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The Neo-Environmentalists

The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?

There are plenty of people who think they know the answer to that question. One of them is Peter Kareiva, who would like to think that he and his kind represent the future of environmentalism, and who may turn out to be right. Kareiva is chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, which is among the world’s largest environmental organizations. He is a scientist, a revisionist, and one among a growing number of former greens who might best be called “neo-environmentalists.”

The resemblance between this coalescing group and the Friedmanite “neoliberals” of the early 1970s is intriguing. Like the neoliberals, the neo-environmentalists are attempting to break through the lines of an old orthodoxy that is visibly exhausted and confused. Like the neoliberals, they are mostly American and mostly male, and they emphasize scientific measurement and economic analysis over other ways of seeing and measuring. Like the neoliberals, they cluster around a few key think tanks: then, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute, and the Adam Smith Institute; now, the Breakthrough Institute, the Long Now Foundation, and the Copenhagen Consensus. Like the neoliberals, they are beginning to grow in numbers at a time of global collapse and uncertainty. And like the neoliberals, they think they have radical solutions.

Kareiva’s ideas are a good place to start in understanding the neo-environmentalists. He is an outspoken former conservationist who now believes that most of what the greens think they know is wrong. Nature, he says, is more resilient than fragile; science proves it. “Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment,” he says, “and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Wilderness does not exist; all of it has been influenced by humans at some time. Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?” Somehow, you know what the answer is going to be before he gives it to you.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that a right-wing politican might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva is not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.

Beyond the field of conservation, the neo-environmentalists are distinguished by their attitude toward new technologies, which they almost uniformly see as positive. Civilization, nature, and people can only be “saved” by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering, and anything else with the prefix “new” that annoys Greenpeace. The traditional green focus on “limits” is dismissed as naïve. We are now, in Brand’s words, “as gods,” and we have to step up and accept our responsibility to manage the planet rationally through the use of new technology guided by enlightened science.

Neo-environmentalists also tend to exhibit an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests, and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services,” which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude toward the scientific method. Everything that matters can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection, or simple human feeling.

Some of this might be shocking to some old-guard greens—which is the point—but it is hardly a new message. In fact, it is a very old one; it is simply a variant on the old Wellsian techno-optimism that has been promising us cornucopia for over a century. It’s an old-fashioned Big Science, Big Tech, and Big Money narrative filtered through the lens of the internet and garlanded with holier-than-thou talk about saving the poor and feeding the world.

But though they burn with the shouty fervor of the born-again, the neo-environmentalists are not exactly wrong. In fact, they are at least half right. They are right to say that the human-scale, convivial approaches of those 1970s thinkers are never going to work if the world continues to formulate itself according to the demands of late capitalist industrialism. They are right to say that a world of 9 billion people all seeking the status of middle-class consumers cannot be sustained by vernacular approaches. They are right to say that the human impact on the planet is enormous and irreversible. They are right to say that traditional conservation efforts sometimes idealized a preindustrial nature. They are right to say that the campaigns of green NGOs often exaggerate and dissemble. And they are right to say that the greens have hit a wall, and that continuing to ram their heads against it is not going to knock it down. Paul Kingsnorth

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