The man you see above is Stewart Brand, a man of many talents, interests, circles and followings. Some of you may have seen him talking at length and with much passion on the subject of nuclear power over at TED, battling it out on the stage with equally intelligent minds who don’t quite hold the same love for atom-splitting. Alongside these appearances, he is a highly regarded environmentalist and President of the Long Now Foundation, a group which aims to seed longterm responsibility in all things sustainable and cultural, I’m assuming in an attempt to align our global conscious in the right direction. Personally I like him; he holds good values and is a smart man, and I too share his like of nuclear power despite its negative press.
Well now Mr. Brand can add yet another qualification, if you can call it that, to his growing list - spiritual leader of the newest in green movements, ‘neo-environmentalism’. This fashionable but youthful ideal mirrors many aspects of the neoliberal movements of times past, where radical solutions to sweeping problems and optimism in every corner reign supreme. In effect, this fad hopes to replace the ageing and withered currently held belief that science and data will eventually turn society around and set it back on the path in which we survive far into the future.
It isn’t hard to see that this science-lead approach has had its fair share of hard times, with many die-hard scientists and professional circles now coming out in almost complete despair at the chances of peer-reviewed evidence ever pulling the wool from our eyes. With so many things going wrong in modern times, from climate change to food crises, the public are consistently battered from all sides by doom and gloom news, and there’s no doubt the majority is starting to simply switch off and crawl into their denial shell. Those that power on through and keep on the science debate are fighting a monumental war, even if once-proclaimed deniers such as Koch finally come out and agree with what many of us have known for decades. Even though I still firmly believe that this approach is one of the best we have in our arsenal against stupidity and ignorance, it would seem that now is the perfect time for something a bit fresher.
Neo-environmentalism manages to tap this resource by looking at it down the lens of economics and business. Everybody knows that politicians and economists are [far too] powerful in their abilities to influence all levels of governance, technology, funding and society, and by choosing to take their viewpoint more practically, you instantly win over a large group of people.
Within this, the role of technology, Western ideals and rapid advancement alongside growth take a much more important seat next to sustainability, rather than the more, shall we say, realistic view of the current movement, which sees tempered growth, inclusion of the environment in economic measurement and persistent projection and mitigation of oncoming disasters. Of course, both of these can easily blur together, and often do even now, but this new form seems to want to take things slightly more to the extreme business side of things, for better or worse.
Bio/geoengineering, nuclear power, nanotechnology and the old favourite of ‘innovating our way out of trouble’ are what Brand and his following like the most, and to an extent I’m cool with this. I have always been a strong believer that despite all our failings as a race, we have an uncanny ability to wait right until the moment of no return, before coming up with some ingenious way of putting it off for another few decades or so. Of course, I understand this is a dangerous and risky method of dealing with disaster, but it’s worked up until now, even if climate change looks like the match we have been waiting to meet. I don’t hold complete and blind faith in technology, but it can do some serious wonders, and with plenty of fantastic advances out there, such as next-gen nuke reactors or ever-more complex climate modelling systems, we’re not short of answers. However, it is another part of Brand’s view that doesn’t sit too well with me.
He would like us to act as the ‘Gods’ that we rightfully are on this planet, rationally using Earth as we have become able to do, with science guiding our way. Now, when someone states that we should use science to pave the path for Gods to walk upon, my mind instantly rings alarm bells; those two concepts are pretty contradictory, and as far as the idea that we should use the planet as we see fit, as long as it’s ‘rational’ has simply never worked. We’ve practiced being rational whilst ravaging the Earth’s many resources for centuries, and that’s done b****r all for us so far. Then again, we’ve also practiced drumming evidence and data into the public’s ears for decades, in the hope we would eventually see the light and sort ourselves out, and to be fair, that’s mostly failed too.
I wouldn’t consider myself a old-school greeny by any stretch, so this message doesn’t shock me as much as it might others, but the fact that an idea which turns to business jargon and economic values to accommodate sustainable growth and such human-centric development does scare me slightly, especially given the traction it’s gaining. A Guardian article detailing this subject points out near its end, that the constant ‘global campaigning for an abstract environment does not appear to work’, in other words saying that the picture scientific language and debate has created of our dying ecosystem is so far removed from practical reality that many cannot begin to reconnect with it. They go onto say that engaging with the public at a more manageable level, such as in money and spreadsheet terms could bring much more success in stabilising our wasteful society, but this again strikes me as a shortsighted solution. Money and greed has got us where we are, I really do not think literally evaluating the environments economic value on such a scale will work for any length of time.
What we really need is for science and politics to guide us towards seeing nature for what it is, something which we absolutely cannot survive without, particularly when it is working at half-strength due to us polluting apes, and putting a price on it, in my opinion only acts to even further remove it from something earthly and beautiful, to just dollar signs and factors in equations only worth saving because of their ‘abstract’ economic benefit. I’m behind the neo-environmentalists to some extent, but to claim us Gods and then profit from maintaining a balance seems ever so slightly wrong to me.