Is it time to embrace environmental change?

Some scientist believe we've already created a new geological epoch -- and it may not be a bad thing


Michael Lind
December 13, 2011 6:00PM (UTC)

The predictable failure of the Durban conference on climate change to achieve the goals of binding international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, following on the failures of the earlier Copenhagen conference and the Kyoto treaty, is the result of intellectual failure, not just a lack of political will. At the heart of modern environmentalism is the idea that the planet must be saved from further damage by humanity.  But it is far from clear that this is possible or even that the transformation of nature by human beings with technology is necessarily a bad thing.

In 2000 Eugene Stoermer, an ecologist, and Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, proposed that human agency has so transformed the Earth’s ecosystem that we are living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, or the Human Age. Proponents of the Anthropocene concept disagree about when the era began. Was it with the industrial revolution, which began to release great quantities of pollutants and gases including greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? Was it earlier, when agrarian societies cleared vast tracts of wilderness for farms and pasture? Or was it earlier still, at the end of the last Ice Age, when, according to the “Pleistocene overkill” hypothesis, hunter-gatherers drove large animals including mammoths, mastodons and giant ground sloths to extinction in both the Old World and the New?

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The debate about when the Anthropocene began has obvious implications for how we think about the interaction of technology and the Earth’s ecosystem today. For example, many opponents of so-called suburban sprawl argue that they are saving nature by saving farmland from development into low-density housing. But farms and ranches, created by destroying previously existing ecosystems and replacing them with plants and livestock imported from other regions, are every bit as unnatural as suburbs and factories. And the idea that maintaining a few patches of isolated wilderness, separated by agricultural land, cities and highways, actually amounts to preserving nature in a pristine state is naive, at best. Even the largest wilderness preserves are green ghettoes, surrounded by human-altered landscapes.

The best thinking about the implications of the Anthropocene idea that I have seen is found in a new e-book, "Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene," published by the Breakthrough Institute. The book’s editors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, are no strangers to controversy.  Their 2005 essay in Grist magazine, “The Death of Environmentalism,” later published as a book, stirred up passionate debate.  Their argument that environmentalists should concentrate on making clean energy cheap by means of technological R&D rather than trying to make dirty energy expensive by means of taxes or cap-and-trade schemes has been vindicated by the political failure of efforts to artificially increase dirty energy prices, proposals that probably would have been doomed even in the absence of the Great Recession.

A similar spirit of iconoclasm animates the environmentalists, social scientists and philosophers who contribute essays to "Love Your Monsters" (the title comes from a revisionist reading of Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" contributed to the book by the French philosopher Bruno Latour). In his contribution, “The Planet of No Return,” Erle Ellis challenges the spirit of Malthusian pessimism that has permeated the environmental movement in recent decades: “A good, or at least a better, Anthropocene is within our grasp. Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing natural limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era.” The idea of unspoiled wilderness is questioned in “Conservation in the Anthropocene” by Peter Kareiva, Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier.  They point out that national parks and wilderness preserves have often been created by the expulsion of indigenous peoples who farmed and hunted in the regions. In “The Rise and Fall of Ecological Economics,” Mark Sagoff compares the idea of a self-equilibrating natural ecosystem to the market fundamentalist idea of a self-equilibrating free market.

While Sagoff’s contribution is likely to upset market fundamentalist conservatives, contemporary progressivism is challenged by other essays in the anthology. In “Liberalism’s Modest Proposals, or, The Tyranny of Scientific Rationality,” Daniel Sarewitz points out how the conventional green movement combines excessive faith that science can define the problem of harmful climate change with arguably excessive skepticism about the usefulness of technology in mitigating it or adapting to its effects. In “The New India Versus the Global Green Brahmins,” Siddhartha Shome points out that it was the affluent Gandhi who was drawn to idealized images of village life, while the leader of the low-caste Untouchables, Babasaheb Ambedkar, saw the salvation of the Indian poor in technological modernization.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus echo Shome, writing:  “In the words of the father of the modern Indian constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar, 'The slogan of a democratic society must be machinery, and more machinery, civilization and more civilization' — the same tools needed, we might add, for planetary gardening.” Consciously or not, they echo the observation of one of the founders of American environmentalism, Aldo Leopold, in 1932:  “Game can be restored by creative uses of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it — axe, cow, plow, fire, and gun.”

While the term "Anthropocene" would have been new to him, the concept would have been familiar to Leopold. In his classic "Sand County Almanac" (1948) he wrote:

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In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the search-light on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism. [The poet E.A. ] Robinson's injunction to Tristram may well be applied, at this juncture, to Homo sapiens as species in geological time:
Whether you will or not
You are a King, Tristram, for you are one
Of the time-tested few that leave the world,
When they are gone, not the same place it was.
Mark what you leave.


Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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