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Environment

Facing Up to the Anthropocene

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Several years ago, I wrote about about an insurrection in the environmental movement. A new group of greens--called eco-pragmatists--had taken on the old nature-centric guard, which still held sway but also had rendered environmentalism anachronistic and ill-equipped to address complex 21st century challenges, such as climate change. It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. The latter, I wrote:

has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists. Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true. The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.

If you think I'm exaggerating, read Yale historian Paul Sabin's "The Bet," which chronicles environmentalism's incessant warnings of imminent doom since 1968. (I recently reviewed the book here.) Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:

Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.

This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet. The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined:

Both [green] modernists and traditionalists agree that human activities since the Industrial Revolution have given the planet a global facelift. But the two camps differ on what the Anthropocene means and how it should be interpreted.

Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called "Paths to a 'Good' Anthropocene," which, as he explains, has quotation marks "around the adjective 'good' to stress that values determine choices." A number of people took offense to the notion of a "good" Anthropocene.

2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: "good" & "anthropocene." Very smart essay by @CliveCHamilton: http://t.co/VAqnJvTBgJ — Elizabeth Kolbert (@ElizKolbert) June 17, 2014

Kolbert was referring to this piece by Clive Hamilton, an Australian academic and writer, which he quickly expanded into an essay for Scientific American entitled, "The New Environmentalism Will Lead us to Disaster." Whatever legitimate points Hamilton makes about humans being a novel force of nature are undermined by his ad hominem rhetoric, such as when he characterizes the techno optimism/economic growth-infused arguments of eco-pragmatists as "music to the ears of conservatives." Revkin counters that Hamilton (in his first piece)

doesn’t deal with the core argument of my talk (the need for a shift in goals from numerical outcomes to societal qualities) and instead focuses on my use of the word “good” in relation to an era he clearly sees as awful.

Indeed, it appears that many of Revkin's critics (or those sympathetic to Hamilton's critique) are objecting strenuously to the Anthropocene being described as anything but awful. This doesn't bode well for environmentalism, which is already saddled with a doom and gloom reputation. Even more unfortunate--if you are a progressive green open to diverse perspectives-- is the hostile attitude towards The Breakthrough Institute (BTI), an Oakland, California think tank that challenges green shibboleths. Those who are most passionate (and outspoken) about climate concerns seem to be the most dismissive of eco-pragmatists and often try to discredit them as a legitimate voice, by suggesting they are part of the problem and not the solution. It's worth reminding folks that the contemporary green movement has a rich history of robust disagreement among its leading activists and theorists. Think Paul Ehrlich vs Barry Commoner (as nicely described in "The Bet" ) or Murray Bookchin vs Dave Foreman. After my 2012 Slate piece came out, Bryan Walsh at Time magazine wrote a thoughtful, largely sympathetic critique. His interpretation of eco-pragmatism:

The message of the modernist greens is: in a world of 7 billion plus people, all of whom want (and deserve) to live modern, consuming lives, we need to be pragmatic about how we use—and how much we protect—nature. We don’t have any other choice, so we’d better start dealing with the realities on the ground.

But Walsh was torn about the implications of this:

I can’t shake the feeling that what modernist green movement represents what is essentially the negotiated surrender of the natural world against the forces of industrialization and globalization. Maybe there’s no other way, and maybe it’s best to face up to those realities as pragmatically as we can. But we may be surrendering something precious along the way.

Walsh is right. There is no other way, unless you want to wind back the clock to...go ahead, choose another time in history you would prefer to live in. As for me, I'll take the Anthropocene, with no regrets. I have a quality of life unprecedented in the history of humanity and I think everyone on the planet deserves to enjoy the same privileges and opportunities I have. This means much of the world has to still modernize for billions of people to enjoy higher living standards. You can't wave a magic wand to achieve that. It's going to require massive economic development and massive outlays of energy that is going to stress the planet. There is no way around that. How we manage this challenge, how we meet the needs and aspirations of all of humanity while sustaining the planet's ecology, is what the Anthropocene is all about. And I'm fine with that.

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