Green Romantics

Following from my last blog post, a comment from Steven Blackthorne:

One sentence stood out among many good ones in this post: “Permies don’t do numbers.” Right. Because quantification is quite outside of their way of thinking. Quantification means thinking like an engineer, making calculations to find practical solutions.

They are most decidedly NOT engineers. They are ideologues and romantic dreamers, misguided ones, at that. This is one thing that I love so much about Stewart Brand. He thinks big, he dreams big, but in the end, he wants pragmatic solutions. He wants numbers that add up. It’s the fundamental difference between the romantic dreamer and the engineer.

Brand was right on the money when he wrote about how romantics love tragedy. They don’t truly want solutions. “The romantics distrust engineers, sometimes correctly, for their hubris, and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things, because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed. Romantics love problems…”

Brand’s quote comes from his seminal 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline and Steven is right that this explains a lot about the permaculture movement.

Romantics love problems… says a great deal. There is a narcissistic seductive lure of believing that we cannot solve our problems rationally, which absolves them from actually getting up off thier butt and doing something about it. Wishing for Utopia all the time allows one to shirk responsibilities- “the world is going down the tubes, at least I won’t have to pay my bills/go to work/actually solve anything”- and “I’m not going to let anyone else come up with solutions either!”

I was thinking of this as I read through a series of tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in response to Dark Mountain’s critique of The Eco-modernist Manifesto.

The critique relies on just two points:
Firstly, that eco-modernists believe in a teleological process of continual human improvement. This is a straw-man: there is no “destiny” that humanity is following, and things could go wrong. We could indeed wipe ourselves out or leave the biosphere so badly degraded that advanced civilisation may no longer be sustainable. If this were to happen however, it would not necessarily be the fault of the eco-modernist agenda:

Secondly, that modernism and technology have not yet brought a perfect world so they should be reversed/stopped and banned, which is nonsensical:

I prefer the term “eco-pragmatist” to “eco-modernist”- it is more descriptive. Unlike the Dark Greens, a pragmatic approach understands that there is no perfect world to be had, there will always be problems, but advocates quite simply a pragmatic way forward, accepting the trade-offs necessary in the real world.

The Green Romantics have no alternative other than the politics of opposition and the seductive power of negativity and a sort of “woe-is-us” misanthropy. “Technology has gone wrong in the past, so it is All Bad”; “Golden Rice does not create a perfect world and fails to address underlying political issues, so should be banned”; or often just “we don’t like your proposals, so they should be banned.”

Meanwhile, the proposals preferred by the eco-romantics will actually have the opposite effect and make things worse- they are the antipathy of pragmatism:

It is not rocket science 😉 -if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature;
if we can get more energy dense fuels such a nuclear power then we need less physical space for mining coal or installing windmills.

This will never satisfy the Green Romantics who want not just an unattainable Perfect Solution, but also their solution, often driven as much by aesthetic idealism than by anything that could actually work- but in doing so they drive a reactionary agenda which actually obstructs real progress from being made- to the detriment of both planet and people.

50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

***

Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

***

So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

Keeping the Poor in the Dark to save the Climate

I was asked on Twitter to comment on this post on “Confessions of a Former Climate Change Denialist”

It is a curious post. The author begins by making some valid concerns about the relative risks of climate change relative to other threats such as poverty:

Being a biology and ecology geek in high school, my mind nurtured environmental concerns, especially in my birth country, Iran, where air and environment pollution, uncontrolled hunting, deforestation and desert formation are rampant. When I first heard about climate change through media (nothing had been taught in school), I couldn’t help but see it as a distraction from more immediate issues — poverty, childhood mortality, wars and conflicts, pollution, and so on. It bothered me to think of countries coming together and people marching in the streets over such a hypothetical long-term effect while children die of preventable causes.

However, he does not repudiate or refute any of these moral concerns, but rather seems to reject them purely on the grounds that questioning the Climate Apocalypse hypothesis would assume a conspiracy- and then he would feel aligned with 9-11 Truthers or those who believe the moon landing was a hoax.

This is surely a non-sequitor- you can believe climate change is a risk without feeling it has to trump all other social and environmental concerns, surely? This is not climate change “denial” at all, and it troubles me that the author does not overcome the moral issues on moral grounds.

The argument that climate change may not be as great a concern as addressing poverty and human development is best made by Bjorn Lomborg, recently for example here:

While global warming will be a problem, much of the rhetoric is wildly exaggerated – like when UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon calls it “an existential challenge for the whole human race.” The IPCC finds that the total cost of climate change by 2070 is between 0.2pc and 2pc of GDP. While this is definitely a problem, it is equivalent to less than one year of recession over the next 60 years.

Global warming pales when compared to many other global problems. While the WHO estimates 250,000 annual deaths from global warming in 30 years, 4.3 million die right now each year from indoor air pollution, 800 million are starving, and 2.5 billion live in poverty and lack clean water and sanitation.

Moreover, no matter how bad you think global warming may be in the future, the wrong policies will be worse:

Climate policies can easily cost much more than the global warming damage will – while helping very little. The German solar adventure, which has cost taxpayers more than $130 billion, will at the end of the century just postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours.

Robert Bryce also adresses the issue of what he calls “the most revolting tenet of the Left’s climate-change strategy: their desire to keep the poor in the dark.”

a coalition of U.S. environmental groups has convinced the Obama administration that it should oppose the financing of coal-fired power plants in developing countries out of concern for climate change. And the Obama administration has been doing just that. In July 2013, the Export-Import Bank, an export-credit agency backed by the U.S. government, voted to halt financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. At about the same time, the World Bank declared that it would limit financing of coal-fired-generation projects to “rare circumstances.”

For the developing world, where many millions have not yet had access to any kind of regular electricity, coal is by far the cheapest and quickest option, which means in reality the only option for now. The poor are being denied access to energy as a direct result of first-world, wealthy environmentalist concerns about the rather abstract and nebulous impacts of “climate change” at some unknown point a generation or two into the future.

This issue was also the subject of a recent exchange between Matt Ridley and Mark Lynas. Ridley kicked off with a post entitled “Greens Take the Low Moral Ground” :

the cost of climate policies is already falling most heavily on today’s poor. Subsidies for renewable energy have raised costs of heating and transport disproportionately for the poor. Subsidies for biofuels have raised food prices by diverting food into fuel, tipping millions into malnutrition and killing about 190,000 people a year. The refusal of many rich countries to fund aid for coal-fired electricity in Africa and Asia rather than renewable projects (and in passing I declare a financial interest in coal mining) leaves more than a billion people without access to electricity and contributes to 3.5 million deaths a year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking over open fires of wood and dung.

Greens think these harms are a price worth paying to stop the warming. They want (other) people to bear such sacrifices today so that the people of 2100, who will be up to seven times as rich, do not have to face the prospect of living in a world that is perhaps 0.8 – 1.2 degrees warmer. And this is the moral high ground?

Lynas’ response correctly identifies the dilemma- that poor climate policies will hurt the poor- but focuses on what he calls Ridley’s “climate change denial”:

This is a familiar paradox, and one that has been pointed out by many people (e.g. Breakthrough Institute and Roger Pielke Jnr. There is no doubt that global energy production is going to have to double, triple or even quadruple this century in order to allow for economic development and poverty eradication worldwide. This is one of the reasons I have supported nuclear power, which along with renewables can offset the use of coal and other fossil fuels in producing this much-needed increase in energy supplies….

What bugs me however is that Ridley resolves this paradox instead by denying the gravity of global warming.

He then agreed to publish on his blog this response from Ridley:

Does Mark think dangerous warming is inevitable? I doubt it. Does he think he can rule out non-dangerous warming? I hope not. It would require cherry-picking to achieve that. The IPCC gives a range of outcomes from harmless to harmful. I think the lower end of the range is more plausible. Mark thinks the higher end is more plausible. But we are both within the range of outcomes. How does that make me a “denier”?

Whatever about the technical details of climate sensitivity etc, Lynas failed to address the issue that current climate policies- driven by climate alarmism and fear-mongering- are ineffective in terms of reducing CO2 emissions, while clearly also hurting the poor now. And yes, despite Lynas’ objections, these do of course include biofuels which are indeed clearly a result of renewables quotas on the back of climate policies, (and some environmental NGOs some do still support biofuels) locking in the state subsidies we still have today.

Of course Lynas should be applauded for his stance on nuclear and GMOs, yet he seems unwilling to accept that many of the same voices to claim the sky is falling on climate also oppose GMOs and nuclear power- and that these are all ways of keeping the poor poor while hindering actions that could also reduce CO2.

Lynas was gracious enough to apologise for the slur of “denier” against Ridley:

Yes, I withdraw that accusation, with apologies. It is clear from this response that he is a ‘lukewarmer’ – I checked with him and he is OK with that particular moniker.

Mark

Mark should have known better- he must realise that Matt Ridley has never “denied” CO2 as a warming gas or its likely contribution to recent (slight) warming- he merely takes issue with the more alarmist speculations of climate catastrophe.

But scroll further down the comments though and you will see that the climate crazies have come out in force:

I think it is high time that we take global warming to be what it truly is, an existential threat that, if left un-mitigated in the very immediate future, will lead to the deaths of over 1 billion human beings over the next 5 decades.

In this circumstance, likely an understatement if current groundwater depletion trends continue, then those among us who ARE climate deniers are WORSE than holocaust deniers, by several magnitudes of order. (being that the deaths may yet be avoided!)

People are already dying- of poverty. It is pointed out of course that it is the poor who will be most at risk from climate change- yes, indeed they will- because they are poor.

Addressing poverty now, bringing people out of poverty right now, in the fastest way possible, is the best way to help the environment. Once out of the drudgery of subsistence agriculture, people have more security and thus tend to reduce their birth rates, and have more options in terms of efficient use of resources. As they get richer still, some of them may even become environmentalists themselves, a luxury only the well-off can afford. As the whole world gets richer, the options for technological innovation to help decarbonisation efforts will increase.

For many environmentalists, this is not the plan at all. Underpinned by a legacy of misanthropy and pseudo-religious Nature worship, innovation is rejected in favour of moralistic powerdown programs that apply only to the poor and not to themselves. There is no politically or ethically feasible way forward that does not first address poverty, and climate policies that do not prioritise this should be rejected. Until Greens understand and accept this, they will languish in the moral basement.

Whole Earth Discipline

As mentioned in my last post for GMO-Skeptics Forum, one of the major influences in my journey from Dark Green Chicken-Little to pragmatic techno-optimist was Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Discipline.
This makes interesting reading for me four years later, as I was on the cusp of a new understanding on some key environmental issues: I was still in the grip of peak oil paranoia; I had not yet grasped what is really happening with population or even how fundamental the issue has been for environmentalism; and I would also be much more skeptical these days of apocalyptic climate predictions.

In particular, this book started me questioning the assumptions of my environmentalist tribe on GMOs, which I have since learned a lot more about and written many more posts on.
The review comes over to me now as wordy and long-winded, but this reflects partly the inner struggle I was going through as some of my core beliefs began to be re-aligned, so it serves as a testimony to that process as well as a hopefully useful review of a still important book.

From the Archives: First published on Zone5 March 22nd 2010

Book Review:
Whole Earth Discipline -An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009 316pp

IMG_1572

“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.
I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.
In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.
Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself. Continue Reading

Botkin and the Balance of Nature

Book Review
The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Revisited
Daniel B. Botkin
OUP 2012

Moon-in-the-Nautilus-Shell-200x300

Daniel B. Botkin is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara. The author of numerous books on environmental science and policy and energy, his latest- the first I have read by him- is a return to themes about humans and our relationship to nature first explored in an earlier book Discordant Harmonies (1990).

Bringing the measured tone of a life-long scientist who has thought deeply about how we are changing nature and how nature changes, Botkins’ central thesis is that conservation policies are failing because we have failed to understand how strongly deeply felt mythologies about nature, which we often mistake for science, still influence and underpin them.
DanBotkin_300x300
Botkin draws on more than 40 years experience in ecology bringing an extensive scope to his book, covering a wide range of environmental and conservation issues in the context of a much bigger picture of our understanding of nature, science, ecology,and environmentalism and how they are shaped by mythology.

I had previously come across Botkin in this episode of Adam Curtis’ series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.

The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts

This fascinating documentary actually covers very well many of the ideas Botkin discusses, weaving together the emergence of ecology as a science in the 60s as being based largely on cybernetics and the burgeoning study of systems theory, and the influence these ideas had on the environmental movement. Thus, the early scientific study of nature- which was itself shaped by emerging technology of machines with which to study nature- embedded within it the powerful metaphor of nature as machine.

Curtis explains that in the computer age these ideas have lead to a dominant ideology that we cannot really change things for the better ourselves, but that we can replace the traditional oppressive hierarchies of the past with self-regulating systems beyond our control. In the introduction to the film he says

But in an age disillusioned with politics, the self-regulating ecosystem has become the model for utopian ideas of human ‘self-organizing networks’ – dreams of new ways of organising societies without leaders, as in the Facebook and Twitter revolutions, and in global visions of connectivity like the Gaia theory.

Botkin’s begins his story about our mythologies about nature much earlier, from the time of classical Greece philosophy which saw nature is a “Great Chain of Being”. Nature was seen as constant, in an ideal state and unchanging, with

a place for every creature, and every creature in its place; in modern parlance, that every creature and every species has its place (that is, its role and its location—its habitat) in the harmonious workings of nature and is well adapted to that habitat, and to that role, which ecologists call today a species’ niche.

This view of nature, Botkin argues, has been retained down through history, taking many different forms in theology and philosophy, and slipping almost seamlessly into the machine metaphor of the modern scientific era.

Botkin himself began his career as an ecologist in the 1960s with these traditional views firmly embedded in his mind, and as he explains in an early chapter concerning Isle Royal, a large forested island 15 miles off the shore of Lake Superior. Botkin had gone there to study moose populations in the implicit belief that there was some kind of self-regulation of vegetation, herbivore and predator populations that would always revert in time to a natural balance: Continue Reading

Green for Me Talk for UCC Enviro Soc

I had an enjoyable evening at the Green for Me event at UCC Environmental Society on Tuesday where I gave a talk along with Dan Boyle of the Green Party and well-known biologist and TV/radio presenter Eanna ni Lamhna as part of their Green Week.

The theme given us for our talks was “My Reasons for Being Green.”

Eanna spoke first, but I had already got into a discussion with her about population as soon as she came into the lecture hall, pointing out that birth rates are declining everywhere, and hurriedly added in a few graphs to prove my point; her own graph was I felt somewhat misleading in that it showed only the dramatic population expansion of the past hundred years, without any context or explanation that this phase finished some 20 years ago.

Update: As Patrick Hayes writes here in response to David Attenborough’s recent Malthusian remarks, even sub-Saharan Africa has seen a massive drop in birthrates:

But as Slate has observed, it’s not just the most developed nations: ‘From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s.’

All of which is bad news for Attenborough and his Malthusian ilk, as it reveals that what lurks behind their doom-mongering is prejudice rather than fact. That becomes increasingly evident when you hear headline-generating comments, such as those Attenborough made recently to the Radio Times: ‘We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.’

Too many people in Ethiopia? This is a country which, according to the World Bank, has a mere 83 people per square kilometre. This is the same as Serbia, and there aren’t mass starvations there. At 196 people per square kilometre, Switzerland has a far higher population density than Ethopia, but people aren’t starving there. Nor in Japan, where there are 350 people per square kilometre, or the Netherlands, which has 493 people per square kilometre.

She then went on to talk about climate change and supported the issues around this with two more rather misleading slides, one of polar bears and one of deserts. Polar bears are of course the poster child of climate change and have been used to very good propaganda effects since before Al Gore; but the reality seems very different- many polar bear populations are increasing, they seem remarkably adaptable to declining sea ice.
A much greater threat to bears in the Arctic than global warming is hunting.

So bears polar bears are probably an eye-catching but bad example of the effects of climate change- so far at least. Similarly, desertification also is more complex than just laying it at the feet of CO2 emissions- de-forestsation from human activity being another obvious cause, with underlying poverty often being the problem.

Eanna then wnet onto talk about renewable energy- “we have very little renewable energy- and yet the wind blows all the time!” Yes, it’s a no-brainer: humans, especially Irish humans in a country that has been hailed as the Saudi Arabia of wind- choose to use Polar-Bear murdering fossil fuels when they could just switch to clean wind.

Unfortunately, one of the major draw-backs with wind is that it does not in fact blow all the time even in Ireland, as anyone who has lived off-grid with wind-power as I have done in the past will tell you: plenty of calm still “soft” days Ireland where you get effectively no power from wind, no matter how many turbines you might have.

Even a super-grid covering the whole of Europe would not solve the problem– there is really quite dramatic indetermittency issues Europe-wide as well. For this reason, wind can never on its own replace fossil fuels or nuclear, and as another graph of Eanna’s showed quite well, renewables currently only supply a tiny percentage of energy- for well-understood reasons that are more to do with the laws of physics and cost than anything else.

More controversially, Eanna then went onto discuss waste, asking why dont we have have incinerators- a local hot-potato. “You can’t even mention them- they are considered as bad as GMOs!” The last time I had seen Eanna was at the potato day last year in Skibbereen, where she had had done an admirable job of myth-busting about the GE potato trials that started last year.

She then commented that at the protest meetings on incinerators she had been to, at the break about a third of the protestors went out to smoke!

Eanna finished her entertaining talk by admonishing us to eat only food that is in season and plant trees to help combat climate change.

I was up next, and began by staking out my credentials as a back-to-the-lander. While preparing the presentation I had in fact dug up photos of a commune I had lived in in the 1980s on the Welsh borders.

This is a photo of the Earthworm Housing Co-op from 1990, possibly when I was still actually living there.Brings back memories- many of which make me cringe!

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I then discussed my involvement with the Peak Oil movement, and how my views had changed as time went on and the expected collapse failed to materialise, and the new energy story became one of the Golden Age of Gas.

I then used Stewart Brand’s Four Environmental Heresies to frame my new perspective on “Being Green.”

-population growth stablising and the world is not over-populated;
-cities are green
-nukes are green
-genetic engineering is green

I then gave a brief explanation of the Environmental Transition- the idea that environmentalism is a product of wealth and industrial growth rather than a reaction to it, and told the story from Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ book Breakthrough about the fires on the Cuyahoga River:cuyahoga_fire650

In June 22nd 1969 Time Magazine showed this photo of burning oil on Cuyahoga River with the caption
“The Price of Optimism” and it became emblematic of start of the US Environmental Movement.

The problem was, the photo was not from the 1969 fire, which has burned out in half-an-hour before the Time photographer could get there- but from an earlier and much more severe fire from 1952. In fact, there had been fires on the Cuyahoga river for a hundred years, some of them burning for days and causing loss of life: but the society had not yet reached a level of wealth and development- which would support universities with Environmental Societies- until much later. Poor people are not generally environmentalists- they have more expressing concerns, but once society has a critical mass of relatively affluent educated people with time on their hands, then industry is compelled to clean up its act.

I concluded my presentation with a quotation from Daniel Botkin’s book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.:

Our perspective, ironically in this scientific age, depends on ancient myths and deeply buried beliefs. To gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and myths about nature and ourselves while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.

Dan Boyle followed me and began by expressing surprise to find himself having to defend the broad thrust of the environmental movement from the past few decades. He began by emphasising his agreement that Luddism is false, and that greens depend upon science and technology;

but seemed to struggle to hide some exasperation at my reference to Lomborg: “It is NOT the case that you burn your hydrocarbons and then clean up afterwards”- rather missing the point about the environmental transition, because of course that is precisely what the greens have been doing, otherwise we would never have embarked on industrialisation in the first place: the greens would have stopped us!

Dan’s main points seemed to be a bunch of Green Herrings: the supposed rallying cries of “bigger faster more” are the problem; untrield technology is dangerous and we should proceed with greater caution;
while his reference to dangers of the “chemical soup” used in frakking, and from “cross-contamination” from genetic engineering belie his claim to environmentalism being underpinned by science. Not to mention his suggestion that we can have “smaller and more efficient” wind turbines- surely not? To become more efficient, wind turbines can only do one thing: get bigger, due to well-understood laws of physics concerning wind-speed increasing to the square of the altitude/height and rotor span’s ability to collect the diffuse wind energy from a given space.

In the discussion and questions afterwards I was challenged quite strongly on nuclear waste issues, and general “Pandora’s Box” concerns about whether naughty humans should really be trusted with technology.

Dan Boyle made the very good point that at a meeting he had attended recently in the midlands concerning the proposed giant wind farm there, anti-wind activists used the same rhetoric and alarmism used by the anti-nuclear lobby, even including the threat of radiation- from wind turbines!

A popular theme seemed to be that rather than constantly striving for more energy sources, we should just use less. “Let’s turn out the lights then!” I said looking up to the ceiling at the dozens of lights that were probably consuming more energy that evening than I would at home in a year. My personal experience of living off the grid was apparently not persuasive however, and when I pointed out that there are still a couple of billion people without electricity at all in the world, I was told, “They can just use the Gravity Light!”

“Would you use one?”

“Well, it would be great for an outdoor light or something.”

Indeed it would, and for those without electric lights of any kind, this remarkable invention will surely be a wonderful boon. But for those who think that we can or will do anything other than make cosmetic changes in our energy usage, that “powerdown” can in some way substitute for cheap reliable electricity supply, should contemplate what life might be like if one or two gravity lights is all you ever have as a light supply, for the rest of your lives, ie without development.

Several people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for a thought-provoking perspective, while others took a more conventional green- perspective, concerned more about a presumed loss of contact with Nature, the virtues of the simple life and the insanity of endless growth rather than addressing the concerns of the poor. “We are all too greedy in this country!” proclaimed Eanna at one point.

But as Colin McInnes shows in this award-winning essay, growth is not just a matter of extraction and consumption, but is also about complexity:

While innovation-driven growth has delivered immense improvements to the human condition, it is also the means through which human needs can be gradually decoupled from the environment. Growth emerges from productivity, doing more with less. For example, new additive manufacturing technologies, so-called ‘3D printers’, look set partly to replace the wasteful subtractive manufacturing of machine tools. In contrast, in coming down from our oil high, as advocated by {Richard} Heinberg, we could regress to using whale oil for lighting, as was the case prior to commercial oil production. But this hardly constitutes progress, economic or environmental….

The real worry of Heinberg’s vision of a post-growth world is his straight-faced assertion that ‘there should be [an] increasing requirement for local production and manual labour’. This chilling claim is more Year Zero than zero growth. A return to carbohydrate-fuelled manual labour may be appealing to Heinberg and others as a means of powering down our lives and reconnecting with the land. But he shouldn’t expect a long queue of volunteers.

Maybe not- but he could well expect a long line of green ideologues who have forgotten that their green ideas are only possible because of the benefits brought by the very techno-industrialism that they campaign against.

Science and the Greens

A couple of recent posts continued with the theme I have been writing about in my last few posts, the awkward relationship between environmentalism and science.

Adam Corner and Alice Bell, writing for the New Left Project pick up on the Genetic Engineering/Nuclear issues that have been highlighted so effectively by “Chernobyl-Death-deniers” Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, but appear to add little to the debate, making the usual abstract remarks about the power context in which science takes place, while apparently unaware of the power-context within which environmentalism has emerged.

They stray into dubious territory right from the start when claiming that the Greens have always had a strong affinity with science, and that Green activism is actually rooted in science, evoking Rachel Carson and Julian Huxley:

Like the biologist Julian Huxley’s role in the founding of the WWF the year before, Silent Spring is endemic of the way science’s ability to look carefully at the natural world alerts us to the negative impacts humans have had on  it. To borrow a phrase from sociologist Steven Yearley, there is “elective affinity” between science and the greens, though as Yearley himself would be keen to stress, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple relationship.

Although Carson was right about some things, and played an important role in raising awareness about environmental impacts of farming, she over-egged the pudding and exaggerated on many issues, going well beyond the evidence, and these exaggerations arguably were responsible for chemophobia and radiophobia and the legacy of general alarmism and disregard for the facts -the very subject under discussion.

Julian Huxely is also surely a very bad example, since he was a champion of the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics and set the tone for much environmental thinking since with his concern about over-population, a political stance that is traditionally associated with the Right, not the Left. (For reading on this, see Fred Pearce, PeopleQuake 2010.) Continue Reading