Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bright Green Environmentalism: A Toxic Love Story

Excellent and thought-provoking essay in Orion Magazine by Paul Kingsnorth. It's a long piece, and well worth reading in full if you haven't already, but what I think are the best parts is where he takes on the so-called "neo-environmentalists" (I have previously heard them referred to as "bright green" environmentalists). I have included the relevant sections below:
[Peter] Kareiva is chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, which is among the world’s largest environmental organizations. He is a scientist, a revisionist, and one among a growing number of former greens who might best be called “neo-environmentalists.”

The resemblance between this coalescing group and the Friedmanite “neoliberals” of the early 1970s is intriguing. Like the neoliberals, the neo-environmentalists are attempting to break through the lines of an old orthodoxy that is visibly exhausted and confused. Like the neoliberals, they are mostly American and mostly male, and they emphasize scientific measurement and economic analysis over other ways of seeing and measuring. Like the neoliberals, they cluster around a few key think tanks: then, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute, and the Adam Smith Institute; now, the Breakthrough Institute, the Long Now Foundation, and the Copenhagen Consensus. Like the neoliberals, they are beginning to grow in numbers at a time of global collapse and uncertainty. And like the neoliberals, they think they have radical solutions.

Kareiva’s ideas are a good place to start in understanding the neo-environmentalists. He is an outspoken former conservationist who now believes that most of what the greens think they know is wrong. Nature, he says, is more resilient than fragile; science proves it. “Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment,” he says, “and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Wilderness does not exist; all of it has been influenced by humans at some time. Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?” Somehow, you know what the answer is going to be before he gives it to you.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that a right-wing politican might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva is not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.

Beyond the field of conservation, the neo-environmentalists are distinguished by their attitude toward new technologies, which they almost uniformly see as positive. Civilization, nature, and people can only be “saved” by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering, and anything else with the prefix “new” that annoys Greenpeace. The traditional green focus on “limits” is dismissed as naïve. We are now, in Brand’s words, “as gods,” and we have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through the use of new technology guided by enlightened science.

Neo-environmentalists also tend to exhibit an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude toward the scientific method. Everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection, or simple human feeling.

Some of this might be shocking to some old-guard greens—which is the point—but it is hardly a new message. In fact, it is a very old one; it is simply a variant on the old Wellsian techno-optimism that has been promising us cornucopia for over a century. It’s an old-fashioned Big Science, Big Tech, and Big Money narrative filtered through the lens of the internet and garlanded with holier-than-thou talk about saving the poor and feeding the world.

But though they burn with the shouty fervor of the born-again, the neo-environmentalists are not exactly wrong. In fact, they are at least half right. They are right to say that the human-scale, convivial approaches of those 1970s thinkers are never going to work if the world continues to formulate itself according to the demands of late capitalist industrialism. They are right to say that a world of 9 billion people all seeking the status of middle-class consumers cannot be sustained by vernacular approaches. They are right to say that the human impact on the planet is enormous and irreversible. They are right to say that traditional conservation efforts sometimes idealized a preindustrial nature. They are right to say that the campaigns of green NGOs often exaggerate and dissemble. And they are right to say that the greens have hit a wall, and that continuing to ram their heads against it is not going to knock it down.

What’s interesting, though, is what they go on to build on this foundation. The first sign that this is not, as declared, a simple “ecopragmatism” but something rather different comes when you read paragraphs like this:

For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature.

This is the PR blurb for Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, though it could just as easily be from anywhere else in the neo-environmentalist canon. But who are the “many people” who have “unquestioningly accepted” this line? I’ve met a lot of conservationists and environmentalists in my time, and I don’t think I’ve ever met one who believed there was any such thing as “pristine, pre-human” nature. What they did believe was that there were still large-scale, functioning ecosystems that were worth getting out of bed to protect from destruction.

To understand why, consider the case of the Amazon. What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is “pristine” and “pre-human”? Clearly not, since it’s inhabited and harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is “untouched”; it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. It is lived in and off of by humans, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix. It is a complex, working ecosystem that is also a human-culture-system, because in any kind of worthwhile world, the two are linked.

This is what intelligent green thinking has always called for: human and nonhuman nature working in some degree of harmony, in a modern world of compromise and change in which some principles, nevertheless, are worth cleaving to. “Nature” is a resource for people, and always has been; we all have to eat, make shelter, hunt, live from its bounty like any other creature. But that doesn’t preclude us understanding that it has a practical, cultural, emotional, and even spiritual value beyond that too, which is equally necessary for our well-being.

The neo-environmentalists, needless to say, have no time for this kind of fluff. They have a great big straw man to build up and knock down, and once they’ve got that out of the way, they can move on to the really important part of their message. Here’s Kareiva, giving us the money shot in Breakthrough Journal with fellow authors Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz:

Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people. . . . Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.

There it is, in black and white: the wild is dead, and what remains of nature is for people. We can effectively do what we like, and we should. Science says so! A full circle has been drawn, the greens have been buried by their own children, and under the soil with them has gone their naïve, romantic, and antiscientific belief that nonhuman life has any value beyond what we very modern humans can make use of.

“Wilderness can be saved permanently,” claims Ted Kaczynski, “only by eliminating the technoindustrial system.” I am beginning to think that the neo-environmentalists may leave a deliciously ironic legacy: proving the Unabomber right.

IN HIS BOOK A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright coins the term “progress trap.” A progress trap, says Wright, is a short-term social or technological improvement that turns out in the longer term to be a backward step. By the time this is realized—if it ever is—it is too late to change course.

The earliest example he gives is the improvement in hunting techniques in the Upper Paleolithic era, around fifteen thousand years ago. Wright tracks the disappearance of wildlife on a vast scale whenever prehistoric humans arrived on a new continent. As Wright explains: “Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: 1,000 mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another.” But there was a catch:

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. This is the same attitude that makes us assume that a brushcutter is a better way of mowing grass than a scythe, and it seems to be equally erroneous. As Wells demonstrates, analysis of the skeletal remains of people living before and after the transition to agriculture during the Paleolithic demonstrate something remarkable: an all-around collapse in quality of life when farming was adopted.

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since. Look at the proposals of the neo-environmentalists in this light and you can see them as a series of attempts to dig us out of the progress traps that their predecessors knocked us into. Genetically modified crops, for example, are regularly sold to us as a means of “feeding the world.” But why is the world hungry? At least in part because of the previous wave of agricultural improvements—the so-called Green Revolution, which between the 1940s and 1970s promoted a new form of agriculture that depended upon high levels of pesticides and herbicides, new agricultural technologies, and high-yielding strains of crops. The Green Revolution is trumpeted by progressives as having supposedly “fed a billion people” who would otherwise have starved. And maybe it did; but then we had to keep feeding them—or should I say us?—and our children. In the meantime it had been discovered that the pesticides and herbicides were killing off vast swaths of wildlife, and the high-yield monoculture crops were wrecking both the health of the soil and the crop diversity, which in previous centuries had helped prevent the spread of disease and reduced the likelihood of crop failure.

It is in this context that we now have to listen to lectures from the neo-environmentalists and others insisting that GM crops are a moral obligation if we want to feed the world and save the planet: precisely the arguments that were made last time around. GM crops are an attempt to solve the problems caused by the last progress trap; they are also the next one. I would be willing to bet a lot of money that in forty years’ time, the successors of the neo-environmentalists will be making precisely the same arguments about the necessity of adopting the next wave of technologies needed to dig us out of the trap that GM crops have dropped us neatly into. Perhaps it will be vat-grown meat, or synthetic wheat, or some nano-bio-gubbins as yet unthought of. Either way, it will be vital for growth and progress, and a moral necessity. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: “so it goes.”
Dark Ecology. Paul Kingsnorth, Orion Magazine.

I enjoy listening to Long Now talks, but Brand can be a little insufferable. He speaks in condescending tones about anyone who objects to things like nuclear power or GM crops, for example, as dummies who don't understand science. No, we understand science all right, but we know what happens when science meets human society - see above. Already GMO crops are being used to shore up corporate profits by creating "terminator seeds" that only germinate once. To Brand and his ilk, anyone who rejects the neoliberal corporate domination of the planet are just naive hippies who can't get with the program. The corporate model has won, they say, and we just have to accommodate ourselves to the new paradigm if we want to get anything done. I'm guessing the author of Techno-fix will not be giving a Long Now talk anytime soon.

It's easy to see why the message resonates. Brand is a wealthy man thanks to The Whole Earth Catalogue, and lived a privileged life before that. The people who attend these talks tend to be wealthy people at the upper echelons of society - businessmen, scientists, academics, and CEOs predominantly from Silicon Valley, a home for techno optimism. The system has been very kind to these people, and the last thing they would want to do is upset it in any way. Why should they, it's worked for them, and in their bubble world, it's working for everybody - Brand and company constantly trot out the statistics of how many people are being lifted out of poverty and how many people have cell phones (and often no toilets, as Kevin Kelly points out). I have to admit, if I lived the privileged life of these people, I might subscribe to that view too, rather than living in the crumbling ruins of the rust belt with no family money and desperately trying to hang on to my job like so many of my fellow Americans. The view from here does not look as bright compared to living on a houseboat in San Francisco.

For example, I just listened to a long now podcast from Susan Freinkel, the author of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. Freinkel's lecture is excellent, and if you listen to the Q&A session at the end, you see that Brand's main line of questioning concerns who she speaks to primarily. Brand triumphantly crows at the fact that she speaks to business groups rather than environmentalists. "There, you see, while the environmentalists uselessly moan about eliminating all plastics, the hard-hearted corporate businessmen are getting down to the business of actually saving the world," is the underlying subtext.

If Brand had listened to the speech instead of trying to think of ways to get in a dig at his perceived enemies, he might have taken away a very different message. What I found most fascinating about her lecture was when she talked about why modern plastics were invented in the first place. It turns out that British industries were worried that elephants would be hunted to extinction, and that there would be no more ivory for things like piano keys and billiard balls. Once again, our overexploitation of the environment caused a crisis.

So they held a contest for inventors to come up with a material to replace ivory. This led to the first plastics based on natural materials - celluloid and Bakelite. Years of invention lead to being able to mimic nearly any natural material using these plastics - ivory, pearl, jade, toirtiseshell, etc. in any imaginable shape. Imagine just the millions of coat buttons around the world that were affected. Eventually, artificial cloths like nylon, polyester and pleather replaced silk, cotton and leather. But what's most interesting is how Frankel described the Utopian thinking surrounding these new materials. Because we could now mimic any natural material, the thinking went, these plastics would be the saviors of the natural world. She clearly describes just how much of a paradise people thought we would be living in in the new world of plastics.

We all know how that worked out, don't we? The "consumer society" is entirely dependant upon plastics - walk down the aisles of your local big-box store and without plastics the shelves would be empty. Container ships ply the seas with millions of tons of plastic goods every year.  Durable goods became not only more common, but shoddier and disposable as metal and wood materials were replaced. An avalanche of plastic crud with no other value than kitch became the wallpaper of modern society. Plasticizers course through our blood and get stored in our fat. Gyres in the ocean are depositories of millions of tons of plastic poisining animals. Towering landfills are filled with objects made from irreplaceable fossil fuels and leach toxic substances. You could go on. If you've ever seen a picture of a seabird caught in plastic netting, it's hard to believe that plastics were once seen as the saviors of nature. Freinkel describes how the plastic makers decided to expand their markets by creating disposables - cups and utensils and coffee stirrers, and were angry when the first people to use these things actually saved them instead of throwing them away.

So the lesson that Brand might have taken away is that the same Utopian posturing always gets made by people like him and always turns out to be a disaster. You hear the same kind of talk about genetic engineering, supercomputers, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and the like. Each new innovation will bring about the promised utopia. But Brand, blind to this line of thinking, is unable to grasp a message aside from how his fellow environmentalists are closed-minded, bigoted, and instinctively anti-science. He does not want to upset his world view.

But I really grasped the world view of Bright Green environmentalists when I realized that what they believe in is basically Craig Dilworth's Vicious Circle Principle run in reverse; sort of a virtuous circle principle. Briefly, Dilworth posits that population pressure and overexploitation of the environment force humans to innovate, but each innovation becomes a dependency that we cannot live without, and introduces new problems that force us to innovate ever faster to avoid catastrophe. With every turn of the circle, the quality of life goes down for most people lower down in the hierarchy, and the consequences of failure go up thanks to the ratchet effect. It's similar to the progress trap, but with iterations.

By contrast, Brand and company believe that each turn of the circle makes us better off, not worse; that human innovations are making things better and better, inching towards a possible utopia. They point to thinks like the amount of people in absolute poverty going down, the amount of people starving to death going down and meat consumption going up, that population increases are diminishing thanks to countries getting richer through neoliberal trade regimes, and that millions of Chinese and Indians now enjoy a Western lifestyle of air conditioning, luxury cars, and Starbucks, and that the dire predictions of people like Paul Erlich (one of Brand's mentors) didn't happen. They see people complaining as just doomers focused only on the bad stuff - another recent talk was by Stephen Pinker about how human societies are less violent than in the past, and Brand laments the inability of people to accept that things are getting better. Sure there are still problems, but the next turn of the wheel will bring us one step closer to solving them. Carbon taxes and credits, the Internet, electric cars, cell phones, thorium reactors, robots, lab-grown meat, GMO crops, geoengineering and the like will make a virtual paradise for the next few billion people, and whatever problems they introduce will be solved again making us all better off still, because that's what humans do, and that's the course of history. And according to people like Ray Kurzweil (another Long Now speaker and alumnus), such innovation is exponential, meaning that we're all approaching the singularity where we'll have android bodies and be free from old age, death, and want, and will be able to create our own reality at the end of history.

It's an interesting contrast, to be sure, and one that fascinates me. I'll only note two things: one, the utter disappointment of all the previous Utopian thinking; plastics is a great example, but similar claims were made about automobiles, airplanes, telephones, televisions and computers. Remember when nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter? And second, that society seems to be falling apart right now. I don't need to rehash the litany of extreme inequality, declining wages, ruined towns, and political dysfunction in this country, and the dire situation in places like Greece and Spain. But there is a trend here, and I wonder how the Long Now folks would respond to that. My guess is probably writing it all off as a temporary setback.

As one of my maxims goes, "the law of the jungle looks like a good deal to the apex predator." The people who subscribe to Brand's brand of bright green environmentalism seem to be like the elites of every age. They live with the best of everything, and simply cannot comprehend why anyone would complain. They live in a world defined by statistics and simply cannot comprehend the qualitative arguments about society made by people like me and others. They marvel at the beauty of the world as they ride down the Pacific Coast highway in their iPhone-enabled Tesla roadster after their IPO goes public, or during their six-month sabbatical from Stanford, and simply cannot see why anyone could complain about life in modern-day America. To them, a person scratching a living in a rare earth mine in Africa, or a Chinese peasant who has lost his land and works eighteen hour days in a factory, or a Wal-Mart worker without health insurance are all just statistics.  Such people are like the rider in a litter, who marvels at the wonders of a world where he can magically be borne around the streets of his town thanks to his marvellous new invention, and wonders where all the groaning is coming from. Neo-environmentalism, like neolibreralism in economics, is on the rise because it tells certain elites exactly what they want to hear. Both are failing in the real world.


  1. I was wondering why there was such hatred of Emma Marris in the comments to the article of hers I quoted in Deer hunting--doing it wrong and right. Now I know why thanks to your entry. She's an apostate and the true believers were denouncing her heresy. The odd thing was, she didn't seem wrong about hunting.

    As for the rest of the school, they're ignoring the "just society" part of sustainability, and just considering economy and environment. I bet Kunstler would hate them with a passion, if only for their love of technology.

  2. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    Here's a good story on Mark Lynas, who got a ton of press coverage for declaring that GMO's were necessary to feed the world: Enviro Crusader Turns Pro-GMO, Anti-Organic—And Anti-Logic. I was apparently wrong about the Monsanto terminator seeds, so consider this a correction. The money paragraph:

    I found plenty to argue with in Lynas' depiction of organic ag and whether we need GMOs to "feed the world"—here's my take on that—but beyond the novelty of the very public conversion of a former anti-GM campaigner, I didn't find much to chew on in the speech, even though it inspired glowing coverage from the likes of The Economist, the veteran climate reporter Andy Revkin, The New Yorker's Michael Specter, and Mark Tercek, CEO of the Nature Conservancy. Swaddling himself in the rubric of science, Lynas came off to me in his speech as a curiously unscientific thinker—someone who once spouted dogmatic certainties against GMOs and now spouts them in favor. I have no problem with changes in mind; but lack of nuance and bullheaded self-assuredness are always tedious, no matter what view one is espousing.

    While Kunstler hasn't taken on Bright Green environmentalism head on (the Archdruid has, BTW), he does have a chapter on Ray Kurzweil in "Too Much Magic" that probably serves as a good stand-in.


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