Can Frankenfood Save the Earth

frankenstein

If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything in the world looks like a nail (to be banged into something). If the scope expands and all you have is a complicated technological system, than the world looks like a lots of problems waiting for you. That’s my quick appraisal of a provocative article that appeared in Yale Environment 360.

The author, Fred Pearce, reports on the evolution of a group, claiming to save the environment through technology. His article is entitled, “New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope.” Here’s the abstract from the Yale on-line magazine.

The concept of ecological modernism, which sees technology as the key to solving big environmental problems, is gaining adherents and getting a lot of buzz these days. While mainstream conservationists may be put off by some of the new movement’s tenets, they cannot afford to ignore the issues it is raising.

The article pits classic environmentalists, represented by Rachel Carson, against environmental modernists who would trigger an era of Schumpetarian “creative destruction.”

Schumpeter’s ideas are a kind of economists’ version of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s take on evolution as happening mostly in transformational leaps, which he called punctuated equilibrium, rather than through gradual, incremental change. Of course, the modernists see green technologies as the game-changers of the 21st century. In their view, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs… . Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the “de-ecologization of our material welfare.” Environmentalism has been taken over by “Arcadian sentiment” and has “become its own antithesis,” he says. “Only technology can save nature.”

These folks want to lock us up in a world disconnected from whatever “nature” is called in the future. Then the mad scientists can recreate the extinct creatures that once roamed the earth by using modern genetic engineering. I just viewed the film, Young Frankenstein, and am reminded of the limits of science and technology. What’s gone is gone. The promise of Jesse Ausubel’s “great restoration” where bison will roam across the American West and wolves overrun Europe or Stuart Brand’s notion of recreating passenger pigeons is just as Arcadian a dream as is that of the mainstream environmentalists they dis.

The modernist approach to conservation is to seek out technological substitutes for crops. We should, they say, give up cotton in favor of polyester or whatever else the chemists can come up with to clothe us. We should turn our noses up at wild fish and embrace aquaculture instead. Farmers should discard organic fertilizer in favor of chemicals.

You really should read the whole article to get the full thrust of the hubris of those who proclaim the death of environmentalism. Pearce does note that technology both giveth and taketh away. A point lost on the environmental modernist. Technology is, indeed, a wonderful thing. I spent eight years at MIT becoming an engineer and for a while thought I could do exactly what the modernists claim. But then I ventured out into life away from the academic cloisters where many of these folks have spent their entire adult lives. Lo and behold, the world turns out to be more complex than the machine that this movement, if that is what it is, thinks it is or fails to accept.

In many ways, the very condition these folks want to cure, unsustainability or some other descriptor that carries the same picture of how we have messed up the Earth, can be traced back to the uncritical, perhaps, addictive use of technology to solve problems it has created or at least can be seen as the proximate cause. But it never the whole cause. Technology is never far from people and its outcomes depends on the combination of human agency and the technical power of the devices and systems they employ.

Perhaps the so-called Arcadian environmentalists referred to in the article do not have the whole story right, but they have enough right not to be so easily dismissed. Humans evolved surrounded by nature (descriptive use, not expressing some value). Our cognitive system has parts that developed out of our interrelationship and experience. I interpret the essence of the environmental modernists as putting human settlements in a bubble from which we can look out through a window on what used to be called nature or environment, but now is only something we view like pictures at a museum. It’s we against them. Somehow I think our humanity will become lost as we become even more modern that we are.

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