Breakthrough Institute cofounder Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger on the coevolution of technology and humanity.
This essay originally appeared in Orion Magazine (September/October 2011) and is reprinted with permission.
Sometime around 2014, Italy will complete construction of seventy-eight mobile floodgates aimed at protecting Venice's three inlets from the rising tides of the Adriatic Sea. The massive doors — twenty meters by thirty meters, and five meters thick — will, most of the time, lie flat on the sandy seabed between the lagoon and the sea. But when a high tide is predicted, the doors will empty themselves of water and fill with compressed air, rising up on hinges to keep the Adriatic out of the city. Three locks will allow ships to move in and out of the lagoon while the gates are up.
Nowhere else in the world have humans so constantly had to create and re-create their infrastructure in response to a changing natural environment than in Venice. The idea for the gates dates back to the 1966 flood, which inundated 100 percent of the city. Still, it took from 1970 to 2002 for the hydrologist Robert Frassetto and others to convince their fellow Italians to build them. Not everyone sees the oscillating and buoyant floodgates as Venice's salvation. After the project was approved, the head of World Wildlife Fund Italy said, "Today the city's destiny rests on a pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gamble."
In truth, the grandeur that is Venice has always rested — quite literally — on a series of pretentious, costly, and environmentally harmful technological gambles. Her buildings rest upon pylons made of ancient larch and oak trees ripped from inland forests a thousand years ago. Over time, the pylons were petrified by the saltwater, infill was added, and cathedrals were constructed. Little by little, technology helped transform a town of humble fisherfolk into the city we know today.
Saving Venice has meant creating Venice, not once, but many times since its founding. And that is why her rescue from the rising seas serves as an apt metaphor for solving this century's formidable environmental problems. Each new act of salvation will result in new unintended consequences, positive and negative, which will in turn require new acts of salvation. What we call "saving the Earth" will, in practice, require creating and re-creating it again and again for as long as humans inhabit it.
Many environmentally concerned people today view technology as an affront to the sacredness of nature, but our technologies have always been perfectly natural. Our animal skins, our fire, our farms, our windmills, our nuclear plants, and our solar panels — all 100 percent natural, drawn, as they are, from the raw materials of the Earth.
Furthermore, over the course of human history, those technologies have not only been created by us, but have also helped create us. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that the reason for our modern hands, with their opposable thumbs and shorter fingers, is that they were better adapted for tool use. Ape hands are great for climbing trees but not, it turns out, for striking flint or making arrowheads. Those prehumans whose hands could best use tools gained an enormous advantage over those whose hands could not.
As our hands and wrists changed, we increasingly walked upright, hunted, ate meat, and evolved. Our upright posture allowed us to chase down animals we had wounded with our weapons. Our long-distance running was aided by sweat glands replacing fur. The use of fire to cook meat allowed us to consume much larger amounts of protein, which allowed our heads to grow so large that some prehumans began delivering bigger-brained babies prematurely. Those babies, in turn, were able to survive because we were able to fashion still more tools, made from animal bladders and skins, to strap the helpless infants to their mothers' chests. Technology, in short, made us human.
Of course, as our bodies, our brains, and our tools evolved, so too did our ability to radically modify our environment. We hunted mammoths and other species to extinction. We torched whole forests and savannas in order to flush prey and clear land for agriculture. And long before human emissions began to affect the climate, we had already shifted the albedo of the Earth by replacing many of the world's forests with cultivated agriculture. While our capabilities to alter our environment have, over the last century, expanded substantially, the trend is long-standing. The Earth of one hundred or two hundred or three hundred years ago was one that had already been profoundly shaped by human endeavor.
None of this changes the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities — if they don't threaten our very existence — certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years. But the difference between the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.
Humans have long been cocreators of the environment they inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.
Nevertheless, elites in the West — who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet — insist that development and technology are the causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable) urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce. Indeed, the most visible and common expressions of faith in ecological salvation are new forms of consumption. Green products and services — the Toyota Prius, the efficient washer/dryer, the LEED-certified office building — are consciously identified by consumers as things they do to express their higher moral status.
The same is true at the political level, as world leaders, to the cheers of the left-leaning postmaterial constituencies that increasingly hold the balance of political power in many developed economies, offer promise after promise to address climate change, species extinction, deforestation, and global poverty, all while studiously avoiding any action that might impose real cost or sacrifice upon their constituents. While it has been convenient for many sympathetic observers to chalk up the failure of such efforts to corporate greed, corruption, and political cowardice, the reality is that the entire postmaterial project is, confoundingly, built upon a foundation of affluence and material consumption that would be considerably threatened by any serious effort to address the ecological crises through substantially downscaling economic activity.
It's not too difficult to understand how this hypocrisy has come to infiltrate such a seemingly well-meaning swath of our culture. As large populations in the developed North achieved unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of years — emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty — was subsumed by the need to manage the unintended consequences of modernization itself, from local pollution to nuclear proliferation to global warming.
Increasingly skeptical of capitalist meritocracy and economic criteria as the implicit standards of success at the individual level and the defining measure of progress at the societal level, the post-World War II generations have redefined normative notions of well-being and quality of life in developed societies. Humanitarianism and environmentalism have become the dominant social movements, bringing environmental protection, preservation of quality of life, and other "life-political" issues, in the words of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, to the fore.
The rise of the knowledge economy — encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector — has further accelerated the West's growing disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to claim some role in producing food, shelter, or even basic consumer products. And yet they can afford to spend time in beautiful places — in their gardens, in the countryside, on beaches, and near old-growth forests. As they survey these landscapes, they tell themselves that the best things in life are free, even though they have consumed mightily to travel to places where they feel peaceful, calm, and far from the worries of the modern world.
These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world. Alongside those dark incantations shine nostalgic visions of a transcendent future in which humans might, once again, live in harmony with nature through a return to small-scale agriculture, or even to hunter-gatherer life.
The contradictions between the world as it is — filled with the unintended consequences of our actions — and the world as so many of us would like it to be result in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology. The belief that we must radically curtail our consumption in order to survive as a civilization is no impediment to elites paying for private university educations, frequent jet travel, and iPads.
Thus, ecotheology, like all dominant religious narratives, serves the dominant forms of social and economic organization in which it is embedded. Catholicism valorized poverty, social hierarchy, and agrarianism for the masses in feudal societies that lived and worked the land. Protestantism valorized industriousness, capital accumulation, and individuation among the rising merchant classes of early capitalist societies and would define the social norms of modernizing industrial societies. Today's secular ecotheology values creativity, imagination, and leisure over the work ethic, productivity, and efficiency in societies that increasingly prosper from their knowledge economies while outsourcing crude, industrial production of goods to developing societies. Living amid unprecedented levels of wealth and security, ecological elites reject economic growth as a measure of well-being, tell cautionary tales about modernity and technology, and warn of overpopulation abroad now that the societies in which they live are wealthy and their populations are no longer growing.
Such hypocrisy has rarely been a hindrance to religion and, indeed, contributes to its power. One of the most enduring characteristics of human civilization is the way ruling elites espouse beliefs radically at odds with their own behaviors. The ancient Greeks recited the cautionary tales of Prometheus and Icarus while using fire, dreaming of flight, and pursuing technological frontiers. Early agriculturalists told the story of the fall from Eden as a cautionary tale against the very agriculture they practiced. European Christians espoused poverty and peacemaking while accumulating wealth and waging war.
In preaching antimodernity while living as moderns, ecological elites affirm their status at the top of the postindustrial knowledge hierarchy. Affluent developed-world elites offer both their less well-to-do countrymen and the global poor a laundry list of don'ts -- don't develop like we developed, don't drive tacky SUVs, don't overconsume — that engender resentment, not emulation, from fellow citizens at home and abroad. That the ecological elites hold themselves to a different standard while insisting that all are equal is yet another demonstration of their higher status, for they are thus unaccountable even to reality.
Though it poses as a solution, today's nihilistic ecotheology is actually a significant obstacle to dealing with ecological problems created by modernization — one that must be replaced by a new, creative, and life-affirming worldview. After all, human development, wealth, and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity; now they must be considered essential to overcoming ecological risks.
There's no question that humans are radically remaking the Earth, but fears of ecological apocalypse — of condemning this world to fiery destruction -- are unsupported by the sciences. Global warming may bring worsening disasters and disruptions to rainfall, snowmelts, and agriculture, but there is little evidence to suggest it will deliver the end of modernization. Even the most catastrophic United Nations scenarios predict rising economic growth. While wealthy environmentalists claim to be especially worried about the impact of global warming on the poor, it is rapid, not retarded, development that is most likely to protect the poor against natural disasters and agricultural losses.
What modernization may threaten most is not human civilization, but the survival of those nonhuman species and environments we care about. While global warming dominates ecological discourse, the greatest threats to nonhumans remain our direct changes to the land and the seas. The world's great, diverse, and ancient forests are being converted to tree plantations, farms, and ranches. Humans are causing massive, unprecedented extinctions on Earth due to habitat destruction. We are on the verge of losing primates in the wild. We have so overfished the oceans that most of the big fish are gone.
The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich. We have become rather adept at transferring the wealth and diversity of nonhuman environments into human ones. The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity — just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.
The question for humanity, then, is not whether humans and our civilizations will survive, but rather what kind of a planet we will inhabit. Would we like a planet with wild primates, old-growth forests, a living ocean, and modest rather than extreme temperature increases? Of course we would — virtually everybody would. Only continued modernization and technological innovation can make such a world possible.
Putting faith in modernization will require a new secular theology consistent with the reality of human creation and life on Earth, not with some imagined dystopia or utopia. It will require a worldview that sees technology as humane and sacred, rather than inhumane and profane. It will require replacing the antiquated notion that human development is antithetical to the preservation of nature with the view that modernization is the key to saving it. Let's call this "modernization theology."
Where ecotheology imagines that our ecological problems are the consequence of human violations of a separate "nature," modernization theology views environmental problems as an inevitable part of life on Earth. Where the last generation of ecologists saw a natural harmony in Creation, the new ecologists see constant change. Where ecotheologians suggest that the unintended consequences of human development might be avoidable, proponents of modernization view them as inevitable, and positive as often as negative. And where the ecological elites see the powers of humankind as the enemy of Creation, the modernists acknowledge them as central to its salvation.
Modernization theology should thus be grounded in a sense of profound gratitude to Creation — human and nonhuman. It should celebrate, not desecrate, the technologies that led our prehuman ancestors to evolve. Our experience of transcendence in the outdoors should translate into the desire for all humans to benefit from the fruits of modernization and be able to experience similar transcendence. Our valorization of creativity should lead us to care for our cocreation of the planet.
The risks now faced by humanity are increasingly ones of our own making — and ones over which we have only partial, tentative, and temporary control. Various kinds of liberation — from hard agricultural labor and high infant mortality rates to tuberculosis and oppressive traditional values — bring all kinds of new problems, from global warming and obesity to alienation and depression. These new problems will largely be better than the old ones, in the way that obesity is a better problem than hunger, and living in a hotter world is a better problem than living in one without electricity. But they are serious problems nonetheless.
The good news is that we already have many nascent, promising technologies to overcome ecological problems. Stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions will require a new generation of nuclear power plants to cheaply replace coal plants as well as, perhaps, to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and power desalination plants to irrigate and grow forests in today's deserts. Pulling frontier agriculture back from forests will require massively increasing agricultural yields through genetic engineering. Replacing environmentally degrading cattle ranching may require growing meat in laboratories, which will gradually be viewed as less repulsive than today's cruel and deadly methods of meat production. And the solution to the species extinction problem will involve creating new habitats and new organisms, perhaps from the DNA of previously extinct ones.
In attempting to solve these problems, we will inevitably create new ones. One common objection to technology and development is that they will bring unintended consequences, but life on Earth has always been a story of unintended consequences. The Venice floodgates offer a pointed illustration. Concerns raised by the environmental community that the floodgates would impact marine life have been borne out -- only not in the way they had feared. Though the gates are still under construction, marine biologists have announced that they have already become host to many coral and fish species, some of which used to be found only in the southern Mediterranean or Red Sea.
Other critics of the gates have questioned what will happen if global warming should raise sea levels higher than the tops of the gates. If this should become inevitable, it is unlikely that Venetians would abandon their city. Instead, they may attempt to raise it. One sweetly ironic proposal would levitate the city by blowing carbon dioxide emissions two thousand feet below the lagoon floor. Some may call such strong faith in the technological fix an instance of hubris, but others will simply call it compassion.
The French anthropologist Bruno Latour has some interesting thoughts on the matter. According to Latour, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is not a cautionary tale against hubris, but rather a cautionary tale against irrational fears of imperfection. Dr. Frankenstein is an antihero not because he created life, but rather because he fled in horror when he mistook his creation for a monster — a self-fulfilling prophecy. The moral of the story, where saving the planet is concerned, is that we should treat our technological creations as we would treat our children, with care and love, lest our abandonment of them turn them into monsters.
"The sin is not to wish to have dominion over nature," Latour writes, "but to believe that this dominion means emancipation and not attachment." In other words, the term "ecological hubris" should not be used to describe the human desire to remake the world, but rather the faith that we can end the cycle of creation and destruction.