for the beginning of the second Obama administration. Derber’s book could be a stepping stone to another book (possibly a second edition of Greed to Green) with sharper notions of how to get to the sort of world he wants to see. Greed to Green is easy to read, and it offers a wide variety of sociological and psychological perspectives upon abrupt climate change as well as a summary of the hard-scientific debate. Moreover, it concludes with a number of suggestions for grassroots activists. Derber argues:

If the crisis of climate change does not become rapidly integrated into the social sciences and humanities courses of universities — as well as becoming a leading topic of conversation in churches, workplaces, and town halls across the country and world — we may lose the battle. (3)

Thus, in favor of promoting the above agenda, I continue with a book review of Charles Derber’s Greed to Green!

(NB: Greed to Green is not to be confused with another book titled Greed to Green, by another author…)


The introduction to this book is one of the most salutary things about it. Derber argues in this introduction that we really ought to question the necessity of the capitalist system, and the “there is no alternative” ideology that has been used to justify it:

TINA is a suicidal but seductive philosophy, especially alluring in the United States, based as it is on the truth that capitalist economies can be powerful engines of seemingly unlimited growth, profit, and individualism. But those very capitalist attributes — and the rejection of limits in itself — are part of what makes the US capitalist model systemically dangerous for the environment and a leading cause of climate change. (6)

This introduction is also about hopes, held at the beginning of Obama’s first term, that the Obama administration could have achieved something positive about abrupt climate change. These hopes appear to have been vastly inflated. There is an important conversation going on about the deflation of hopes for climate change legislation, centered on a report by Theda Skocpol, “Naming The Problem: What It Will Take To Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming.” This report has been covered somewhat by A Siegel in a recent diary — I will be weighing in on all this discussion later, and there will apparently be a symposium at Harvard on this topic.

At any rate, the first chapter of Derber’s book is about a psychology of abrupt climate change. Here, in the spirit of innovation, Derber suggests two types of denialism: 1) the idea that it isn’t happening, and 2) the idea that abrupt climate change isn’t important. We need to be concerned with both these types of denial.

There is a discussion in two chapters of the science of abrupt climate change, which pretty much repeats what readers here can obtain through other sources — Derber favors the version of climate change which he calls the “revisionist story,” which argues (with James Hansen) that climate change is more urgent than it has been portrayed (in the IPCC reports) as being, and that we really ought to be concerned to do something really transformative, right away, to avoid the disasters that will be forthcoming with unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

There is a discussion in this book of “pale green,” thereafter, which argues that mild reformism as regards abrupt climate change is actually a denial of death — if we continue along the path we’re on, and merely offer a few small reforms to “help” the situation, we’re headed for a bad fall. Abrupt climate change is not a minor problem, or a small item on a list of incremental reforms.

There is a discussion of the various generations of Americans — the “baby boomers,’ Generation X, and the Millenials, as regards which generation can we predict to step up and do something meaningful to mitigate climate change. There is also a discussion of who are the climate change deniers, which completes part 1 of this book.

Part two of this book offers proactive solutions of “How To Green America.” In this portion of the book Derber tackles the idea of an economic and ideological makeover for America. His main focus, however, is upon what he calls “the 90% solution.” It starts like this:

1. Citing his constitutional powers, the president orders each federal department to create an emergency plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in its sector by 90 percent by 2050.

The rest of it involves getting Wall Street, the energy sector, and Congress to wean America off fossil fuels in much the same way. There is also, amusingly enough, a set of suggested fireside chats for the President to employ to rally public opinion behind such an agenda. This section dates Greed to Green as coming from the beginning of the first Obama administration — one wonders what Derber’s agenda is now, now that there really isn’t any climate change legislation on the table and that there doesn’t appear to be anything forthcoming from either the President or Congress on the immediate horizon. (Or at least this is how our current situation is portrayed in Skocpol’s document.)

The last portions of this book make suggestions as to how to globalize Derber’s ideas. In discussing how to create a global order out of suggestions the author initially discussed for the US, he turns immediately to discussions of hegemony. As used in Greed to Green, “hegemony” is a concept made famous by the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci suggested that there was a way in which institutions were organized to promote the domination of one group of people, the rich and powerful, over everyone else. Derber, to his credit, suggests that “the principle of hegemony is not sustainable in politics or nature. Based on domination and force, it cannot create willing consent by the governed.” (165) There must, in short, be an equitable world order, based on collective security and replacing global domination through military and economic power, if climate change is to be mitigated.

Derber’s invocation of Gramsci is important, however, for another concept to be found in Gramsci’s lexicon — the “historic bloc.” For Gramsci, the “historic bloc” or “historical bloc” was a new social formation to change the world. In Derber’s argument, the desired new “historic bloc” would move American world society “from the religion of growth to the quality of life” (145-147). If the Obama administration is not going to be part of a new “historic bloc,” and lead such a transformation, there will need to be another “historic bloc,” probably after the Obama administration has run its course.

Finally, a discussion of individual activism, of “what can I do?”, is broached by this book. I would be interested to see how Derber could expand upon this discussion in the era of the Occupy movement.

I think the most serious praise I can offer for Derber’s book is that Derber opens up conversations which might otherwise promote mere reformism. The promotion of “pale green” appears as a “solution” to those who would like to regard the problem as “solved” without much thought. Derber persuasively suggests that “pale green” is not going to be enough, and that’s actually enough for this book to be recommended.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984