Entitled Evolve- A case for modernization as the road to salvation, Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that humans have always used technology to solve problems, and that, while technology can of course also cause problems, the best way to address these very same problems is…. more technology:
MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.
This use of the world “natural” is a little bit mischievous I feel- of course, one could argue that all human technology is “natural” in that we also are part of nature- or one could take the view that nothing we do is natural, as we are different from nature is many important respects; it is a question of convention and definition. Personally, I prefer to think of these distinctions as irrelevant- whichever definition of “natural” one chooses, and however one assigns human activities one way or the other, the result is irrelevant: whether something is natural or not tells us nothing about whether it is a good idea or preferable to something defined as “unnatural”.
Nevertheless, Shellenberger and Nordhaus make the point very well that technology is not just what we do as humans, but also what we are: environmentalist campaigns against “technology” are just as arbitrary as their definitions of what is “natural”:
Humans have long been co-creators of the environment they inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.
This is the eco-pragmatist position: human technology has created civilization and improved the lives of billions- although this is disputed by many anti-modernists- yet at huge cost to the environment; yet the only way forward is more technology, which often is not just “more of the same” but qualitatively different from the previous technology that it may replace:
-GE crops, as a biological rather than a chemical approach, can help reduce pesticide and fertiliser use and reduce crop disease, thus increasing yields and reducing the amount of land required for farming- and allowing more land therefore for wilderness;
-shale gas and new generation nuclear power could help reduce the need for dirtier coal and oil;
-fish farming could help reduce the pressure on the heavily over-fished wild stocks which are under serious pressure in many parts of the world.
-coal burning used to be incredibly polluting to the local environment, causing fogs called “pea-soupers” in cities like London in the early stages of industrialisation, but improved technology has allowed the developed nations to clean up their air and water to a large extent.
In general, environmental controls appear once people have reached a certain level of affluence; before then their priorities tend to be much more prosaic and fundamental to their immediate survival.
It bears repeating again and again: poverty is the biggest environmental problem.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus explain that the reasons for the post-material mindset are easy to see:
As large populations in the developed North achieved unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of years—emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty—was subsumed by the need to manage the unintended consequences of modernization itself, from local pollution to nuclear proliferation to global warming.
People living with the benefits of the modern world have a tendency it seems to be so inured from the “natural” state of struggling to survive from the land that they romanticize it and imagine it would be good to return to a life more in harmony with the natural world; the benefits of modernity and technology are taken for granted, the harshness and utter callousness of nature long forgotten.
These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate eco-theology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.
All that really happens, though are “empty gestures”- we cannot return to a hunter-gatherer economy, or even an agrarian one, especially as the rest of the world, much of it yet to benefit from the technology we now deride, are racing to leave such lifestyles as fast as they can. The environmentalist position finds itself inescapably hypocritical- its theory flawed, it cannot actually implement the changes it advocates.
Instead, Shellenberger and Nordhaus posit a “medernisation theology”:
Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let’s call this “modernization theology.”
Here I feel they go to far, perhaps trying to pay to the apparent need many greens have for spiritual belief: the use of the word “sacred” here is misplaced: except in a purely metaphorical sense, “sacred” is too easily misused as an excuse fore religion, or beliefs without evidence. After all, one of the main criticisms of the modernist projects here is that this focus on growth and “progress” is fetishistic and religious in its own right.
What is missing here I feel is a reference to the values of the Enlightenment, and the secular values that emerged with science and technology; it is these values that are under threat from the anti-modernists, and this is every bit as dangerous as the unwarranted assault on technology. Technology is not the whole answer, and you could have a technological state ruled by religious elites- Iran perhaps?- that would be perhaps just as problematic as a secular state without technology.
The authors end their analysis with a fascinating insight into the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster:
Dr. Frankenstein is an antihero not because he created life, but rather because he fled in horror when he mistook his creation for a monster—a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moral of the story, where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat our technological creations as we would treat our children, with care and love, lest our abandonment of them turn them into monsters.
What environmentalists see as modern monsters such as genetic engineering- “Frankenfood”- and nuclear power amongst other things- may not be “sacred” but saviors, very likely yes, in some senses, and ultimately, no more morally problematic than our ancestor’s first forays into technology with the taming of fire, cooking food and fashioning the first hand tools- or even the “natural” technologies of beaver damns and anthills.