Love Your Monsters Ebook

Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene

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Paving of road brings change in the Amazon rainforest. AP, May 28, 2005.

November 29, 2011 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

Breakthrough Institute's first ebook is now on sale at Amazon. Read the introduction here:

The last few years have been demoralizing for anyone who cares about the environment. Emissions continue to rise. Ancient forests continue to disappear. And the world appears unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

The ecological thinkers assembled in Love Your Monsters argue that environmentalism, in its failure to evolve, has become an obstacle to addressing these challenges. A political movement founded on shrinking the human footprint is doomed to fail in a world of seven going on ten billion souls seeking to live energy-rich modern lives.

But if this collection of essays delivers tough love to greens, it also offers hope. By 2100, nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free, and creative lives. Despite the claims of Malthusian pessimists, that world is both economically and ecologically possible. But to realize it, and to save what remains of the Earth's ecological heritage, we must once and for all embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.

The idea that poor nations can be persuaded to choose a development path fundamentally different from the one pursued by the West is naïve. Brazil is developing its forested interior, as Europe and the United States did before it, with dams, farms, ranches, and roads in order to sell its beef, soy, and minerals on foreign markets. Its indigenous people sell logging contracts; its rubber tappers run cattle. China, meanwhile, is now manufacturer to the world thanks to Confucian grit, industriousness, and cheap coal — not waterwheels, solar panels, and respect for nature. In the process, China has lifted roughly half a billion peasants out of grinding poverty. And, as Siddhartha Shome observes in these pages, India has instead chosen modernization and integration into the global knowledge economy over the ascetic path advocated by Mahatma Gandhi.

For traditional greens, all of this is evidence that humankind is destroying itself — but is it? Geographer Erle Ellis describes how humans have repeatedly transgressed ecological limits since we were hunter-gatherers. Human civilization rests not upon natural systems but human ones, like agriculture, cities, and industry, which have proven extraordinarily resilient to population and climatic pressures. What’s at stake, Ellis and the other thinkers assembled here argue, is not the survival of human civilization, but rather the contours and qualities of our gardened planet.

Though barely audible amidst the loud claims of imminent catastrophe, ecologists have decisively moved away from the conception of nature as a fragile system in a tenuous state of balance. Over the last two decades, Mark Sagoff notes, empirically oriented ecologists rejected the 1950s cybernetic view of nature as a “system” where any disruption could result in its collapse — a theory that, Sagoff explains, was built upon the Christian doctrine that nature existed as a Great Chain of Being. In reality, esteemed conservation biologist Peter Kareiva and his colleagues observe that nature has proven extraordinarily resilient.

Rising economic optimism in poor nations has been matched, over the last two decades, by rising ecological pessimism in rich ones. As developed nations became knowledge economies, their populations enjoyed greater wealth to travel and experience the natural world, but also became increasingly alienated from material (i.e., agricultural and industrial) production. Rising anomie and disenchantment with modernity, we argue in our essay, "Evolve," have driven rising skepticism about the ability of technology to improve our lives. Daniel Sarewitz observes that green liberalism's turn away from technology and modernity beginning in the 1960s also coincided with its turn toward a scientific rationality “unmoored from appropriate moral and experiential foundations.”

But if greens rejected technology and modernization in the 1960s, there is no reason they can't embrace them today. One of the founders of science and technology studies, Bruno Latour, points the way. Through a novel reading of Frankenstein, Latour argues that we must learn to love our technologies as we do our children — not reject them at the first sign of trouble. And given the critical role played by tool use in human evolution, the two of us conclude, we must understand technology as natural and sacred, not alien and profane. A new, postenvironmental liberalism should thus, Sarewitz argues, understand technology as a public good — a way to achieve broadly agreed upon societal goals, whether for improved health or cleaner air.

Meanwhile, Kareiva and colleagues argue, for conservation to be relevant in this new world it must move beyond the old parks and wilderness model and find ways to shape development. We will not wall off the entirety of the Amazon or the rainforests of Indonesia from all development as if we were protecting Yosemite and Yellowstone. 

Ultimately, if we are to be responsible planetary stewards, we need a new view of both human agency and the planet. We must abandon the faith that humankind's powers can be abdicated in deference to higher ones, whether Nature or the Market. And we must see through the illusion that these supposedly higher powers exist in a delicate state of harmony constantly at risk of collapse from too much human interference.

All of this will require a new posture and a new paradigm. We must open our eyes to the joy and excitement experienced by the newly prosperous and increasingly free. We must create a world where every human can not only realize her material needs but also her higher needs for creativity, choice, beauty — and wilderness. 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.


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