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The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Environmentalism

The Inherent Contradictions Of Pro-Growth Environmentalism

A reader sent me a link to Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist by Paul Kingsnorth, which was published in the January/February issue of Orion. I am going to let Kingsnorth do most of the talking today. It seems that Paul has realized that what I called "pro-growth environmentalism" in the title is not all it's cracked up to be. His long essay describes his journey of discovery. I will quote at length from the crucial section called How It Ended, making a few remarks along the way. I'll give you my own thoughts at the end. If you want to get the full impact of this text, don't skim. You've got to read it.

How it ended

I became an “environmentalist” because of a strong emotional reaction to wild places and the other-than-human world: to beech trees and hedgerows and pounding waterfalls, to songbirds and sunsets, to the flying fish in the Java Sea and the canopy of the rainforest at dusk when the gibbons come to the waterside to feed. From that reaction came a feeling, which became a series of thoughts: that such things are precious for their own sake, that they are food for the human soul, and that they need people to speak for them to, and defend them from, other people, because they cannot speak our language and we have forgotten how to speak theirs. And because we are killing them to feed ourselves and we know it and we care about it, sometimes, but we do it anyway because we are hungry, or we have persuaded ourselves that we are.

But these are not, I think, very common views today. Today’s environmentalism is as much a victim of the contemporary cult of utility as every other aspect of our lives, from science to education. We are not environmentalists now because we have an emotional reaction to the wild world. Most of us wouldn’t even know where to find it. We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called “sustainability.” What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the nonhuman world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people—us—feel is their right, without destroying the “natural capital” or the “resource base” that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centered piece of politicking, disguised as concern for “the planet.” In a very short time—just over a decade—this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total—at the price of its soul.

Here Kingsnorth gets to the heart of the matter—carbon emissions and "sustainability." My recent post Energy, Carbon And Craziness is related, but has a different focus. In so far as Paul is a recovering environmentalist, problems associated with the depletion of fossil fuels are not on his radar screen.

Let me offer up just one example of how this pact has worked. If “sustainability” is about anything, it is about carbon. Carbon and climate change. To listen to most environmentalists today, you would think that these were the only things in the world worth talking about. The business of “sustainability” is the business of preventing carbon emissions. Carbon emissions threaten a potentially massive downgrading of our prospects for material advancement as a species. They threaten to unacceptably erode our resource base and put at risk our vital hoards of natural capital. If we cannot sort this out quickly, we are going to end up darning our socks again and growing our own carrots and other such unthinkable things. All of the horrors our grandparents left behind will return like deathless legends. Carbon emissions must be “tackled” like a drunk with a broken bottle—quickly, and with maximum force.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt the potency of climate change to undermine the human machine. It looks to me as if it is already beginning to do so, and that it is too late to do anything but attempt to mitigate the worst effects. But what I am also convinced of is that the fear of losing both the comfort and the meaning that our civilization gifts us has gone to the heads of environmentalists to such a degree that they have forgotten everything else. The carbon must be stopped, like the Umayyad at Tours, or all will be lost.

At this juncture Kingsnorth explores what it would mean if a "zero-carbon" solution were actually implemented. He does not doubt that it could be implemented. In Carbon, Energy And Craziness, I simply observed that it is crazy to presume (as environmentalists generally do) that we can replace all the fossil fuel energy we use with "clean" renewable sources at our current (or projected) consumption rates. That's a fantasy.

World energy consumption, current and projected, as measured in quadrillion (1015, 1,000,000,000,000,000) British thermal units (BTUs). From the Energy Information Administration.

However, Kingsnorth's text here highlights another point I made in Carbon, Energy And Craziness, which is that when you strip away the superficial differences, even if zero-carbon does not appear to be a superficial difference at first glance, the pro-growth agenda of environmentalists is exactly the same as the pro-growth agenda of business people in the fossil fuels industry pursuing business as usual.

This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then “zero carbon” is the solution. Society needs to go about its business without spewing the stuff out. It needs to do this quickly, and by any means necessary. Build enough of the right kind of energy technologies, quickly enough, to generate the power we “need” without producing greenhouse gases, and there will be no need to ever turn the lights off; no need to ever slow down.

To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where this energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful, and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.

And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonized by vast “solar arrays,” glass and steel and aluminum, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of five-hundred-foot wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons, and wires. The open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces. The rivers are to see their estuaries severed and silted by industrial barrages. The croplands and even the rainforests, the richest habitats on this terrestrial Earth, are already highly profitable sites for biofuel plantations designed to provide guilt-free car fuel to the motion-hungry masses of Europe and America.

What this adds up to should be clear enough, yet many people who should know better choose not to see it. This is business-as-usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted, and the nonhuman. It is the mass destruction of the world’s remaining wild places in order to feed the human economy. And without any sense of irony, people are calling this “environmentalism.”

A while back I wrote an article in a newspaper highlighting the impact of industrial wind power stations (which are usually referred to, in a nice Orwellian touch, as wind “farms”) on the uplands of Britain. I was e-mailed the next day by an environmentalist friend who told me he hoped I was feeling ashamed of myself. I was wrong; worse, I was dangerous. What was I doing giving succor to the fossil fuel industry? Didn’t I know that climate change would do far more damage to upland landscapes than turbines? Didn’t I know that this was the only way to meet our urgent carbon targets? Didn’t I see how beautiful turbines were? So much more beautiful than nuclear power stations. I might think that a “view” was more important than the future of the entire world, but this was because I was a middle-class escapist who needed to get real.

Here Kingsnorth sees that yet another thinly disguised attack on our Earthly habitat is thought of as progressive, sustainable and green by environmentalists pursuing Progress and continued economic growth for an ever-growing number of people on our finite planet.

It became apparent at that point that what I saw as the next phase of the human attack on the nonhuman world a lot of my environmentalist friends saw as “progressive,” “sustainable,” and “green.” What I called destruction they called “large-scale solutions.” This stuff was realistic, necessarily urgent. It went with the grain of human nature and the market, which as we now know are the same thing. We didn’t have time to “romanticize” the woods and the hills. There were emissions to reduce, and the end justified the means.

It took me a while to realize where this kind of talk took me back to: the maze and the moonlit hilltop. This desperate scrabble for “sustainable development” was in reality the same old same old. People I had thought were on my side were arguing aggressively for the industrializing of wild places in the name of human desire. This was the same rootless, distant destruction that had led me to the top of Twyford Down. Only now there seemed to be some kind of crude equation at work that allowed them to believe this was something entirely different. Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydropower barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.

So here I was again: a Luddite, a NIMBY, a reactionary, a romantic; standing in the way of progress. I realized that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment. Their talk was of parts-per-million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth, and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There were campaigns about “the planet” and “the Earth,” but there was no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth.

Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability. I rarely talk about the rapacious nature and destructive outcomes of pro-growth environmentalism because I don't believe those outcomes will ever come about. For example, we will never see this, from Kingsnorth's text—

... the open oceans, already swimming in our plastic refuse and emptying of marine life, will be home to enormous offshore turbine ranges and hundreds of wave machines strung around the coastlines like Victorian necklaces...

Nothing is going to be done about anthropogenic climate change. See my posts For Humans, The Economy Is Everything and Wealth And Energy Consumption Are Inseperable. Another crucial point (not made in the text) is that transforming our energy systems would itself require vast amounts of energy, much of which would necessarily be energy from fossil fuels. Bootstrapping can take you only so far in the early and middle parts of the transition, which would take decades to implement. And of course we would require all sorts of technological breakthroughs which don't (by definition) currently exist.

So Kingsnorth's text can be read as a counterfactual question: what would happen if humankind were to successfully implement the zero-carbon program of standard environmentalism? As Kingsnorth describes, the correct answer is that we would end up destroying our Earthly habitat in a different way than we are destroying it now. Essentially, that's the only difference. Destruction of the natural world would be the final outcome either way. Sustainability is impossible if the goal is continued exponential growth. These are the inherent contradictions of pro-growth environmentalism. Supporting further exploitation of fossil fuels is the default view of almost all politicans everywhere.

"Sustainability" is just a nice sounding word which justifies all kinds of heated political discussion which ultimately doesn't matter (e.g. Pro-Environment Progressives versus Pro-Fossil Fuels Republicans). This keeps the Blame Game going, a game people cling to for dear life. The trick is to see this game for what it is.

We might call the inflexible goal of continued exponential growth the Human Project, or the Human Imperative, which amounts to providing ever-greater comfort and wealth to an ever-greater number of people (but not all) as time goes on. In the past I have emphasized that any proposal which is rooted in the Human Project has no long-term future in the 21st century. I have also emphasized that the Human Project seems to be deeply rooted in Human Nature. Unless the human species is capable of changing its behavior in radical, unexpected ways, the Human Project will hurtle on toward its inevitable conclusions. The entire Earth is just like Easter Island (Rapa Nui) in this respect.

I would be glad to be proved wrong.

original article by Dave Cohen: