Evolve

Illustration: Thom Lang / Corbis
Illustration: Thom Lang / Corbis

SOMETIME AROUND 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Venice’s three inlets from the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea. The massive doors — twenty meters by thirty meters, and five meters thick — will, most of the time, lie flat on the sandy seabed between the lagoon and the sea. But when a high tide is predicted, the doors will empty themselves of water and fill with compressed air, rising up on hinges to keep the Adriatic out of the city. Three locks will allow ships to move in and out of the lagoon while the gates are up.

Nowhere else in the world have humans so constantly had to create and re-create their infrastructure in response to a changing natural environment than in Venice. The idea for the gates dates back to the 1966 flood, which inundated 100 percent of the city. Still, it took from 1970 to 2002 for the hydrologist Robert Frassetto and others to convince their fellow Italians to build them. Not everyone sees the oscillating and buoyant floodgates as Venice’s salvation. After the project was approved, the head of World Wildlife Fund Italy said, “Today the city’s destiny rests on a pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gamble.”

In truth, the grandeur that is Venice has always rested — quite literally — on a series of pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gambles. Her buildings rest upon pylons made of ancient larch and oak trees ripped from inland forests a thousand years ago. Over time, the pylons were petrified by the saltwater, infill was added, and cathedrals were constructed. Little by little, technology helped transform a town of humble fisherfolk into the city we know today.
Saving Venice has meant creating Venice, not once, but many times since its founding. And that is why her rescue from the rising seas serves as an apt metaphor for solving this century’s formidable environmental problems. Each new act of salvation will result in new unintended consequences, positive and negative, which will in turn require new acts of salvation. What we call “saving the Earth” will, in practice, require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.

MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels — all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.

Furthermore, over the course of human history, those technologies have not only been created by us, but have also helped create us. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the reason for our modern hands, with their opposable thumbs and shorter fingers, is that they were better adapted for tool use. Ape hands are great for climbing trees but not, it turns out, for striking flint or making arrowheads. Those prehumans whose hands could best use tools gained an enormous advantage over those whose hands could not.

As our hands and wrists changed, we increasingly walked upright, hunted, ate meat, and evolved. Our upright posture allowed us to chase down animals we had wounded with our weapons. Our long-distance running was aided by sweat glands replacing fur. The use of fire to cook meat allowed us to consume much larger amounts of protein, which allowed our heads to grow so large that some prehumans began delivering bigger-brained babies prematurely. Those babies, in turn, were able to survive because we were able to fashion still more tools, made from animal bladders and skins, to strap the helpless infants to their mothers’ chests. Technology, in short, made us human.

Of course, as our bodies, our brains, and our tools evolved, so too did our ability to radically modify our environment. We hunted mammoths and other species to extinction. We torched whole forests and savannas in order to flush prey and clear land for agriculture. And long before human emissions began to affect the climate, we had already shifted the albedo of the Earth by replacing many of the world’s forests with cultivated agriculture. While our capabilities to alter our environment have, over the last century, expanded substantially, the trend is long-standing. The Earth of one hundred or two hundred or three hundred years ago was one that had already been profoundly shaped by human endeavor.

None of this changes the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities — if they don’t threaten our very existence — certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years. But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.

Humans have long been cocreators of the environment they inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.

NEVERTHELESS, ELITES IN THE WEST — who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet — insist that development and technology are the causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable) urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce. Indeed, the most visible and common expressions of faith in ecological salvation are new forms of consumption. Green products and services — the Toyota Prius, the efficient washer/dryer, the LEED-certified office building — are consciously identified by consumers as things they do to express their higher moral status.

The same is true at the political level, as world leaders, to the cheers of the left-leaning postmaterial constituencies that increasingly hold the balance of political power in many developed economies, offer promise after promise to address climate change, species extinction, deforestation, and global poverty, all while studiously avoiding any action that might impose real cost or sacrifice upon their constituents. While it has been convenient for many sympathetic observers to chalk up the failure of such efforts to corporate greed, corruption, and political cowardice, the reality is that the entire postmaterial project is, confoundingly, built upon a foundation of affluence and material consumption that would be considerably threatened by any serious effort to address the ecological crises through substantially downscaling economic activity.

It’s not too difficult to understand how this hypocrisy has come to infiltrate such a seemingly well-meaning swath of our culture. As large populations in the developed North achieved unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of years — emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty — was subsumed by the need to manage the unintended consequences of modernization itself, from local pollution to nuclear proliferation to global warming.

Increasingly skeptical of capitalist meritocracy and economic criteria as the implicit standards of success at the individual level and the defining measure of progress at the societal level, the post–World War II generations have redefined normative notions of well-being and quality of life in developed societies. Humanitarianism and environmentalism have become the dominant social movements, bringing environmental protection, preservation of quality of life, and other “life-political” issues, in the words of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, to the fore.

The rise of the knowledge economy — encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector — has further accelerated the West’s growing disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to claim some role in producing food, shelter, or even basic consumer products. And yet they can afford to spend time in beautiful places — in their gardens, in the countryside, on beaches, and near old-growth forests. As they survey these landscapes, they tell themselves that the best things in life are free, even though they have consumed mightily to travel to places where they feel peaceful, calm, and far from the worries of the modern world.

These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.

The contradictions between the world as it is — filled with the unintended consequences of our actions — and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads.

Thus, ecotheology, like all dominant religious narratives, serves the dominant forms of social and economic organization in which it is embedded. Catholicism valorized poverty, social hierarchy, and agrarianism for the masses in feudal societies that lived and worked the land. Protestantism valorized industriousness, capital accumulation, and individuation among the rising merchant classes of early capitalist societies and would define the social norms of modernizing industrial societies. Today’s secular ecotheology values creativity, imagination, and leisure over the work ethic, productivity, and efficiency in societies that increasingly prosper from their knowledge economies while outsourcing crude, industrial production of goods to developing societies. Living amid unprecedented levels of wealth and security, ecological elites reject economic growth as a measure of well-being, tell cautionary tales about modernity and technology, and warn of overpopulation abroad now that the societies in which they live are wealthy and their populations are no longer growing.

Such hypocrisy has rarely been a hindrance to religion and, indeed, contributes to its power. One of the most enduring characteristics of human civilization is the way ruling elites espouse beliefs radically at odds with their own behaviors. The ancient Greeks recited the cautionary tales of Prometheus and Icarus while using fire, dreaming of flight, and pursuing technological frontiers. Early agriculturalists told the story of the fall from Eden as a cautionary tale against the very agriculture they practiced. European Christians espoused poverty and peacemaking while accumulating wealth and waging war.

In preaching antimodernity while living as moderns, ecological elites affirm their status at the top of the postindustrial knowledge hierarchy. Affluent developed-world elites offer both their less well-to-do countrymen and the global poor a laundry list of don’ts — don’t develop like we developed, don’t drive tacky SUVs, don’t overconsume — that engender resentment, not emulation, from fellow citizens at home and abroad. That the ecological elites hold themselves to a different standard while insisting that all are equal is yet another demonstration of their higher status, for they are thus unaccountable even to reality.

Though it poses as a solution, today’s nihilistic ecotheology is actually a significant obstacle to dealing with ecological problems created by modernization — one that must be replaced by a new, creative, and life-affirming worldview. After all, human development, wealth, and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity; now they must be considered essential to overcoming ecological risks.

THERE’S NO QUESTION that humans are radically remaking the Earth, but fears of ecological apocalypse — of condemning this world to fiery destruction — are unsupported by the sciences. Global warming may bring worsening disasters and disruptions to rainfall, snowmelts, and agriculture, but there is little evidence to suggest it will deliver the end of modernization. Even the most catastrophic United Nations scenarios predict rising economic growth. While wealthy environmentalists claim to be especially worried about the impact of global warming on the poor, it is rapid, not retarded, development that is most likely to protect the poor against natural disasters and agricultural losses.

What modernization may threaten most is not human civilization, but the survival of those nonhuman species and environments we care about. While global warming dominates ecological discourse, the greatest threats to nonhumans remain our direct changes to the land and the seas. The world’s great, diverse, and ancient forests are being converted to tree plantations, farms, and ranches. Humans are causing massive, unprecedented extinctions on Earth due to habitat destruction. We are on the verge of losing primates in the wild. We have so overfished the oceans that most of the big fish are gone.

The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich. We have become rather adept at transferring the wealth and diversity of nonhuman environments into human ones. The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity — just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.

The question for humanity, then, is not whether humans and our civilizations will survive, but rather what kind of a planet we will inhabit. Would we like a planet with wild primates, old-growth forests, a living ocean, and modest rather than extreme temperature increases? Of course we would — virtually everybody would. Only continued modernization and technological innovation can make such a world possible.

Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let’s call this “modernization theology.”

Where ecotheology imagines that our ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate “nature,” modernization theology views environmental problems as an inevitable part of life on Earth. Where the last generation of ecologists saw a natural harmony in Creation, the new ecologists see constant change. Where ecotheologians suggest that the unintended consequences of human development might be avoidable, proponents of modernization view them as inevitable, and positive as often as negative. And where the ecological elites see the powers of humankind as the enemy of Creation, the modernists acknowledge them as central to its salvation.

Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation — human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.

THE RISKS NOW faced by humanity are increasingly ones of our own making — and ones over which we have only partial, tentative, and temporary control. Various kinds of liberation — from hard agricultural labor and high infant mortality rates to tuberculosis and oppressive traditional values — bring all kinds of new problems, from global warming and obesity to alienation and depression. These new problems will largely be better than the old ones, in the way that obesity is a better problem than hunger, and living in a hotter world is a better problem than living in one without electricity. But they are serious problems nonetheless.

The good news is that we already have many nascent, promising technologies to overcome ecological problems. Stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a new generation of nuclear power plants to cheaply replace coal plants as well as, perhaps, to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and power desalination plants to irrigate and grow forests in today’s deserts. Pulling frontier agriculture back from forests will require massively increasing agricultural yields through genetic engineering. Replacing environmentally degrading cattle ranching may require growing meat in laboratories, which will gradually be viewed as less repulsive than today’s cruel and deadly methods of meat production. And the solution to the species extinction problem will involve creating new habitats and new organisms, perhaps from the DNA of previously extinct ones.

In attempting to solve these problems, we will inevitably create new ones. One common objection to technology and development is that they will bring unintended consequences, but life on Earth has always been a story of unintended consequences. The Venice floodgates offer a pointed illustration. Concerns raised by the environmental community that the floodgates would impact marine life have been borne out — only not in the way they had feared. Though the gates are still under construction, marine biologists have announced that they have already become host to many coral and fish species, some of which used to be found only in the southern Mediterranean or Red Sea.

Other critics of the gates have questioned what will happen if global warming should raise sea levels higher than the tops of the gates. If this should become inevitable, it is unlikely that Venetians would abandon their city. Instead, they may attempt to raise it. One sweetly ironic proposal would levitate the city by blowing carbon dioxide emissions two thousand feet below the lagoon floor. Some may call such strong faith in the technological fix an instance of hubris, but others will simply call it compassion.

The French anthropologist Bruno Latour has some interesting thoughts on the matter. According to Latour, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not a cautionary tale against hubris, but rather a cautionary tale against irrational fears of imperfection. Dr. Frankenstein is an antihero not because he created life, but rather because he fled in horror when he mistook his creation for a monster — a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moral of the story, where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat our technological creations as we would treat our children, with care and love, lest our abandonment of them turn them into monsters.

“The sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature,” Latour writes, “but to believe that this dominion means emancipation and not attachment.” In other words, the term “ecological hubris” should not be used to describe the human desire to remake the world, but rather the faith that we can end the cycle of creation and destruction.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are cofounders of the Breakthrough Institute, and coauthors of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility.

Comments

  1. You write:

    ‘The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.’

    What’s your definition of ‘nonhuman’ environments’? We are not seperated from any ‘environment’ on earth, yes? Has this degradation made us simply temporarily rich…what’s your cost benefit equation for a global ‘nature deficit’…coral reefs, rain forests, accelerated extinction, melting glaciers, georges bank, the artic…? The tools and practices of degradation were what..? wise and purposeful?–clear cutting, razing mountain tops, sea drag nets,…destroying salmon runs, creating genetically alter fish to raise on farms.

    Your view of ‘history’ is stunningly narrow…your characterization of environmentalist is selective and disturbingly self-serving.

    Stop misrepresenting what others think or their interpretation of data or science. Know that you, and I and everyone live lifes of aspirations, contradictions and hypocrisy–stick to solutions.

    Thanks, Steve (I got to go back to work..it’s not easy being a ludite, hunt & gather professional..windmills, ticks, vermin and ipods)

  2. There are plenty of people who are not rich who also question the wisdom of technological change for its own sake. Look, for example, and the anti-GMO movement.

    I don’t think the authors take seriously enough Latour’s insight that we are attached to the world. They claim to take this seriously, but their argument only serves the purposes of those who would like to continue operating on the assumption of emancipation by technology.

  3. The logic in this piece is so convoluted, it boggles the mind. It is obviously written from an entrenched belief in the superiority of western/modern culture and from the arrogance that technology is the be-all and end-all of all our problems, problems that were created by the development of said technologies that are exploiting and raping the world. The recent history of the Ladakhi people is a prime example of the destructiveness of the forced introduction of western culture on a nature-based society.

    The loss of non-human life, no more fish to eat in the sea? No problem! We’ll just create novel forms of life by manipulating DNA, cloning, resurrecting extinct life forms, creating meat in laboratories, etc. etc. etc. Why, we are on par with God! Just be sure you overlook the independent studies that show the multitude of problems that genetically modified food is causing in animals, in the destruction of the ecosystem of the soil, and ultimately in people who consume these untested novel life forms.

    Nuclear power as our salvation? Tell that to the survivors of Chernobyl and Fukushima. The whole world is currently being affected by the radioactive fallout of Fukushima. We will be paying dearly for our hubris for centuries to come in the form of radioactive dead zones and ever increasing rates of cancer. In fact, we are already paying dearly with increased cancer rates in people who live near so-called “safely” functioning reactors.

    You claim “human development, wealth, and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity.” That may be true for a very tiny percentage of people, but even in wealthy America 30 million or more go hungry every day. Insecurity is rampant on the economic front with high rates of unemployment and mounting foreclosures. Homelessness is on the rise. Rather, technology has made people more insecure and less able to have normal conversations with one another. Many people are completely dependent on their cell phones 24/7 – totally insecure about being by themselves and not knowing to how to survive in the natural world. A sense of community and obligation to help one another is missing in our national and international dialogues. The only language we seem to speak with one another is one of threats, war and destruction. We are a severely dysfunctional society on the verge of collapse.

    You talk about “emancipation” from nature as if it were a good thing. On the contrary, this denial of our very interconnectedness with nature is what got us into the mess we find ourselves. Do you think for one moment when ecosystems finally collapse that you will be able to survive, or that we do not need nature for our very survival? You can’t eat money or your technological devices.

    Finally, I disagree with your notion of “rich.” Rich in what sense? Materialism? Surveys show even though we have a “high” standard of living, we are unhappiest we have ever been. It could be because the human spirit is suffering from a lack of any real connectedness with one another and with the very planet that birthed us. We have rejected our mother and lost our spiritual groundedness. Nowhere in your article do you ever attempt to acknowledge the spiritual aspect of life and nature. Your solely materialistic explanations of the world not only reflect the myopic vision with which you view life but also betray your lack of understanding of the greater mystery of this world and our place within it as an equal part of Nature. We are not meant to dominate or subdue this world, but to live in balance with all things we encounter.

    In short, reading your article calls to mind my favorite quote from Krishnamurti, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

  4. Such sweeping generalizations! You’re either “for technology” or against it – apparently no nuanced positions are allowed, like being for subsidizing solar power and against rushing forward with genetic engineering. What is the “modernity” the authors are so keen to preserve? Comfort and convenience? These equate to happiness? Can I be for appropriate technology and for a vision of simple living? I’d rather we explicate our various visions of the future and debate the specifics, rather than getting bogged down in nebulous arguments of “eco-theology vs faith in modernization”.

  5. This was by far the worst article I have read in Orion yet.

  6. While I don’t agree with every argument in this piece, I think it contains a great many truths. I consider myself a solid progressive, but I do see the hypocrisy on the left as much as the right. I have long argued that we will not be able to get a handle on climate change simply by curbing our consumption around the edges. The solution to climate change — if there is one — will undoubtedly require major advancements in technology. The sooner we start pouring resources in that direction, the better the odds that we may find an effective solution. I welcome a radical debate among liberals and a move away from pseudo hippy anachronistic environmentalism. We do need a paradigm shift.

  7. Comment for Babak:

    Most materials have some ‘truths’ within it, it’s the conclusion you draw from them that’s important. In ‘Evolve’ the authors throw a short paragraph in stating their solutions: more nuclear plants, more genetically altered plants and organisms and resurrecting extinct species from dna cloning.

    Much of this thinking is what got us in this dilema. . I know ‘environmentalist’ (hard core)…they are more scientifically oriented than most –soil specialistic, water experts, food stewards, habitat researchers and even physicists.

    We do need a shift, but it’s about societal and political will power and commitment. this wealthy nation could lead again, we could cut our consumption of energy in half without really suffering (but we won’t) and the remaining traditional carbon based energy sources could be cut in half again. Imagine if we raised our auto cafe standards to 60 or 70 miles per gallon (tech is available), homes were ‘required’ to heat water and % of heat with solar tech (we mandate home insurance, electrical standards, and building codes–why not energy)…what if our new ‘race to the moon’ was an ‘energy’ race–really got behind it.

    The real energy challenge is in will power.

  8. Thanks for the thought provoking essay. I particularly appreciated your likening of infrastructure to ‘Frankenstein’. In the US, we can observe a hard swinging pendulum between different types of infrastructure & land use. While at the time they were pivotal to American progress, relic technologies such as such as the canal system and railroads as well as land uses such as dust bowl farming, hill farming, and wetland farming are often demonized for the severe ecological transformations they have brought forth. Modern American environmental thought typically focuses on erasing technological infringements in the landscape, preferring instead to restore them to a pre-industrial or pre-European condition. It seems clear that this preoccupation with idealized wilderness landscapes has detracted greatly from our ability to put forth new typologies for environmentally & economically rich ways of life.

    As an architect & landscape architect with a great interest in wetland landscapes, I was excited by your discussion of Venice as an example of a technologically innovation. From its humble origins, as a series of fishing villages, Venice grew to become a sophisticated epicenter of western culture. As you illustrate Venice’s naval, commercial, and cultural power was ultimately a product of the unintentional technical feat of its early builders.

    However, in regards to the new flood gates that are being constructed to protect the lagoon from rising sea levels and storm surge, I am more bored than excited. Aside from their mechanical innovation and massive scale, I do not think they represent a particularly noteworthy technology. They are big yes; mechanically unprecedented yes; but innovative in a modern, ecologically informed sense, no. The flood gates might enable the future success of Venice’s contemporary tourist economy, but technically speaking they present an all too familiar industrial solution that is more inline with early or mid 20th century scientific thought. Like many industrial infrastructures, the flood gates are a single function solution that solves the problem (of sea level rise) in isolation of other economic or environmental opportunities.

    Given the shift towards an ecology-centric scientific paradigm that has begun to take hold over the past forty or so years, it seems that many examples in your essay fall along the lines of a more classically reductive scientific technologies. In regards to urban wetland infrastructures, there are many integrative projects (both built and proposed) that employ infrastructures to solve social, economic, and ecological problems simultaneously. See for example the breadth of proposals to combat sea level rise in New York & San Francisco’s Rising Currents & Rising Tides exhibits (2009 & 2010 respectively). Also see Alan Berger’s Wetland Machine proposal for Italy’s Pontine Marshes (2008).

    For poignant examples of urban-wetland technologies, we do not have to look towards emergent trends in landscape ecology & design, we can also look at other ancient civilizations. For example, in the aquatic landscapes of the Aztec Empire on the outskirts of Mexico City, we can find a vast, robust man-made ecology known as the Chinampas. The Chinampas are an extensive network of raised planting beds that have been constructed in the southern lakes in the central valley of Mexico. During the Aztec Empire [1300-1500 CE], Chinampas were a major agricultural component supporting the capital city of Tenochtitlan, a high-density urban population of 200,000. In the Chinampas, crop fields are formed by driving stakes into the shallows and filling them with sediment. Along the edges of the platforms, willow trees are established and their roots become integrated into the system for strength. Along the perimeter of the plots, canals facilitate the movement of crops by way of boat, protect against frost by lengthening the growing season, and provide controlled areas for aquaculture. From a crop ecology standpoint, the chinampas demonstrate a sophisticated number of complementary niches. Through many generations of experimentation and technological gambles, Aztec farmers came to construct a complex ecosystem with great ecological stability. Despite the radical changes that have taken place over the last 500 years since the fall of the Aztec Empire, the remaining Chinampas still provide 45 percent of ornamental plants for Mexico City.

    As you eloquently point out, new technology surely brings unintended environmental consequences. We clearly would be better to embrace the unexpected with a positive attitude that helps us see it as an asset rather than a threat; however, I think your examples of technology too conveniently promote the narrow status quo of reductive industrial and commercial enterprise. In suggesting another ancient example such as the Chinampas, I am by no means advocating a return to an aquatic-agrarian society, but am rather reiterating that new infrastructures & technologies should be derived from ecological knowledge systems rather than seeing ecology an as unintended byproduct. Perhaps in forty years new exotic coral and fish species will accidentally evolve to create a new robust fishing economy in the Venetian lagoon, or perhaps the sea walls will exacerbate pollution and stagnation; however, as ancient history and the present day momentum in ecological design demonstrate, humans are capable of much greater foresight, creativity, and intention.

  9. The charge of hypocrisy is neither helpful nor particularly original. Just because my Doctor smokes, should I ignore his advice to quit smoking myself? I’m sorry that Orion devoted so many column inches to such a lame argument.

    As for technology and evolution, it makes no sense to talk about one being the product of the other, since human civilization — industrial civilization, at least — has not come close to attaining an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS.) We are still in the variance stage, and from an evolutionary standpoint, we have no way of knowing whether natural selection will favor us (and our impacts on our environments) or not. Just because technology built Rome (or Venice) it’s very premature to conclude that technology works.

    The real argument that these authors dance around but tacitly evade, is not technology but economics. Technology itself (nuclear power, genetic engineering, etc.) may be benign, but as things are they are being utilized by a short-term profit and growth-oriented economics that has demonstrated catastrophic effects on the environment. Please, don’t unleash these technologies until we divorce them completely from the most devastating and self-serving social system ever devised by humans.

  10. Technology continues to be used for ammassing personal wealth at the increasingly destructive expense of the biosphere, even though we have the expertise to safely recycle 100% of our growing tons of garbage, sludge, junk, smoke and fumes, instead we dump it in the ocean and lakes, pile it in mountainous landfills and spew it up into the atmosphere. But planet Earth is NOT growing, but slowly shrinking with each volcano and earthquake. So the biosphere cannot absorb endless tons of our waste products, but struggles with more violent storms, floods and droughts to re-balance itself. Yet, we humans keep right on dumping and spewing, the result of which must be global ecocide and the extinction of life. If the people of the World understood this, they would demand the reforms necessary to survive, but who is telling them? I am only one voice.

  11. This is posted by Orion on behalf of Martin Holsinger.

    I was very surprised to find Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s article “Evolve” in Orion. It seemed quite out of place–more like something I would expect in The National Review or a Tea Party publication. I found it full of hubris and distortions.

    The distortion begins with the blurb in the table of contents–“Turning away from technology ignores thousands of years of coevolution between humans and nature.” The authors have created a straw man with this phrase, and, while they attack their imaginary foe with great gusto, I don’t know of anybody who wants to completely turn away from all technology–but I know plenty of people who think that developments in the Western world over the last several hundred years are a serious misuse of human intelligence–call it the exaltation of cleverness over wisdom.

    “…the difference between the new ecological crises and the way in which humans…have shaped…nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.”

    This is a clever bit of dissembling–is the destruction of the Appalachians, the Canadian Boreal Forest, and too many other places to mention really “not that different” from archaic firewood gathering or even primitive coal mining? Modern practices are, indeed, different “in kind” from archaic practices because they leave the ecology, for all intents and purposes, permanently degraded. By contrast, when introduced European diseases wiped out 90% of the native population of North America in a few short years, the woods simply grew back in a matter of decades. That’s not going to happen to the scars we have made of the landscape.

    Their critique of environmentalists as some kind of privileged elite is entirely simplistic. We are all caught in the web the Hopis called “Koyaanisqatsi,” a spider web of corrupted culture from which it is incredibly difficult to free oneself. I live as simply as I can, yet find my “footprint” would require two planet Earths if everybody on the planet lived at my level–but it would be hard for me to live any more simply without running afoul of codes and zoning authorities, not to mention other enforcers of our cultural norms. I don’t have children to raise at this point in my life, but, if I tried to raise them at a “world-wide sustainable” standard of living, I would probably also have child welfare authorities trying to take me to court as well. I am sure I am not the only environmental activist who has far more awareness of the awkwardness of my position than the authors ascribe to their straw man version of us.

    Simply dropping out of the global conversation about the mess we’re in (as in cutting loose of electronic communication in the interest of a simpler life) would be like trying to ignore the fact that we are sitting on the tracks and a train is speeding towards us. The authors’ glib dismissals of the possibility of ecosystem crash simply flies in the face of the very science they invoke.

    “…human development, wealth and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity.”

    Excuse me, but it is my impression that we are in the mess we are in because this development they are so proud of has burned up a major chunk of our planet’s resources in just the last couple of centuries, that “hunger, deprivation, and insecurity” have only been ended for a very few of us in a few favored locations, mostly in western Europe and North America, and that the crisis we are now facing is likely to see the reintroduction of these afflictions into the small areas from which they have, temporarily and at great cost to the rest of the planet and our descendants, been banished.

    Ah, and then there’s the kicker: “will require a new generation of nuclear power plants to cheaply replace coal plants…pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and power desalination plants”….

    The Chinese are building the first of these “new generation” nuclear power plants. It’s not cheap, and it won’t be ready until sometime in the 2020’s, and it’s built on a seacoast that, as the oceans rise, will likely be inundated, along with a great many conventional nuclear power plants all over the world. Anyway, actually building one of these “new: nuke plants will, if past experience is any guide, reveal expensive engineering problems that were not foreseen in the planning and prototype stages. Even if these new plants somehow fulfill all the best expectations of them, they will not be widespread until the middle of the century–if the social, material and financial resources to build them still exist by then. This time line is not fast enough to accomplish the tasks the authors propose. I don’t know if they’re deluded or disingenuous to be pimping for nuclear power like this.

    So, as I said, I found myself wondering how such a lame article made it into a magazine that I usually find to be a vehicle for clear thinking. Are you testing us? Want to see if we’ll just nod along and say cool”? Or are you trying to provoke a rebuttal? If so, this is the best I can do off the top of my head. I’m sure you have received many more, but I figured I’d add my voice to the chorus. 

    –Martin Holsinger

  12. Look, we all need to face a terrible reality if we want life on Earth to survive, and the only way to do that effectively is to tell the people the whole truth, all of it, and especially the impending ecocide and extinction from the growing toxic shock of growing tons of human waste products. If the people of the World know the danger they’re in they will demand the reforms necessary to survive. We must try to tell them – all of them. If not, we’re a self-doomed species.

    John T. Ross

  13. “MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.”

    That is total BS for two reasons:
    1. Comparing animal skins or farms with nuclear plants is crazy. Putting radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere and putting new isotopes that last much longer than uranium (that have not existed before in nature) into dumps that are not going to be completely leak proof is NOT natural. It is an abomination. Silicon cells are not natural either, although it isn’t as obvious. The combination of chemicals in a solar panel, and the trash generated from the process are not natural. If by “natural” the author means anything that comes originally from nature, then this makes the word meaningless. The point of the distinction “natural” vs “unnatural” is that one has innate wisdom and the other sometimes hurts nature and usually comes from our hubris. But unnatural is not necessarily bad:
    2. There are technologies which have some wisdom in them, but they take humility, wisdom in the inventors, and time to be perfected by the users. The point there is not so much how natural or unnatural a technology is, but how much does it promote human values and serves not just nature but humans. Most technologies nowadays are only concerned with appealing to the basest human desires (because that seems to make money quickly) and end up enslaving humans and hurting nature. The focus on natural vs unnatural is a bit of a red herring. If a technology serves humans (not only a few humans at the expense of other humans), I think it also serves nature, and is probably based on some natural, already existing in nature technology.

    “But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.”

    I disagree. It is a profound difference in worldview. One where we don’t care about the effects of the technology on the soul of others (and ourselves, except in asking whether it will enrich us or amuse us or make us more comfortable) and on nature, and the other where the human soul comes first.

    “Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.”
    Sure, but I don’t think anyone except a strawman is proposing turning away from technology. I and other Luddites propose turning away from a certain kind of technology, that which can only be manufactured in factories, and I would allow for some of that (as in computers), as long as people make and grow most of what they need in farms and artisan workshops.

    “NEVERTHELESS, ELITES IN THE WEST—who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet—insist that development and technology are the causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable) urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce. Indeed, the most visible and common expressions of faith in ecological salvation are new forms of consumption. Green products and services—the Toyota Prius, the efficient washer/dryer, the LEED-certified office building—are consciously identified by consumers as things they do to express their higher moral status.
    The same is true at the political level, as world leaders, to the cheers of the left-leaning postmaterial constituencies that increasingly hold the balance of political power in many developed economies, offer promise after promise to address climate change, species extinction, deforestation, and global poverty, all while studiously avoiding any action that might impose real cost or sacrifice upon their constituents. While it has been convenient for many sympathetic observers to chalk up the failure of such efforts to corporate greed, corruption, and political cowardice, the reality is that the entire postmaterial project is, confoundingly, built upon a foundation of affluence and material consumption that would be considerably threatened by any serious effort to address the ecological crises through substantially downscaling economic activity.”

    They are right on with these observations, except that “postmaterial” is an illusion. One can hide our dependence on nature and on slaves in factories, but it is still there. See my latest blog, where I commented on the difference between Fromm and Berry.

    “It’s not too difficult to understand how this hypocrisy has come to infiltrate such a seemingly well-meaning swath of our culture. As large populations in the developed North achieved unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of years—emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty—was subsumed by the need to manage the unintended consequences of modernization itself, from local pollution to nuclear proliferation to global warming.”

    I am glad they mention hypocrisy, but the unintended consequences of modernization are much more than environmental. Destruction of community and the human soul, and overpopulation, for example. This is something Erich Fromm (and others before the environmental movement) have analyzed really well.

    “These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.”

    It is not clear that eco-theology comes from postmaterial values. It might be easier to be an eco-theologist in post material US than in a sweatshop in the third world or in 19th century US or europe. Eco-theology existed way before capitalism in most cultures, and there are strong strands of it in judaism. I do think that eco-eschatology comes from judaeo-christian eschatology.

    “The contradictions between the world as it is—filled with the unintended consequences of our actions—and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads.”

    It does not have to result in a pseudorejection of modernity or nihilism. There are many theoretical solutions (like some forms of socialism) and a few concrete ones , like the ones lived at the PA or Koinonia.

    “Thus, ecotheology, like all dominant religious narratives, serves the dominant forms of social and economic organization in which it is embedded. Catholicism valorized poverty, social hierarchy, and agrarianism for the masses in feudal societies that lived and worked the land. Protestantism valorized industriousness, capital accumulation, and individuation among the rising merchant classes of early capitalist societies and would define the social norms of modernizing industrial societies. Today’s secular ecotheology values creativity, imagination, and leisure over the work ethic, productivity, and efficiency in societies that increasingly prosper from their knowledge economies while outsourcing crude, industrial production of goods to developing societies. Living amid unprecedented levels of wealth and security, ecological elites reject economic growth as a measure of well-being, tell cautionary tales about modernity and technology, and warn of overpopulation abroad now that the societies in which they live are wealthy and their populations are no longer growing.
    Such hypocrisy has rarely been a hindrance to religion and, indeed, contributes to its power. ”

    This is a good analysis, except that overpopulation is not only a problem “abroad”. Part of the reason land prices are so high is overpopulation at home. Cities are insanely crowded and there is no place for most people to go because land prices are too high and there is not much of a local economy in the country. Also, the hypocrisy is because most people feel powerless to change the way they live and their dependence on the system they criticize.

    “Though it poses as a solution, today’s nihilistic ecotheology is actually a significant obstacle to dealing with ecological problems created by modernization—one that must be replaced by a new, creative, and life-affirming worldview.”
    I agree

    “After all, human development, wealth, and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity; now they must be considered essential to overcoming ecological risks.” Liberated some of us at the expense of others in the third world, and at the expense of our progeny. We must also stop of thinking of what we can be liberated from, but what we can be liberated to: the non-material values that they seem to speak deprecatingly about?

    “The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.”

    They should read “Collapse” for numerous examples that contradict this statement.

    “Only continued modernization and technological innovation can make such a world possible.” Eh? That is on par with “the socialist state is unavoidable”, “Communism is on the horizon”, “The Jewish Bankers are sapping our lifeblood”, or “You will go to hell if you don’t believe”, in discipleship of Himmler. The amount of conviction of a statement is not proportional to its truth. The whole ensuing paragraph is an example of what Karl Popper called “historicism”, which assumes that our individual free will is not important for the developments of history, only certain unavoidable laws are important.

    “Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation—human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.”

    Theology implies some transcendent unity, some idea of God. What they propose is Modernization Idolatry, and Technology Fetish. How do they concretely propose to make most humans have an experience of transcendence when most humans live in overcrowded cities with very little nature left and when even most food production is done in a sterile, unnatural way? And how are most people going to experience creativity, when modernization has been bringing alienation to most people? Is it practical for most people to be artists and scientists? And if nature is destroyed, where would their inspiration come from?

    “These new problems will largely be better than the old ones, in the way that obesity is a better problem than hunger, and living in a hotter world is a better problem than living in one without electricity.”

    Nordhaus simply cannot accept that global warming means anything more than a gradual heating of the planet, to which our economy can adapt. And he obviously does not know how good it can be to live without electricity, if other things are in place, as they are with the Amish, and at the PA.

    “The good news is that we already have many nascent, promising technologies to overcome ecological problems. Stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a new generation of nuclear power plants to cheaply replace coal plants as well as, perhaps, to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and power desalination plants to irrigate and grow forests in today’s deserts. Pulling frontier agriculture back from forests will require massively increasing agricultural yields through genetic engineering. Replacing environmentally degrading cattle ranching may require growing meat in laboratories, which will gradually be viewed as less repulsive than today’s cruel and deadly methods of meat production. And the solution to the species extinction problem will involve creating new habitats and new organisms, perhaps from the DNA of previously extinct ones.”
    Note that the gospel of modern technology (or Modernization Idolatry) always involves promises in the future, as did what the Christian Gospel became (but didn’t start as–the kingdom of God IS among you, not will be among you). When the future arrives in a nightmarish way to become the present, new promises about a rosier future are made.

    “Some may call such strong faith in the technological fix an instance of hubris, but others will simply call it compassion.”

    How about just plain insanity? This reminds me of the movie Dr. Strangelove, which was partially based on insane modernity idolators like William Teller. “Edward Teller (the father of the H-Bomb) provided the theoretical solution to the degraded ozone shield – a global atmospheric modification program on a scale that staggered the imagination. He proposed using planes and rockets to float reflective metallic ‘chaff’ into the upper atmosphere to reflect harmful ultraviolet, infrared and cosmic radiation back out into space. This would temporarily patch the thinning ozone shield, giving us time to replace the ozone with other methods. ” The problem is that this insanity will destroy us all, and I can see why more militant forms of anti-modernization are appealing to some.

    The Frankenstein interpretation is interesting. I haven’t read it, and I wonder if Frankenstein had any redeeming features.

    ” “The sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature,” Latour writes, “but to believe that this dominion means emancipation and not attachment.”

    So where is the attachment? How are the authors attached in any way to nature or to any other human except as soulless commodities on the personality and economic market? And how are the authors contributing to (any kind of) technology in any way besides being consumers and idolaters?

  14. I have no doubt there is a lot of elitism and hypocracy within the environmental movement, from which I suffer here on these forums, but anyone who thinks that disproves the basic fact of industrial ecocide and impending extinction of species, is in for a growing series of rude shocks as the biosphere struggles to survive with more violent storms, floods and droughts.

  15. I am surprised to see such an article in Orion. It would better suite a publication like Forbes, as the most important contribution of technology so far has been to make a very small portion of the human population very rich in a monetary sense, while pushing a great majority of the humans and other living members of the world into misery and despair.
    In my opinion the authors are absolutely wrong in having any confidence that a more technologically advanced society would overcome the problems the world is experiencing.
    First of all most of us living in the western civilization, think that (probably because of the monotheistic religions), we are superior to all other life forms. This brings with it a perceived right to use and abuse all other life forms. How would more advanced technologies help to correct this? I would argue that with more advanced technologies, we would destroy the living world faster and more thoroughly.
    Another failure of our civilization is our complete faith in the modern sciences, which helps us look at a colorful world of almost infinite complexity through a black and white window, through which we can only see a very minute portion of this complexity and beauty. Unless we realize that our sciences, while useful in explaining physical laws and helping us build bridges etc., are completely insufficient in explaining the very complex interactions among the members of the living world, we will continue believing that we can design and improve living systems. Again more advanced technology may allow us to intrude more, into a world that we know very little about. This would hardly be a good thing.
    I think that we have to accept the fact that we can not change something as complex as the natural world and make it better, especially when everything we did in the last 30,000 years, and especially the last few hundred years, harmed it greatly. We are a part of this natural world, and the very idea that we have the capabilities necessary for making changes to a system that we evolved in and make it better, is beyond ludicrous. Our only chance of surviving as a species on this earth, is to develop a humble attitude towards the natural world and observe it, learn from it and model all our behavior and technology (if we have to have it) from how the nature works, so we can live in this earth without causing much more damage.
    We should remember that the natural world is the only complex system which works in the long run for us and all other living organisms. The very idea that we can overcome the problems that our technologies are causing with inventing more technological gadgets is baseless. We don’t even know how many species exist on earth to the nearest order, let alone know how they interact to make this planet habitable for all of us among the other billions of lifeless planets.
    In addition to all this, the way we structured our economy is very destructive of the natural world. We do not assign the natural world any value beyond the commodity values. Our educational system is based on thinking and sciences and completely ignores feelings and the spiritual side of life. It defines success as how much children know about science, math, finance etc. but not by how compassionate they are towards other human beings and other living organisms, or how much empathy they have for others pain and suffering. Not surprisingly the most “successful” members of our society, like CEO’s, millionaires, politicians, etc. are usually psychopaths with very little or no empathy for others. Most of them are completely separated from the natural world. With a generation after generation of “educated” people with such a value system, how is more technology going to help us save the world?

  16. Growing technology rises from our animal instinct to grow regardless of long term consequences. That is part of our human dilemma. Obviously, we need to rationally contemplate our human future, but most of us just want to satisfy our desire for more of everything forever, even though the Earth cannoy possibly support such a relentless agenda. To survive we need to:

    1. Safely recycle 100% of our garbage, sludge, junk, smoke and fumes.
    2. Peacefully reduce our human population with family planning education.
    3. Plant a million trees on each of the five arboreal continents.

    If not, the biosphere will break down and we humans will go extinct.

  17. Unlike others who have commented here, I think it’s great Orion ran this article. I don’t agree with all of it, but I also don’t think Orion should only publish articles that Orion readers are used to reading.

    The article acknowledges a powerful truth which is that technologies are natural. Humans only exist because apes used tools to make us. We evolved ourselves, with nature and tools. That’s quite a gestalt shift from thinking of technology as the cause of our “Fall”!

  18. I am absolutely baffled by these arguements, but like Alex Barry above am actually glad ORION printed it to allow us to comment and to take us out of our comfort zone of articles we agree with.
    My biggest argument with this article is the reference to “unintended consequences”. The earth does not have any unintended consequences; these are the product of human invention/intervention. It seems to me it’s the unintended consequences that kill the idea of technology being able to save us or the earth.

  19. I will be using this article as a discussion point for my college ecology class. I do not agree with it, primarily because I believe that the IPAT formula is a correct representation of how human population, affluence and technology negatively affect the earth’s environment. However, it is an excellent example of how differing environmental worldviews can start with the same information and arrive at vastly different conclusions. Thanks for providing such a provocative article for my class discussions.

  20. Excellent article!!! Yes, nature is dynamic and creative. Evolution has been creating new species which replace other species since the beginning of life. Evolution created Homo sapiens, and we have created many technologies and products – every bit of which is NATURAL.

    And, yes, the solutions to our current environmental and energy problems lies not in cutting back and simplifying, but in dropping popular ideology and being open to understanding *reality,* which will then lead to the development of better informed and more advanced technologies.

    The authors take a positive tone toward genetic engineering. Currently, genetic engineering is being used in farming to increase production yields with little consideration of negative side effects or of nutritional value – just so corporate profits are enhanced. But eventually the demand will be for *better nutrition* for which this technology can also be applied and developed.

  21. What a horribly misguided piece, there are very few redeeming paragraphs in this one. Where to start in critiquing it..

    “our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.” This is the ‘oil is natural because it comes from the earth’ argument. If it causes human society to step outside of the cyclical rhythms of nature, then it
    ISN’T natural. Besides, do those concentrations of nuclear materials occur in nature? This is armchair philosopher stuff, very poor.

    “As large populations in the developed North achieved unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of years—emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty—was ”

    Please, your knowledge of human history and belief in the myth of progress is inane…How did this article get published?

  22. This article is so poorly argued and poorly reasoned I hardly know where to begin in terms of rebuttle. In fact, I started typing a response to a friend — on my elite technology! — and finally stopped when it became too long.

    Thus I’ll limit my outrage here to the very beginning of its argument and the language: “MANY ENVIRONMENTALLY CONCERNED people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural.”

    The language immediately bifurcates the population into those “environmentally concerned” and those who are presumably not. It conjures up the idea of tree-hugging hippies — a category further urged by the language “sacredness of nature” — versus those more practically minded. If the authors’ — or those non- Western Eites’ — drinking water was tainted with arsenic they too would be counted among that dubious category — the “environmentally concerned.”

    How did this get published in Orion?

  23. #17 — I have no problem with Orion publishing articles that run contrary to my opinions. This article just isn’t up to par. The truth that “technologies” have long been used by humans, or that technologies are arguably “natural” isn’t news to many (most?) of Orion readers. #19 isn’t “absolutely baffled by these arguments,” I presume (as I am), because they aren’t what she’s used to reading. For me, they’re all too familiar, and here poorly set out and argued.

  24. Oops! I misspelled “rebuttal.” I know, I know, this undermines my rant!

  25. How sad that Orion has chosen to give this platform to the leaders of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that is always the first choice of the right wing when discrediting the environmental movement is called for.

  26. Many of your criticisms of environmental elites and the ecotheology they espouse seem on point. Nevertheless your wishful characterization of the co-evolution of humans and nature seems to lack a similar rigor.

    I’m not anti-technology. However our current application of technological resources is driven by simple economic objectives rather than a more complex effort to allocate resources towards achieving new and ongoing co-evolutionary balance. Unfettered technological development driven by economic concerns may not lead us to a desirable or even comfortable co-evolution.

    If the only difference between previous human impacts on natural events is one of scale, that’s not nothing. The scale of human impacts is global. Simple mistakes can have catastrophic proportions

    If we intend to base the potential success of the theology of modernity on our ability to nurture our technology as we nurture our youth… just remember that having a child is rarely a profitable endeavor.

  27. Orion?? I thought it was The Onion!
    Thank God for the vast majority of posted rebuttals — however you spell it.

  28. “Evolve” with nuclear power as a solution to all our woes? So far we monkeys have shown a shocking propensity to litter the whole biosphere with carcinogenic radionucletides that work their way up the food chain onto our dinner plates. I suppose technophiles will just write this off as the “oops” factor, coupled with immense amounts of hubris and tribal warfare. We can fix that, can’t we?

  29. The scale of the problem is too great now for gates to work. The data missed by the IPCC but picked up by the Abrupt Climate Change report (NASA et al) shows that without industrial reversal, Ice Sheet Collapse now is likely to be 20m rise of oceans by 2100, and possibly as much as 60m.
    So Venice is the least of our worries. The loss of farmlands is the greatest loss. The mission now is about Post Oil, climate change resettlement; see web site.

  30. Poorly written, badly argued, full of unfounded assumptions and arbitrary definitions. This article is so bad I can only thank those others who have taken the time to provide lengthier critiques.
    My addition: The authors should at least follow the maxim of never using a five dollar word when a ten cent one will do and the editors should raise the publishing bar far above this and keep it there.

  31. the powers of technology magnify the flaws of human nature

  32. One troubling aspect of any theology is a certain passionate response to heresy, plainly evident here in the righteous indignation by many in the audience. Religious people also have a tendency not to see their ideas as creatures worthy of thoughtful skepticism, but articles of absolute truth whose purity simply leaves no room for even mildly alternate perspective. The authors carefully acknowledge the limits and illnesses of industrialization, but they also wisely note the many benefits, as well as its relentless and unstoppable force. Humans will not stop changing the planet, ever. That is what we do. But even a casual glance at the world today reveals that wealth and industrialization ultimately lead to fewer people and a cleaner landscape. If you doubt this at all, go to India, then compare it to Norway.

  33. Yes, my religion requires open debate of ideas, not censure. I thought the article had some good points and disagreed with some SPECIFIC things about it. Vague attacks are not conducive to debate.

  34. Bernie Bleske said: “…Humans will not stop changing the planet, ever. That is what we do.” So, you’re not concerned about how many billions of people the Earth can support, or how much pollution it can absorb? How about the idea of safely recycling 100% of it and peacefully reducing our human population with family planning education by giving each woman the legally protected right to decide if and when to conceive and birth her children?

  35. This is the best article I’ve ever read on Orion. The hysterical response from (most of) its readers underscores just how out of touch most Western environmentalists are from what is happening in places like China and India.

    In India, the poor demand the technologies (e.g., electricity, power plants) they don’t have; in the U.S., the rich reject the technologies they have as unnecessary.

    How sweet it is for rich Orion readers with their iPads and heavily-subsidized solar systems to lecture the world’s poor that they don’t need nuclear power plants and GMO crops.

    If global warming ever becomes catastrophic, we will have the rich in the West who block nuclear power plants and GMOs to blame for it!

  36. On any realistic view of the world, we humans are part of nature.

    Our fondness for distinguishing ourselves from (the rest of) nature rests principally on our wish to make moral arguments about what we ought or ought not to do in particular situations. There’s nothing wrong with such moral arguments, of course; in fact, they’re unavoidable.

    In this case, the relevant moral question is: should we continue to use our best endeavors (including our technology) to ameliorate the human condition? Put thus, the answer is obvious: of course we should. Anything else amounts to giving up in the face of future uncertainties.

    Of course, a myriad of other questions are then raised: about how best to apply what we know to making things better, and so on. But these subsidiary questions are for another day. For now, we must agree that the authors are basically correct: we, like our ancestors, must continue to use all the resources available to us to make the world the best place it can be – for us, and for our descendants.

    Those who may be disinclined to take up the challenge step aside, and make way for those who are willing to put their shoulders to the wheel.

  37. Interesting article thank you.
    Surely we have myriad religious denominations already. Modernisation theology sounds to like yet another make your own religion. I was raised as an anglican (lost sheep) and confess to having the eco-theology tendencies you challenge.
    The real challenge is that we are human and fallible. I struggle with timeframes more than a couple of hundred years. I doubt few of us consider change on geological timescales or even think beyond our own experiences of great grandparents or great grandchildren. The truth is elusive, and facts/ science are too simple currently to deal with complex concepts like climate change.
    All I know is the world would be a beautiful and wonderful place without people. But who would care?
    Thanks Steve for the article

  38. 1.) I’ve loved technology since I was a toddler (TRUCKS! KNIVES!) but there’s an obvious problem with this article: barely a mention of energy, and no trace of the word “oil.” I and most of the left-leaning, environmentally concerned constituencies I know aren’t too concerned with the MORALS of current oil-supported tech– we worry more about the practicalities of a limited resource, OIL. The speed of consumption of that resource, we think, is self-destructive, out of control, and courting collapse. And since nuclear power, GMOs, solar cells, lab-grown meat, and just about every other large-scale tech “solution” depends on abundant cheap oil, we think there’s a good chance that technology will shortly be something you make for yourself, as it used to be.

    2.) Sure, a Prius driver can be just as hypocritical as the oil baron in the SUV. But this isn’t a question that will be decided by moral rectitude.

    3.) Theology schmeology; I’m an atheist. We don’t need a new god of tech progress because we already have one.

  39. Thanks Orion for this provocative if difficult article.

    I think it’s about time we started to think about technology more seriously.

    If we are running out of oil, as some commentators say here, shouldn’t we want more technology not less?

    If we are worried about climate change, shouldn’t we want more technological progress, not less?

    If we are worried about there not being enough food, shouldn’t we want more technology, not less?

    While the answer seems, obviously, “yes,” almost everybody I know says “no” to the “technological fix.”

    Why are we against the technological fix? The authors make the strong case that technology makes us human — and always will

  40. Egads. Another religion war. Ecotheology vs modernization theology? Please save us from both.

    There are more groups and individuals seriously interested in the outcomes of our present ecological crises than the two sides presented in this article. Generally speaking, no gods are involved. Particularly irksome is the authors’ subtly equating economic growth with technological advances. Technology will continue to advance after corporate greed is brought under control. It will be used not to create massive wealth for a miniscule percentage of humanity, but to create a better world for the many.

    Let’s keep change coming. Globalization’s promise of better living conditions in the third world has led to no such thing. Rather, in typical bait and switch, we lost our jobs and they gained sweat shop or slave “wages” that don’t even let them live in their own globalization-ravaged, resource-milked environments. All the benefits of globalization are for the one percent. Changes are needed here.

    The problem is how technology is used.

  41. Ed — You’ve obviously not paid attention to the massive increase in living standards, life expectancy, and personal freedom in countries like China and India over the last 20 years.

    You embody the alienation from material reality the authors discuss.

    — Pratap

  42. dear mr. bleske.

    I was the 1rst (and 7th person) to comment on this article.

    Like most ideologically-dirven views this article builds on a narrow strawman argument, then presents a ‘position’ thru the lens of that strawman:

    Environmentalist are anti-technology, they are zealots in this belief and they demonstrate their hypocrisy by using and benefiting from technology they criticize.

    The first element of this strawman argument is inherently false…the rest simply demonstrates the author’s prejudicial assessment towards an entire group of people thru the intrepretation of a few (this is called bigotry).

    It is neither insightful nor productive…simpley devisive in it’s form and content. Science, technology, engineering, and the supply-chain & financial systems that help distribute their products are not the exclusive domain of those who singularly advocate and promote ‘victories’.

    The dismissive nature of the article towards those who would challenge a techno-centric ‘narrative’ is quite similar to the dogmatic posture you ascribe to ‘environmentalist’.

  43. Yes our lives are technological.

    The question is which technology.

    Living on non-renewable sources for instance is just silly. Technologies that are easily repaired are preferable.

    Then there’s the politics. Technology where users have more control are more desirable.

    Many a civilisation has died because their techology trashed their environment. Our choices have consequences!

  44. Pratap, of course globalization wasn’t intended as a charity. Any
    humanitarian effects that come from it are secondary. It was sold by agents (lobbies, politicians, media people) “hired” to promote mega corporate interests. It was sold as a way to float all boats but only one set of boats was really meant to float – those belonging to the super rich.

    I’m happy for the people of India who you say have benefited. A lot of them got the opportunity when the telecom giant I worked for
    downsized people in my division – no “personal” hard feelings, by
    the way. The tens of thousands of Indian farmers who have
    committed suicide because of the effects of globalization (pressuring them to borrow to plant Bt cotton) can’t be counted among the ones who benefited. The rural population in general (60% of India’s population) and women in particular don’t seem to be enjoying the same level of benefits. My several Chinese friends took quick advantage of the new freedoms to buy a one-way ticket out of China. Freedom, like everything else, is relative. The Chinese, it seems, are free to emulate the exploitative ways of corporate sharks, but not not quite so free as to think for themselves and express their thoughts freely in public.

    When I mentioned the third world I was thinking more of Africa, where conditions are just as I described. Trade is built on
    exploitation of social inequalities, and Africa is the poster child of social inequality. The indigenous industries have been destroyed by an influx of foreign trade with its immense pricing advantages. Jobs aren’t replaced so easily, and when you’re at the bottom of the heap
    there’s no margin for error. It’s find work fast or die.

  45. Excellent article. You have obviously struck a raw nerve in the spine of the ecotheologists judging by the comments seen here.

    I like to ask my environmentally religious friends to answer one question regarding global warming. What temperature should the earth be? and why?

    If you simply answer that the earth should be the temperature it would be without human influence then you are an ecotheologist.

  46. What should the earth’s temperature be?

    Really, the wrong question. I think the question is: What should the politcial temperature be to discuss exhaustive mounds of data on global temperature change without being labeled a religous zealot.

    Perhaps Johnny D could provide that answer.

  47. stevie – I do not doubt that the earth is warming and that some (if not most) of the warming is human caused. You do not have an answer to my question… do you? You have never really even thought about it I suspect.

    Isn’t it a worthy question to be asked? Should it be cold than it is now? Should it be warmer? Why?

    Do you really think you can effectively mock my by calling me Johnny? Lame…

  48. I was considering the extensive critical response I would write in opposition to most of the ideas in this piece. But then I tuned in and saw than many insightful readers had already done so. Thanks for your thoughtful critiques!!

  49. Sure, ideal temperature can be a fair point of discussion..what ARE all the temperature points when glaciers completely recede, polar caps melt at accelerated pace, spring mountain run-off are irreversably depleted…etc.

    You didn’t want that discussion…you wanted to prove that a certain group of people must be ecotheologist if they cannot answer your question or meet your criteria for what, critical thinking..?

    This, of course, is a red herring …if you were really interested in making a case for (or against) a framework for an optimum temperature for a ‘human’ population, you would have offered that. You didn’t, your indent was on labeling a group of people based your personal sampling then apply to larger group of people.

    How is that productive? It comes off as patronizing and devisive.

    Then you proceed to presume and wonder out loud what I might think (or know)…

    Oh Johnny wasn’t meant to mock you…but if you took it that way, perhaps it’s revealing about you and how you mocked, ostensibly, millions of people you are eager to label religous ecotheologist. Glass houses my friend.

  50. Our human species has evolved to advanced technology so some imagine that renders us immune to the geophysical realities of this biosphere planet Earth. Not so. In fact our extreme technological power enables us to promote a huge and growing population that is dumping gigantic amounts of pollution into “landfills”, lakes, rivers and the global ocean until the weather systems are affected to the extent of artificial warming that provokes more violent tornados and hurricanes and heavier rainfall and worse flooding and longer droughts, causing many deaths and costing billions. It’s the old story of “too much of a good thing turns it bad”. The solution to the problem is :

    1. Safely recycle 100% of all our human-generated waste products: garbage, sludge, junk, chemical waste, smoke and fumes.
    2. Peacefully reduce our hum,an population with family planning education by giving each woman the legally protected right to decide if and when to birth her children.

    Then we humans can live in peace and balance on a healthy biosphere for many thousands of years to come.

  51. stevie – I never claimed to have the answer to my question. It is clearly not easily answered. If someone claims they have an easy answer they are simplifying in some way.

    And… indeed… What is the topic of the article? The topic is to talk about ecotheology. I claim ecotheology is real. I used my question to provide some evidence.

    The actual answer to my question should really be part of a different post. What is fascinating to me is that almost no one asks this key question. It is the first question that matters.

    Once an ideal temperature is found we can take steps to target that temperature. There are many ways to accomplish this ideal temperature. We can artificially change the stratosphere for example. It takes very little material in the stratosphere to change the global temperature.

    But of course, any discussion on manipulating the global temperature is rejected outright. Few people discuss the pluses and minuses of temperature manipulation. This is because ecotheologists insist that any manipulation of the stratosphere is “pollution” and is inherently evil.

  52. perhaps, john, you are the individual that tips the balance on opening a new dialogue on climate induction and manipulation.

    i do believe an individual can be the crux of great change.

    gather the data, present the argument without demonizing your adversaries and lead with focus and passion. maybe their is a gap in the conversation, maybe you make the difference.

    and, truly, i’m not mocking you–go for it.

  53. There is no ideal temperature, but there is an ideal rate of change of climate temperature, or an ideal range for this quantity: one that would cause the least suffering for people and other species, one that is close to zero. Let’s say that we have caused this number to be larger than ideal. Does that mean we need to bring it back to ideal by a Teller-type atmospheric intervention? No! Because that might have other unintended effects. A better way would be to downsize our population and our technology to pre-industrial. There are many other (non-ecological) advantages to pre-indsustrial technology, such as psychological health (due to empowerment by making your own stuff in a craftlike manner and being connected to people in a community and to nature), a better standard of living (I am serious, the best place I have been to was a neo-luddite community called the Possibility Alliance, with culture much richer than NYC or anywhere else I’ve been to), transparency, democracy in the workplace, health, ethical right livelihood. I don’t expect the modernists to take any of this seriously–they will continue to destroy and poison our commons, exploit most people on the earth, produce psychologically sick people, all in the name of freedom and progress. I wish they could just go to another planet instead of destroying this one. There is not only a tragedy of an environmental commons, but a tragedy of an economic one. It is true that most of us now must be hypocrites to greater or smaller degrees (though the folks at the PA to a very small degree), because there is not a viable choice–the global economy is totalitarian–you have to participate (with a few exceptions) if you don’t want to be wretched. It has stripped us of good land, water, food, trees, animals, close-knit community (and the skills to live in one harmoniously), and the knowledge for a craft and agrarian-based economy. In order to regain these things (with possible improvements), some of us (but not the people at the PA) make compromises, like driving cars or using cell phones (computers are more complicated–I would like to keep them in some form even once a truly local technology and economy is viable). And then after we make compromises, we are called hypocrites (which I admit to some degree), and extremists (which I don’t admit). I think the real extremists are the modernists who won’t make any compromise at all in order to have their comfort and status and power. The problem here is that we have only one planet and two (or more) proposed solutions to how to deal with it. It would be great if the modernists could try their solution on their planet, and the ecologists on theirs. Since the modernists are so into technology, why not figure out how to leave this planet and go make a mess somewhere else?

  54. Iuval – So glad you are certain of the answer to my question. Of course some of your fellow apes really have no desire to live as a neo-luddite. Heck man… I’m an engineer. I would starve to death.

  55. John — Everyone on this comment chain would starve.

    The idea that we would all be better off, as one commentor said, returning to a “pre-industrial” society is lame.

    In our pre-industrial state, humans lived to 30, maybe 40 years of age. Rape and female domination was the rule, not the exception. Life was dominated by constant warfare and slavery, a practice invented by hunter-gatherers and taken to another level by agriculturalists. The idea of noble savages was invented by racist Europeans.

  56. Jason and John– we won’t be “returning” to a pre-industrial state, because barring time travel we’re post-. But some of us think that industry as it’s been practiced recently will get difficult once we burn through our planet’s resources. Given that possibility, picking up some useful personal skills (and finding virtues in small-scale, locally based culture) isn’t “lame”– it’s fun, actually. There’s a chance it’ll be prescient, and if not it’s still fun.

    I can’t predict whether rape, warfare, slavery etc. would increase or decrease in a post-Oil world, but I don’t think there’s a necessary correlation between those things and agriculture or hunting/gathering (though there is a likely correlation with food shortages). Anyway, Stephen Pinker notwithstanding, it’s not like we’ve abolished violence in the information age– and without oil, at least we wouldn’t have cluster bombs and Predator Drones.

    And John, you wouldn’t starve to death– we’d help out!

  57. It’s not often either/or when it comes to the development of future soceities; we are in a unique position of being able to take best practices of the past, blend them with best practices of presence and leverage innovation and wisdom for a hopeful future.

    savagery existed in every age…it exists in human nature…not accurate by pointing to the past as possessing unique atrocities.

    Spend a couple of weeks in Amish country among a community that is quite different from ours–it’s possible to minimize technology, we simply don’t want to because we’re accustom to this culture.

  58. stevie – I have been to Amish country (but not for two weeks). I find it interesting that they claim to not use technology. What they really do is use the technology that is available as long as they buy it from outside their view. They have ball bearings and steel hubs on their carriages, they use doctors and medicines for their families and animals, they use modern packaging equipment for processing the food they sell. I think they thrive because they can pull in the bits of technology they want to use.

  59. It is too bad that folks have no hope or confidence in finding an alternate history/alternate future in a pre-industrial state. It does not have to be so dismal, likely it is only and best hope. As former urban cheerleader, I side with Dmitri Orlav in cities soon unserviceable are Casino Gulags. Post oi resettlement means a harder, likey shorter life but we can achieve higher productivity with less footprint/impact by going this alternate route, although only a few will make it. Some of us are working on this Rhizome pattern of low hierarchical community because the alternatives we have now have no future or leave us with only Mad Max or Police State options. Learning from the Old World does not mean giving up everything we have learned in the last century while feeding on oil.

  60. Has no one on this forum heard of “appropriate technology”? It’s a term and a concept that has been around for quite a few years. It means we only use technology that does not harm the biosphere, you know, the environment? So, there is no need whatsoever to revert to the ignorant suffering of past ages, which were dominated by empire-building macho men not women. So, today, with appropriate technology and women’s liberation we have a chance to create a truly humane society where friendly cooperation is the social norm. Otherwise, competitive economic growth on this slowly shrinking planet will drive us all into ecocide and extinction. There is much more to explain, but I can’t write a book here.

  61. This is really an interesting read, and a pleasant surprise too, since some of the statements made me into a confusion, that it diverted my present believe in many of the aspects in regard to environment.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Best regards
    Phil

  62. The human race has improved everything except the human race.We brag about our inventions, about being the cherry on top of the cake, compared to other living creatures and in the same time we are dying because of our greedy, glutton characters. We belittle our life to an existence relevant to satisfying our fads! We are sicker than ever, more obese than ever, sadder than ever!

  63. More nuclear power plants! Are you kidding me? Same ol’ nonsense. Do you just choose to ignore all the facts about nuclear power? What exactly is your relationship to the Big N industries?

  64. I think a few of you have misunderstood the authors in regard to nuclear power plants. The article mentions ” a new generation of nuclear power plants.” In the same paragraph they list several areas of possible new technologies. They are speaking speculatively. We can assume a *new generation* of nuclear power plants means a technology that eliminates the current problem of radio-active waste.

    About 99% of the species that evolution has created over billions of years are now extinct. Yet the overall results has been a gradual increase in complexity and capabilities of species over time. Our short human evolution of technology has similarly created many technologies which are now practically extinct, having been replaced by more complex, more effective technologies. Advances generally bring untended consequences and new problems. Sometimes it is better to step back to a former technology, but in general we need to think in terms of *progress.* That is being consistent with evolution and with our inner nature. We are creative creatures with a natural desire to advance and improve.

  65. Though their number and variety are declining, through human agency, we are just one of the creatures on earth. But we hold ourselves with too high a self-regard, the crown of creation and the measure of all things.
    In reality, we are a plague, the ultimate parasite, able to exploit everything and everywhere without giving anything in return. If the bacteria in the soil were removed the environment would collapse, but if we were removed the planet would welcome our absence.
    Technology addresses desire:stronger, more powerful, easier, bigger, smaller, faster, longer lasting, etc. We are now technology’s prisoner, addicted to it and unable to survive without it. Technology won’t save us.
    It only magnifies problems by deferring them.

  66. james ross – You should tell your friends you are a “misanthrope”. Thanks for being part of the human race.

  67. I recommend that the authors and some of the people responding to the original article read “The Collapse of Complex Societies” by Joseph Tainter, “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, and all of the “Limits to Growth” books published by the Club of Rome.

    To really get a grasp on the current predicament, I highly recommend checking out the “Do the Math” series: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/
    These essays are especially recommended for the engineers in the audience.

    There are so many things wrong with the featured essay, many of which others have already addressed. About the only thing I can agree with is that many supposedly green individuals are very hypocritical (Al Gore, anyone?). That in itself does not make concern for the natural world wrong nor does it make continuing down the same path of destruction the correct thing to do.

  68. james – thanks for the recommendations. I have read Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and enjoyed it. I will put Collapse on my reading list.

    Also, I suspect the “do the math” thing will be lame and full of stupid assumptions (as is true with many future predictor models) but I will check it out. I appreciate your detailed response.

  69. James – I read the “do the math” piece. As I suspected… it is very simplified. He does not even discuss pricing and its effect of finding efficiency and alternative energy sources. He made just a few linear models… hmmmm…. not so good I think. Still… thanks for the read.

  70. John D – Enough already. This isn’t a debate with you. Let others carry the conversation for a while.

  71. Michael Leff – thanks for your thoughtful addition to the topic at hand. I will let you carry the discussion if you wish. It doesn’t matter to me. And what is your contribution? Oh yeah… you don’t like the number of post I created and I am trying to debate people. Okay… I get it. Goodbye.

  72. A recent documentary on PBS showed the Chernoble area deserted by human beings but re-populated with all kinds of wilderness creatures who appear immune to the radiation. So, I must agree with james ross, if humans disapperaed Nature would again flourish around the World; which makes us look totally insane, since all we have to do to survive is safely recycle 100% of our waste products and peacefully reduce our population to live in peace and balance within the laws of Nature. We have the technology to do this, but corporate greed rules the World and they want more of everything forever onward and outward to the stars and other planets to conquer and devour, very much like a malignant cancer.

  73. The authors of this article posit that ecotheology (essentially a new religion based on the the belief that the element most human – technology – is evil) is undermining our best hope for the life we currently lead, namely, technology. Rational technology is not a religion – it is merely the use of ever more sophisticated and complicated tools to overcome discomfort, pain, hunger, and death. Only the blindly faithful (as the authors point out) can willfully ignore the myriad benefits to life, security, health, and happiness conferred by advances in technology. Rational technology is perfectly capable of recognizing the long-term benefits of diversified ecosystems, sustainable food resources, and clean energy (relatively speaking, nobody yet has invented fusion, but I wouldn’t count on anyone but engineers to to cross that hurdle) among other things to help us all lead longer, healthier, happier lives. Rational technology is not fundamentally opposed to nature, but it does have some argument with suffering, pain, and death, particularly when it’s human beings taking it. There is also no better system in place than rational technology to acknowledge the always present unanticipated consequence of human action. Certainly a return to some utopian pre-civilization state is neither possible nor – if you really think hard about it (try it, if you doubt this) – desirable.

    What is most interesting is the religious nature of so many of the negative responses here – blind adherence to a cause, intolerance for dissent, and an overriding distaste for flaws of human nature. If you really want to experience some transcendentalist
    pre-technological state (eden anyone?) of hundred years ago, I’d suggest you go live in rural Africa or Pakistan for a few years, then come back and bemoan the horrors of hot water and refrigeration.

  74. Bernie:

    Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. Paul Simon-the Boxer.

    I hear some fairly strict adherence to personal views on this thread …don’t know if that equates to religion (occurs in science, politics and sports radio as well, yes?).

    I was the first to comment on this thread…what really stunned me about the article was it’s willingness to divide people into camps based on broad assumptions followed by the derogatory labelling of these groups (elitest, hypocrits, ecotheologist, etc.).

    Secondly, I was amazed by the authors willingness to build unsubstantiated ‘strawman’ arguments :

    ‘The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.’

    Really? Isn’t this where the ‘religous’ framework begins…in the article…the construct of the piece was to dismiss one group (in an astonishingly patronizing fashion, and hardly original) while selectively uplifting another group. These are tactics of devisiveness–hardly useful to a productive dialogue. Any well intended points were tainted by this appraoch.

    There’s so much common ground, why lead with derision? Do you not see this evident in the authors writing?

  75. Bernie — I didn’t read it that way.

    The authors are trying to get environmentalists to be pro-technology and pro-modern. In that sense, they’re trying to get environmentalists to be more like the rest of the world, which wants prosperity and development. That’s potentially unifying, not divisive.

    As for strawmen, they back up their argument with evidence — e.g., the people who oppose technology in the name of nature *do* tend to be elites. Maybe you don’t agree, but you haven’t provided counter-evidence.

    I don’t agree with all of the article, but I don’t think the authors are guilty of what you’re accusing them of. Rather, it seems like you disagree with them on the content — so maybe you should make an argument based on the content?

    Jane

  76. Jane, I think you have me confused with Bernie…i’m stevie c…I responded to Bernie.

    Opposing a certain type of ‘technology’ does not make you anti-technology…that’s the false strawman the authors paints–environmentalist = ecotheologist or anti-technology.

    I reject that premise out of hand.

    The environmental movement is teeming with scientist, technologist, engineers and researchers of every stripe. There’s never been a time in history where more ‘green’ technological advances are moving forward. Rachel Carson was a scientist…DDT was an offshoot of a harmful technology. It doesn’t follow she was anti-technology. a person can be in favor of innovation, tecnhology and engineering and be against fracking.

    The labeling is not useful nor is it accurate. You continue down the authors path by making false dichotomies:

    1) ‘people who oppose technology in the name of nature *do* tend to be elites.’

    The over-whelming majority of Americans consider themselves ‘environmentalist’…are they elite. Are all the entrepeuneurs starting new green businesses, services and developing innovative technologies to preserve and restore the environment ‘elite’.

    2)’…get environmentalists to be more like the rest of the world, which wants prosperity and development.’

    Another false choice…be prosperous or protect the environment.

    How do you read the authors initial provocation: ‘the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich.’

    I see it as revealing in words, structure and intent:

    a. degradation (look up the meaning) they say manipulation, or improvement, or integration…words have meaning
    b. non-human environments…ie, we are outside of nature and environments
    c. made us rich…; who and what is rich…and for how long?

    Clearly it comforts the authors to define others in an effort to elevate there position…as far as their actual content the authors seem content that historically we’ve been able to arise above unintended consequences of new technologies and then promotes a new generation of nuclear plants–now really, who has blind faith here.

    This is old thinking, not new. This is deficit-based thinking on an ecoclogically global basis.

    Hey, how ’bout those Cardinals.

  77. Jane: I agree wholeheartedly with the authors, and find it a bit ironic that those who most vehemently reject the basic premise of the article are responding like religious fanatics, which, you know, sorta proves the point. Every religion I know of has some sort of edenic pre-civilization fantasy, but the truth is that without using our tool making abilities to shape and change the natural world, human life is brutal, uncertain, painful, and short. Nature is also sublimely beautiful and people are generally happier and healthier when outside, but one doesn’t have to deify gaia to know this. In its extreme manifestation, ecotheologists have this misanthropic desire to rid the world of all humans, but even in its quieter form there is a very real and damaging tendency to blame technology for all that ails the planet. It would be wonderful to live a nomadic life in the wild, free from pollution and concrete, but I’d also want my antibiotics and heat and shower. I’d also like not to starve to death, or fear for my children’s security and well-being. The fact that some technology leads to pollution does not, in and of itself, make technology evil, just that particular technology inefficient.

    Nature itself is about constant change. Those who wish for a world free from human effect imagine some sort of paradise where no species ever goes extinct and all is beautiful harmony, yet 99% of all species ever to exist on the planet are gone, and it wasn’t people who did them in. It was disease, meteors, volcanoes and floods, as well as life itself sweeping through ecosystems in floods of voracious appetite.

  78. Bernie (and Jane)…

    It’s clear the debate isn’t about technology…it’s really about selecting technologies and the unintented outcomes of any technology deployment.

    It isn’t, hasn’t been and will not be about ‘pro’ technology vs ‘anti’ technology–you seem to want to divide people based on these fabricated lines.

    You agree wholehearedly with the authors:

    ‘…degradation made us rich’ (their words)
    ‘…a new generation of nuclear plants’ (their wish)
    ‘…lab grown meats’ (their vision)

    Fair enough…but it’s interesting you don’t seem to recognize the faith-based assertions in the aricle that a new technology will emerge to rectify the unintented outcomes of the latest. You also seem to be unable to acknowledge experts in any feild of science or technology can support or oppose the pursuit of any specific technology (ie, a nuclear physicist can oppose the ‘next’ generation of nuclear plants–does that make him a religious fanatic? or is she/he an elite? perhaps you can provide a chart so we properly label people with opposing views).

    You also mention 99% of all species have gone extinct… what’s the extention of that thought? So…don’t be alarmed by the current acceleration of extinction? So the mass extinction of the Permian era 250 million years ago should provide us comfort that something new will regenerate…?

    Given humans have not occupied this planet for 99.999% of it’s existence it would stand to reason that 99% of species have come and gone due to evolution and ‘epic’ natural events. And it stands to reason, given the current ‘Sixth’ extinction underway is solely human based, that we are erasing 100s of millions of years evolutionary development and selection–unintented outcome of technology?

    Let’s celebrate…how about a little Floridian fairy shrimp on the barbie…oops, my bad, it’s extinct as of 10/4/11…oh well (where are those fanatics when you need them?).

  79. One more, in a long list of polemics, by two authors who confuse “technology” with “energy.” Mr. Shellenberger and Mr. Nordhaus, if I may, I like to think of it in these terms: An Australopithecine might have had the knowledge of how to knap a flint (Natural!) scraper (technology) to dismember an antelope (energy). When he had the scraper, but lacked the antelope, the Australopithecine died. (To stretch the metaphor even more, radioactive antelopes will kill you just as dead.)

    Currently, we are lousy with technology. What we lack is enough antelope. We’ve all been shown here in the so-called first world for all of our feeble lives that energy just shows up when we need it, and now, when the rules are changing, we stomp our feet and cry out that we lack scrapers. Believing in technology, or not, matters not one little bit under these circumstances. Energy, or lack of it, is the honey badger. It don’t give a shit about your technology.

  80. What is the harm in using less energy, eating food that this less processed, and living in dwellings that are scaled to what we need?

    I apologize for my unsophisticated question but I am at a loss for otherwise.

  81. Hey Jnickol…me being one never to shy away from a rhetorical question, I’ll field that one: Nothing at all, if you ask me. But, that is a lot like asking what is wrong with dying and decomposing? We’ll all end up doing all these things, and not by choice. Nobody will have to like them, although some will choose to. I see that you and I might be in that minority who will, along with some others here.

  82. One of the major issues with technolog(y)(ical) ‘solutions’ is that for every incrementally more complex technology, there is a parallel need for increased energy consumption. In a system of greater order (a ‘higher’ tech), the corresponding greater complexity of the research, extraction (of increasingly rare materials), production, and distribution creates an increased demand for energy input to the overall system. No way to avoid this. Simpler more localized technologies (solar hot water heaters vs PV electric systems) do address these issues, but the core issue is energy availability. I’d recommend Howard Odum’s book — see http://tech-no-mad.net/blog/archives/44561 — as a primer on technology, energy nature, and human systems.

  83. To paraphrase a friend, technology will save us…until it can’t.

  84. I don’t see the writers saying technology will save us. I see them saying that “we” have used technologies to create ourselves since we were apes, and that humans will keep doing so whether you like it or not. To believe we won’t keep creating/saving ourselves using technology is a faith that requires ignoring the entirety of human evolution — not a helpful for dealing with environmental problems in the real world.

  85. On the planet where I live, the central project that has occupied humanity (for all but 5% of our species existence) has not been “emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage and poverty” as Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus claim. The central project of humanity has been deepening, broadening and celebrating our integration within the greater natural community. Much of that integration has been achieved through acting in accord with tribal self-identities rather than the hyper-individualism that prevails in the modern culture of consumerism. And for 95% of our species’ existence, peonage and poverty were non-existent, as was the trend of modernization. That trend is, in fact, a very recent (anomalous) cultural phenomenon, which may explain why Shellenberger and Nordhaus choose to emphasize the short-term enrichment it yields (if true costs are externalized), but fail to acknowledge that, in the long-term, the transfer of “the wealth and diversity of nonhuman environments into human ones” inevitably results in the collapse of the very civilizations it most enriches (read Arnold Toynbee, Jared Diamond, Clive Ponting and many others if you doubt this).
    On the planet where I live, the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis remains a hypothesis and not an accepted fact, as it has been presented in the essay, and so, the underlying assumption of innate human destructiveness it has been used to support does not hold up. And to suggest that agriculture proves long-standing human efforts to have external control over the environment overlooks the fact that sense of being external to the environment does not arise until after agriculture, and agriculture has only been practiced by a handful of the Earth’s thousands of human cultures for 5% of our species’ existence. Consequently, to state, as the authors do, that “the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind” is simply not true. Agriculture (a prerequisite for modernization and the root cause of the “new ecological crises”) assumes a fundamental human separateness and superiority over the rest of the natural order that does represent a profoundly different kind of human/nonhuman/landscape relationship than the relationship that prevailed for 95% of our species’ existence (read Lewis Mumford, Paul Shepard, Charles Eisenstein, Jim Mason and many others if you doubt this). I would even argue that agriculture does not represent the co-evolution of humans and nature, but the disruption of that co-evolutionary process, a process that had been under way from time immemorial right up to agriculture’s advent. After that, the resilience, biological and cultural diversity, bounty and beauty that had been flourishing and growing over countless eons began to be eroded wherever agriculture became the norm. Any world history text provides ample evidence in support of this interpretation of events.
    On the planet where I live, hunter-gatherer life does not represent a transcendent state, but rather the most long-standing and optimally healthy, fulfilling, and happiest human life-way that exists. It is also the only human life-way that has proven itself truly sustainable.
    On the planet where I live, modernization has done the opposite of liberating all but a tiny and shrinking fraction of humanity from hunger, deprivation and insecurity. Modernization in fact creates, and depends on the ceaseless expansion of, these very qualities for the pseudo-progression that is its central dogma. In other words, it transforms fully developed, self-sufficient indigenous cultures into the world’s poorest class and then coerces them to “develop” on modernization’s terms or die. Most die.
    On the planet where I live, attempting to solve the problems of modernization through more modernization (aside from exemplifying the definition of insanity, i.e. repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results) has made the global socio-ecological climate progressively worse for the sake of ever-diminishing gains, to the point that now the very atmosphere and oceans have had enough of it, and are telling us so, if we but listen, instead of building ever-higher flood-gates of denial. Given that the trajectory of modernization exterminates wild primates, razes old growth forests, kills the oceans and promotes increasing atmospheric temperatures, the claim that only continued modernization and technological innovation can counteract these trends makes no sense.
    On the planet where I live, fears of ecological apocalypse are based not only on the findings of science, but on massive overwhelming experiential evidence, from dying coral reefs, the accelerating extinction of countless forms of nonhuman life and human cultures, advancing desertification, catastrophic topsoil loss, planet-wide deforestation, emptying aquifers, growing oceanic dead zones, the list is truly endless.
    On the planet where I live, the degradation of nonhuman nature will undermine the basis of human civilizations (and has done so repeatedly) because . . . well, nonhuman nature is the basis of all civilizations and the two cannot be separated.
    On the planet where I live, millions of coastal, island and river-bank inhabitants (the vast majority of humanity, that is) as well as polar bears, pikas, boreal forests, coral reefs (again the list is truly endless), should be taken into account before making the elitist claim that living in a hotter world is a better problem to face than living in a world without electricity.
    On the planet where I live, hubris is hubris, not compassion in disguise. And some technologies are unequivocally monstrous (H-bombs, drones, depleted uranium ammunition, torture chambers, land mines, the list is, again, truly endless). All the parental care and love in the world will not make them anything else.
    On the planet where I live, putting faith in nascent, promising, but non-existent technologies to overcome our ecological problems qualifies as a shining vision of transcendence far more than does “a return to small scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.” Such faith in the techno-fix is a folly to which more and more people are awakening every day. As an aid in this awakening, I recommend reading The Arrogance of Humanism by David Ehrenfeld, especially when the unintended consequences of continuing to pursue the modern path of technological development can and will manifest as increasingly massive disasters of unprecedented and long-lasting destructiveness – think World War I, World War II, Chernobyl, Fukushima.
    On the planet where I live, the technologies of modernization (nuclear power plants, solar panels etc.) are as 100% natural as cheese puffs, and are just as sustainable, healthy and life-affirming. And “modernization theology” represents nothing more than an attempted rationalization for upholding the status quo. Which, of course, rests firmly on the continued devouring of life at rates well beyond the re-generative capacities of genuinely long-standing natural and cultural processes. And modernization theology does even less to encourage the absolutely essential down-scaling of economic activity than does the ecotheology the authors criticize so harshly for its failure to do just that. This suggests that neither theology represents a viable evolutionary path.
    Finally, on the planet where I live, I felt compelled to respond to Michael Shellenberger’s and Ted Nordhaus’s article because, after all, Earth is also the planet where they live, and the way of life their would-be theology promotes is a frightening prospect indeed.

  86. This is, I’m fairly certain, an intentionally provocative article. And although there is much in it that is important and valid, there are assumptions throughout that I question, starting with the one that says that there is no difference in kind between nature and the evolutionary forces beyond human control, and the acts of humans with all their consequences, intended and otherwise on every other living being and natural system on this small planet.

    I like the quote from Latour – because of the way in which it connects responsibility to the desire for freedom from that which is uncontrollable in nature. But this is not what the authors really seem to be presenting. They are arguing instead, in a roundabout way, that dependence on higher and higher levels of technology is the only viable path forward, and that any altering of the natural world in service to this, though it will undoubtedly and unavoidably have unintended consequences, is responsible, acceptable and amazingly, “natural.”

    “…but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. …our nuclear plants, and our solar panels—all 100% natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.” The premise here is that there is no difference between the evolution that created us and the wealth of the natural world, and what we have taken upon ourselves to create using the various evolved gifts of that evolution — including our own capacities for action and the natural world which would appear in the authors’ view to exist as OUR inheritance to do with as we please. Out of this view of “nature” as anything that takes place—whether created by humans or by the evolutionary flow that existed and still exists beyond of human control—one could propose that if we as humans succeeded in extinguishing ourselves and all the other forms of life on the planet (not that there is much likelihood of that coming to pass – but proposed here for the sake of exploring this view) that this would be a perfectly natural event. Perhaps, but for it to be so, it requires the abandonment of the premise that humans have any moral imperative or responsibility accompanying the power to achieve such an end. This seems to me to be an extremely bold assumption, upon which the rest of the argument is based, and one that I don’t trust to be valid. I use the word “trust” because I don’t presume, as the authors appear to do, to know this for certain either way.

    “But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.” This is an example of not differentiating between different types of actions. To breed genetic variation by cross breeding successive generations of plants or animals is, I would argue, different in kind, from splicing genetic material from one species into another, or designing and genetically altering seeds to be infertile for strictly commercial purposes. To argue that there is no line between how nature works and has worked for billions of years and how humans have come to view and alter nature and the physical world, is to argue that all human acts, regardless of their consequences are natural acts and therefore, without human moral dimensions. The notion is that humans intentionally altering anything in nature is as sacred as the changes that result from natural evolution. I find that a frightening assumption.

    I would add that these authors are extremely clever – a trait we humans have in spades as a species – but their faith in technology as the ultimate savior to problems that have been created by and amplified by previous generations of technology – with the stakes risking with each new set of unintended consequences and solutions – is the very definition of hubris. The so-called Green Revolution – the industrialization of agriculture – has doubled the number of people who are now at greater risk from our increasingly vulnerable mono-culturized food system, dependent as it is on cheap and abundant energy and chemicals and the luck of so far having escaped blights of varying kinds that are well recognized but beyond our control.

    Their critique of the knowledge working class – separated from those who actually are productive is a two-edged sword, since it is the degree to which so much of the technological realm is driven by both the creation of need and the pursuit of financial gain through the exploitation of human needs, rather than a commitment to actually solving problems, and especially in solving them in ways that don’t require dependence on the technologies themselves – a reality that puts us all at ever greater risk.

    Near the end of this article the authors write ” Some may call such strong faith in the technological fix an instance of hubris, but others will simply call it compassion.” There is a strange detachment involved in this sort of compassion – putting billions more people at greater risk by abetting their dependence on ever-greater stakes in the gamble that we will always be lucky and clever enough to solve the latest and greatest threat to our survival and well-being through ever-higher and riskier technological gambles.

    Frustrating as well are the many assumptions about the knowledge, motivations, or actions of those of us who are engaged in finding solutions that transcend the pro and anti technology paradigms that they have put up for the sake of their arguments. Appropriate technology is what many of us are seeking — and that doesn’t mean low tech or no tech – it means very carefully assessing the context in which technology is used. The authors make a lot of either-or assumptions to make their points and that is not useful in sorting out viable solutions or their philosophical underpinnings.

    A critical missing element on which they base their charge of hypocrisy is that none of us are not born into or exist in a situation where we can remain outside the systems we are trying to manage or change. The authors essentially argue here that those who have been and are working on these enormous and enormously complex and serious issues must live in caves and shun all technology, travel except by foot or animal power, etc. in order to not be hypocritical. Bullshit! None of us knows how to live in the modern world without being dependent on systems we did not create ourselves, or can detach our own lives from the negative consequences to which they continuously contribute. And though there are lots of people who have not thought beyond the limits of recycling and driving the greenest car or buying the greenest products, there are many of us who spend our lives wrestling with the reality of what it takes to be effective as change agents in the current reality.

    Provocation can and often is a very good thing. This article provoked me to give a good bit of thought to the issues raised and there are good points made that are worth any and all of us to consider. What I did not feel was helpful, though, was to essentially give a pass to extremely dangerous technologies like nuclear power or genetic engineering (and there is much more to say about both in terms of risks and efficacy, not to mention hubris) or to the notion that putting all our eggs in the high-tech basket with no serious acknowledgment of the magnitude of the risks resulting from the profound dependencies on these ever-more complicated and vulnerable systems when they fail.

    Any decent definition of wisdom would include the recognition of the limits of cleverness. I find no such distinction made nor mention of wisdom in this article.

    I wrote this before reading some of the other comments and I want to say that Tim Fox’s comment (comment #89) is absolutely brilliant! I could not agree more.

  87. It’s hard to know where to begin with such junk analysis. It’s typically nonsense we’ve come to expect from Mike and Ted: misunderstanding history, strawman arguments, illogic, and typically counterproductive solutions. I keep reading “unintended consequences” and wonder which planet the authors are living on. It also reminds me of a recent article in the NYTimes that included “expert” opinion about dealing with expanding world population growth. One of the “solutions” offered was growing meat in labs – now there’s compassion for you. After such painful reading, it’s quite clear what needs to evolve. My question: Who is funding the Mike and Ted institute?

  88. We can’t predict all consequences, but we can become better at calculating positive and negative externalities. For example, nuclear power proponents always ignore the dangerous value chain their nuclear renaissance would create.

    Yes, our technologies are like our children — we need to teach them to be good AND help them reach their fullest potential. But also, we can choose technologies more ethically than we can choose our children.

    I think extending our sensing, communicating and calculating through digital technologies brings unprecedented creativity and also unprecedented appreciation of the interconnectedness of everything. Our minds are formed by our media just as our hands have evolved to hold tools. Who is assessing McLuhan’s insights by means of brain imaging? I’d like to know.

  89. Dear Orion,

    In the future, please do not publish garbage like this, or I will not be renewing my subscription to your otherwise excellent magazine.

    Thank you.

  90. As a longtime subscriber to Orion, I was/am disappointed that you provided space for these misguided authors. I agree with the readers who assert that this writing does not belong in Orion.

  91. Orion editors: Can we get some basic journalistic fact checking?

    Author: “Nowhere else in the world have humans so constantly had to create and re-create their infrastructure in response to a changing natural environment than in Venice. ”

    Evidently, the author has never heard of the lower Nile with millenia of recorded annual flood rebuilding activity. Similar periodic river damage is available for multiple civilizations on many continents.

  92. That’s right, don’t publish anything that challenges my most deeply held assumptions! 😉

    Seriously, folks, lighten up. Argue with it, disagree with it, but don’t act like the eco-thought police. Some of us Orion readers welcome a different point of view.

  93. nice article about the rising technology in our times … and the impact of mobile phones in our lives … Thanks for the info ….

  94. Steplead International Co.,Ltd is one of the leading manufacturer of water filling machine,beverage bottling machine,labeling machine,blow molding machine,water treatment and other related machineries

  95. I just discovered this article now and am blown away. It expresses exactly my thoughts and goes far beyond them. I would not have expected this from a dark green publication like Orion. Thank you.

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