A Paradox in Environmental Policy Thought
I recently discovered a relatively new think tank headquartered in Northern California, The Breakthrough Institute. It describes itself as dedicated to environmental pragmatism, continuous education, and “modernizing environmentalism for the 21st Century.” Upon reading several of their essays published in The Breakthrough Journal, I immediately fell in love with their purpose and way of looking at things. In an era when the mainstream environmental movement succumbs to a philosophical dogma resembling charismatic religion, and asserts its unilateral claim to accurate science, it is nice to see rebels against the tide. I have no instinctive love for the underdog; but when the elites and mainstream are dominated by deeply flawed ideologists, innovative minorities usually have both a better vision for the future and a better grip on the reality of the present.
That said, two articles (both of which appealed to me very much) seemed to show a certain contradiction in Breakthrough’s thought and reveal them to be nothing more than a pseudo-scientific conservative hack society dedicated to trashing the assumptions of the mainstream environmental movement for the sheer sake of trashing them. This assumption came to me because I am used to listening to conservative talk radio (where hosts will assume upon themselves the most contradictory of statements for the sole purpose of destroying the reputation of the liberal elite) and seeking out hypocrisy.
Specifically, in two articles covering energy development and land conservation, the Breakthrough scholars respectively demeaned and lauded sustainability’s application to those policy areas. While the general green consensus on energy seems to be that we must develop sustainable energy that follows natural processes, wastes nothing, and is in harmony with the biosphere, Breakthrough argued that we must foster technological innovation to harness sources of energy further and further outside the biosphere. They argued that attempting to use biofuels like wood and ethanol ultimately destroyed huge swaths of forest cover and cropland unsustainably, and that wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal energy required immense transformations of the landscape which would ultimately prove detrimental to environmental health. Meanwhile, using classic fuels- oil, natural gas, coal, and, the authors hoped for the future, nuclear power- had a comparatively indirect detrimental effect on the environment, because they were not directly involved in the processes of the biosphere and thus their exploitation would not interrupt directly any of those natural processes. In a word, the authors argued that the human sphere and the environment are distinct entities, and that attempting to mix them through renewable energy use would have the unintended consequences of rendering the human economy less efficient and decimating the ecological processes of nature.
Meanwhile, the Breakthrough scholars take a seemingly opposite view in their article on land conservation. They posit that the intense focus on preservation of natural areas so adored by the modern environmental movement has succeeded in creating parks but failed in promoting healthy ecosystems; critical to healthy lands, then, is a balance between human interests and those of the environment. If preservation is regarded above all else, then recreation and exploitation might not be put in check, and preservation could succeed only in creating islands of (man-made) paradise amid seas of environmental devastation. They argue that instead, healthy ecosystems, wherein humans live on and utilize reasonably the land, are to be encouraged, and people ought to have a direct stake in the health of their environment. The old landowner’s saying that endangered species on property should be destroyed, lest the EPA impose regulations, is all too chillingly accurate. It must be counteracted through sustainable and reasonable use, and therefore the principle that the authors assert here is the natural unity between humans and the environment.
Most interesting of all is that these two principles- that humans should separate their energy usage from the ecosystem, and integrate their land usage with the ecosystem- fly directly opposite to the modern green consensus, which prefers an alignment of human energy usage with the biosphere’s processes and a strict separation between protecting the environment as a separate entity from the human sphere. It would seem that the authors are mere hacks attempting to trash the assumptions of the modern environmental movement.
But upon further thought, I realize two things- first, that the contradictory assumptions about energy use and land use do, in fact, seem to have historic precedent (I won’t get into this- I will only mention that pre-industrial energy was basically entirely organic in the form of wood and animal feed, and reaked havoc on every ecosystem it touched, and that Teddy Roosevelt, America’s greatest conservationist, very much believed in and practiced the alignment and balance of human and environmental interests in land use.)
But second, I realized that there is not actually anything wrong with two related but distinct fields operating on wildly different principles- energy use on division between the human and the environment, land use on their integration. I study domestic public policy, and if anything informs my view on it, it is the balanced dialectic between those policy areas that require national centralization and coordination (i.e. defense, constitutional law, the establishment of a market system, wide-level infrastructure, managing relations between parts, etc.) and those best conducted at lower, more local levels (basically everything else, from social laws to the stimulation of local industries to small-level infrastructure to low-level economic controls, and everything in between.) These two contradictory principles are not recognized universally but do, in the American system, tend to work reasonably well. While the principles of the environment and the principles of human society might be constants, their manifestations are ever-changing and ever-different; and therefore the principles informing policy of all types and levels must be entirely flexible enough to firmly adapt to them.
I copy below the Breakthrough Institute’s articles’ important passages:
On Energy Usage:
“”In the cliché of wildlife documentaries, “nature wastes nothing” and thus achieves a sublime abundance.
In truth, nature wastes almost everything, from solar energy to seeds, and its default condition is therefore red-fanged competition for scarce resources. The resources of ecosystems are thus already spoken for; there are no lands that are not used by something for some purpose, no caches of unexploited energy piled up in the margins that we can tap without depriving other organisms, human and non-human, of their sustenance.
That’s why modern civilization has grown by going beyond the circle of life for resources that lie far outside ecological boundaries. When firewood and whale oil ran short we did not conserve and recycle them; instead we dug for coal and petroleum and gas, retrieving colossal reserves of energy that were wasted by ancient ecosystems and had fossilized beyond the reach of biology. When rising food production strained soil fertility, we did not hoard compost and guano; instead we invented the Haber process that fixed nitrogen fertilizer out of thin air, thus creating an artificial nitrogen cycle that now rivals the natural one in its importance for agriculture.
In each case, ingenuity and technology unlocked enormous resources that biological processes cannot access, thus transcending Malthusian constraints on growth while easing the demands we placed on wild ecosystems. That these advances eventually drew excesses and externalities in their wake has made greens wary of that kind of Promethean development. Better, they feel, to live within the limits ecology imposes on development – and to accept an ethos of restraint and humility as both more responsible and more spiritually connected to the world around us.
Unfortunately, the bioenergy project exposes that agenda as a mirage. Retreating to a nostalgic ecological paradigm powered by energy systems that the developed world abandoned long ago – and for good reason – will merely increase the pressure civilization places on the planet.
We’re well advised to instead continue with what has actually worked in the past – to seek new technologies that transcend ecological constraints. The renewables movement is attuned to that strategy – wind power, solar power, and geothermal power are all serious efforts to access energy reserves outside the biological sphere. Unfortunately, their intrinsic limitations prevent them from meeting society’s need for abundant dispatchable power. Nuclear power, a reservoir of low-carbon energy that’s stupendously larger than the planet’s stock of fossil fuels, with arguably the smallest environmental footprint of any energy source, can meet that need if society can see past the myths and anxieties shrouding it.
Society can’t entirely sever itself from its roots in the environment, but neither should it organize itself as an elaboration of closed-loop ecology. To view ourselves as an organic part of an ecosystem, constrained to scrimping along on its resources as efficiently as possible, is to place too heavy a burden on ecosystems to sustain us. There is no way such a conception of civilization can satisfy the social imperative of economic growth and improved living standards and accommodate what green consciousness values most in nature – its otherness, its autonomy from utilitarian ends, and its purposeless effusions of beauty.
Environmentalists often talk of the “ecosystem services” the environment provides to society, but we must be equally mindful of the benefits that human technological genius can afford to ecosystems. Stewardship of the planet requires that we continue to unshackle ourselves from ecosystems, and ecosystems from us.”
On Land Usage:
“Conservation’s binaries — growth or nature, prosperity or biodiversity — have marginalized it in a world that will soon add at least two billion more people. In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical, when directed at the 2.5 billion people who live on less than two dollars a day and the one billion who are chronically hungry. By pitting people against nature, conservationists actually create an atmosphere in which people see nature as the enemy.
If people don’t believe conservation is in their own best interests, then it will never be a societal priority. Conservation must demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are deeply intertwined — and then offer new strategies for promoting the health and prosperity of both. One need not be a postmodernist to understand that the concept of Nature, as opposed to the physical and chemical workings of natural systems, has always been a human construction, shaped and designed for human ends. The notion that nature without people is more valuable than nature with people and the portrayal of nature as fragile or feminine reflect not timeless truths, but mental schema that change to fit the time.
If there is no wilderness, if nature is resilient rather than fragile, and if people are actually part of nature and not the original sinners who caused our banishment from Eden, what should be the new vision for conservation? It would start by appreciating the strength and resilience of nature while also recognizing the many ways in which we depend upon it. Conservation should seek to support and inform the right kind of development — development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind. And it will utilize the right kinds of technology to enhance the health and well-being of both human and nonhuman natures. Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a science-based effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.
Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people, especially the poor. Instead of trying to restore remote iconic landscapes to pre-European conditions, conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people, including city dwellers. Nature could be a garden — not a carefully manicured and rigid one, but a tangle of species and wildness amidst lands used for food production, mineral extraction, and urban life.
Conservation is slowly turning toward these directions but far too slowly and with insufficient commitment to make them the conservation work of the 21st century. The problem lies in our reluctance, and the reluctance of many of conservation’s wealthy supporters, to shed the old paradigms. This move requires conservation to embrace marginalized and demonized groups and to embrace a priority that has been anathema to us for more than a hundred years: economic development for all. The conservation we will get by embracing development and advancing human well-being will almost certainly not be the conservation that was imagined in its early days. But it will be more effective and far more broadly supported, in boardrooms and political chambers, as well as at kitchen tables.
None of this is to argue for eliminating nature reserves or no longer investing in their stewardship. But we need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition. Protecting biodiversity for its own sake has not worked. Protecting nature that is dynamic and resilient, that is in our midst rather than far away, and that sustains human communities — these are the ways forward now. Otherwise, conservation will fail, clinging to its old myths.”
Take a look at some of the stuff at The Breakthrough Institute. It will be well-worth your time.