Modernization as the road to salvation

An important essay by The Death of Environmentalism authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus appeared in Orion Magazine this week.

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.

They continue:

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.

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12 thoughts on “Modernization as the road to salvation

  1. Graham,

    This is a very selective reading of a poorly-received, misguided Orion article (it’s been out a lot longer than just this week), and one which, as ever, shows your contrarian biases and flawed fundamental assumptions.

    The article in question contains bizarre assertions, such as the following, which you ignore:
    ‘The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.’
    This view of the world is demonstrably warped – we could easily question what the authors define as riches. It also fails to acknowledge the 40+ human civilizations which have come and gone in the past, quite often due to undermining the non-human environment on which they depend. One wonders how “rich” their abandoned cities are now.

    If we look at some of your own assumptions regarding the world, I’d suggest you try to control for the bias of your own privileged social position in your analyses. It’s perfectly well for an affluent blogger to say uncritically that “human technology has created civilization and improved the lives of billions.”, but I’d suspect that the tens of thousands of children who die every day from hunger/hunger-related causes would dispute your simplistic thinking. (Let’s not forget, of course, that famine is an invention of your hallowed civilization.) Furthermore, civilization led to the ascendance of, among other things, malaria, smallpox, influenza and tuberculosis – afflictions which have plagued us for the last 10,000 years, and which we’re only now escaping from (while suffering an exponentially-increasing burden from more non-communicable afflictions such as mental illness, cancers, auto-immune diseases etc). This is without getting into more banal degenerative impacts of civilization on the body (tooth decay, Crohn’s disease etc.) It amazes me that 10,000 years of unprecedented human suffering doesn’t even register on your radar.

    “but improved technology has allowed the developed nations to clean up their air and water to a large extent.” – This would have nothing to do with the fact that we’ve effectively de-industrialised our economies and shipped most manufacturing processes to the other side of the world, would it? I’d like to see your opinion on these technologies after a week working in a chinese mine. Furthermore, your definition of eco-pragmatism admits that we face huge environmental problems, but here you seem to have shifted position and are denying that things such as climate change (caused predominantly by the development which you reify) are legitimate concerns.

    “-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;” – Your view on GE, and other technologies, is outrageously techno-utopian, entirely undermining your self-description as a “pragmatist”. This skewed view of GE, for example, ignores factors such as the Jevons Paradox, population growth, and makes the bizarre assumption that land which isn’t used for food production will suddenly be converted into “wilderness” (itself a problematic word which you fail to define). GE isn’t the horror show which environmentalists maintain, but it isn’t the magical techno-panacea which you claim either; it’s still agriculture. Your logic is circular, trying to solve problems caused by technology with more of the same technology.

    Don’t even get me started on fish farms.

    “poverty is the biggest environmental problem” – I thought this old inversion of the truth would’ve been dispelled a long time ago. By your logic, if we all lived the typical western lifestyle, all would be well. A bizarre fallacy and one which I’d imagine you’d have difficulty explaining to, for example, low-lying island nations threatened by climate change.

    ” the harshness and utter callousness of nature long forgotten.” Again, Graham, do you have to parade this old canard which simply betrays your own survival anxiety. The life of subsistence agriculturalists is grim drudgery and toil, but the modality of existence we led for 99% of our existence on the planet (hunting and gathering) was a life of (empirically-demonstrated) relative leisure, comprising the “original affluent society”.

    Muddy the water all you like by comparing GE agriculture and nuclear power with “beaver damns (sic) and anthills” but people will see through it, even if you can’t. (Try reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn to set you down the right path)

    As ever, your controversial views are thought provoking, but simply make me wish you’d apply the “skepticism” you’re so proud of more evenly to things such as capitalism, the technological treadmill, science, civilization and notions of “progress”. The origins of the philosophical school of Skepticism actually lie far outside your (arrogant) positivist and supposedly “objective” postings..

  2. Hi Tom
    “(Try reading Ishmael by Daniel Quinn to set you down the right path)”
    -interesting suggestion! I read it over 10 years ago, and even then I have to admit I wasnt very impressed. Seems to be lacking in …science…reason… you know, those kinds of things. Actually Tom, it’s a complete load of turgid woo!
    Another thing- keep your comments short and to the point, another time I would edit this for relevance, and leave out the ad hominems . Thanks.
    Science and evidence, with links where possible, is good.

  3. As with all technologies, it depends how they are organised. Any of those you mention can be done well or badly and each individual scheme has to be judged on its merits: use of resources; sustainability vs growth rate; energy balance; costs; damage to the wider environment; social acceptability and so-on. GE food, fish farms and other technologies have much to offer and yet might be very damaging (I’m astonished at the very poor energy balance of many fish farms – many of the fish are fed; well, other fish.) So it all depends. Like everything else in life, generalisations can often mask the real issues. Sadly, we citizens tend not to like wading through data and so many technologies get labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’) for reasons that are largely aesthetic and cultural – regardless of any technical merit or lack thereof.
    Nick Nakorn
    http://www.sirisuk.org

  4. @Graham: Not very empiricist of you to fail to give a solid example before dismissing something as “turgid woo”. Perhaps you thought he was actually purporting to have talked to a gorilla..

    And some things can’t always be addressed with twitter-like brevity, I’m afraid, especially not your posts.

  5. @Tom Smith “Perhaps you thought he was actually purporting to have talked to a gorilla.”
    LOL! Since there is nothing empirical in the book Ishmael- basically a fairy-story- there is no need for an empirical response. I shudder to think how many other Greens might actually have their policy preferences determined by woo like this- it really is very revealing… . and worrying.

    • Nothing empirical, of course, but it’s a parable on anthropocentrism, a very real pitfall of your thinking and something worth dealing with. But, of course, it doesn’t feed into your current ideology and so will be dismissed prematurely as woo.

      Anyway Graham, do be sure to post when your techno-utopia has been ushered in by GM or fracking, or whatever panacea you’ve discovered. I’ll be sure to keep my comment on it concise, as I’ll be too busy using all the unlimited nuclear energy to manufacture flying pigs..

  6. @Tom Smith-
    “so will be dismissed prematurely as woo.”
    Tom- I read the book 10 years ago when I was myself teaching Deep Ecology. You seem to have missed this. I am fully aware of what Ishmael is about, I understand Deep Ecology (it’s not difficult.) You seem unaware- or perhaps you cannot accept- that I have moved from that position to a more rational pragmatic one over many years of involvement with these issues.
    Humans are of course anthropocentric- none more so than Deep Ecologists who anthropomorphize other beings- talking apes. The conceit of Ishmael is that humans are uniquely stupid and animals/Nature have a higher ecological awareness- they do not. This is eco-religion.

  7. ‘Keep your comments short and to the point.’

    Ho ho ho, oh my, pot kettle black……

  8. Tom Smith, can you describe in detail what the world would look like where there is no ” capitalism, technological treadmill, science, civilization and notions of “progress”? Or is it that you are saying – Hey, there are all these things we have done and they don’t all mean a better life, in fact a lot of them mean a worse life than …? when? But never mind the specifics, you just want Graham to be much more “skeptical”. Skeptical that science mostly works, skeptical that engineering mostly works, skeptical that lives have been saved by modern medicine, skeptical that most people in the developed world are literate, skeptical that progress is in any way an improvement (yes, let’s get back to the days of no public sanitation system), skeptical that Western democracies are much better at protecting freedoms than any other models so far tried… Yes, you must be right that the course of human history and the inbuilt human talents (which appear to be irrepressible) is all a dreadful mistake and somehow you have got an idea of how things would be without all or any of that history or talent. Great. Want to make a new solar system by any chance and rewrite biology and evolution? Good luck. There is useful skepticism and there is useless skepticism so far as I can tell.

    • “can you describe in detail what the world would look like”

      – What a beautiful thought experiment. Perhaps 90% of the large fish wouldn’t be gone from the oceans, perhaps over half the world’s forests wouldn’t be replaced with human food crops, perhaps we wouldn’t have interrupted evolution for “at least 200,000 generations” (Science magazine statistic). In fact, in the roughly 10,000 since the advent of agricultural civilization (and hence all the wonders you seem to be in awe of), vertibrate biomass on the planet comprised of humans and human domesticates has gone from less than 0.1% to more than 90% (leaving 150-200 species going extinct every day currently). You’re defending the status quo, perhaps you should be the one answering questions.

      “Or is it that you are saying – Hey, there are all these things we have done and they don’t all mean a better life, in fact a lot of them mean a worse life than …? when?”
      – You could take the time to familiarise yourself with some basic anthropology and paleo-archaeology, then answer that question for yourself.

      “Skeptical that science mostly works, skeptical that engineering mostly works, skeptical that lives have been saved by modern medicine, skeptical that most people in the developed world are literate, skeptical that progress is in any way an improvement (yes, let’s get back to the days of no public sanitation system), skeptical that Western democracies are much better at protecting freedoms than any other models so far tried”
      – Oh my 🙂 I could have a field day on this one. Science and engineering work for whom? Oh, that’s right, a narrow subset of homo sapiens. A bit of a biased indicator, that. Lives saved by modern medicine? Perhaps you didn’t read my previous comment as you seem to have no idea where the most virulent diseases of the past millennia came from. Also, ever hear of iatrogenesis? Your literacy comment is bizarre. Seems to me that no literate civilization has yet proven itself sustainable, and using literacy as an indicatory of an admirable society seems entirely arbitrary (and ethnocentric). I’m not going to start on democracy, as that’s a huge topic, and it seems my benchmark for the word “democracy” is a hell of a lot higher than yours.

      A favourite quote of mine, apologies for the lengthiness:

      “A human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth is a community, we might say, that lives in truth. The ways of speaking common to that community – the claims and beliefs that enable such reciprocity to perpetuate itself – are, in this important sense, true. They are in accord with a right relation between these people and their world. Statements and beliefs, meanwhile, that foster violence towards the land, ways of speaking that enable the impairment or ruination of the surrounding field of beings, can be described as false ways of speaking – ways that encourage an unsustainable relation with the encompassing earth. A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.”

  9. Tom, I’m really confused by what you’re trying to say. Do you seriously think that we should go back to the dark ages? No mass farming? No scientific interventions? Are you anti-vaccination by any chance?
    Strange that you don’t seem to like what science has offered us yet you don’t seem to shun technology yourself.
    So, if we destroy the land we don’t know truth? What sort of bollocks is that? It’s meaningless. May I suggest that you cut down on the mushrooms.

    • Hi RevErasmus.

      This comment stream should be about Graham’s post, so I probably won’t respond after this.

      “Strange that you don’t seem to like what science has offered us yet you don’t seem to shun technology yourself.”
      – You have no idea of my present technological usage, intended usage etc. so I’d request that you don’t jump to facile assumptions too fast. Maybe I’ve calculated that the most effective way of vainly attempting to counter human destructiveness is to use modern communications technologies.

      “No mass farming?”
      – Certainly, no mass farming in the long-term. No agricultural civilization has ever proven itself sustainable, and it’s an article of faith to presume that our one will either. Agriculture as we know it (and neither GE, nor organic, change this) is a hugely destructive and novel experiment that essentially entails the appropriation and cleansing of a piece of land for human uses. As I stated above, we’re now doing this to the majority of the earth’s landmass. This is neither culturally sane, nor biologically sustainable. This isn’t a perfect piece, but it’s a start – http://www.patternliteracy.com/203-is-sustainable-agriculture-an-oxymoron

      “Are you anti-vaccination by any chance?”
      – Not currently, no.

      “May I suggest that you cut down on the mushrooms.”
      I’m not on mushrooms. What sort of bollocks, sorry, I mean, worthless, juvenile ad hominem, is that?

      “So, if we destroy the land we don’t know truth? What sort of bollocks is that? It’s meaningless.”
      No, you clearly didn’t understand the quote. Essentially, we can know as much truth as we like, but if the most important kind of truth eludes us – the ability to live ” in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth” – then your hallowed truth – “regarding the calculable properties of its world” – stemming from a science’s hegemonic epistemology of manipulation and control, is ultimately suicidal.

      Goodnight x

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