After years of becoming more and more deeply convinced by the idea that we humans need to disturb nature less, to consume less, to stop pursuing growth and to take heed of our ‘environmental limits’, I have recently stumbled upon some quite surprising literature which claims “No! Stop! It’s not about LESS – it has to be about MORE!” Admittedly, this literature stems from a decade or so ago and I am behind the times in discovering it, but its arguments have struck me because they are, I think, important and yet still, 10 years on, largely absent from mainstream ‘environmentalism’ as far as I can tell.
The ‘more’ not ‘less’ argument, which first erupted when Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger published their essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ (2004), essentially goes like this: environmentalism as we know it is failing at getting any meaningful public and political traction on the issue of climate change because its approach is fundamentally based on limits: that we have gone too far and now we must make amends. This ‘politics of limits’ goes fundamentally against the grain of perhaps the most compelling force in human history – modernity. The language of modernity has never preached “less, less, less”, but always “More! Forward! Progress!”. As the authors argue quite convincingly, we all know which is more attractive.
If, like me, you have come to think of progress as a dirty word, and boo and hiss at any mention of ‘growth’ (perhaps influenced by articles such as this one), then this support of modernity is something of an affront. Most people with a concern for environmental issues have come to understand modernity as a story of ever-expanding human destruction of nature, of stupidity, arrogance, greed, industrialisation and market growth – in other words, the root of all our environmental troubles, and a juggernaut that must be stopped or else we will continue on a downward trajectory and ultimately collapse. But this story has become so gripping and pervasive that we, for the most part, forget that it is just that – a story. And perhaps, as Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) contend, a not very helpful one at that.
What they proposed in their follow-up book ‘Break Through’ (2007) was that the doom, gloom and stupidity story of modernity is inadequate because it not only omits some very positive outcomes of quite incredible human endeavour (things like health care, technology and civil rights movements) but it also chastises humans for ever having the ambition and audacity to want to master their environment, to prosper and live comfortably. This has saddled us (or at least, as N&S call them, ‘the environmentalists’) with guilt and a desire to repent, backtrack and make amends.
But why must we be ashamed of our ambition and our achievements, and our will not just to survive but to thrive, the authors ask? Given Darwin’s theory of evolution, it would seem perfectly normal for humans to utilise and exploit their surroundings in ways that benefit them. The same can be said of beavers damming rivers, or termites building termite mounds, after all. This does not mean to say that the ways in which we are shaping our environment aren’t problematic or unsustainable, because they clearly are, but rather that we must stop feeling guilty about it before we can move on, because guilt is a poor motivator for action, as much socio-psychological research cited by the authors shows.
N&S want to replace the guilt trip with a positive telling of modernity, one which acknowledges how the optimism, passion and drive behind it have made possible huge leaps in our prosperity and well-being, in the sciences and technology. The crux of their argument is that addressing and adapting to climate change will require more leaps of human ingenuity, innovation, optimism and tenacity than ever before – not less. We must, they say, embrace modernity, not turn away from it.
Of course, N&S attracted much criticism for apparently advocating techno-scientific fixes which would ultimately serve to perpetuate the status quo and ignore the reality of resource degradation and depletion. I had the same thoughts myself, until I realised that their optimistic outlook on human development is as much about changing values as it is about techno-fixes.
For example, their work consistently cites Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’, a well-known theory in psychology that charts how people’s values change as their basic needs (food, shelter, water) are met. Based on this model, N&S insist that, far from being the antithesis of environmental concern, affluence is actually a prerequisite of it. This is because environmental concerns spring from the higher-order needs (such as purpose and meaning) which only emerge once basic needs are met. It is in this sense that N&S see modernity as such a crucial drive, because without prosperity there would be no environmental movement in the first place.
From this perspective social inequality and climate change are two sides of the same coin. Any serious attempt to address and prepare for climate change must also take seriously the billions of people who are still aspiring to meet their basic needs. It must be an approach, N&S say, where ecological concern creates the conditions for prosperity. This may sound like pie in the sky given that the living standards of those in the West would, by most measures of current resource availability, be simply impossible for all 9 billion of the world’s population to maintain. However Ulrich Beck, in his essay on climate change and modernity (2010), like N&S, believes that there is hope for this to occur but only if the West takes the lead in redefining what we mean by prosperity:
“Developing economies will be sustainable precisely to the extent that the West invests in their development and adopts for itself a new definition of wealth and growth in encounter with the global other.” p262
New definitions of prosperity in the West, in N&S’s opinion, would be underpinned by values which are better suited to our higher-level (or ‘post-material’) needs, rather than the values which helped us overcome material needs such as hunger and which are now largely redundant but continue to slosh about in our communities breeding greed, prejudice and insecurity. Prosperity and well-being should instead be defined around values which have actually been shown to improve happiness in post-material societies, such as creativity, service to others, belonging and fulfilment, rather than personal income.
Ultimately, for Beck, if you see an opposition between modernity and the environmental crisis, then this is to consign the world’s poor to perpetual poverty, and to see the planet as too fragile to support hopes for a better world.
Bruno Latour, another heavy-weight of sociological thought, has also leant support to N&S’s argument. Latour, in his discussion (2008) of the ‘Break Through’ book, picks apart modernity – its good bits and its bad bits – in a little more detail in order to show why the ‘environmental crisis’ challenges us to develop more, not less.
His argument is that the ‘Great Narrative’ behind modernity has always been the promise of emancipation and the aspiration to separate ourselves from the subjective world through knowledge acquisition, Science and technology (the culture-nature divide has always been a key mantra of modernity, although one that Latour argues is one absurd contradiction too far). But what we have achieved is something very different to emancipation. Instead, far from being emancipated from our ties to the non-human world, we find ourselves evermore embroiled in it, with climate change being just one example. According to the Great Narrative of emancipation unwanted consequences like climate change weren’t supposed to happen, and so we find ourselves recoiling, backtracking and repenting for the ‘error’ of modernity, as N&S have described. Like them, Latour believes that dispensing with modernity is the last thing we need to do. Rather, we just need to accept that the Great Narrative was always ‘complete bunk’, and come round to the notion that modernity has always, and will always be about greater and greater attachments to the non-human world and that with this comes responsibility. It is vital, however, to hold onto the essence of modernity (‘More! Forward! Progress!”) because no other movement offers a sufficiently inspiring and motivational vision for the future.
Latour’s version of a reinvented modernity, or as Beck (2010) has termed a ‘greening of modernity’, is founded on different ‘psycho-social’ conditions, by which he means the emotions and feelings that are mobilised by and for political issues. He argues that we consistently fail to properly politicise issues of the environment because, conceptually, we hold it outside the realm of human politics. As long as we are stuck with the mental, moral, aesthetic and emotional resources associated with the ’emancipation’ narrative (which prevents us from perceiving our relationship with the non-human world differently), this will remain so. He speaks, like N&S, of the need for values which will enable us to understand and intervene in a world which is actually comprised of complex attachments and responsibilities to the non-human world. As such, Latour is not advocating a wholesale change but more of a gear change – a shifting up a notch:
“From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever increasing scale, namely, intervening, acting, wanting, caring.” p9
Latour likens humanity’s relationship with the socio-natural outcomes of modernity (such as environmental crises) to that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Frankenstein uses his creative powers to produce something which has never before been created. The creature turns out to be not what Frankenstein expected so he is horrified and abandons it, calling it a ‘monster’. The creature, starved of care and love, indeed turns out to be a monster and causes Frankenstein more trouble than he had bargained for. If you replace ‘Frankenstein’ with ‘Humanity’ and ‘Creature’ with ‘Modernity’ in this story, you see Latour’s point.
Again, this is uncomfortable stuff for most people with a so-called ‘environmental’ disposition. The idea that humans should behave as masters and controllers of the non-human world feels counter-intuitive and arrogant. But for many, like the writers discussed here, it is too late for back-tracking. Humans have become such a dominant influence on earth (as the term ‘Anthropocene’ declares), that we no longer have any option but to step up to the mark and to do so responsibly.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at at it” Stewart Brand, quoted in ‘An Early Environmentalist Embraces New Heresies’ New York Times, 2007
I think the arguments put forward by N&S, Latour and Beck will take some time to settle down in my mind and find a way to rub alongside my (rather hypocritical!) knee-jerk suspicion of growth, progress and ‘mastery’. This is surely indicative of the scale of the challenge. After all, the authors set out to do a hard thing, namely undermining a story which is, for many people with environmental concerns, part of their identity. But for me the biggest revelation has been precisely that it is about stories, and that the stories we tell ourselves about our history have enormous implications for our future. The biggest question that N&S ask is ‘which story of human development will we tell ourselves – one of failure or of overcoming?’ It seems clear to me now which one would be more effective for helping us imagine and create futures we want (climate change n’all), but the question remains how, where and when will we begin to re-spin what is ultimately a tough old yarn.