15 Jul 2013: Analysis

New Green Vision: Technology
As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope

The concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as the key to solving big environmental problems, is gaining adherents and getting a lot of buzz these days. While mainstream conservationists may be put off by some of the new movement’s tenets, they cannot afford to ignore the issues it is raising.

by fred pearce

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-urbanization 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
Should we condemn the modernists for hijacking environmentalism, or do we concede they may have a point?
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
In the view of the modernists, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs.
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 U.S. 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 organizations 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 fertilizer, 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
Environmentalism has been taken over by ‘Arcadian sentiment’ and has ‘become its own antithesis,’ says one modernist.
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 urbanization, 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 favor 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 fertilizer in favor of chemicals.

Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the “de-ecologization 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 maximizing 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
Critics contend that the modernist agenda lacks a social and political compass.
“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 cozy 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 criticized 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 fertilizer 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.


Stewart Brand’s Strange Trip:
Whole Earth to Nuclear Power

Stewart Brand’s Strange Trip: Whole Earth to Nuclear Power
When the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog embraces nuclear power, genetically engineered crops, and geoengineering, you know things have changed in the environmental movement. In an interview with Yale e360, Stewart Brand explains what has shifted his thinking about what it means to be green.
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.

POSTED ON 15 Jul 2013 IN Climate Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability North America North America 


Nine billion people cannot live from nature using old-fashioned tech alone. More than 80 percent of mammal biomass on the earth can now be attributed either to people or to domestic animals. This means that the human race cannot anymore rely on nature as source of all resources and as destination of all waste. The loop must be closed within the human world and the human world will be the world of the cities.

In 2050, 70 percent of all people will live anyway in metropolitan areas. The environmental problems are solved if these urban spaces are self-sufficient. Quite certainly there are several technical solutions to achieve the goal of sustainable cities. You can power them by nuclear power stations or by solar power. You can feed them by genetically modified crops or by highly cultivated crops of more traditional origin. One must keep in mind that the mere existence of a promising technology does not force us to use this technology. In most cases there are more options available than many proponents of one particular technology usually believe.

Posted by Martin Holzherr on 15 Jul 2013

The problem as I see it is the traditional environmentalists view that destruction is ever increasing, (with good reason I might add looking backwards). But the data tell a different story. The fact is, as we advance, our footprint, at some point begins to shrink.

The most obvious example is population. Once we become well educated and have satisfied the basic needs, we quickly begin to reduce birth replacement rates faster than medicine keeps us living longer.

Carbon content decreases, pollution decreases etc etc, there is plenty of evidence to support the "advancement" trend is positive.

All the work that must go into enforcing that trend continues (environmentalism), but we're on the right path and it will only get better.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, our nature is to progress as a specie, not just evolve but progress. The traditional environmental meme of stopping progress in the name of conservation has proven to be largely unsuccessful.

Progress works, stopping progress doesn't.

Posted by Mark Renfrow on 15 Jul 2013

The "traditional environmental meme" is not to stop progress, but to redefine it.

Posted by Dave Harmon on 15 Jul 2013

This article is all conceptual. Nothing in it is empirical fact. So it's very unhelpful. If Jenkins has evidence that technological solutions are great, then he should produce that evidence. Otherwise, nothing decided at the conceptual level needs to be real. It's just a thought game, devoid of reality.

Posted by Dr. John Miller on 15 Jul 2013

To the modernists who say: "Farmers should discard organic fertilizer in favor of chemicals", show me first that you can keep the chemicals inside your own property line.

It is one thing to decry traditional environmentalists for their heretofore futile efforts to fence off nature from human assault. Show me first that humans can fence themselves off from nature and live sustainably in megacities without raiding and raping the great outdoors.

Posted by Clark Bullard on 15 Jul 2013

Humans have to admit that overpopulation of humans is the problem with the environment. We have two choices: either reduce the population or use modern technology to serve the population in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Going back to outdated technology is not going to work. One can't have it both ways.

Posted by Keith Reding on 15 Jul 2013

Dave -

In my experience, environmentalists put all their energy into stopping something rather than starting something.

They are quick to point fault in the self created vacuum of a problem held in isolation. They seldom look for the solution because that requires compromise and critical thinking outside the narrow confines of their pet issue.

The recent movie Pandora's Promise is getting the headlines BECAUSE its environmentalists (arguable) actually compromising and choosing a lesser evil.

But I still doubt they'll be out marching for a nuclear plant or research funding.

Posted by Mark Renfrow on 16 Jul 2013

This is a very timely article. But to get to the core of the issue my suggestion is to look at the emergence of modernism in the early to mid 20th century. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the lives of many working class people in the UK remained essentially unchanged since the Victorian age (outside toilets and no hot running water, poor literacy, lower life expectancy, etc.).

Modernism became a campaign that all people should have access to the benefit of modern technology. Up to this point the benefits of modernity were only available to the wealthy. Domestic electrical appliances and the electrification of homes in Britain date from this era as a result of the campaign for modernity, which also argued for technology to liberate ordinary women from domestic labour. Because of the 1939-1945 War it took until the 1950s for this world to start to be delivered.

We now take for granted the benefit of technology such as electricity and the automobile and how these have advanced all other forms of social progress.

I suspect very few greens would really surrender their use of technology or seek to deny a similar opportunity for development to people anywhere in the world.

As the article says, deep greens may seek a purity in their relationship with technology. Does this mean 'going off grid', or does that excuse the fact that solar panels are made in unknown factories somewhere, using minerals carved out of the Earth in some far flung place? Is the only 'pure' way of life to go back to pre-industrial ways of living? Perhaps as an experiment, we should be inspired by Ramadan and go for a month without using electricity, to remind ourselves how many people in the world live. Or every Sunday, like the orthodox sabbath. There's the Amish. Or the Jain. Is that the way of life that 'greens' should demand everyone sign up to? Clearly we need 'clean technology' but can this be delivered other than by 'no technology' (modern fossil fuelled technology that is). Fundamentally, environmental modernism is an upgrading of modernism, and one that recognises the societal goals of modernity, that have perhaps been absent from traditional green campaigns. Think of the hitherto separate camps of the environmental movement and the international development movement.

Much of this debate has been held already in the 1920s and 30s, in particular between the Modern Movement and the Arts & Crafts Movement (whom the late 20th century greens could claim a direct decendence).

The issue is how to reconcile our desire for the benefits of technology with our need to maintain healthy ecosystems. This article illustrates a classic Western perspective in this, where almost by definition, humans are seen as separate from nature. Other cultures do not necessarily share this view.

Overall, the above article highlights how the issue of the 'tertiary relationship' between humans, 'nature' and technology is now causing fault lines to appear in the conventional culture of the green campaigner. It's critique of the environmental modernists perspective is a little more thin that it deserves to be. We really should give this debate full attention and look at the core issues underlying this, and look at how these issues have been dealt with in the past.

Posted by Anthony Alexander on 16 Jul 2013

@Dr. John Miller, The article is not all conceptual and is full of a number of observations of patterns, some discussed here, including declining fertility rates, slower growth of crop land from higher yields, and an irrational risk calculus when it comes to nuclear and GMO. The various writers cited by Pearce have all written articles and made specific arguments.

Posted by Jane Hammond on 16 Jul 2013

The other way to interpret the ecological modernists is to posit that there will be 9 billion people on earth by the middle of the century, and most if not all of them will expect to have a "middle class" existence.

How do we do that? Can we do it sustainably (in the sense that it can be sustained)? Or are we doomed to run out of the resources necessary, or kill ourselves on the way to that (e.g., by global warming)?

The argument is that if we, for example, convert our energy supply to nuclear and solar, and reduce our energy intensity through efficiency, we might be able to get to a sustainable energy position with global warming stabilized.

What we know *won't* work is to say "we can't let the population get to 9 billion" - that's just gonna happen. And we can't say "everyone stop eating meat" - that's just not gonna happen. (Well, if we don't do something proactive, like convert to nuclear and solar, then there will be a crash, and 99 percent of us will die off, and we'll get back to sustainability using natural resources again. But who gets to be in that 1 percent cohort that survives?)

Also, I would caution against making strawman arguments like proposing that "Farmers should discard organic fertilizer in favor of chemicals" is a tenet of ecological modernity. It's perhaps true that ecological modernists don't dismiss a chemical ag treatment *just because* it's chemical, but they also don't dismiss organic techniques just because they are organic. In fact, that characterizes the ecological modernist more than anything else - if it works, and if there's no rational reason (even considering long term effects, etc.) not to use it, then we should use it. "It's not organic" is not a good enough reason to avoid use of a capability, all else being equal, nor is the opposite.

Posted by Nils Davis on 16 Jul 2013

Living things and the laws of nature are complicated and will never be completely understood. Atheist and theist alike should agree on this. Technology needs to mimic natural systems or it tends to harm us over time and the common good gets trampled underfoot. The corporate by low sell high "nothing else matters" ethos combined with scientism as exemplified by the Gates Foundation is a big part of the problem.

Posted by john coelho on 16 Jul 2013

The efficiencies of technology have always
abetted faster population growth, made living
systems including agriculture more brittle by
reducing diversity of species we depend on, and,
so far, have speeded biodiversity destruction. If
the plague species continues to choose NOT to
reverse population growth (it won't in our
lifetimes, and likely far longer), then mortality
rates will rise, sperm counts will decline, and
toxic feedback will continue to increase, making
us sicker each year on average.

I will wager for charity on these outcomes at

Technological bullets can hit small targets, but
the whole system (earth) is far too complex for
us to successfully manage long term.

Posted by Steven B Kurtz on 17 Jul 2013

Hi Fred, - I’m very worried by this analysis as it
points to a future where livestock is caged for
most of its life.

I am not an animal rights activist, I have never
involved myself in that field, but I am horrified
and totally numbed by the dystopic vision you
portray of a world where we enjoy renewed,
rewilded landscapes but at a huge cost: the
industrialisation of food production and, in
particular, the housing, under artificial light, in
cramped and overcrowded conditions, of billions
of living creatures: chickens, pigs, cows and
other domestic stock, for their entire brief and
agonisingly tortured lives.

Do you really see this as progress, as the way
forward? That we condemn such docile creatures
to short and brutal lives, living in overcrowded
conditions with absolutely no chance of
gambolling in sunlit green fields for their entire
lives? To have to endure conditions of such
horror and depravity just so that you and the rest
of humanity can live the good life, stroking your
pet cats and pretending you’re at one with
nature? Don’t make me sick. This is not the way
forward, it is going backwards at a rate of knots.

The whole problem with your analysis is that you
think there is a technological answer to every
problem. But let’s take your solution here at face
value, for a moment.

You think humanity will survive, and will allow
nature to thrive, by industrialising all food
production and setting aside areas for wildlife.
The problem with this is that, like always,
eventually the areas you have put aside will
come under renewed attack. This is because the
human population is growing at an extremely fast
rate. It is only a matter of time before your
industrial meat production units, or lifelong
torture for billions of sentient creatures, are not
enough to feed the growing masses. The people
will then turn to the wildlife areas and destroy
them, as they have always done.

So you really need to be looking for completely
different solutions to the problems. The first thing
has to be reducing the global human population
to about a quarter of its current size. The second
has to be the elimination of growth and the
establishment of a new steady-state global
economic system where we are not depleting
resources faster than they can be renewed.

Your ridiculous ‘grow all food industrially and we’ll
be fine’ scenario panders to the ‘business as
usual’ brigade and to climate deniers and is a
disservice to all of humanity. This is not the way
forward, it is promoting the continuation of the
very developments that led to our current crisis
it will only make things worse.

Posted by Coilin MacLochlainn on 17 Jul 2013

Regarding aspiration to middle class lifestyles, given
the question is what is the level of modernity that is
sustainable. It could be argued that this is
equivalent to the middle class lifestyle of Britain in
the mid 1960s. Certain levels of health care,
education and employment were taken for granted.
Huge numbers of people in the world live well below
this level now.

Posted by Anthony Alexander on 18 Jul 2013

Please - no more geo-engineering. Lower our footprint and recede from trying to control and manage everything - nature will do the rest and will do just fine without us.

Posted by Michael Brooks on 18 Jul 2013

Unfortunately the article does not track the evolution of consciousness very well. Modernist ideas started almost 400 years ago when for example Francis Bacon argued that humanity can solve nature's mysteries to overcome all of our problems. The emergence of science and technology as the media of this discovery process has accelerated ever since. What has changed is the availability of new technologies, not new ideas as Fred attests. Nevertheless many people have moved beyond modernism into postmodernism (a term he didn't mention at all) that increases consciousness by focusing on the entire planet not just humanity (the focus of modernism) which is what Fred calls "traditional environmentalism." Postmodernism has its problems too and is evolving into the next stage, Integralism., whose center of focus is enlarged again by focusing on the entire universe.

In any event, the Achilles heal of Modernism has remained the same since its birth in the Enlightenment: reductionism. As long as a complex problem is attended by a single technological fix, most of the social and cultural factors will be ignored in its implementation and project failure will result. We continue to see this same pattern of problems not being solved or temporarily being solved or symptoms being suppressed and re-emerging elsewhere. This is why so many more holistic approaches -- systems thinking, resiliency, chaos theory, system dynamics, organizational learning, high-reliability organizing, etc. -- have emerged as a response to overcome the basic inadequacy of the Modernist approach.

None of that has changed with the so-called emergence of modernist environmentalism.

Posted by Jon Kohl on 18 Jul 2013

An overall theme I see emerging in these comments is that rational thought is useful and healthy, and all of us, once in awhile, get stuck in positions that need a fresh look. The eco-modernists can be viewed as a helpful corrective.

Learning also happens over time. New information becomes available. "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" is a famous old quip.

So it is not necessarily a sign of senescence that the environmental movement is re-examining previously held positions. This is healthy.
Posted by Jeff Severinghaus on 18 Jul 2013

There are plenty of reasons to be deeply skeptical about the neo-environmental agenda. First, the opposition they construct is contrived. Concerns about clear air and water, toxins,
climate change, access to parks and recreation areas, species extinction, desertification and
deforestation, are far more practical matters of concern than notions of returning to an Arcadian
ideal. The neos also feel the need to paint their imagined opposition with a broad brush as if to say you’re either for our ideas or you’re a Luddite. No one is truly against technology it’s
the scale and appropriateness of some technologies that raise concerns.

The neos have a nasty tendency to conveniently gloss over some well-founded doubts about their fundamental proposals. Concerns about GMOs are not solely restricted to their impact on human health political and social implications are of great concern. Opposition to nuclear power is based on more than a visceral opposition to technology financing and waste management issues remain unresolved. Wariness about geoengineering is justifiable no proposals have been remotely fleshed out and there is no acknowledgement of externalities. Many important questions need to be answered before embracing the neo agenda with anything less than skepticism.

Why must neo proposals be on a gigantic scale? Mega dams (what’s left to dam?), mega cities (is there a single attractive model anyone would wish to live in?) mega-agriculture (it’s been dubious for decades). It seems clear why the
neo's proposals are invariably big: big corporations and their academic minions stand to gain huge sums of public money and additional political power. This is a formula for more of the same: elevated hubris, expanded domination and accelerated destruction.

In other publications, neo sage Peter Kareiva essentially states that extinction may not matter. Such sentiment drives home the point that some
neos are seriously in need of recalibrating their moral and ethical compass. Who in their right
mind would be willing to entrust any solution to such heartless hypocrisy?

Finally, I’m not sure why someone like Kareiva would feel the need to take pot shots at Ed Abbey or Henry David Thoreau. Yet such jabs speak volumes about what Kareiva inter alia
think and how little they actually understand the ideas of those men. Considering the nature of the callous, technocratic agenda proposed by the folks at Creative Destruction, Inc., I’m inclined to throw my lot in with the artists and writers, philosophers and scientists, who actually feel a deeper connection with nature and act accordingly.

Posted by Kyle Gardner on 18 Jul 2013

What a surprising new idea - technology will safe us. Who would have thought THAT! Except it's probably the oldest chestnut around, along with the associated strawman claim that environmentalists are reflexively anti-technology. What a mumbo-jumbo.

And thanks for illuminating what it takes to earn the "Breakthrough Institute’s Paradigm Award": write that invasive species "Maybe are not so bad". One wants to scream at such superficial pseudo-contrarianism.

Monbiot had a powerful piece on a related issue: http://www.monbiot.com/2013/07/08/the-culture-of-nature/
Posted by Toni Menninger on 19 Jul 2013

Seeing the destruction and chaos around them accelerated by the Industrial Revolution the Modernists have two solutions: build rocket ships and send earth pioneers to another galaxy far, far away, or build rocket ships on earth and become totally self-sufficient using nothing that hasn't been designed by humans.

Either kind of rocket ship will have limited capacity if it is to be self-sustaining. But since we're already using the resources of 2.5 Earths to maintain what we now have, and are searching ever harder to find scarce minerals, such as rare earths, the rocket ships can't possible contain all the raw material needed for replacement of worn out parts over time. And that includes fissionable materials.

It seems as if mining colonies will have to be established outside the rocket ships. At that point we start to hear talk of mining on Mars or the Moon requiring unheard amounts of energy.

It seems as if every technological advance becomes more energy intensive to build and maintain and more fragile. Every technological advance requires more technological fixes. Just think how fragile the grid is, both mechanically and electronically. The next major solar flare will wipe out communications and electrical power transmission throughout the globe.

What seems far more likely is that the rocket ships will be occupied by the 1\% while the 90\% slave away at provisioning the rocket ships. Rewilding will take the 90\% back to Babylonian times. We already have gated communities. Brave new world.

Posted by Herb Curl on 20 Jul 2013

Technology is a short term fix that only make things worse for the future. I am always amazed by how ignorant are all these people that work in universities and issue such thesis or theories on humankind, technology and ecology.

I have myself worked a deal at university and was astonished by the misery of general knowledge and curiosity of professors and researchers. Too busy to compete and look for money, they have not even a clue about how the material they use is mined, whether it can be produced cheaply and so on.

The simple truth is that the rule of physics tells us that this development of humankind is unsustainable from the very start. It is based on increasing our yield from nature exploitation by destroying them using technology, this from the very day we used fire. Every step further is a step toward more irreversible destruction and the future need to destroy even more by using more destructive technology, because ecosystem are constantly impoverished and facing growing pressure.

There is no way technology can stop this trend, it is deeply rooted in the way we socialize.
I warmly recommend the book "Too Smart for Our Own Good" by Craig Dilworth, Cambridge, to understand the clear historical link between the emergence of technology and demographic pressure.

As the author puts it, the huge population surge we face, is only a sign that we are on the verge of collapse. We will be culled because we are unable and do not even desire to find a place in our ecosystem. We only care about social competition. If the world collapses, so will our competitors, so that is not such a big deal..

And technology will only make this culling faster and more dramatic. Everybody feels that.

Posted by kervennic on 24 Jul 2013

This article is not provocative, informative, or even about the effects of humans in the biosphere.

Which technology? Genetic engineering is a vast field, rapidly changing. Geoengineering - where will you test it without risk of either success or failure? Smil is correct, nothing of significance has been invented for a long time. The ideal paradigm remains the chloroplast.

Frustration breeds anger and reversals in hopes of new worlds. These Modernists seem to stem more from an inability to see the reality before us: too many humans, who refuse to believe they are just one more carbon-based animal in the mix - dependent, not in control.

The Green Revolution was a very short term fix. The Classic Maya thrived by innovating cropping and irrigation systems for 700 years, alternating food system "innovation" with rises in population. Eventually, the population overcame the innovation, causing social unrest and warfare to expand boundaries. They were undone by prolonged drought - in 200 years. This is a repeat pattern in many civilization collapses, it seems to be holding up well, even today. Biological diversity simply covers the remains.

Next time -- add a little reality by inviting practitioners from around the world.

Posted by Cameron on 04 Aug 2013

I applaud Fred for spotlighting a key tension within the environmental movement. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. Rather than mimicking the ideological certitudes of our nemesis, we must all learn to think about every technological proposal afresh. Details matter.

Posted by ThisOldMan on 10 Aug 2013

Almost everywhere on earth, women are having less than 2.1 children. Africa will soon be there. So our present seven billion will decrease. A declining population has more room to get at the answers. Update in 50 years, please.

Posted by Vern Cornell on 10 Aug 2013

Mr. Pearce and others commenting: ONLY ONE ACTION CAN SAVE THE FUTURE. WE HAVE TO MAKE THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE!! We need to stop wasting money on fossil fuels and N-energy as they end up adding energy to the biosphere until our kids' futures are boiled away. For more on this action you can google my name J. Singmaster, III

Posted by James Singmaster, III, Ph.D. on 11 Aug 2013

I found this article interesting on many levels, and believe that there are a host of technological breakthroughs that can help sustain and enrich life. The steep cost reduction of solar PV, along with a resilient, smarter, emboldened grid, comes to mind as one of those very advancements. Similarly, turning wastes into feedstock for energy and material generation/production, is ripe for exploitation.

Where I take aim at this article is that the author seems to group "eco modernists" into a single mold — folks that support a range of technologies defined by the author as the right choice/approach. In other words, you better support nuclear power to be in his camp. As an author and researcher who has looked closely at a range of options, I do not believe that nuclear power should be on the table in its present format. So, what does that make me according to the author? A techno luddite? I think not. Putting solutions in this either-or, with us or against us, framing doesn't seem very productive and sends the wrong message, I'm afraid.
Posted by Ron Pernick on 27 Aug 2013

I sometimes wonder if some environmentalists get a
perverse pleasure from thinking that the species/civilization
is already doomed. Like it was some romantic tragedy. A
commonly given solution to our environmental problems as
seen above is a massive die off of our species.
Unsurprisingly I think that's a misanthropic failure to even
attempt to solve our problems so will leave that bit of
fatalism there.

(Nevermind that the population growth rate is falling. Yes

So do I think ecomodernists will save us and "traditional
environmentalists" are all vague concepts and no practical
solutions? Or are the ecomodernists lost in the nitty gritty
and lacking the out of the box thinking?

Well somwhere inbetween. Environmentalism could sure use
a few practical solutions when it doesn't get the revolutions it
wants but should have a scope greater than just tech.
One thing is certain. A pragmatic eye could be a real help in
telling the environmental movement what are and what
AREN'T the problems we need to spend time pontificating

Posted by J Eyre on 16 Apr 2015


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Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Earth. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Pearce has reported on new research that shows humans have been transforming the earth far longer than previously believed and explored the question of whether environmentalists are increasingly taking anti-science positions.



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