The concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as key to solving big environmental problems, is getting a lot of buzz these days
There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism – which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn't the environmentalism of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Greenpeace's warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world's last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?
But the prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship can save the planet and that if environmentalists won't buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are the problem.
The modernists wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanisation and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest.
While many mainstream environmentalists want to make peace with nature through the sustainable use of natural resources, the modernists want to cut the links between mankind and nature. So the modernists are also the proponents of rewilding, the restoration of large tracts of habitat and the reintroduction of the species that once lived there. Rewilding is a popular theme in modern environmentalism. But the modernists say that without technology, it can only be done by culling humanity. With technology, they say, we can more painlessly usher in the return of the wild, because more land can be liberated.
This is deeply heretical for many mainstream environmentalists. So the question is how we should respond. Should we condemn the modernists for hijacking and subverting environmentalism in the name of capitalist and consumerist greed? Or do we concede they may have a point. The one certainty, I think, is that we cannot ignore it. The debate has to be joined.
The tension about how far technology can solve our environmental problems and how far it exacerbates them is not new. Didn't the automobile stop our cities being knee-deep in horse manure? But the emergence of an agenda harnessing technological advance to the restoration of nature is newer.
It emerged prominently with the 2009 publication of Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary. Holed up on his houseboat in Sausalito, California, the 1960s hippie guru who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, has morphed into a techno-optimist.
But pre-dating Brand by a couple of decades was Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. An early advocate of action to fight climate change in the 1970s, he decided in the 1980s to start seeking solutions to our rising tide of environmental problems. He talked to technologists, and after supping with the devil, he emerged to call for a "great restoration" of nature by packing us all into high-density cities and intensifying farming. There is plenty of scope to do this with existing technology. As he told me a few years ago: "If all the world's farms could meet US farmers' current yields, we would need only half as much farmland."
Others have followed the leads of Ausubel and Brand. Notable is the philosophical U-turn of the British environmental writer Mark Lynas in his 2011 book, The God Species. The environmental modernists now have their own organisations too, such as the Breakthrough Institute, run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who gained prominence a decade ago with their critique of the green movement, "The Death of Environmentalism". And this thinking has reached into the heart of some of the most hallowed conservation groups. The Breakthrough Institute's fellows include Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, who was an active participant at the institute's conference last month in Brand's Sausalito back yard.
The conference, titled Creative Destruction, embraced the ideas of the early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter, which are currently undergoing a revival. Schumpeter argued that capitalism is driven not, as Adam Smith said, by incremental efforts to cut costs and boost profits in a competitive market, but by the pursuit of game-changing technological transformations. Nitrogen fixing for fertiliser, the invention of the automobile, the Green Revolution, the Internet, and the microcomputer have all transformed the world, tearing down old orders and making huge profits for those who started it.
Schumpeter's ideas are a kind of economists' version of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould's take on evolution as happening mostly in transformational leaps, which he called punctuated equilibrium, rather than through gradual, incremental change. Of course, the modernists see green technologies as the game-changers of the 21st century. In their view, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs.
A central agenda of the modernists is how to do conservation of nature. Existing conservation strategies simply do not work, they say. Human activity spreads inexorably. What is needed is to use the land we take more intensively, so that more can stay unfenced. The institute's Linus Blomqvist argues that, even as the world's population continues to grow, and as consumption rises, "land use can peak out in the next two decades".
All environmentalists would applaud that. But to achieve it, Blomqvist says, requires a lot of things they are conventionally less keen on, such as the further spread of large-scale industrial agriculture, accelerated urbanisation, and a switch out of using "renewable" biological resources. Shellenberger says that harvesting nature "is neither profitable nor sustainable" – it cannot alleviate poverty and leads to environmental degradation.
The modernist approach to conservation is to seek out technological substitutes for crops. We should, they say, give up cotton in favour of polyester or whatever else the chemists can come up with to clothe us. We should turn our noses up at wild fish and embrace aquaculture instead. Farmers should discard organic fertiliser in favour of chemicals.
Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the "de-ecologisation of our material welfare". Environmentalism has been taken over by "Arcadian sentiment" and has "become its own antithesis", he says. "Only technology can save nature."
Agro-ecologists who would have farmers sharing the land with nature in the name of "sustainable development" are wrong, say the modernists. Rather than "sharing" the land we should be "sparing" it by maximising yield on the bits we choose to use.
The prize in all this is Ausubel's "great restoration". This rewilding of nature will see American bison roaming across new "buffalo commons" on the Great Plains, as well as wolves reconquering Europe, and – if Brand's hopes for using genetic technology to recreate the animals we drove to extinction come true – then a de-extinction, too. Imagine passenger pigeons filling the North American skies once more, and woolly mammoths roaming across a vast Pleistocene park in Siberia.
Is this a green utopia or a nightmare?
In truth, some degree of environmental modernism is part of the worldview of all but the most fundamentalist greens. Whether driving a Prius, putting solar panels on our roof, or installing a low-flush toilet, we are buying into a version of the eco-modernists' call for environmental efficiency to be a watchword of conservation. Likewise, the idea of "decoupling" economic growth from resource use and pollution is a common aspiration, which only technology can achieve.
I have previously argued here that too many environmentalists have gotten stuck with some cosy nostrums that they are reluctant to take a long hard look at. Many turn their face against technologies such as GM crops and nuclear energy out of sheer revulsion rather than any rational analysis of what they might deliver in terms of protecting land or taming climate change.
Modernists have plenty to say on this theme. They argue, for instance, that only wishful thinking leads ecologists to argue that ecosystems with maximum biodiversity deliver more "ecosystem services" like flood protection, soil conservation, carbon capture, and nutrient cycling. Actually, biodiversity has little to do with it, says Blomqvist. "The basic functioning of the biosphere relies largely on photosynthesis."
Many ecologists would contest that. And there is much else that can be criticised in the modernists' playbook.
Technology often doesn't deliver even its own prospectus. Some say the Green Revolution, which doubled global food production in the late 20th century, has now stalled. And it may not just be the Green Revolution. Canadian futurologist Vaclav Smil, speaking at the Sausalito event, argued that "all the essential technologies" of modern life are at least a century old. He noted, for example, that the basic process of manufacturing nitrogen fertiliser from the air "hasn't changed since 1894."
And if mainstream environmentalists have a weakness for Arcadian myths, then the modernist agenda too has its own blind spots and contradictions. A strict effort to rewild nature and to cut our use of nature for ecosystem services would surely rule out using forests as carbon sinks. Do the modernists really oppose that? And if they make an exception here, then where does the boundary lie? And how do they answer the concern that, whatever the claims about rewilding, one result of their blueprint is likely to be the commodification of nature.
That issue was raised in Sausalito by Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden, a manifesto for a reassessment of alien species. Maybe they are not so bad, she says. She was awarded the Breakthrough Institute's Paradigm Award and is clearly regarded by environmental modernists as one of them. But how so? Defenders of alien species – and the value of novel mixtures of natives and non-natives that dominate many modern ecosystems – see the boundaries between the wild and the rest as largely in our imaginations. And in a world of climate change, they think going back is a physical impossibility.
If we cannot set nature free from the impact of humans, then the modernist case for doing so starts to come unstuck. For instance, we may be able to recreate the woolly mammoths, but remaking their habitat might be beyond us.
Others argue that more intensive land use will not save what is left so much as poison it and that the modernist agenda lacks a social and political compass. Critics say it fails to address what the existing farmers and other occupants of the planet's rural landscape might think. They won't all go and live in cities. Instead, they seem likely to become victims of the mother of all land grabs, whether for industrial agriculture or rewilding.
But that is not to condemn the modernist enterprise. By raising questions about why mainstream environmentalists buy into some aspects of modernism and some technologies, while resisting others, the modernists force us to ask exactly what we want. And how we think we can get it. They may even light the path to a way out of the environmentalists' constant catalogue of failure in the face of the relentless advance of what their enemies call "progress". We cannot and should not duck this argument.