The Green Modernist Vision

By Keith Kloor | April 17, 2012 1:03 pm

There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism. It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.

The green traditionalist has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.  Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many  vague, screechy calls to action. Today, the green traditionalist is like a parent who incessantly yells at his child to behave–or else. The parent grows angrier and increasingly frustrated when the child inevitably tunes him out.

If there is a path to a more realistic, hopeful future, the green traditionalist has not advanced it. Getting back to the land was great hippy fun in the 1960s and 1970s. Inveighing against modern civilization and retreating into an artificial wilderness congealed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Since then, green chic has been riddled with contradictions and ascetic deprivation has still been found wanting.

Despite his broken-record messaging and inexorable slide into irrelevancy, the green traditionalist remains stubbornly resistant to new approaches. Like the ineffective parent, he keeps yelling, thinking his kids will eventually listen. As any parent will tell you, that’s never worked.

Enter  the post-environmental, green modernist. Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better. As the geographer Erle Ellis recently wrote:

Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era.  Most of all, we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human directed opportunity.

The green modernist recognizes that technology, as it has done all through human history, is a means to improve the human condition and reduce the worrisome ecological pressure on the planet. At the very least, as Mark Lynas writes in his new book:

We cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and GE [genetic engineering] because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.

The green modernist recognizes that conservation philosophy in the Anthropocene will have to change. But first it must stop worshiping at the wilderness cathedral and offer a world where nature and society can coexist harmoniously and productively. It must, as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva (and co-authors) write in this essay, promise

a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison 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.

This means recognizing that cities, long the bane of green traditionalists, are places where humanity and nature can thrive together. The evidence for this is, in fact, piling up. Of course, this is not to suggest that protected ecological reserves are unnecessary.  As I said here, the existence of urban nature does not obviate the need for big tracts of unbroken habitat for animals to roam. “But,” I wrote, “the idea that ecosystems and wildlife can still flourish in big cities challenges some of our cherished notions of nature.”

As Emma Marris observes in her new book, Rambunctious Garden:

Our mistake has been thinking that nature is something “out there,” far away. We watch it on TV, we read about it in glossy magazines. We imagine a place, somewhere distant, wild and free, a place with no people and no roads and no fences and no power lines, untouched by humanity’s great grubby hands, unchanging except for the season’s turn. This dream of pristine wilderness haunts us. It blinds us.

Incidentally, if you’re curious by what Marris means by “rambunctious garden,” here is her explanation in a NYT Q & A:

When I came up with the title, it was meant to work on two levels. One level is that we have to accept at this point that the earth is maybe more like a garden than like a wilderness because we have done so much to it and we do so much changing and managing all the time that we we’re in charge and we better just accept that. But if you just call it a garden, it implies that it’s neat and orderly, like a little English knot garden. It doesn’t have to be that way; it doesn’t have to be soulless or too tidy. It can be wild and crazy and have a lot of vitality and spirit of its own.

In her book, Marris chronicles examples of managed nature and claims it is is indicative of a “paradigm shift” underway in the environmental world. Perhaps, but as I noted here, green traditionalists don’t appear to be very receptive to the arguments put forth by Kareiva, Lynas and their fellow modernists within the environmental movement.

That leads me to a New York Academy of Sciences panel discussion I attended this week, “Nature and the City: What Good is Urban Conservation?” At the outset, the moderator Bill Ulfelder noted the Marris book, Stewart Brand’s manifesto, as well as this recent collection of essays, and asked: “Is conservation facing a paradigm shift, or is this buzz?” The other speakers on the panel seemed dubious about any major shift, but to a person they did suggest that the relationship between people and nature could be positively redefined by a newfound appreciation for urban ecology. I’ll return to some of the highlights from the panel in an upcoming post later this week. For now, I’ll stay with the main idea of this post, which is that green traditionalists find themselves increasingly challenged by green modernists.

In a recent essay, the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that environmentalists should learn from the history of human progress. But they also acknowledge

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 answer, they assert, is not to turn away from what we do best:

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.

They conclude that the modernist green must be a champion of technology and prosperity:

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.

At the New York Academy of Sciences panel on urban conservation, one speaker, noting the explosive growth of cities this century, said “the world is in a desperate race for urban sustainability.”  The outcome of that race is certain to determined by the forces of modernization and technological innovation. The sooner more greens understand this, the sooner that race can be won.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ecology, environmentalism
  • jr

    Pro-Growth?  Good luck with that.

  • stan

    “The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.”The green traditionalist would have been better served to have followed the lead of honest science.  The bogus “science” spouted by Carson, Erlich, Sagan, and Gore has permanently wrecked the credibility of environmentalists.

  • Mary

    I think that’s an excellent assessment of where we are. And interestingly, the traditionalist and the modernist don’t fit in the usual Venn of the political left/right as you might think for people who are taking a conservative approach. It’s a tough and unfriendly place to be among the left as a modernist–but I keep pushing anyway.

  • Tom C

    Mr. Kloor – You are at your best writing about this topic

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Choosing between traditionalism and modernism sounds like a tough call, Keith.

    What do you think we should choose?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    Excellent post, KK. I agree with #4.

    I think we also need to remember that the rush to the cities worldwide will mean a return to open land for many of the farms they leave behind. It doesn’t mean that abandoned farms will become pristine rain forest or savannah, at least not any time soon. But human impacts on the planet may actually diminish, even as our numbers increase.

    Obviously that’s not guaranteed–it would require acceptance of GMOs, sane policies around fishery management and accelerated development for the poorest–but it is possible.

  • http://www.ecotrust.org Astrid Scholz

    Like most dichotomies, “green traditionalism” vs. “green modernism” sets up a false choice. Life, and our challenges in preserving our capacity for it on this planet, is a bit more complex and interconnected. To wit: cities need vibrant rural economies to provision them with food, and rely on large energysheds, watersheds, and materialsheds to generate the much-hoped for technological innovations. Similarly, the traditionalist’s escape to the land, perhaps to a community of likeminded locavores, is impractical, not to mention unaffordable to the majority of humanity. If reasons for hope is what we are after, and that is indeed a good aspiration, then we need to look for something a bit more grounded, literally and figuratively, than the facile technophilia of the “green modernists.” Reliable, resilient prosperity will require transformation, not just incremental inventions — we haven’t begun to see true innovations of a scale and power that will help us survive the 21st century in style.

  • grypo

    Willard,I choose to Spitshine dystopia.  Should we vote?

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    grypo,

    Good question. After having read this post, what do you think Keith would vote?

    Speaking of voting, I’ve recently been reminded of this exchange:

    ROCKY: Over in America, we have this rule: if you want to motivate someone, don’t mention death.

    GINGER: Funny, the rule here is, always tell the truth.

    ROCKY: Boy, that’s been working like a real charm, hasn’t it? Let me give you some free advice: you want them to perform? Tell them what they want to hear.

    GINGER: You mean lie?

    Do you think that this Chicken Run chat is pointing toward different chicken breeds?

  • Matt Skaggs

    “The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity…” In the book “Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares” this particular meme it taken head-on.  The author painstakingly details how in each case in which the forests of eastern Oregon were threatened – by bugs, drought, fire – the forest managers felt that more intervention would resolve the problem. In each case they were wrong, and now there is basically nothing left to harvest, and won’t be for a long time.  Despite the derision that it both outcomes receive these days, I believe we are headed towards either calamity (that apocalypse thing) or a return to pastoralism.  In his excellent book “Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train” author Brian Czech proposes how this could happen.  To paraphrase, what if social status came with how little one consumed, rather than how much?  Ironically, this was once a rich Christian tradition with St. Thomas of Assisi as the figurehead, but piety-through-frugality seems to have faded away.

  • Steve Fitzpatrick

    Keith,Fired up, righteous, and most of all, correct!  Condemning people to poverty in perpetuity is a dismal future which nobody, outside an extreme few, will ever accept.  Environmentalism needs to finds its way back form the wilderness.  It must focus on the most immediate problems and balance those against the host of other problems humanity faces.  It needs to, well, grow up.Your essay is a step in the right direction. Bravo.

  • sl149q

    In spite of all the warts the only possible way to support 8-9 billion people AND save the environment is to embrace technology and make the middle class in every country well off. Experience shows that a large well off middle class will strive to protect and cleanup their immediate environment. Keeping people poor just means that they will continue to rape their part of the world to sustain themselves.

  • Fred

    Environmentalism that is friendly to economic growth is the only type that has any hope of garnering support, anyway. A new Gallup poll reveals:”Americans’ concerns about environmental problems have dropped in recent years, coincident with their drop in support for various environmental policies and the higher priority they assign to economic growth than environmental protection.” Interesting how environmentalists have collapsed the economy through their energy policies and now we find that the atrocious state of the economy has driven down support for environmentalism. Perhaps this is allegedly growth-friendly environmentalism represents the environmental movement trying to position itself for a possible Romney administration.

  • Jack Hughes

    Keith is on the money here.The enviros just need to dump their crazy ideas and dump their crazy people and they will be like my Grandad’s 200 year old Ax with a new handle and a new head.

  • Mary

    The other thing I keep asking people is for an example of a time in history when we walked back from a technology, and that persisted over the long term. Yes–there may have been times when retrograde political movements had a few years here and there…but is there any time we walked back from better tech to use the old stuff over the long term? On any front–agriculture, communication, transport, medicine, war, anything. Show me one.

  • grypo

    I’m not sure where to start in critiquing TBI’s idea of the new environmentalist, and I’m not sure I’m all that qualified…..I think Keith would vote to create a narrative which he believes would cause the most good, and be the most politically possible.  It’s the same as most of us would, we just all disagree on what would be “good” and and what is “possible”.  One critique I would level against the press, in general, is that what is possible is heavily influenced by what options are presented.  For example, I’ve seen Erle Ellis and other new aged conservation ideas bandied about, all coming out of the think tank TBI.  This is what I think of when I say ‘spit-shining dystopia’.  This is modern day China.  TBI loves China.  There is very little choice is China.  Central planning leaves very little choice.  So your cartoon exchange is apt, but if choices are limited, there is little point in a vote……To me, if the current regimen of power limits our choice, then succumbing to that power is irresponsible.  I’ll leave my critique of futurists and techys like Kursweil and Dyson for another more appropriate time.  But this will be the next batlle.how do i do paragraphs with the new commenting system?

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    grypo,

    Thank you for your explanation.

    To have basic formatting, click on the blue brackets next to the red X, and then enter HTML code.

  • kdk33

    but is there any time we walked back from better tech to use the old stuff over the long term?

    But, but,.. windmills.

  • http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/ Bart Verheggen

    What about the best of both worlds? Both visions, as described, appear too absolutist for my liking. But of course, that’s the purpose of painting the extremes on a continuum: Provoking some thinking and discussion. Good post.

  • Windy

    I have a question. Can the modernist view exist without a bad guy to blame and beat up on? To me it seems like traditionalists have always created a bad guy, someone to blame and to find guilty, in order to invoke action. It seems that the hate for the bad guy is what is needed to sustain the traditionalist. Can the modernist view be sustained without a bad guy to motivate them?

  • Dean

    “the green traditionalist remains stubbornly resistant to new approaches.” Well – isn’t that kinda the definition of a traditionalist? If they were open to new approaches, would they be traditionalists.The issue isn’t whether traditionalists should or could become modernists, or whether the public will accept the traditionalist view. It can be a popular fad on occasion but will never be widely accepted.The question is whether the technological optimists are actually right in the long run. The common answer of “They always have been” while in fact not true, is irrelevant, since even if it was true in the past, it isn’t necessarily true in the future. It is the lottery that we all are playing now.

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    The difference is not between a previous era and the Anthropocene. It’s between an accidental Anthropocene that started 50,000 years ago (quit playing with those burning branches, Urg!) and what we now have the ability to influence deliberately. We can mitigate previous mistakes or exacerbate their influence. We can shape our habitat to take into account what is needed by the rest of the biome or project dominion as recklessly as some of our great grandparents. We can farm the seas or empty them.

    By their choices ye shall know them.

  • Matt Skaggs

    Mary:The Concorde and SST in general.  But more pertinent to the topic, when the USSR disbanded and food subsidies to Cuba (originating from mechanized ag in Russia) ended, the Cubans (admittedly with their backs against the wall due to lack of good croplands) proved that modern folks really can meet a large part of their food needs by growing food in their back yards. 

  • Fred

    The idea of “modernist green” is quite attractive. It points out that true economic progress can accord with environmental stewardship. I am all for environmentalism (minus the wrongheaded de-carbonization stuff).

    Unfortunately, green traditionalism is a major contributor to the foregoing of a generation’s worth of economic growth in the U.S. At least one state (California) is on its way towards de-industrialization due to green traditionalism. (Anyone want to build a factory in California these days?)

    In considering “modernist green” thinking keep in mind that environmentalists often have little/no private sector experience. Their understanding of the conditions necessary for economic growth may be limited. Look at all those promised “green jobs” that never materialized or were related to boondoggle subsidy programs that were unsustainable and incredibly wasteful.

  • Fred

    Mary writes : “The other thing I keep asking people is for an example of a time in history when we walked back from a technology.”

    One example is Keith’s step backwards to requiring posters to this blog to put HTML tabs into their comments to create paragraph spacing!

  • Bobito

    @ Windy 20 - “a bad guy to blame”

    That’s the point of a moderate/centrist/realist movement.  The good guy vs bad guy mentality is a result of how far we have evolved as a race.  We still have tribalism wired into our DNA, we can’t stop that. 

    We must identify tribalism and render it’s good guy vs bad guy narratives moot so that we can focus on reasonable compromise.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Traditionnalists might very well be the bad guys of this very thread.

    Do stories require an antagonist?

  • Bobito

    Traditionalists are good guys to other traditionalists.  That’s the problem, every good guy is a bad guy, every bad guy is a good guy, depending on perspective.

  • Mary

    @Matt Skaggs: The Cubans use GMOs–that they developed themselves: http://www.cigb.edu.cu/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29&Itemid=119&lang=english

    And they’ve had a transgenic tilapia for over a decade: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10373604

    And yes, the paragraph breaks make my head hurt.

  • Keith Kloor

     Folks, 

    Thanks for all the excellent comments. As for the paragraph breaks, I’m sorry some of you are still having issues with the updated comment software. I personally don’t have any problems with it (and all I do is hit the “return” tab once) and I know others don’t either. But clearly a number of you do. I’m not sure there is a fix that will satisfy everyone.

  • dogstar060763

    Wow, this has been a refreshing read. I really find myself drawn towards this idea of a ‘green modernist’ – and I speak as ‘the enemy’ (a climate sceptic). If environmentalists can move in this ‘modernist’ direction I suspect they might even carry me along with them, doubts and all. I might be extremely sceptical about CAGW, after all, but I care very deeply about traditional environmental concerns and I would certainly welcome a way back into the genuine ‘green’ debate along more rational, practical thinking.

  • laursaurus

    I hit the return once….drumroll…ok, I hit return….let’s try again! ???I really don’t know how to do HTML code! At least the italic works

  • laursaurus

    Ok I have to click the icon? enter x1
    testing
    again…

  • laursaurus

    YAY! click the blue icon. highlight the “enter your comments… and type use the enter key as usual.

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    > Traditionalists are good guys to other traditionalists.

    Perhaps, but in our actual story both traditionalists and modernists may see who are the good guys. At least in the story.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    this is a testi am lazy and don’t like having to put in my own html tags.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    doesn’t work with chrome.maybe i’ll have better luck with firefox?

  • http://neverendingaudit.tumblr.com willard

    Oh, and I forgot to ask:

    Who are the usual characters that are fighting for soul?

    Hint: they sometimes meet in a train.

  • Windy

    Pascal Bruckner has an article in the WSJ on his book Fanaticism of the Apocalypse (Le fanatisme de l’Apocalypse) which I believe is relevant to KK’s thoughts on traditionalists vs modernists. Bruckner starts:
    “As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, terrified citizens pour into the streets of Brussels to stare at the mammoth object growing before their eyes. Soon, it will pass harmlessly by””but first, a strange old man, Professor Philippulus, dressed in a white sheet and wearing a long beard, appears, beating a gong and crying: “This is a punishment; repent, for the world is ending!”
    We smile at the silliness of this scene from the Tintin comic strip “L’Étoile Mystérieuse,” published in Belgium in 1941. Yet it is also familiar, since so many people in both Europe and the United States have recently convinced themselves that the End is nigh. Professor Philippulus has managed to achieve power in governments, the media and high places generally. Constantly, he spreads fear: of progress, science, demographics, global warming, technology, food. In five years or in 10 years, temperatures will rise, Earth will be uninhabitable, natural disasters will multiply, the climate will bring us to war, and nuclear plants will explode.
    Man has committed the sin of pride; he has destroyed his habitat and ravaged the planet; he must atone.”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303815404577331651761806744.html

  • cui bono

    Good article Mr. Kloor, but you’re suffering from a bias derived from the Enlightenment called rationalism. The prime purpose of the Movement is not meliorative and never has been; nor is there any evidence that it is changing. A couple of years ago your comments were echoed exactly by Stewart Brand in a BBC ‘Newsnight’ debate with mainstream environmentalists. He was pro-city, pro-nuclear and pro-tech. He was also virtually shouted down.The main aim is now – as it was in the 1970s – to flagellate human hubris; to destroy modern civilisation; to halt economic growth; to excoriate technological advancement, and to return to mythical paradisiacal Gaia.This is what fires the hearts of environmentalists. Since the 70s the arguments haven’t changed any, and an unhappy fringe have always tried to take a practical, less ideological approach, but they have always been few in number and often denounced.  The Movement is Romantic, not Rational. Deal with it.

  • BBD

    Constantly, he spreads fear: of progress, science, demographics, global warming, technology, food.

    Me? On about false equivalence and misrepresentation *again*? No, I’m saying nuthin… :-)

  • Tom Scharf

    One of your best columns ever Keith.

  • D. Robinson

    Keith – great post. 

    “Constantly, he spreads fear: of progress, science, demographics, global warming, technology, food. In five years or in 10 years, temperatures will rise, Earth will be uninhabitable, natural disasters will multiply, the climate will bring us to war, and nuclear plants will explode.”

    “and to return to mythical paradisiacal Gaia”

    Well those are certainly the messages I get from the most outspoken environmentalists. We’re going to blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons, NO nuclear power plants, NO we’re going to kill 75% of animal species by 1995, NO we’re going to fry ourselves because of the ozone hole, NO it’s acid rain, NO we’re going to run out of food by 1990, NO we’re going to run out of oil by 2000, NO we’re going to kill off all the fish and the food chain will die, NO GM foods will kill us, NO global warming is going to flood Manhattan.
    Humans are doing X to the Earth and if we don’t stop it’s going to kill us all by Y. Next up, the sports report!

  • D. Robinson

    Ha, got the html tags right that time.

  • BobN

    Interesting article and discussion. It seems mostly that Karieva, Marris, Lynas, etc are simply arguing for a move toward pragmatism and away from the all or nothing idealism that characterizes some of the “traditional” environmentalists. To me, there seem to be many benefits to attempting to preserve and maintain the nature around us, but too often the hard-core environmentalists do seem to have the attitude, as others have expressed above, that “man is evil and curse upon this earth”.

  • http://www.clf.org Seth Kaplan

    I am writing a longer response to this – but my core observation is one of frustration.  Folks like me who are staffers at “mainstream environmental groups” who work on issues like public transit and promoting solutions that rely on technology do have to deal with a “hard-green” critique that says that we are promoting growth that is the underlying problem but that perspective is a minor chord these days. The idea that we should not be guided by a sharp distinction between man and nature and that we should use technology and modern tools to create environmental solutions is not new and in fact guides most environmental efforts. The idea that the folks presented as “traditionalists” are running the environmental groups is just silly.  Paul Kingsnorth might think that humanity is a skin disease on the earth (actually he talks about the “empire of Homo sapiens sapiens and it stretches from Tasmania to Baffin Island. Like all empires, it is built on expropriation and exploitation . . .” http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/6599/ ) but from the eager young activists at 350.org to the lawyers at places like EDF, NRDC and CLF the struggle is to use the tools at hand to pragmatically craft solutions – and that means engaging society, not rejecting it.

  • Keith Kloor

    Seth,

    Thanks for your comment. I take your point and will await your longer response before crafting a follow-up post, which will address the various critiques of my thesis.

    Meanwhile, let me just say this: I think perhaps there is a disconnect between what is happening on the ground by groups such as yours, and the rhetoric that frames the larger public debate on the major environmental issues of the day. I will definitely address this in my follow-up. 

  • Matt Skaggs

    I am very curious what these modern pro-growth environmentalists would have to say about sustainability.   

  • Mary

    Here’s an example @Matt 48: Farming Strides Toward Sustainability“The report analyzes the impact of growing four crops–corn, soy, wheat, and cotton, which account for 70% of farmed acres in the Unites States–from 1987 to 2007. One key finding is that the amount of land required to grow a certain amount of food has fallen. Because of yield gains, for example, it now takes 37% less land to grow a bushel of corn than it did in 1987. In addition, the rate of soil loss per amount of grain or cotton grown has declined between 30% and 70%…
    …also finds that the amount of energy spent on farming has fallen by 40% to 60%, probably because farmers who plant genetically modified crops are driving tractors less frequently to spray pesticides and herbicides. Irrigated water use dropped by 20% to 50%, the report found, and carbon emissions fell by about 30%. Wheat was the only crop of the four surveyed that did not post big gains in efficiency…”

    Guess which crop there’s no GMO right now? Of course, there was that nitrogen-efficient one in testing in Australia that Greenpeace mowed down.I think more yield per land unit, reduced soil loss, less pesticide, and less energy and water fall into a category of stuff I’d want to keep working on for sustainability….What does it look like to you? Maybe we don’t share the same definition.

  • BBD

    Yup. As Lynas said: we are the nitrogen ape. And Mother Gaia notices :-)*

    *See Poe’s Law, but also here (Nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans).

  • Jake

    Keith,I’m a “lukewarmer” in the whole AGW debate, but avid hiker, camper, naturalist, outdoor tree hugger in many respects. As a day job, I’m also an engineer.What you have written here makes so much sense. Advancements in technology CAN reduce our environmental footprint by enabling higher energy, food, and even housing density.  To deny the fruits of advancement is to condemn the human race to huts and caves.

  • http://www.earthlab.net Brandon Keim

    The “green modernist” vs “green traditionalist” dichotomy is a silly one
    — and, from my experience, one disconnected from reality except among
    those people who stand to gain by promoting it. (“You’ve got Aldo
    Leopold in your backpack! Get out of the way, it’s my turn to apply for
    grants and TED talks!”)

    All across North America, grassroots conservationists are going about
    the unglamorous business of protecting their little pieces of nature
    from excessive development. They don’t imagine that nature to be
    “pristine,” but neither do they embrace some rambunctious-garden
    ideology in which “wilderness” is an artificial and outdated concept.
    They just like nature. (A plug for two of my favorites: The Orono Land
    Trust’s Caribou Bog-Penjajawoc Conservation Project in eastern Maine, and the Sky Islands Alliance in Arizona.)

    But the leading green modernist intelligentsia doesn’t talk much about
    actual conservation. They talk principles, in a way that positions them
    as thought leaders, and paints anyone who disagrees with them as some
    old-fashioned Luddite clinging to outdated and ineffectual ideas. (Thank
    goodness they weren’t around in the early 20th century to discourage
    the creation of national parks and public preserves, or in the mid-20th
    century to sandbag institutionalized protections for threatened species
    and environments.) Indeed, after reading Shellenberger & Nordhaus et
    al. one might imagine that, were it not for traditional
    environmentalists holding everyone back, we’d have fixed our
    environmental problems already. Darn those old ladies on Cape Cod!
    And what’s on offer? A feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the back vision of
    environmentalism, in which nothing difficult needs to be confronted or
    done, in which technological advance is literally sacred — “It will
    require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred…. Let’s
    call this ‘modernization theology,’ write Nordhaus & Shellenberger
    — and criticism is heretical.

    When people start calling themselves priests, it’s all the more reason to assume they’re salesmen.

  • Mirik

    Pretty sure they mean ‘growth’ in a real sense. Not fake growth as we know it now, without counting externalities, etc. They mean growth in human understanding, knowledge & wellbeing with nature, I do assume.

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  • Pingback: A Critique of the Broken-Record Message of 'Green Traditionalists' - NYTimes.com()

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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