The Trads and the Mods

Interesting post by Kieth Kloor on the split between traditionalists and modernists in the environmental movement:

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.

Despite his broken-record messaging and inexorable slide into irrelevancy, the green traditionalist remains stubbornly resistant to new approaches. Like the ineffective parent, he keeps yelling, thinking his kids will eventually listen. As any parent will tell you, that’s never worked.

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 His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency.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.

In my experience the “romantic” green is still prevalent. My own field, permaculture, is riddled with it. This is a great shame because some techniques in permaculture really are useful, and are being adopted in conventional farming and land-use as well, including swales for water retention and soil protection, no-dig and low-till methods. The problem is that the romantic side of environmentalism is underpinned by an essentially religious ideology complete with guilt, advocacy of personal sacrifice and apocalyptic visions of doom.

Kloor quotes Nordhaus and Shellenberger who explain in their 2007 book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility how environmentalism should be seen as a result of , rather than a reaction against modern society. Poor people have more immediate concerns than saving the whales or the dolphins, like getting enough food and water each day and hoping they can give their kids an education. If they need firewood today to cook dinner and there is only one tree left, they will cut it down- they cannot afford not to. The biggest environmental problem is poverty.

Blinded by ideology, romantic greens seem to suffer from three fundamental misconceptions:

Firstly, that living in some kind of primaeval state “close to nature” is not only not possible, but wholly undesirable- except on holiday, and bolstered by lots of modern technology such as decent rain-gear and navigation equipment, and a helicopter-rescue service on stand-by in case of emergency. Concern about “nature deficit disorder” may have some validity, but the kind of interaction with the natural world many now yearn for is quite different from the romantic notions we have had since Rousseau about the “noble savage”: we have a post-modern aesthetic about Nature which is much more to do with the pleasures of a garden (on a good day) than with the reality of surviving in the wilderness.

“Any person who has spent time outdoors actually doing something” says P.J.O’Rourke in All the Trouble in the World “such as hunting or fishing, as opposed to just standing there with a doobie in his mouth, knows nature is not intrinsically healthy… Nor are people who live in places without electricity, sewage treatment plants, penicillin, and dental check-ups as Rousseau’s imagination or Mantaigne’s household help would have them.”

Secondly, that there is a pristine wilderness, without humans, that needs to be left intact entirely without our interference. This has not been the case for sometime, and as is clear in Stewart Brand’s admonition that “we are as Gods and must get good at it”, we simply have no choice than to accept that, for better or worse, the fate of the planet’s eco-systems and species is in our hands, whether we choose to intervene in any specific case or not;

Thirdly, that there is some simple, “sustainable” and “green” way of doing things that is preferable to the industrial, modernist version. This ignores the concept of costs and benefits, economic ideas that seem a complete anathema to many greens: the costs of coal-mining are clear for all to see, while the benefits it brings to millions in the form of cheap energy are simply ignored. (Equally, renewables such as solar PV look preferable, while their drawbacks- intermittent supply- and costs that they might incur in the form of pollution in Chinese factories, while delivering much less power, are ignored.)

Everything we do has an impact, and while we should of course work to reduce this impact, humans do quite naturally and reasonably wish to improve their lot.

It is easy to see the damage that we have done in dragging ourselves out of the misery and hardship that a life close to nature generally entails, but what is always underestimated is the potential for qualitatively new technology to help repair that damage: thus genetic engineering can help reduce use of chemicals in farming as well as improve yields to feed a growing population; new nuclear power technology can help reduce fossil fuel pollution and carbon emissions; over-fishing of the oceans could be ameliorated by fish-farming.

In contrast, because the romantic greens see technology as evil and undesirable, the conventional responses are in danger of making things worse rather than better: suspicion of nuclear power results in more coal being burned; resistance to bio-tech leads to lower-yields and thus more farmland being required; failure to understand that more development and higher standards of living results in smaller family size leads to policies that consign the poor to peasantry and a misanthropic view of population.

Failure to see humans in the role that we have, through technology, created for ourselves as stewards of this planet is a failure to take responsibility, like rebellious teenagers refusing to take responsibility for tidying their room and helping out with the dishes.

These points and much more are made very effectively in this must-see talk by Peter Kareiva, chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental organization:


4 thoughts on “The Trads and the Mods

  1. The impacts of solar go beyond potential pollution in China: energy sprawl.

    As Robert Bryce wrote June 7, 2011 in an NY Times Op-Ed, “Consider California’s new mandate. The state’s peak electricity demand is about 52,000 megawatts. Meeting the one-third target will require (if you oversimplify a bit) about 17,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity. Let’s assume that California will get half of that capacity from solar and half from wind. Most of its large-scale solar electricity production will presumably come from projects like the $2 billion Ivanpah solar plant, which is now under construction in the Mojave Desert in southern California. When completed, Ivanpah, which aims to provide 370 megawatts of solar generation capacity, will cover 3,600 acres — about five and a half square miles.

    “The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.”

    If California wanted 100% reliance on solar the number would be nearly 50 Ivanpahs ~ 258 sq miles.

    Add to that the transmission lines that most environmental groups oppose due to construction affecting wildlife in the path and the only conclusion that you can come away with is that they want everyone to generate their own electricity with little or no connectivity to others i.e. self-sufficiency.

  2. Could someone explain this: “…failure to understand that more development and higher standards of living results in smaller family size leads to policies that consign the poor to peasantry and a misanthropic view of population.”
    I don’t understand what family size has to do with peasantry and misanthropy. And if by “peasantry,” you mean something other than “poverty,” what do you mean? The lack of upward social mobility for the children of the poor?

    • Smaller families are strongly correlated with income and standard of living- peasants and the poor tend to have large families, with high infant mortality. The key to addressing the population explosion is to lift the bottom billion out of poverty, after which the likelihood is they will reduce family size. Technology and development are key to this- but rather than focus on development and the need to help the poor attain a higher standard of living, many green approaches seem to be misanthropic- blaming the poor for high birth rates, and proposing policies that reduce access to technology like Genetic engineering which might help them. This approach is also based on the “Limits to Growth” philosophy, that resources are a zero-sum game- behind this may be still lurking a fear of the “yellow-peril”. See Mark Lynas on the recent report on population from the Royal Society.

  3. Re greendreambelievers. It’s great to have a dream, but the problem is after a while of trying people go into denial about reality, insisting that the dream inside their head is more real than the real world evidence.
    – When the dream of raw food diet or magic alternative medicine doesn’t go right instead of taking a reality check people come up with the theory that they are not being radical enough etc.
    – Notice that typical of greendream is “that everything that they don’t like “will be absolutely certainly be catatsrophically bad : GMOs, Climate change, nuclear etc.” & everything that fits the dogma : Organic, windfarms, solar, permaculture is a magic magic solution that is perfect.

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