Ecomoderism – Green is the new green

A new environmental movement is under way. What do the ecomodernists want?

Kermit the Frog once complained that it’s not easy being green. It can mean so many different things, he sighed. Say you are green today and you know what you stand for. You are against nuclear energy. Against biotechnology, consumerism and economic growth. You are pro-windmills, pro–organic farming and pro–local food. You are for international treaties to tackle climate change. Green, nowadays, has become synonymous with a pretty clearly circumscribed corral of opinions about the environment.

Except that now the focus is shifting. A new generation of environmental warriors are critically reviewing the old, ingrained mind-set. They want to do away with the tendency to dwell on ominous news stories and apocalyptic scenarios and replace it with a positive view of the future. They don’t see technological innovation and entrepreneurship as dangerous activities that need to be hemmed in, but as possible solution generators that must be stimulated. Their figureheads are unreservedly rebellious—not because they seek to be contrary, but because their opinions happen to be at odds with those of the traditional environmental activist.

They are building a brand-new environmental movement, one that is unfolding alongside the existing environmental movement. And although the new movement can count on criticism from established green thinkers—not surprising in the event of a schism—more and more renegades are joining it. Among them are a number of respected and independent thinkers such as Stewart Brand, known for the Whole Earth Catalog, as well as leaders of more respectable environmental groups, such as Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, an organization that counts more than one million members.

And yet, for these ecomodernists—or eco-pragmatists or modern greens, as they are also called—the Kermit complex still lurks in the background, for they are not a uniform group with a coherent agenda. Yes, a group is forming around Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (see interview on page 69), authors of a controversial essay from 2004 in which they declared the death of environmentalism, but the new movement is more significantly rallying around a specific way of looking at the world. They are turning away from emotional and sentimental arguments. They have no truck with nostalgia and look forward to the future, a future that should not only be better for animals, plants and trees but also for the billions of people who live on this earth, and who all wish to lead modern lives. Their stand is a rational one, and they have a clear-eyed view of the opportunities and limitations offered by science and politics.

Coolheaded observers can give a fresh take on a situation. Among ecomodernists, broad support is found for a relatively new idea in the world of nature conservancy: bringing back wilderness and reintroducing animals who once lived there. This idea is still divisive, because of the possibly unpredictable and undesirable consequences of such a move.

Even more controversial is the idea of bringing back extinct animal species. Scientists can use surviving DNA to create a clone of an extinct animal, and this has already been done successfully, for example with the extinct Pyrenean ibex. (It died shortly after birth, due to lung complications.) Embracing de-extinction fits perfectly with the green vision of the new environmentalists: it is a modern technological answer that may well enrich nature. It is also an answer that guarantees an avalanche of ethical objections from people who—according to its proponents—live in the past.

However, what is a fresh new perspective to some is heresy to others. And indeed, it does lead to viewpoints that can be uncomfortable for environmental groups that have been campaigning on the opposite side for decades. Nuclear energy is one of those sensitive issues. Some ecomodernists support nuclear energy as part of a broader strategy to counter climate change while also making affordable energy more accessible for people in developing countries, because, in their opinion, it is the cheapest way to produce low-CO2 energy.

Meanwhile, other ecomodernists are against the promotion of organic farming and local food on a large scale. According to them, it is highly unlikely that organic farming will ever achieve a major breakthrough that will make it possible to dramatically increase harvest per acre. However, they believe genetic modification does hold this promise and that therefore more innovation funds should be invested in that area. This could solve two rather urgent issues at once, they feel: a growing world population can be fed in a more efficient way, and, because less farmland will be needed, more soil can be returned to nature.

Ecomodernists are not out to conquer and dominate nature but to give it more space. So they do the math and support smart technology in an attempt to minimize our claims on nature. More often than not, this leads to the science lab. Meaning: clothing is made not from cotton but from polyester. It also means: not free-range fish but farmed fish. And, in the future, who knows: not fresh vegetables, fruit and meat, but a mix of the necessary calories, packed into pills.

Mark Lynas, a British environmental activist and journalist, writes in The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.”

As you may well imagine, this new environmental movement is not being received everywhere with open arms.

The ecomodernists want to end the strict separation between humans and nature. This separation, they say, was contrived by the unassailable icons of the environmental movement. They dreamed of untrammeled wilderness to serve as a counterweight to civilization. But that idyll, say the ecomodernists, was false. Henry David Thoreau withdrew from civilization to live in seclusion in the woods for two years, but every week he brought his laundry to his mother. Before Yosemite became one of America’s most beautiful and treasured national parks, John Muir banished the Miwok Indians and other inhabitants from the park.

Nature and humans are inextricably intertwined. Although traditional conservationists probably agree with that statement, the opposite seems to continually be apparent in their other viewpoints. They see nature as extremely vulnerable. So it must be protected by humans, whose influence is generally viewed as ruinous. The only option left for us is to contain ourselves as much as possible and try to limit the damage we do. To lighten the burden of Mother Earth, we must reduce our “ecological footprint” again and again. The contract between humans (bad) and nature (good) is deeply entrenched.

Ecomodernists are not disputing the fact that the world faces many problems and challenges; they just have a more pragmatic approach. They point out that ecosystems are often far more resilient than we suppose. And they acknowledge that nature simply has many different roles, one of which is to provide for several of our needs. That’s nothing to be shy about, they say. They see no practical use for the guilt complex that has enshrouded the debate on the environment. In the new green vision, nature is one of many modern landscapes in which humans increasingly have a central role.

This is the thought behind the creation of a new index to measure the health of the oceans, the result of a study by more than 60 researchers. They decided that while “health” is a great objective, it is too abstract. So they entered the data for a range of general uses that people expect from the ocean, including recreation and fishing. The index explicitly steps away from the ideal that the ocean must be “untouched” and embraces the model that it has value only when it delivers services that people care about. Weighing human interests in determining the state of health of an ecosystem is “a radical departure from traditional conservation approaches,” wrote marine biologist Benjamin Halpern upon the launch of the index.

And yet this new approach fits in snugly with an idea that is increasingly gathering support within the more traditional environmental movement: that we are now living in the Anthropocene epoch. That is the informal name being used to refer to the present era, in which earth and climate have been strongly influenced by human activity. Esteemed geologists are debating whether to accept this as an official epoch, which would retroactively conclude the Holocene epoch at the time of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800. This decision would acknowledge humankind as a fundamental component of all ecosystems—and also, say ecomodernists, acknowledge that you cannot draft an effective environmental policy if you don’t let go of the old idea that nature must be kept separate from humans.

An illustrative example is the different ways in which ecomodernists and traditional environmentalists view the city. In the still prevailing mode of environmental thinking, the city is maligned and the countryside glorified: that’s where they say the bond with nature will be healed. The United Nations once even reported that cities are where all the most significant environmental problems converge. A very different perspective from what ecomodernists see: that people in cities live in smaller habitats and closer together, so that households are far more economical with their energy. In cities, people far more often walk, cycle or use public transport to get around. In cities, birth figures are much lower. Some people even see Manhattan,
the world’s richest and densely populated urban area, as “a utopian environmentalist community.”

There is a lot to be said for a seismic shift in the environmental movement. Not because it has failed; on the contrary, there are many successes to count. In the past few decades, the quality of our air and water has improved enormously. Dirty industries have become cleaner. Animals and their habitats are being better protected. There are more polar bears. (True.)

The world still has plenty of problems to be solved, but for the movement, the challenge lies rather in managing to connect to the public. That may seem incongruous at first, considering that the celebration of everything green has never before been so fully mainstream. Just look around: big companies are into corporate sustainable responsibility, governments are handing out subsidies to green initiatives, and newspapers are reporting on environment and sustainability—without the cynical undertone they used to have.

There are good reasons why the environmental movement should carefully consider whether ecomodernism can provide answers to three increasingly vexing problems. First, there is the poor track record of environmental policy. International negotiations on climate change almost by definition result in disappointing outcomes. In the United States, the environmental policy issue is splitting the two big parties. Although there have been Republican presidents who signed off on legislation to save endangered species and set aside marine protected areas, the environment is currently seen as a Democratic Party theme—and more specifically as belonging to the left-wing, white, upwardly mobile part of the party, which happens to be under attack. So the burning question is: how to make the environmental movement effective again?

Second, we are witnessing poor, developing countries making a tremendous economic breakthrough. The environmental movement always was in favor of a development model in which economic growth would occur at a slow pace, and on the condition that the environment would be protected. But with the population explosion and successfully emerging economies, this growing population will soon be wanting to join in the modern lifestyle. It looks as though certain environmentalists will have to reconsider their views on economic growth.

The third and last point is that the public is losing interest. In surveys, we always tick the box that says we find the environment -important, but the same surveys offer the insight that it has precious little priority—we are always more concerned about things like work, health care, education, crime and desegregation. Since the economic crisis began, the annual -Gallup Poll has shown that a majority of Americans say they would accept damage to the environment if it brought economic growth; this has changed since the first time the question was posed, 20 years ago.

Are we just feeling disconnected from all the stories about climate change? Maybe we have become numb to the news stories of inevitable doom. Would a more positive, optimistic view have more effect? These are the questions that need careful consideration.

Ecomodernists will not have the right answers to all problems. Just as the “old” environmental movement may be too quick to worship nature, the “new” environmental movement may be too quick to see technology as its savior. Too often this new vanguard is labeled as rebellious and is therefore ignored, but that stereotyping seems to be just another way to avoid a more fundamental question. A Big Debate is necessary. Let us not throw caricatures at each other: whatever our degree of greenness, in the end we all want an ecologically flourishing planet where life is good. 

We can have it all

 
EcoModernGuys

A conversation with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the founders of the ecomodernism movement. “This century, we are going to have nine billion people on the planet who want to have something like a modern life. We will have to find a way for them to do that.”

By Marco Visscher

To accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.” Not a bad goal for a green think tank. The Breakthrough Institute, based in Oakland, California, has received high praise for its work. Way back in 2008, Time included its founders in its annual Heroes of the Environment list.

They also attract a fair share of criticism, though, not only from conservative Republicans, who call them “dangerously subversive,” but also from environmental activists, some of whom have urged the public to completely ignore these two men. What’s going on?

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus believe that the environmental movement is in need of a makeover. They both know this “alternative” world well. Shellenberger used to work for the human rights organization Global Exchange, Nordhaus for the Environmental Defense Fund. The two met during a campaign to save a local sequoia forest. The campaign worked. Proud of their success, they wanted to move on to tackle climate change—and that’s when they realized that the movement is not well equipped for fighting such a complex, global problem.

They wrote a scorching essay, in 2004, in which they critiqued the bad case of groupthink that environmental activists suffer from. According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, this was the cause of all kinds of dogmas being cherished, such as the idea that environment is a “thing” that is separate from humans. “We have become convinced,” they wrote, “that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”

The Breakthrough Institute—a small organization supported by private philanthropy—carries out policy analyses on themes like energy, nature conservation and innovation. They write reports on a wide range of subjects, from a critical reflection on ecological footprints to a historical discourse on how the American government has supported diverse revolutionary technologies.

It would be wrong to portray Shellenberger and Nordhaus as rebels who are just out to cause upset. If they are only trying to draw attention, they are pretty bad at it. Their newsletter reaches a modest 1,500 email addresses. Their own publication, Breakthrough Journal, appears in a print run of a few hundred—and is usually not even sold, but given away for free.

We met in a small restaurant in Oakland. It’s remarkable how nuanced their opinions actually are and how they continually keep each other on their toes by contradicting and adding to the other’s observations. Later in the day, we visited their low-key office, near a subway station surrounded by homeless people.

What is your big vision?

Michael Shellenberger: “Our vision is of a planet on which we consume a lot more energy. That energy becomes both cleaner and cheaper, allowing us to avoid climate change and achieve higher environmental quality. We will be able to produce more food on less land, and thus give land back to nature. With cleaner and cheaper energy, we can desalinate water, so we can sustain vibrant green communities with safe water. In general, we will have more abundance in energy, water, food and nature and wildlife. That vision is totally consistent with the trajectory of humankind, going back to when we started agricultural production, in the process requiring less land while getting richer.” 

Ted Nordhaus: “There will be a turning point when human impact on the planet peaks and then goes down. We see it happening already—we’re turning marginal land to nature, the energy supply has been decarbonizing, fertilizer use per yield in the U.S. and Europe is declining. We can either make the turning point happen sooner, or slow down the process.” 

Shellenberger: “The main goal should be to make energy cheaper so we can allow energy to do all these wonderful things in the world.”

Nordhaus: “This century, we are going to have nine billion people on the planet who want to have something like a modern life. We will have to find a way for them to do that. So politicians needs to think about how we can accelerate the things we want and avoid the things we don’t want, so in the end we will have a better place for all those billions of people to live.” 

Some traditional environmentalists dismiss you as “techno-optimists,” people who cherish a blind faith in technology to save us.

Nordhaus: [Sharply] “No! We are not the techno-optimists; they are. They think we have all the technology we need, whether it’s solar panels or organic agriculture. We are the ones saying that’s probably too optimistic. Yes, we think technology can solve problems—actually, that’s not any different from what they say—it’s just that we like to keep an open mind to all possible technologies.”

Shellenberger: “Er, wait a minute, what’s wrong with being optimistic?”

Nordhaus: “Exactly! I think we can deal better with problems when we’re optimists rather than pessimists. All psychological research suggests pessimism leads to cynicism, fatalism and survivalism. It does not inspire massive collective action.”

Shellenberger: “Then again, I acknowledge that it can motivate people in the short term. It happens all the time.”

Nordhaus: “Yeah, but there is a life cycle to these mass concerns. There will be a point when people start to realize the problem was never as big as it was being presented to them. The apocalyptic narrative might be very exciting for people, but sadly, it has the wrong impact on the public discourse, which ends up being depressing.”

How can you be for economic growth and care for the environment?

Shellenberger: “It’s a complex relationship, and it can be oversimplified in either direction. A lot of what is called ‘environmental destruction’ is really just environmental change. Whether you think it’s destructive or positive depends on your point of view. If you think of a swamp inhabited by malaria-breeding mosquitoes, then draining the swamp and turning it into an agricultural field is an environmental improvement. But if you’re a local who likes to go birding, you might think it’s a degradation.”

Nordhaus: “Oh, c’mon. There’s a whole body of research that shows that environmental quality correlates with economic growth.” 

Shellenberger: “Environmentalists talk a lot about deforestation, but think of this: most of the world’s deforestation happened before the Industrial Revolution.” 

Nordhaus: “Indeed! Humans managed to deforest much of North America and drive almost all of the megafauna to extinction with only millions of people on the planet. We’re able to do a
lot of environmental damage with few people, and in times with hardly any economic progress.”

Shellenberger: “Since the economic crisis, Greece has seen an increase in deforestation. Why? Because people go into the forest for heat. Recently, a family choked to death after their improvised woodstove caused a fire. The family had chosen to use wood because fuel prices had risen.”

Nordhaus: “Environmentalists say we will get higher environmental quality if economies de-grow, but in fact it will bring lower environmental quality.”

Do you suggest there’s little support from the environmental movement for the economic development of emerging and poor nations?

Nordhaus: “Oh, yes! There’s the idea that poor countries are allowed to develop—but only slowly, and only in a certain way, not quite like how the rich countries have done it. These poor people will have to resist the temptations of consumerism.”

Shellenberger: [Cynically] “Just imagine the planetary disaster if one billion Chinese were driving a car!”

Nordhaus: [Chiming in] “Yeah, let’s appreciate the rural lifestyle, with small-scale agriculture.”

Shellenberger: “The typical vision for sustainable development was of peasants and Indians in the Amazon, harvesting nuts that would get sold to wealthy environmentalists in the West. If you pause for a moment and think about it, it becomes ridiculous. Who are we to determine how they should live their lives? After all, some of them may want to live in a big city; that’s what a lot of people here want, anyway. There’s something in that whole sustainable-development discourse that’s very top-down.”   

Nordhaus: “It’s a colonial model!”

Shellenberger: “They shouldn’t make the same mistakes we made. Instead, we are going to buy products from them.”

Nordhaus: [Cynically] “We’ll help them be sustainable.”

Shellenberger: “And this became the way for environmentalists to reconcile the contradiction between their environmental and humanitarian views…”

Nordhaus: “And their own lives.”

Shellenberger: [Laughing] “Right, because they seem to enjoy their cars, and they don’t mind flying across the ocean to all these UN meetings. The idea of sustainable development allowed you to think that not everybody could live like us, and that it would be better that way. Because they’re going to be happier picking their nuts.”

Nordhaus: “Yeah, right.” 

Are you environmentalists?

Shellenberger: “I guess it depends on how you define the term. If it means that you care about nature and like to spend time in nature, sure—almost everybody is an environmentalist. But if it means you’re against economic growth and want to limit energy production, then no, not me.” 

Nordhaus: “Let me ask: if you oppose nuclear energy and shale gas, and if that means more power comes from coal, are you still an environmentalist? What is the ‘right’ kind of environmentalism today? For us, that is an important question, and I think that’s what the debate should be all about.” 

Solution News Source

Ecomoderism – Green is the new green

A new environmental movement is under way. What do the ecomodernists want?

Kermit the Frog once complained that it’s not easy being green. It can mean so many different things, he sighed. Say you are green today and you know what you stand for. You are against nuclear energy. Against biotechnology, consumerism and economic growth. You are pro-windmills, pro–organic farming and pro–local food. You are for international treaties to tackle climate change. Green, nowadays, has become synonymous with a pretty clearly circumscribed corral of opinions about the environment.

Except that now the focus is shifting. A new generation of environmental warriors are critically reviewing the old, ingrained mind-set. They want to do away with the tendency to dwell on ominous news stories and apocalyptic scenarios and replace it with a positive view of the future. They don’t see technological innovation and entrepreneurship as dangerous activities that need to be hemmed in, but as possible solution generators that must be stimulated. Their figureheads are unreservedly rebellious—not because they seek to be contrary, but because their opinions happen to be at odds with those of the traditional environmental activist.

They are building a brand-new environmental movement, one that is unfolding alongside the existing environmental movement. And although the new movement can count on criticism from established green thinkers—not surprising in the event of a schism—more and more renegades are joining it. Among them are a number of respected and independent thinkers such as Stewart Brand, known for the Whole Earth Catalog, as well as leaders of more respectable environmental groups, such as Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, an organization that counts more than one million members.

And yet, for these ecomodernists—or eco-pragmatists or modern greens, as they are also called—the Kermit complex still lurks in the background, for they are not a uniform group with a coherent agenda. Yes, a group is forming around Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus (see interview on page 69), authors of a controversial essay from 2004 in which they declared the death of environmentalism, but the new movement is more significantly rallying around a specific way of looking at the world. They are turning away from emotional and sentimental arguments. They have no truck with nostalgia and look forward to the future, a future that should not only be better for animals, plants and trees but also for the billions of people who live on this earth, and who all wish to lead modern lives. Their stand is a rational one, and they have a clear-eyed view of the opportunities and limitations offered by science and politics.

Coolheaded observers can give a fresh take on a situation. Among ecomodernists, broad support is found for a relatively new idea in the world of nature conservancy: bringing back wilderness and reintroducing animals who once lived there. This idea is still divisive, because of the possibly unpredictable and undesirable consequences of such a move.

Even more controversial is the idea of bringing back extinct animal species. Scientists can use surviving DNA to create a clone of an extinct animal, and this has already been done successfully, for example with the extinct Pyrenean ibex. (It died shortly after birth, due to lung complications.) Embracing de-extinction fits perfectly with the green vision of the new environmentalists: it is a modern technological answer that may well enrich nature. It is also an answer that guarantees an avalanche of ethical objections from people who—according to its proponents—live in the past.

However, what is a fresh new perspective to some is heresy to others. And indeed, it does lead to viewpoints that can be uncomfortable for environmental groups that have been campaigning on the opposite side for decades. Nuclear energy is one of those sensitive issues. Some ecomodernists support nuclear energy as part of a broader strategy to counter climate change while also making affordable energy more accessible for people in developing countries, because, in their opinion, it is the cheapest way to produce low-CO2 energy.

Meanwhile, other ecomodernists are against the promotion of organic farming and local food on a large scale. According to them, it is highly unlikely that organic farming will ever achieve a major breakthrough that will make it possible to dramatically increase harvest per acre. However, they believe genetic modification does hold this promise and that therefore more innovation funds should be invested in that area. This could solve two rather urgent issues at once, they feel: a growing world population can be fed in a more efficient way, and, because less farmland will be needed, more soil can be returned to nature.

Ecomodernists are not out to conquer and dominate nature but to give it more space. So they do the math and support smart technology in an attempt to minimize our claims on nature. More often than not, this leads to the science lab. Meaning: clothing is made not from cotton but from polyester. It also means: not free-range fish but farmed fish. And, in the future, who knows: not fresh vegetables, fruit and meat, but a mix of the necessary calories, packed into pills.

Mark Lynas, a British environmental activist and journalist, writes in The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens here.”

As you may well imagine, this new environmental movement is not being received everywhere with open arms.

The ecomodernists want to end the strict separation between humans and nature. This separation, they say, was contrived by the unassailable icons of the environmental movement. They dreamed of untrammeled wilderness to serve as a counterweight to civilization. But that idyll, say the ecomodernists, was false. Henry David Thoreau withdrew from civilization to live in seclusion in the woods for two years, but every week he brought his laundry to his mother. Before Yosemite became one of America’s most beautiful and treasured national parks, John Muir banished the Miwok Indians and other inhabitants from the park.

Nature and humans are inextricably intertwined. Although traditional conservationists probably agree with that statement, the opposite seems to continually be apparent in their other viewpoints. They see nature as extremely vulnerable. So it must be protected by humans, whose influence is generally viewed as ruinous. The only option left for us is to contain ourselves as much as possible and try to limit the damage we do. To lighten the burden of Mother Earth, we must reduce our “ecological footprint” again and again. The contract between humans (bad) and nature (good) is deeply entrenched.

Ecomodernists are not disputing the fact that the world faces many problems and challenges; they just have a more pragmatic approach. They point out that ecosystems are often far more resilient than we suppose. And they acknowledge that nature simply has many different roles, one of which is to provide for several of our needs. That’s nothing to be shy about, they say. They see no practical use for the guilt complex that has enshrouded the debate on the environment. In the new green vision, nature is one of many modern landscapes in which humans increasingly have a central role.

This is the thought behind the creation of a new index to measure the health of the oceans, the result of a study by more than 60 researchers. They decided that while “health” is a great objective, it is too abstract. So they entered the data for a range of general uses that people expect from the ocean, including recreation and fishing. The index explicitly steps away from the ideal that the ocean must be “untouched” and embraces the model that it has value only when it delivers services that people care about. Weighing human interests in determining the state of health of an ecosystem is “a radical departure from traditional conservation approaches,” wrote marine biologist Benjamin Halpern upon the launch of the index.

And yet this new approach fits in snugly with an idea that is increasingly gathering support within the more traditional environmental movement: that we are now living in the Anthropocene epoch. That is the informal name being used to refer to the present era, in which earth and climate have been strongly influenced by human activity. Esteemed geologists are debating whether to accept this as an official epoch, which would retroactively conclude the Holocene epoch at the time of the Industrial Revolution, around 1800. This decision would acknowledge humankind as a fundamental component of all ecosystems—and also, say ecomodernists, acknowledge that you cannot draft an effective environmental policy if you don’t let go of the old idea that nature must be kept separate from humans.

An illustrative example is the different ways in which ecomodernists and traditional environmentalists view the city. In the still prevailing mode of environmental thinking, the city is maligned and the countryside glorified: that’s where they say the bond with nature will be healed. The United Nations once even reported that cities are where all the most significant environmental problems converge. A very different perspective from what ecomodernists see: that people in cities live in smaller habitats and closer together, so that households are far more economical with their energy. In cities, people far more often walk, cycle or use public transport to get around. In cities, birth figures are much lower. Some people even see Manhattan,
the world’s richest and densely populated urban area, as “a utopian environmentalist community.”

There is a lot to be said for a seismic shift in the environmental movement. Not because it has failed; on the contrary, there are many successes to count. In the past few decades, the quality of our air and water has improved enormously. Dirty industries have become cleaner. Animals and their habitats are being better protected. There are more polar bears. (True.)

The world still has plenty of problems to be solved, but for the movement, the challenge lies rather in managing to connect to the public. That may seem incongruous at first, considering that the celebration of everything green has never before been so fully mainstream. Just look around: big companies are into corporate sustainable responsibility, governments are handing out subsidies to green initiatives, and newspapers are reporting on environment and sustainability—without the cynical undertone they used to have.

There are good reasons why the environmental movement should carefully consider whether ecomodernism can provide answers to three increasingly vexing problems. First, there is the poor track record of environmental policy. International negotiations on climate change almost by definition result in disappointing outcomes. In the United States, the environmental policy issue is splitting the two big parties. Although there have been Republican presidents who signed off on legislation to save endangered species and set aside marine protected areas, the environment is currently seen as a Democratic Party theme—and more specifically as belonging to the left-wing, white, upwardly mobile part of the party, which happens to be under attack. So the burning question is: how to make the environmental movement effective again?

Second, we are witnessing poor, developing countries making a tremendous economic breakthrough. The environmental movement always was in favor of a development model in which economic growth would occur at a slow pace, and on the condition that the environment would be protected. But with the population explosion and successfully emerging economies, this growing population will soon be wanting to join in the modern lifestyle. It looks as though certain environmentalists will have to reconsider their views on economic growth.

The third and last point is that the public is losing interest. In surveys, we always tick the box that says we find the environment -important, but the same surveys offer the insight that it has precious little priority—we are always more concerned about things like work, health care, education, crime and desegregation. Since the economic crisis began, the annual -Gallup Poll has shown that a majority of Americans say they would accept damage to the environment if it brought economic growth; this has changed since the first time the question was posed, 20 years ago.

Are we just feeling disconnected from all the stories about climate change? Maybe we have become numb to the news stories of inevitable doom. Would a more positive, optimistic view have more effect? These are the questions that need careful consideration.

Ecomodernists will not have the right answers to all problems. Just as the “old” environmental movement may be too quick to worship nature, the “new” environmental movement may be too quick to see technology as its savior. Too often this new vanguard is labeled as rebellious and is therefore ignored, but that stereotyping seems to be just another way to avoid a more fundamental question. A Big Debate is necessary. Let us not throw caricatures at each other: whatever our degree of greenness, in the end we all want an ecologically flourishing planet where life is good. 

We can have it all

 
EcoModernGuys

A conversation with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the founders of the ecomodernism movement. “This century, we are going to have nine billion people on the planet who want to have something like a modern life. We will have to find a way for them to do that.”

By Marco Visscher

To accelerate the transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.” Not a bad goal for a green think tank. The Breakthrough Institute, based in Oakland, California, has received high praise for its work. Way back in 2008, Time included its founders in its annual Heroes of the Environment list.

They also attract a fair share of criticism, though, not only from conservative Republicans, who call them “dangerously subversive,” but also from environmental activists, some of whom have urged the public to completely ignore these two men. What’s going on?

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus believe that the environmental movement is in need of a makeover. They both know this “alternative” world well. Shellenberger used to work for the human rights organization Global Exchange, Nordhaus for the Environmental Defense Fund. The two met during a campaign to save a local sequoia forest. The campaign worked. Proud of their success, they wanted to move on to tackle climate change—and that’s when they realized that the movement is not well equipped for fighting such a complex, global problem.

They wrote a scorching essay, in 2004, in which they critiqued the bad case of groupthink that environmental activists suffer from. According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, this was the cause of all kinds of dogmas being cherished, such as the idea that environment is a “thing” that is separate from humans. “We have become convinced,” they wrote, “that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”

The Breakthrough Institute—a small organization supported by private philanthropy—carries out policy analyses on themes like energy, nature conservation and innovation. They write reports on a wide range of subjects, from a critical reflection on ecological footprints to a historical discourse on how the American government has supported diverse revolutionary technologies.

It would be wrong to portray Shellenberger and Nordhaus as rebels who are just out to cause upset. If they are only trying to draw attention, they are pretty bad at it. Their newsletter reaches a modest 1,500 email addresses. Their own publication, Breakthrough Journal, appears in a print run of a few hundred—and is usually not even sold, but given away for free.

We met in a small restaurant in Oakland. It’s remarkable how nuanced their opinions actually are and how they continually keep each other on their toes by contradicting and adding to the other’s observations. Later in the day, we visited their low-key office, near a subway station surrounded by homeless people.

What is your big vision?

Michael Shellenberger: “Our vision is of a planet on which we consume a lot more energy. That energy becomes both cleaner and cheaper, allowing us to avoid climate change and achieve higher environmental quality. We will be able to produce more food on less land, and thus give land back to nature. With cleaner and cheaper energy, we can desalinate water, so we can sustain vibrant green communities with safe water. In general, we will have more abundance in energy, water, food and nature and wildlife. That vision is totally consistent with the trajectory of humankind, going back to when we started agricultural production, in the process requiring less land while getting richer.” 

Ted Nordhaus: “There will be a turning point when human impact on the planet peaks and then goes down. We see it happening already—we’re turning marginal land to nature, the energy supply has been decarbonizing, fertilizer use per yield in the U.S. and Europe is declining. We can either make the turning point happen sooner, or slow down the process.” 

Shellenberger: “The main goal should be to make energy cheaper so we can allow energy to do all these wonderful things in the world.”

Nordhaus: “This century, we are going to have nine billion people on the planet who want to have something like a modern life. We will have to find a way for them to do that. So politicians needs to think about how we can accelerate the things we want and avoid the things we don’t want, so in the end we will have a better place for all those billions of people to live.” 

Some traditional environmentalists dismiss you as “techno-optimists,” people who cherish a blind faith in technology to save us.

Nordhaus: [Sharply] “No! We are not the techno-optimists; they are. They think we have all the technology we need, whether it’s solar panels or organic agriculture. We are the ones saying that’s probably too optimistic. Yes, we think technology can solve problems—actually, that’s not any different from what they say—it’s just that we like to keep an open mind to all possible technologies.”

Shellenberger: “Er, wait a minute, what’s wrong with being optimistic?”

Nordhaus: “Exactly! I think we can deal better with problems when we’re optimists rather than pessimists. All psychological research suggests pessimism leads to cynicism, fatalism and survivalism. It does not inspire massive collective action.”

Shellenberger: “Then again, I acknowledge that it can motivate people in the short term. It happens all the time.”

Nordhaus: “Yeah, but there is a life cycle to these mass concerns. There will be a point when people start to realize the problem was never as big as it was being presented to them. The apocalyptic narrative might be very exciting for people, but sadly, it has the wrong impact on the public discourse, which ends up being depressing.”

How can you be for economic growth and care for the environment?

Shellenberger: “It’s a complex relationship, and it can be oversimplified in either direction. A lot of what is called ‘environmental destruction’ is really just environmental change. Whether you think it’s destructive or positive depends on your point of view. If you think of a swamp inhabited by malaria-breeding mosquitoes, then draining the swamp and turning it into an agricultural field is an environmental improvement. But if you’re a local who likes to go birding, you might think it’s a degradation.”

Nordhaus: “Oh, c’mon. There’s a whole body of research that shows that environmental quality correlates with economic growth.” 

Shellenberger: “Environmentalists talk a lot about deforestation, but think of this: most of the world’s deforestation happened before the Industrial Revolution.” 

Nordhaus: “Indeed! Humans managed to deforest much of North America and drive almost all of the megafauna to extinction with only millions of people on the planet. We’re able to do a
lot of environmental damage with few people, and in times with hardly any economic progress.”

Shellenberger: “Since the economic crisis, Greece has seen an increase in deforestation. Why? Because people go into the forest for heat. Recently, a family choked to death after their improvised woodstove caused a fire. The family had chosen to use wood because fuel prices had risen.”

Nordhaus: “Environmentalists say we will get higher environmental quality if economies de-grow, but in fact it will bring lower environmental quality.”

Do you suggest there’s little support from the environmental movement for the economic development of emerging and poor nations?

Nordhaus: “Oh, yes! There’s the idea that poor countries are allowed to develop—but only slowly, and only in a certain way, not quite like how the rich countries have done it. These poor people will have to resist the temptations of consumerism.”

Shellenberger: [Cynically] “Just imagine the planetary disaster if one billion Chinese were driving a car!”

Nordhaus: [Chiming in] “Yeah, let’s appreciate the rural lifestyle, with small-scale agriculture.”

Shellenberger: “The typical vision for sustainable development was of peasants and Indians in the Amazon, harvesting nuts that would get sold to wealthy environmentalists in the West. If you pause for a moment and think about it, it becomes ridiculous. Who are we to determine how they should live their lives? After all, some of them may want to live in a big city; that’s what a lot of people here want, anyway. There’s something in that whole sustainable-development discourse that’s very top-down.”   

Nordhaus: “It’s a colonial model!”

Shellenberger: “They shouldn’t make the same mistakes we made. Instead, we are going to buy products from them.”

Nordhaus: [Cynically] “We’ll help them be sustainable.”

Shellenberger: “And this became the way for environmentalists to reconcile the contradiction between their environmental and humanitarian views…”

Nordhaus: “And their own lives.”

Shellenberger: [Laughing] “Right, because they seem to enjoy their cars, and they don’t mind flying across the ocean to all these UN meetings. The idea of sustainable development allowed you to think that not everybody could live like us, and that it would be better that way. Because they’re going to be happier picking their nuts.”

Nordhaus: “Yeah, right.” 

Are you environmentalists?

Shellenberger: “I guess it depends on how you define the term. If it means that you care about nature and like to spend time in nature, sure—almost everybody is an environmentalist. But if it means you’re against economic growth and want to limit energy production, then no, not me.” 

Nordhaus: “Let me ask: if you oppose nuclear energy and shale gas, and if that means more power comes from coal, are you still an environmentalist? What is the ‘right’ kind of environmentalism today? For us, that is an important question, and I think that’s what the debate should be all about.” 

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