Environmental Modernists – Technology as Salvation or a Temporal Fix

Interesting piece over at The Breakthrough Institute on the continued awakening of modern environmental thought by Fred Pearce, under the new label, environmental modernism.

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?  But the prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship can save the planet and that if environmentalists won’t buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are the problem.

The modernists wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest.

While many mainstream environmentalists want to make peace with nature through the sustainable use of natural resources, the modernists want to cut the links between mankind and nature. So the modernists are also the proponents of rewilding, the restoration of large tracts of habitat and the reintroduction of the species that once lived there.  Rewilding is a popular theme in modern environmentalism.  But the modernists say that without technology, it can only be done by culling humanity.  With technology, they say, we can more painlessly usher in the return of the wild, because more land can be liberated.

While I’m in agreement that technology is our friend and can help address many modern environmental problems, we should be under no illusion that technology alone will not “cut the links between mankind and nature,” nor should we be persuaded that technology alone is the sustainable answer.  The grand fix is far more complicated than that.  For me, the seed of renewal begins with a spiritual awakening of sorts and reconnecting people with people, people with places, and people with things.

Just for a moment think about social unrest and many injustices, big and small, we witness every day.  They are polyhedral problems, but with a common thread that runs through each.  At one extreme, is a disillusioned young man inclined to detonate a bomb on a crowded corner when estranged and disconnected from his victims, separated by human tradition, shared identify and culture, and emotional linkages?  And at the other end of the spectrum, are we not more likely to yell invectives and gesture wildly to someone who has selfishly slowed our daily commute when the offender is not our neighbor, but who, if it were, we would need to account for our words and misdeeds?  Similarly, for that company who pollutes the water, air, and land with abandon and without care, you will likely find decision-makers with no meaningful ties to those who live, play, toil, and raise their children in the shadows of that factory.   This is the result of human disconnectedness and social fragmentation – and it comes with a high price tag.  We are increasingly fragmented as humans in the way we live our lives – a more mobile society less dependent upon family and neighbor, which in many cases has created a sense of loss for belongingness, a sense of duty and obligation to those with whom we share space and common identity, and other abstractions that would otherwise root us deeply within our surroundings.  This bundle of constructive abstractions or motivations Roger Scruton speaks of in his book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet, as oikophillia or the love of home.  As Roger notes,

People leave a trail of waste behind them and do not think to clean it up.  But I argue that we have an instinct to clean up after ourselves, just so long as we regard the place where we are as our home. That is the motive I call oikophilia, and it is at the root of conservatism in all its forms. The solution to environmental problems comes when oikophilia takes charge of them. This comes in the first instance from natural civic feeling.

While we can readily serve up technological fixes to our problems, I’m at loss for how society rekindles those civic feelings, except for one person, one neighborhood, one community at a time.  Perhaps technology can serve as that temporal bridge – buying us more time – as we begin to render the social and spiritual fabric of society.