Two “ecomodernists” argue that continued progress in science and other realms will help us overcome environmental problems
I work hard to maintain my optimistic outlook. Wishful thinking works. The first step toward building a more healthy, peaceful, just world is to believe we can do it. So how do I deal with all the bad news about climate change? U.S. officials are rolling back regulations designed to curb global warming even as reports flood in about its scale and potential consequences.
I have thus found solace in two new essays that offer upbeat takes on our environmental future. Both reflect the outlook of ecomodernism, a movement I have written about here and here. One essay, published in the ecomodernist Breakthrough Journal, is by mega-pundit Steven Pinker. I have knocked Pinker for his views on the roots of war and other matters, but in general I appreciate his empirically-based optimism.
His Breakthrough essay, “Enlightenment Environmentalism,” is adapted from his new bestseller Enlightenment Now. The book, which been praised and attacked, argues that we’ve achieved lots of progress, material and moral, and we should achieve lots more as long as we don’t succumb to fatalism.
In his Breakthrough essay, Pinker spells out a key assumption of ecomodernism. Industrialization “has been good for humanity. It 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. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts.”
Pinker contrasts the can-do ecomodernist spirit with “the lugubrious conventional wisdom offered by the mainstream environmental movement, and the radicalism and fatalism it encourages.” We can solve problems related to climate change, Pinker argues, “if we sustain 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.”
The bulk of Pinker’s essay consists of documentation of how we’ve handled environmental threats. We have reduced our rate of population growth; made agriculture, transportation and other key industries more energy-efficient; and increased the acreage of marine and terrestrial preserves. Here is a typical passage:
“Since 1970, when the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the United States has slashed its emissions of five air pollutants by almost two-thirds. Over the same period, the population grew by more than 40 percent, and those people drove twice as many miles and became two and a half times richer. Energy use has leveled off, and even carbon dioxide emissions have turned a corner. These diverging curves refute both the left-wing claim that only de-growth can curb pollution and the right-wing claim that environmental protection must sabotage economic growth and standard of living.”
My mood got an even bigger boost from “The Conquest of Climate” by Will Boisvert, a journalist I met at an ecomodernist powwow a few years ago. My first exposure to Boivert’s dry, iconoclastic sensibility was a 2013 Breakthrough Journal article, “A Locavore’s Dilemma,” which asserts that “the linkage of local farming to efficiency and sustainability is dubious.” Boisvert’s new essay, which he posted on his blog “Progress and Peril,” deserves to be widely read. It is even broader in scope than Pinker’s essay, and I found its analysis strikingly original. Boisvert begins:
“How bad will climate change be? Not very. No, this isn’t a denialist screed. Human greenhouse emissions will warm the planet, raise the seas and derange the weather, and the resulting heat, flood and drought will be cataclysmic. Cataclysmic—but not apocalyptic. While the climate upheaval will be large, the consequences for human well-being will be small. Looked at in the broader context of economic development, climate change will barely slow our progress in the effort to raise living standards.”
Boisvert examines four consequences of climate change: water shortages, food shortages, rising air temperatures and rising seas. He contends that the negative effects of climate change will be offset by continued progress in technology and other realms. As an example, he examines a 2016 Lancet study that predicted that by 2050 climate change will cause food shortages that result in 529,000 deaths each year.
The food shortages, Boisvert points out, “are relative to a 2050 baseline when food will be more abundant than now thanks to advances in agricultural productivity that will dwarf the effects of climate change.” Even factoring in climate change, the Lancet study calculates that per capita food consumption will be higher in 2050 than in 2010. Newsweek’s story on the Lancet study was nonetheless headlined, “Climate change could cause half a million deaths in 2050 due to reduced food availability.”
Boisvert comments: “A headline like ‘Despite climate change, rising food production will save millions of lives’ isn’t great click-bait, but it would give a truer picture of a future under global warming.” He adds: “Global warming won’t wipe us out or even stall our progress, it will just marginally slow ordinary economic development that will still outpace the negative effects of warming and make life steadily better in the future, under every climate scenario.”
I also like Boisvert’s discussion of water shortages. Claiming that a drought sparked Syria’s terrible civil war, greens warn that global warming could provoke “water wars.” Boisvert points out that the drought that struck Syria also affected Israel. He continues:
“Shortages forced Israel to tighten its already stringent water conservation and recycling standards. More importantly, they prompted breakthroughs in reverse-osmosis desalination technology, cutting by half the energy needed to extract fresh water from the sea and dramatically lowering the cost to just 58 cents per cubic meter (1,000 liters) of drinkable water… The implications of cheap desalination are profound. By tapping limitless sea-water resources it could drought-proof agriculture and thus eliminate the greatest threat posed by climate change.”
Boisvert notes that “when we think harder about the specific problems global warming poses—problems of water management, agricultural productivity, cooling and construction—the threat becomes less daunting. Our logistic and technical capacities are burgeoning, and they give us ample means of addressing these problems.”
Greens fear that optimism will foster complacency and hence undermine activism. But I find the essays of Pinker and Boisvert inspiring, not enervating. I plan to assign the essays to my students, who have become quite gloomy lately. These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism.
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