It's the Technology, Stupid

A Response to Enlightenment Environmentalism

Steven Pinker’s essay “Enlightenment Environmentalism: The Case for Ecomodernism” defends ecomodernism against what he calls “Romantic declinism” and argues that the former will be promoted by “the benevolent forces of modernity.” The forces of modernity come in two forms — conscious international collaboration and technological innovations whose ultimate social and environmental consequences may be unrelated to their purposes. Pinker may be too optimistic about ambitious projects of reform, but his optimism about technological innovation is probably justified.

He is right to identify the Romantic roots of most contemporary environmentalism. “Beginning in the 1960s,” Pinker writes, “the environmental movement grew out of scientific knowledge (from ecology, public health, and earth and atmospheric sciences) and a Romantic reverence for nature.” But Romantic reverence for nature has always dominated the mix, along with the view that technology has estranged humanity from a supposed harmony with nonhuman nature. In this secularized version of North Atlantic Protestantism, the expulsion from Eden is followed first by the alienation of human beings from the natural world, and then, thanks to industrialization, by the threat that humanity will actually destroy nature — by means of overpopulation, resource depletion, or climate change. As Pinker notes, the population apocalypse is receding as a danger, while technology-driven efficiency makes the resource-depletion apocalypse unlikely as well.

And climate change? Pinker is right to reject both the Right’s denial that it is a potential problem at all and the radical Left’s view of it as just punishment for the sins of capitalism or perhaps industrial civilization as such: “The enlightened response to climate change is to figure out how to get the most energy with the least emission of greenhouse gases.”

When it comes to the mix of mitigation and adaptation that is the appropriate response of public policy to the real, not exaggerated, challenges of climate change, Pinker comes down heavily in favor of mitigation or “deep decarbonization”: “The success of deep decarbonization will hinge on technological breakthroughs on many frontiers, including advanced nuclear technologies that are cheaper, safer, and more efficient than today’s light-water reactors; batteries to store intermittent energy from renewables; Internet-like smart grids that distribute electricity from scattered sources to scattered users at scattered times; technologies that electrify and decarbonize industrial processes such as the production of cement, fertilizer, and steel; liquid biofuels for heavy trucks and planes that need dense, portable energy; and methods of capturing and storing CO2.”

Here I think a little caution is in order. Pinker has not only told us that we need “technological breakthroughs on many frontiers,” a tall order in itself, but also discussed the details and results of six as-yet nonexistent technologies. If only a few or none of these imaginary technologies actually materialize, and the challenges of climate change are as significant as Pinker says they are, then public policies promoting adaptation to climate change will be relatively more important. There should always be a Plan B.

In general, though, Pinker’s optimism that climate change is a technological problem that can be solved by technological means is persuasive. I am less persuaded by his attempt to link ecomodernism to what he calls “Enlightenment optimism” and defends in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, from which his essay is drawn.

I will limit my criticism to the views Pinker expresses in his Breakthrough essay. He views progress as a result of conscious reform in some cases and, in others, as a happy accident which is the by-product of what he calls “the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology.” 

On the one hand, he uses the terms “we” and “us” to imply conscious collaboration: “People sometimes ask me whether I think that humanity will rise to the challenge or whether we will sit back and let disaster unfold. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll rise to the challenge.” And: “As people get richer and better educated, they care more about the environment, figure out ways to protect it, and are better able to pay the costs. Many parts of the environment are rebounding, emboldening us to deal with the admittedly severe problems that remain.” As precedents for a collective, international effort like the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015, Pinker cites the 1963 nuclear atmospheric test ban treaty along with bans on sulfur emissions and chlorofluorocarbons.

Elsewhere in the essay, however, Pinker treats different kinds of modern progress as welcome but initially unforeseen consequences of industrialization, which “has fed billions, doubled lifespans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children.” His own discussion of failed prophecies of doom as a result of overpopulation and resource depletion supports this view of much major environmental improvement as an incidental by-product of social trends, rather than conscious political efforts. 

Modern contraceptive technology enabled, but did not cause, widespread drops in birth rates, which most scholars attribute to the costs of raising children in urbanized areas as opposed to premodern agrarian communities. Likewise, dematerialization in various sectors of the economy did not result from the triumphant efforts of a transnational movement to promote dematerialization a half-century or century ago. There was no diplomatic conference resulting in a transnational Geneva Treaty of 1920 to Promote Dematerialization by the Year 2000. Instead, the piecemeal industrialization of agriculture made it possible to grow far more food on far less land, with the result that much former farmland in developed countries is being reforested. But expanding habitats for wildlife was not the objective of agricultural science researchers and agribusiness firms.

Pinker is right that environmental progress can come about in two forms — as the result of conscious international collaboration, and as a by-product of innovations with other purposes. We can be pessimistic about the prospects of the former without being pessimistic about the likelihood of the latter.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 9

Featuring pieces by Rachel Laudan, Alan Levinovitz,
R. David Simpson, Mark Sagoff, Fred Block,
Julie Guthman, Brandon Keim, and more.