Postenvironmentalism and Technological Abundance

A review of Love Your Monsters, a collection of essays on a new kind of environmentalism.


Environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus famously proclaimed The Death of Environmentalism in 2004. Now they're back with an ambitious new collection of essays titled Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene. Their goal is to dismantle the neo-Malthusian environmentalism of sacrifice and collapse and replace it with a new environmentalism that celebrates human creativity and technological abundance. Hooray!

In their introductory essay, Shellenberger and Nordhaus make the case that technological progress and economic growth is the road to salvation, not the highway to ruin. They acknowledge that global warming may bring worsening disasters and disruptions in rainfall, snowmelts, and agriculture. However, they add, there is little evidence it will end civilization. "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." 

As welcome as their conclusion is, it's not a novel insight. As it happens, a new report by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), Misled on Climate Change, [PDF] points out that the United Nations scenario in which humanity burns the most fossil fuels over the next century is also the one in which global wealth is greatest. In that scenario "by 2100 GDP per capita in poor countries will be double the U.S.'s 2006 level, even taking into account any negative impact of climate change." For the record, current U.S. GDP per capita is $47,000. As the Reason report concludes, sustained economic growth over the next century "would not only address all of the current problems that might get worse in the future but would also enable humanity to address more effectively any other future problems it encounters, whether climate-related or otherwise."

The title of the collection comes from French anthropologist Bruno Latour's essay, "Love Your Monsters: Why We Must Care For Our Technologies As We Do Our Children." Latour argues the story of Frankenstein has been misinterpreted by modern environmentalists as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technological hubris. In fact, Latour correctly points out that Frankenstein's creature only became a "monster" as a result of being rejected and abandoned by his creator. In a similar manner to Frankenstein, environmentalists reject many new and old technologies out of fear of their unintended consequences. Most parents love their children despite the inconveniences posed by the noxious emissions they discharge from time to time. Latour argues that we should similarly embrace and care for our technologies despite side effects like pollution. Through love and care, both children and technologies can be civilized in ways that ameliorate and reduce noxious consequences associated with them.

The next essay, "Conservation in the Anthropocene: Beyond Solitude and Fragility" is by three practicing conservationists, Peter Kareiva and Robert Lalasz at The Nature Conservancy, and Santa Clara University environmental scientist Michelle Marvier. Anthropocene is a proposed term to describe the current geological age in which humans are having a significant impact on the ecosphere. The essay begins by pointing out that "the worldwide number of protected areas has risen dramatically from under 10,000 in 1950 to over 100,000 by 2009." This amounts to as much as 13 percent of the world's land area, an area larger than all of South America. And yet deforestation and species extinction continue unabated.

The three urge environmentalists to drop "their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness—ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science—and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision." They cite evidence that local people are better at managing natural resources and landscapes than are the centralized government bureaucracies favored by most environmentalist organizations. They ask, "If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, then what should be the new vision for conservation?" They answer that conservation must "embrace a priority that has been anathema to us for more than a hundred years: economic development for all [emphasis added]." Among other things, economic development means more people living in cities and fewer on the landscape; more productive crops grown on fewer acres; and cleaner technologies with fewer side effects. "Nature could be a garden—not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life," they argue.

Geographer Erle Ellis asserts in "Planet of No Return: Human Resilience on an Artificial Earth" that Malthusian environmentalism has gotten it completely wrong when it claims that there are limits to growth. Human social and technological ingenuity creates more resources over time. Ellis suggests, "As populations, consumption, and technological power advance at an exponential pace, industrial systems appear to be evolving in new directions that tend to reverse many of the environmental impacts caused by agriculture and prior human systems." For example, more people are moving from the landscape into cities where they have better access to health care, education, incomes, housing, markets, transportation, and waste treatment. Agriculture productivity modernizes and intensifies potentially sparing more land for nature.

Next philosopher Mark Sagoff deconstructs ecological economics which asserted that the scope and scale of the human enterprise was overloading ecological systems and causing them to collapse. Ecological economists argued that there were such things as ecosystems in which organisms and physical resources were tightly bound and which evolved together as a community. Disturbing these tight linkages could result in a collapse of the whole system. Subsequent empirical research finds that plant and animal "communities" are a figment; plants and animals just show up and survive as best they can where they find themselves. There is no balance of nature to be upset. Of course, unintended consequences of technological and economic development must be dealt with, but there are no ultimate constraints on economic growth.

A devastating critique of Malthusian environmentalism is offered by Daniel Sarewitz in his essay "Liberalism's Modest Proposal, Or the Tyranny of Scientific Rationality." He begins by citing Jonathan Swift's famous satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal," in which Swift suggested that the problem of Irish famine might simply be dealt with by eating Irish babies. Sarewitz argues that Swift's goal was to show that "pretty much any position, however repulsive, could be advanced on the back of rationality." Sarewitz argues with regard to the problem of climate change modern environmentalists have adopted a form of scientific rationality in which the fact that burning fossil fuels to produce cheap energy harms the climate suggests that solution is to "make energy more expensive." Sarewitz then points out that the access to cheap energy is, in fact, "a basic requirement for human development and dignity." He adds, "This fact is so blindingly obvious that nearly any large developing country has treated the idea of a global agreement to raise the price of energy as a joke of Swiftean character. The difference being, of course, that it was not a joke."

Sarewitz then identifies the political incoherence that lies at the heart of environmentalism. On the one hand, environmentalists want to avoid the risks of new technologies and on the other Malthusian hand they worry about declining stocks of natural resources. Consequently, environmentalists "find themselves, for reasons of risk, opposing new technologies that could help resolve issues of scarcity." As an example of this political and scientific incoherence, Sarewitz cites the case of genetically enhanced crops which environmentalists oppose because of their alleged risks to human health although such crops would ameliorate environmentalist concerns about soil and water depletion, pesticide residues, and population growth. Sarewitz cuts through the current incoherence by rejecting the environmentalist scheme to raise energy prices by means of a global cap-and-trade regime on fossil fuels. Sarewitz instead argues for an intensive research effort aimed at developing cheap low-carbon energy sources.

The collection ends with an essay by engineer Siddhartha Shome, "The New India Versus the Global Greens Brahmins; The Surprising History of Tree Hugging." Shome details the history of the Chipko movement in the 1970s in which Himalayan village women literally hugged trees in forests near their homes in order to prevent outside loggers from cutting them down. This story was retold as an ecological tale in which the women were cast as protectors of nature. As Shome makes clear, the villagers intended to preserve their traditional forest rights from outsiders. The villagers wanted to maintain local control over resources, not create a nature preserve. Research shows that in fact local people tend to be better stewards of natural resources than centralized bureaucracies.

Malthusian environmentalists like to cite factoids like the average American child over the course of her lifetime will consume 35 times more resources than the average Indian child. Shome shows that villagers are now abandoning the countryside, flocking to India's economically dynamic cities seeking a better life for themselves and their families. They have every intention that their children will catch up to American kids when it comes to material welfare. Instead of reconciling themselves to ascetic poverty as Mahatma Gandhi urged, Shome shows that India's poor are following the lead of the father of India's constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar. Ambedkar argued, "Machinery and modern civilization are thus indispensable for emancipating man from leading the life of a brute … The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization."

One big problem with the collection is that it fails to recognize the context that enabled the technological progress of the past two centuries to occur—the rise strong property rights and market economies. There simply has been no appreciable technological innovation in countries that do not have these institutions. In addition, Shellenberger and Nordhaus assert that many ecological problems—global warming, deforestation, and overfishing—are the unintended consequences of human technological success.

Obviously technology contributes to these predicaments, but the chief problem is that they (and nearly all other environmental problems) occur in open access commons. If there is no clear ownership of rights to a natural resource, the users of the resource will overexploit it. If they leave something behind, the next guy will simply take it. In general the best way to protect resources is to privatize them and put them into the market, but that's a subject for another time.

It turns out that the "monsters" feared by environmentalists are largely figments of their cramped Malthusian imaginations. Sure, there are unintended consequences to technologies, but the solution is not to abandon them, but to improve them. The way to protect and preserve nature is to make humanity more prosperous. In the end, given its failure to understand both ecology and economics, one is left wondering what the purpose of environmentalism was supposed to be anyway?

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.