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Environment

The Well-Intentioned, Misguided Eco-Doomers

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorDecember 21, 2013 1:45 AM

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If you are a regular consumer of environmental news and commentary, you are familiar with the narrative of humanity's downfall. The story, we are told, looks like this.

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If we continue to ignore the danger signs while exceeding the planet's carrying capacity, the future may get ugly.

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For the time being, we are on a precipice.

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Although our thought leaders and scholars have been giving us ample warning, we don't seem to be paying attention. Maybe they should listen to the words of Jenny Price and try a new tack. But that may be asking too much. Once someone starts down this civilization-is-collapsing road, like Guardian blogger Nafeez Ahmed, it's hard to stop. If you want a tour guide to the apocalypse, Ahmed is your guy. He is the erudite version of this fringe chararacter. I must admit that I find the collapse junkies entertaining. I'm sure they believe the world is headed for a crash and their sincerity and eloquence is enough to scare some of us senseless. Who knows how many people built a bunker in Montana after seeing this film.

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Others who drink too much from the ecocide well may sink into a fatalistic state of despair:

Every time I read the NBL [Nature Bats Last] posts, I get the feeling that there´s nothing to be done with our lives, and our future. We have no future. We just have to wait for catastrophe.

A widely circulated piece from the New York Times recently advised:

The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The problem that we are advised to confront is the very thing that has greatly advanced humanity in the last 200 hundred years: Industrialization. Indeed, the modernizing forces that shape our lives today are treated with contempt by many of the planet's self-designated guardians. Take industrial agriculture, for example. Do you believe that large scale mechanized farming, with its fertilizers and pesticides, has been a net plus for society? Now I'm not saying industrial agriculture is perfect; it has a major environmental impact that can't be ignored or swept aside. But on the whole, are we better off today because of our industrialized food system (which still has plenty of room for improvement)? Or should we nix the tractors and go back to the horse plow? While we're at it, should we go back to using cow dung instead of synthetic fertilizers? Should we nix the herbicides and go back to pulling out all the weeds by hand? These are not trivial questions. For there are people who sincerely believe that organic farming is sufficient to feed the world. It is not a fringe view, either. The U.N. was touting agroecology a few years back, citing it "as a way to boost food production and improve the situation of the poorest." Evidence-based science tells us otherwise. No matter, in a recent piece, Nafeez Ahmed told us of a new study that "raises critical questions about the capacity of traditional industrial agricultural methods to sustain global food production for a growing world population." He then referred to that UN endorsement of organic farming:

Two years ago, a landmark report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food demonstrated that agroecology based on sustainable, small-scale, organic methods could potentially double food production in entire regions facing persistent hunger, over five to 10 years.

(This is the equivalent of those who insist that wind and solar and a heaping of hydropower could potentially meet the energy needs of the world by 2030. Nobody punctures that bubble more effectively than this guy.) The problem with doomsday prophets like Ahmed isn't so much their incessant warnings about imminent eco-collapse, but more the solutions they proffer, which, if carried out in the developing world, really would lead to societal catastrophe.

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