Stop your sobbing

Doomsayers like Al Gore and Jared Diamond aren't doing the environment much good. To save the earth, we need to stop blaming and start celebrating ourselves.


Ted NordhausMichael Shellenberger
October 9, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

Rachel Carson opened "Silent Spring," her 1962 polemic against chemical pesticides in general and DDT in particular, with a terrible prophecy: "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth."

"Silent Spring" set the template for nearly a half century of environment writing: wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying ever worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.

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Eco-tragedies are premised on the notion that humankind's survival depends on understanding that ecological crises are a consequence of human intrusions on Nature, and that humans must let go of their consumer, religious, and ideological fantasies and recognize where their true self-interest lies.

Grounded in a tradition of eco-tragedy begun by Carson and motivated by the lack of progress on the ecological crisis, environmental writers have produced a flood of high-profile books that take the tragic narrative of humankind's fall from Nature to new heights: Sir Martin Rees's 2003 "Our Final Hour," Richard Posner's 2004 "Catastrophe," Paul and Anne Ehrlich's 2004 "One with Nineveh," James Kunstler's 2005 "The Long Emergency," James Lovelock's 2006 "The Revenge of Gaia," and Al Gore's 2006 "An Inconvenient Truth," to name just a few.

For the most part, these environmentalist cautionary tales have had the opposite of their intended effect, provoking fatalism, conservatism, and survivalism among readers and the lay public, not the rational embrace of environmental policies. Constantly surprised and angered when people fail to behave as environmentalists would like them to, environment writers complain that the public is irrational, in denial, or just plain foolish. They presume that the failure of the public to heed their warnings says something meaningful about human nature itself, attributing humanity's disregard for Nature to desires like the lust for power and concluding that, in the end, we are all little more than reactive apes, insufficiently evolved to take the long view and understand the complexity and interconnectedness of the natural systems on which we depend.

Kunstler begins "The Long Emergency" by quoting Carl Jung as saying, "People cannot stand too much reality." In fact, it was T.S. Eliot, not Jung, who said "Humankind cannot bear very much reality." But the attitude of such doomsayers recalls something Jung actually did say: "If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool."

Environmental tales of tragedy begin with Nature in harmony and almost always end in a quasi-authoritarian politics. Eco-tragic narratives diagnose human desire, aspiration, and striving to overcome the constraints of our world as illnesses to be cured or sins to be punished. They aim to short-circuit democratic values by establishing Nature as it is understood and interpreted by scientists as the ultimate authority that human societies must obey. And they insist that humanity's future is a zero-sum proposition -- that there is only so much prosperity, material comfort, and modernity to go around. The story told by these eco-tragedies is not that humankind cannot stand too much reality but rather that Nature cannot stand too much humanity.

Carson begins "Silent Spring" by narrating a "Fable for Tomorrow," describing a bucolic American town "where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings." She imagines Nature to be something essentially harmonious and in balance. But long before there were humans, volcanoes erupted, asteroids hit Earth, and great extinctions occurred. Throughout the animal kingdom there is murder and gang rape, even among the much beloved and anthropomorphized dolphin. Indigenous peoples, for their part, cleared forests, set massive fires, and overhunted, massively altering their environments. They engaged in agriculture, war, cannibalism, and torture.

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To imagine Nature as essentially harmonious is to ignore the obvious and overwhelming evidence of Nature's disharmony. To posit that human societies should model themselves after living systems that are characterized as Nature, as environmentalists often do, begs the question: which living systems? Even if the Earth heats up to such an extent that every last vestige of humankind disappears, there may still exist living systems, just not ones that can sustain us.

In the Book of Genesis, the Fall from Eden occurs because Adam and Eve eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. In the environmentalist's telling of our fall, humans are being punished by Nature with ecological crises like global warming for our original sin of eating from the tree of knowledge. Our fall from Nature was triggered by our control of fire, the rise of agriculture, the birth of modern civilization, or by modern science itself -- which is ironic, given the privileged role the so-called natural sciences played in inventing the idea of a Nature as separate from humans in the first place.

The eco-tragedy narrative imagines humans as living in a fallen world where wildness no longer exists and a profound sadness pervades a dying Earth. The unstated aspiration is to return to a time when humans lived in harmony with their surroundings. That tragic narrative is tied to an apocalyptic vision of the future -- an uncanny parallel to humankind's Fall from Eden in the Book of Genesis and the end of the world in the final Book of Revelation.

In 1969, the microbiologist René Dubos won the Pulitzer Prize for a book calling for a new eco-religion based on the principle of harmony with nonhuman nature. "Whatever form this religion takes, it will have to be based on harmony with nature as well as man, instead of the drive to mastery," he wrote.

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It is this contrast between living in harmony with Nature and mastering it that unites Carson and Dubos with virtually every strain of contemporary environmentalism. Environmentalists imagine that their values are in opposition to the Western philosophical tradition, which sees humans as separate from and superior to Nature. But rather than dissolving the distinction between humans and Nature, environmentalists reverse the hierarchy, arguing that humans are still separate from but subordinate to Nature.

This reversal is motivated by the view that our perfectly healthy and natural desire to control our environment is a sinful desecration of Nature. But it must be asked: can human societies exist without, in one way or another, controlling Nature? Isn't that what agriculture is all about? Virtually any attempt to alter one's surroundings -- whether by gathering wood to build a fire, constructing shelter, raising livestock, growing crops, or hunting and gathering -- is an effort to control Nature. Nor is doing so uniquely human: beavers build dams, ants farm aphids, and more than a few other animals use tools.

There is nothing wrong with human and nonhuman desires for control over the environment. Indeed, we wouldn't exist were it not for our ancestors' will to control. Saving the redwoods and banning DDT were no less acts of controlling Nature than were logging ancient forests or spraying toxic pesticides. The issue is not whether humans should control Nature but rather how humans should control natures -- nonhuman and human.

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From beginning to end, we humans are as terrestrial as the ground on which we walk. We are neither a cancer on, nor the stewards for, planet Earth. We are neither destined to go extinct nor destined to live in harmony. Rather, we are the first species to have any control whatsoever over how we evolve.

The most sophisticated of recent eco-tragedy books is Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," a catalog of case studies of the deaths of past civilizations, such as the Mayans and Anasazi, as well as contemporary societies, such as Rwanda during the genocide.

Diamond argues that past civilizations collapsed for five reasons: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, friendly trade partners, and societal responses to environmental problems. Diamond wrote "Collapse" believing that once people learned the facts of the ecological crises, they would make the rational choice to change direction.

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In the end, though, "Collapse" is an argument against human attempts to control, ignore, or live out of balance with Nature. The stories that Diamond tells -- of Greenlanders overgrazing their land and refusing to eat plentiful fish, of Easter Islanders and Maya kings deforesting their landscape in service of false idols -- are tales of human hubris, of societies that neglected the laws of Nature in pursuit of human follies and were punished accordingly. But Diamond ignores several decades' worth of research into political psychology and social values, which offers far more clues to understanding today's ecological crises than the collapse of relatively tiny premodern societies.

Diamond gave "Collapse" the subtitle "How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," in the belief that societies choose how and whether to adapt to changing circumstances. But neither the Easter Islanders nor the Greenland Norse ever convened tribal councils to choose collective suicide. The Easter Islanders, who Diamond describes as having logged all of their trees in order to erect massive stone faces on their hillsides, and the Greenland Norse, who chose starvation over eating fish, were indeed behaving in ways that were perfectly rational, given their values, their cultures, and their belief systems.

Nonetheless, Diamond projects the theological narrative of humanity's fall from Nature onto the societies that he writes about, asserting that "[as] a result of lust for power, Easter Island chiefs and Maya kings acted so as to accelerate deforestation rather than to prevent it." Diamond is unaware that he is telling a biblical rather than scientific story, a theological cautionary tale wrapped in the white laboratory coat of Science.

For years, environmentalists have credited their strict and literal adherence to science for their successes, though not, notably, their failures. When environmentalism fails, it is invariably due to industry manipulation, the media's bias toward superficiality, the cowardice of politicians, public denial, and, most especially, the overall lack of deference in the United States to capital-S Science.

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For many environmentalists, Science is and should remain at the center of any politics aiming to overcome ecological crises. It is outside of history, society, and values. It is environmentalism's touchstone, the central criterion on which the value of environmentalism should be judged. But to believe that the sciences were behind the passage of environmental laws is a faith -- a scientism, not a science -- one that overlooks the specific historical and social conditions that gave rise to the ecological values.

The conventional wisdom is that environmentalists and global warming deniers like best-selling novelist Michael Crichton disagree over the value of the sciences. But both share most of the same beliefs about Science and the need for it to stay clear of values and politics. This statement -- "Because in the end, science offers us the only way out of politics. And if we allow science to become politicized, then we are lost" -- was uttered by Crichton, but it could just as easily have been uttered by most environmental scientists.

This faith in science is often accompanied by the antiquated view that there are facts separate from values and interpretations. But the fact that there is a strong international consensus among scientists that global warming is caused almost entirely by humans does not make it any less of an interpretation. Simply deciding what to study, and what kind of hypotheses to form, is a value judgment. The facts one chooses to give greater weight to in the case of global warming are deeply informed by one's values. The facts tell us that global temperatures have been rising over the last century. They tell us that human sources of pollution have probably been in some significant part responsible for those temperature increases. They tell us that global climate change and habitat destruction may be leading to the mass die-off of many plant and animal species.

But the facts also tell us that global temperatures have fluctuated wildly over the five billion years that the planet has existed; that there have been at least five previous mass extinctions during the history of the planet; that asteroids, comets, volcanoes, and ice ages have dramatically changed the climate and habitat at a planetary level; that the earth will very likely be here for billions of years after all traces of humanity have vanished from its surface; and that some form of humanity and human society will likely survive the ecological crises we face.

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The questions before us are centrally about how we will survive, who will survive, and how we will live. These are questions that climatologists and other scientists can inform but not decide. For their important work, scientists deserve our gratitude, not special political authority.

What's needed today is a politics that seeks authority not from Nature or Science but from a compelling vision of the future that is appropriate for the world we live in and the crises we face. The idea that we should "respect Nature" implies that Nature has a particular single being to be respected. If we define Nature as all things, then it is not at all clear which natures we should respect and which we should overcome.

We are Nature and Nature is us. Nature can neither instruct our actions nor punish them. Whatever actions we choose to take or not to take in the name of the survival of the human species or human societies will be natural.

Many environmentalists imagine overcoming global warming to be about "saving the planet." But the fate of the planet is not in question. The earth has survived meteorites and ice ages. It will certainly survive us.

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Given the status of scientists as the high priests of environmentalism, it should come as little surprise that the biologist and environmentalist Edward O. Wilson invented the concept of biophilia, which he defines as humankind's "innate tendency to be attracted by other life forms and to affiliate with natural living systems" and which he believes is the key to the salvation of Nature and humankind.

For Wilson, biophilia is something that can be experienced only in nonhuman natures, such as hiking through a forest, paddling a canyon, or sleeping in the desert. It is not something that can be experienced while making love, eating a meal with friends, or singing hymns in church. He refers to biophilia as an innate biological tendency -- but what pleasure isn't? Is the pleasure we get from buying trinkets at the mall any less innate than the pleasure we get from walking through an ancient redwood forest?

To be sure, there are differences between sitting in a forest and sitting in a church. But what makes the former more biological than the latter? Are the mystical feelings of transcendence a Brazilian gets while sitting in a church in São Paulo any less natural -- or powerfully felt -- than those felt by Wilson walking through the Amazon?

Wilson implies that the feelings of awe and mystery we experience while in nature are more politically useful for saving nonhuman natures than those feelings we get when we are not in nature. But why? In his landmark essay on Nature, Science, and environmentalism, the political theorist Bill Chaloupka wrote, "Just because greens have become accustomed to the idea that Nature somehow instructs their political activity, it does not follow that there is no other way to motivate political activity."

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In his book "The Future of Life," Wilson holds up as a beacon of biophilic politics Julia Butterfly Hill, a woman who, apparently motivated by her biophilia, sat for two years in an ancient redwood tree, free from the messy reality of human society and politics. In the end, Wilson acknowledged, Hill saved only three acres. What he didn't mention is that, tragically, soon after she descended, somebody skilled with a chain saw, likely an angry local logger, cut and nearly felled the tree.

Notwithstanding the political and cultural efficacy of those who, figuratively if not literally, make it their business to climb up trees and refuse to come down, what is most problematic about biophilia is the presumption that the tree told them to do it. Why do we think Nature was speaking to Hill any more than to the logger who cut down the tree? What use is there in referring to what Nature wants, other than as a strategy to short-circuit democratic politics by asserting authority from a higher power?

Frustrated by the public's unwillingness to defer to the higher aesthetic of Nature and Science, environmentalists increasingly shake their fists at "human nature." In his 2003 book "Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals," the British philosopher and environmentalist John Gray of the London School of Economics reduces the infinite complexity of human natures to self-destruction: "The mass of mankind is ruled not by its intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth -- and thereby to be the agent of its own destruction."

Gray wrote "Straw Dogs" not as a call for political action to overcome the crises but as a call for humans -- whom Gray dubs "Homo rapines" -- to snap out of our denial and "simply see" that we have little control over our future. Humans are so destructive, he believes, that the earth will be better off when we are gone. "It is not of becoming the planet's wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter."

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It's one thing for Gray to give up on the species. It is quite another for him to claim on behalf of Earth-lovers that humans have no way of controlling our behavior or shaping our future.

It is true that we cannot excise our reactive, opportunistic, violent, and cruel natures. But neither can we excise our strategic, empathic, and altruistic ones. The "frailty of human nature" Gray describes is, from one perspective, insoluble. But in other contexts and from other perspectives, our frailties can be our strengths and our solutions. We do not need to solve the problem of our sins against Gaia, nor should we repent of our all-too-natural will to power; what we need now is to overcome destructive hatreds of who we are and antiquated prejudices about what we can become.

There is a very different story that can be told about human history, one that embraces our agency, and that is the story of constant human overcoming. Whereas the tragic story imagines that humans have fallen, the narrative of overcoming imagines that we have risen.

Consider how much our ancestors -- human and nonhuman -- overcame for us to become what we are today. For beginners, they were prey. Given how quickly and efficiently humans are driving the extinction of nonhuman animal species, the notion that our ancestors were food seems preposterous. And yet, understanding that we evolved from being prey goes a long way to understanding some of the feelings and motivations that drive us into suicidal wars and equally suicidal ecological collapses.

Against the happy accounts of harmonious premodern human societies at one with Nature, there is the reality that life was exceedingly short and difficult. Of course, life could also be wonderful and joyous. But it was hunger, not obesity, oppression, not depression, and violence, not loneliness, that were humankind's primary concerns.

Just as the past offers plenty of stories of humanity's failure, it also offers plenty of stories of human overcoming. Indeed, we can only speak of past collapses because we have survived them. There are billions more people on earth than there were when the tiny societies of the Anasazi in the North American southwest and the Norse in Greenland collapsed in the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, respectively. That there are nearly seven billion of us alive today is a sign of our success, not failure.

Perhaps the most powerful indictment of environmentalism is that environmentalists almost uniformly consider our long life spans and large numbers terrible tragedies rather than extraordinary achievements. The narrative of overpopulation voiced almost entirely by some of the richest humans ever to roam the earth is utterly lacking in gratitude for the astonishing labors of our ancestors.

Of course, none of this is to say that human civilizations won't collapse again in the future. They almost certainly will. Indeed, some already are. But to focus on these collapses is to miss the larger picture of rising prosperity and longer life spans. Not only have we survived, we've thrived. Today more and more of us are "free at last" -- free to say what we want to say, love whom we want to love, and live within a far larger universe of possibilities than any other generation of humans on earth.

At the very moment that we humans are close to overcoming hunger and ancient diseases like polio and malaria, we face ecological crises of our own making, ones that could trigger drought, hunger, and the resurgence of ancient diseases.

The narrative of overcoming helps us to imagine and thus create a brighter future. Human societies will continue to stumble. Many will fall. But we have overcome starvation, disease, deprivation, oppression, and war. We can overcome ecological crisis.

A new politics requires a new mood, one appropriate for the world we hope to create. It should be a mood of gratitude, joy, and pride, not sadness, fear, and regret. A politics of overcoming will trigger feelings of joy rather than sadness, control rather than fatalism, and gratitude rather than resentment. If we are grateful to be alive, then we must also be grateful that our ancestors overcame. It is thanks to them and the world that made them possible that we live.

In "The Enchantment of Modern Life," the political theorist Jane Bennett writes, "This life provokes moments of joy, and that joy can propel ethics." Bennett's book is a happy deconstruction of the belief that the modern life objectifies and disenchants the world, robbing it of its mystery, ineffability, magic, and connectedness. Bennett insists that the world never lost its capacity to surprise and inspire. She argues for an ethics that begins with a commitment to affirming life in all of its joys and sufferings:

"If popular psychological wisdom has it that you have to love yourself before you can love another, my story suggests that you have to love life before you can care about anything. The wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one's scarce mortal resources to the service of others."

The ethics, and politics, born from joy, mystery, and gratitude of overcoming adversity will be radically different from the ethics born of the sadness of living in a fallen world pervaded by fears of the eco-apocalypse to come. The truth is, there are still ancient redwoods to behold and great rivers to swim in. There is still the Amazon and the Boreal. There are still seven billion wondrous human animals, each one of us capable of making ourselves into something utterly unique. And there is still great wildness abounding inside and outside of ourselves.

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Excerpted from "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility" by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Copyright 2007 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co. All rights reserved.


Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are managing directors of American Environics, a social values research firm, and founders of the Breakthrough Institute.

MORE FROM Ted Nordhaus

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus are authors most recently of "The Emerging Climate Consensus: Global Warming Policy in a Post-Environmental World," and "Break Through." They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute.

MORE FROM Michael Shellenberger

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