April 28, 2012

Traditionalists v. Modernists in Green-Land

From Keith Kloor:

There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism. It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.

The green traditionalist has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.  Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action. Today, the green traditionalist is like a parent who incessantly yells at his child to behave–or else. The parent grows angrier and increasingly frustrated when the child inevitably tunes him out.

If there is a path to a more realistic, hopeful future, the green traditionalist has not advanced it. Getting back to the land was great hippy fun in the 1960s and 1970s. Inveighing against modern civilization and retreating into an artificial wilderness congealed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Since then, green chic has been riddled with contradictions and ascetic deprivation has still been found wanting. . . .

Enter  the post-environmental, green modernist. Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better. As the geographer Erle Ellis recently wrote:

Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era.  Most of all, we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human directed opportunity.

The green modernist recognizes that technology, as it has done all through human history, is a means to improve the human condition and reduce the worrisome ecological pressure on the planet. At the very least, as Mark Lynas writes in his new book:

We cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and GE [genetic engineering] because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.

The green modernist recognizes that conservation philosophy in the Anthropocene will have to change. But first it must stop worshiping at the wilderness cathedral and offer a world where nature and society can coexist harmoniously and productively. It must, as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva (and co-authors) write in this essay, promise

a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.

This means recognizing that cities, long the bane of green traditionalists, are places where humanity and nature can thrive together. The evidence for this is, in fact, piling up. Of course, this is not to suggest that protected ecological reserves are unnecessary.  As I said here, the existence of urban nature does not obviate the need for big tracts of unbroken habitat for animals to roam. “But,” I wrote, “the idea that ecosystems and wildlife can still flourish in big cities challenges some of our cherished notions of nature.” . . .

In a recent essay, the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that environmentalists should learn from the history of human progress. But they also acknowledge

the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities — if they don’t threaten our very existence — certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years.

But the answer, they assert, is not to turn away from what we do best:

The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity — just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.

Keith Kloor, “The Green Modernist Vision,” Collide-a-Scape, April 17, 2012.

* * *

Kloor’s post drew a sharp riposte from Joe Romm of Climate Progress, though Romm focuses most of his attention on the misguided ways of the New York Times, whose Andy Revkin posted the original link to the piece.  As Romm points out, “If you look at the major environmental groups — the ones with the power and money that this analysis purports to be about — they all work closely with industrial corporations, generally take lots of industry money, and they aggressively supported a climate bill that was absurdly pro-technology and pro-industry, that was business friendly and market oriented.”

Romm denies that the environmental movement is “pushing non-stop apocalyptic messages like a broken record” and in particular says that the recent report of the UK’s Royal Society (which Kloor compared to the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study by the Club of Rome) “is pretty darn mild given the dire nature of our situation” and “about as alarmist as a clock radio set to Muzak.”  However, in insisting that there is no apocalyptic vision in the Royal Society report, Romm neglects the following passage from its conclusion: “Over the next 30 – 40 years the confluence of the challenges described in this report provides the opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy and a better world for the majority of humanity, or alternatively the risk of social, economic and environmental failures and catastrophes on a scale never imagined.” That certainly looks like The Apocalypse to me.

Oddly, Kloor concedes that these apocalyptic warnings deserve to be taken seriously and that “Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually come true.”  There is a curious tension in his piece between the idea that the kids (i.e., the public) are tuning out the message because they don’t want to hear it, even though it is true, and the notion that environmentalists are preternaturally hostile to technology and growth due to “Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.”


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