Books discussed in this essay:
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben, Foreword by Al Gore
How We Can Save the Planet: Preventing Global Climate Catastrophe, by Mayer Hillman, Tina Fawcett, and Sudhir Chella Rajan
The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy, by David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith
The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, by Robyn Eckersley
Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, by Matthew Connelly
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus
and Michael Shellenberger
Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet, by Seymour Garte
Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future,
by Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis
"On what principle is it," wondered Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, "that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" Environmentalism didn't exist in its current form in Macaulay's time, or he would easily have discerned its essential pessimism bordering at times on a loathing of humanity. A trip down the environment and earth sciences aisle of any larger bookstore is usually a tour of titles that cover the narrow range from dismay to despair.
On the surface this is not exceptional. Titles predicting decline, decay, and disaster are just as numerous in the real estate, economics, and social science shelves, though, ironically, not so much in the religion book racks, where one would expect to find apocalypticism well represented. This is an important distinction: unlike the eschatology of all major religions, the eco-apocalypse is utterly without hope of redemption for man or nature. The greens turn purple at the suggestion that most environmental conditions in rich nations are actually improving, and they bemoan the lack of "progress" toward the transformation of the human soul that is thought necessary for the planet's salvation. Yet some cracks are starting to appear in their dreary and repetitive story line. Although extreme green ideology won't go away any time soon—the political and legal institutions of the environmental movement are too well established—there are signs that the public and a few next-generation environmentalists are ready to say goodbye to all that. There are even some liberal authors with environmentalist sympathies who are turning against the environmental establishment. But it is necessary to claw our way through the deepening slough of green despondency to see this potential turning point.
More than 30 years ago political scientist Anthony Downs wrote in the Public Interest of a five-step "issue-attention cycle" through which public enthusiasm for an issue gradually diminishes as we come to recognize the high cost of drastic action, and that the nature of the problem was exaggerated or misconceived. The environment, he wrote, would have a longer cycle than most issues because of its diffuse nature, but it appears that the public is finally arriving at the late stages of Downs's cycle. Opinion surveys show that the public isn't jumping on the global warming bandwagon despite a multi-million dollar marketing campaign and full-scale media hysteria. More broadly there are signs that "green fatigue" is setting in. Magazine publishers recently reported that their special Earth Day "green" issues generated the lowest newsstand sales of all issues published in 2008. "Suddenly Being Green Is Not Cool Any More," read a London Times headline in August.
This has been building for a long time. Three years ago New York Times green-leaning columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented that the environmental movement was losing credibility because of its doomsaying monomania, with the result that "environmental alarms have been screeching for so long that, like car alarms, they are now just an irritating background noise." Environmental leaders did not take well to his wandering from the reservation. In response to the popular indifference to green alarms, conventional environmentalists have ratcheted up their level of vitriol against humanity and democratic institutions. One of the most popular books of 2007 among environmentalists was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, which projects a "thought experiment" about what would occur if human beings were suddenly removed entirely from the planet. Answer: nature would reassert herself, and ultimately remove nearly all traces of human civilization within several millennia—a mere blink of an eye in the planetary timescale. Environmentalists cheered Weisman's vivid depiction of the resilience of nature, but what thrilled them was the scenario of a humanless earth. Weisman made sure to stroke his audience's self-loathing with plenty of boilerplate about resource exhaustion and overpopulation. The book rocketed up the best-seller list, the latest in a familiar genre stretching back at least to Fairfield Osborn's Our Plundered Planet in 1948, arguably the first neo-Malthusian doomsday tract of modern environmentalism. Time magazine named The World Without Us the number one non-fiction book of 2007.
The same view of environmentalism is on display in the Library of America's American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. This collection, though worthy in some respects, has to be judged a disappointment compared to many other fine Library of America offerings—a shortcoming entirely attributable to the selection of Bill McKibben as editor. (The easier clue is the Foreword by Al Gore.) McKibben is another in the sad line of environmentalists who became bores by endlessly reprising the one-hit wonders of their youth (in McKibben's case, his mildly interesting 1989 book, The End of Nature). He begins and ends with Henry David Thoreau—"a Buddha with a receipt from the hardware store"—because he thinks environmental writing is to be distinguished from nature writing. Environmental writing, McKibben explains, "takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world."
It was probably too much to expect that McKibben would balance the usual suspects such as Rachel Carson, Lynn White, Paul Ehrlich, and Garrett Hardin with such intelligent dissenters as Julian Simon, Terry Anderson, Frederick Jackson Turner, and R.J. Smith. But McKibben's adherence to environmental correctness is so narrowly conceived that he excludes a number of American authors who offer worthy reflections on man and nature. His tacit premise that man is not part of nature, or is opposed to the rest of nature, necessarily constricts the range of perspectives that can be brought to bear on the broad idea of "the environment." So though his collection includes Theodore Roosevelt, by representing American environmental writing as beginning with Thoreau, it excludes worthy earlier reflections such as Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (or any of Jefferson's other agrarian reflections that can be read as precursors to Wendell Berry, who is included in McKibben's reader), or Tocqueville's prescient observations on American wilderness, our emerging attitudes toward it, and its relation to our democratic character.
McKibben and many other environmental writers affect an indifference toward, or transcendence of, politics in the ordinary sense, but ultimately cannot conceal their rejection of the liberal tradition. Here we observe the irony of modern environmentalism: the concern for the preservation of unchanged nature has grown in tandem with the steady erosion in our belief in unchanging human nature; the concern for the "rights of nature" has come to embrace a rejection of natural rights for humans. McKibben is one of many current voices (Gore is another) who like to express their environmentalism by decrying "individualism" (McKibben calls it "hyperindividualism"). Finding that individualism is "the sole ideology of a continent," he explains:
Fighting the ideology that was laying waste to so much of the planet demanded going beyond that individualism. Many found the means to do that in the notion of ‘community'—a word almost as fuzzy and hard to pin down as ‘wild,' but one that has emerged as an even more compelling source of motive energy for the environmental movement.
This is not a new theme for McKibben. Al Gore employed the same "communitarian" trope in his first and most famous environmental book, Earth in the Balance (1992), where, in the course of arguing that the environment should be the "central organizing principle" of civilization, he suggested that the problem with individual liberty is that we have too much of it. This preference for soft despotism has become more concrete with the increasing panic over global warming in the past few years. Several environmental authors now argue openly that democracy itself is the obstacle and needs to be abandoned. A year ago a senior fellow emeritus at Britain's Policy Studies Institute, Mayer Hillman, author of How We Can Save the Planet, told a reporter, "When the chips are down I think democracy is a less important goal than is the protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it. This [rationing] has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not." (Hillman openly advocates resource rationing.) Another recent self-explanatory book is The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy by Australians David Shearman and Joseph Wayne Smith. Shearman argued recently that
[l]iberal democracy is sweet and addictive and indeed in the most extreme case, the U.S.A., unbridled individual liberty overwhelms many of the collective needs of the citizens.... There must be open minds to look critically at liberal democracy. Reform must involve the adoption of structures to act quickly regardless of some perceived liberties.
Whom does Shearman admire as an example of environmental governance to be emulated? China, precisely because of its authoritarian government: "[T]he savvy Chinese rulers may be first out of the blocks to assuage greenhouse emissions and they will succeed by delivering orders.... We are going to have to look at how authoritarian decisions based on consensus science can be implemented to contain greenhouse emissions." Separately, Shearman has written:
To retain an inhabitable earth we may have to compromise the eternal vicissitudes of democracy for an informed leadership that directs. There are countries that fall within this requirement and we should use them to initiate more active mitigation.... The People's Republic of China may hold the key to innovative measures that can both arrest the expected surge in emissions from developing countries and provide developed nations with the means to alternative energy. China curbs individual freedom in favour of communal need. The State will implement those measures seen to be in the common good.
Perhaps the film version will be called An Inconvenient Democracy.
Academic political theorists who take up what might be called "green constitutionalism" understand that Lockean liberalism has to be overturned and replaced. In The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty, Australian political scientist Robyn Eckersley offers up an approach that, despite being swathed in postmodern jargon, is readily transparent. The "ecocentric," transnational "green state" Eckersley envisions is represented as an explicit alternative to "the classical liberal state, the indiscriminate growth-dependent welfare state, and the increasingly ascendant neoliberal competition state." Achieving a post-liberal state requires rethinking the entire Enlightenment project:
By framing the problem as one of rescuing and reinterpreting the Enlightenment goals of autonomy and critique, it is possible to identify what might be called a mutually informing set of "liberal dogmas" that have for too long been the subject of unthinking faith rather than critical scrutiny by liberals. The most significant of these dogmas are a muscular individualism and an understanding of the self-interested rational actor as natural and eternal; a dualistic conception of humanity and nature that denies human dependency on the biological world and gives rise to the notion of human exceptionalism from, and instrumentalism and chauvinism toward, the natural world; the sanctity of private property rights; the notion that freedom can only be acquired through material plenitude; and overconfidence in the rational mastery of nature through further scientific and technological progress.
Every traditional liberal or "progressive" understanding is up for grabs in this framework. This passage does not require much "parsing" to grasp its practical implications—the establishment of institutions and governing regimes that are not answerable to popular will, or that depend on transforming popular will in a specified direction. Eckersley makes this clear in a passage about the "social learning" function of "deliberative democracy," which she describes as "the requirement that participants be open and flexible in their thinking, that they enter a public dialogue with a preparedness to have their preferences transformed through reasoned argument." (Emphasis added.) In practice, of course, Eckersley's "reasoned argument" would resemble nothing so much as the infamous "ideology struggle" sessions of Mao's Cultural Revolution. This outlook gives new meaning to the old cliché about rulers selecting the people, rather than vice versa.
Yesterday's Crisis Mongers
Is there any respite from this dreary despotic nonsense? Here and there, a few authors of sufficient independence of mind can be found who have broken with green orthodoxy in significant ways. The first of note is Matthew Connelly of Columbia University, whose brilliant new history of the population control movement, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, is useful not simply on its theme but for the light it sheds on the political corruption that inevitably accompanies these world-saving enthusiasms. The "population bomb" can be seen as a precursor to the global warming crisis of today: as far back as the early decades of the 20th century the population crisis was put forward as the justification for global governance and coercive, non-consensual rule.
Connelly recounts one of the first major international conferences on world population, held in Geneva in 1927, where Albert Thomas, a French trade unionist, asked, "Has the moment yet arrived for considering the possibility of establishing some sort of supreme supranational authority which would regulate the distribution of population on rational and impartial lines, by controlling and directing migration movements and deciding on the opening-up or closing of countries to particular streams of immigration?" Connelly also describes the 1974 World Population Conference, which "witnessed an epic battle between starkly different versions of history and the future: one premised on the preservation of order, if necessary by radical new forms of global governance; the other inspired by the pursuit of justice, beginning with unfettered sovereignty for newly independent nations." (Emphasis added.)
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.-sponsored body that is the juggernaut of today's climate campaign, finds its precedent in the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems (IUSIPP), spawned at the 1927 World Population Conference. A bevy of NGOs, most prominently the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Zero Population Growth (ZPG), later sprang into being, working hand-in-glove with the same private foundations (especially Ford and Rockefeller) and global financial institutions, such as the World Bank, that today are in the forefront of the climate campaign.
As Connelly lays out in painstaking detail, population control programs, aimed chiefly at developing nations, proliferated despite clear human rights abuses and, more importantly, new data and information that called into question many of the fundamental assumptions of the crisis mongers. Connelly recalls computer projections and economic models that offered precise and "scientifically grounded" projections of future global ruin from population growth, all of which were quickly falsified. The mass famines and food riots that were predicted never occurred; fertility rates began to fall everywhere, even in nations that lacked "family planning" programs.
The coercive nature of the population control programs in the field was appalling. India, in particular, became "a vast laboratory for the ultimate population control campaign," the chilling practices of which Connelly recounts:
Sterilizations were performed on 80-year-old men, uncomprehending subjects with mental problems, and others who died from untreated complications. There was no incentive to follow up patients. The Planning Commission found that the quality of postoperative care was "the weakest link." In Maharashtra, 52 percent of men complained of pain, and 16 percent had sepsis or unhealed wounds. Over 40 percent were unable to see a doctor. Almost 58 percent of women surveyed experienced pain after IUD insertion, 24 percent severe pain, and 43 percent had severe and excessive bleeding. Considering that iron deficiency was endemic in India, one can only imagine the toll the IUD program took on the health of Indian women.
These events Connelly describes took place in 1967, but instead of backing off, the Indian government—under constant pressure and lavish financial backing from the international population control organizations—intensified these coercive programs in the 1970s. Among other measures India required that families with three or more children had to be sterilized to be eligible for new housing (which the government, not the private market, controlled). "This war against the poor also swept across the countryside," Connelly notes:
In one case, the village of Uttawar in Haryana was surrounded by police, hundreds were taken into custody, and every eligible male was sterilized. Hearing what had happened, thousands gathered to defend another village named Pipli. Four were killed when police fired upon the crowd. Protesters gave up only when, according to one report, a senior government official threatened aerial bombardment. The director of family planning in Maharashtra, D.N. Pai, considered it a problem of "people pollution" and defended the government: "If some excesses appear, don't blame me.... You must consider it something like a war. There could be a certain amount of misfiring out of enthusiasm. There has been pressure to show results. Whether you like it or not, there will be a few dead people."
In all, over 8 million sterilizations, many of them forced, were conducted in India in 1976—"draconian population control," Connelly writes, "practiced on an unprecedented scale.... There is no way to count the number who were being hauled away to sterilization camps against their will." Nearly 2,000 died from botched surgical procedures. The people of India finally put the brakes on this coercive utopianism, at the ballot box: the Congress Party, which had championed the family planning program as one of its main policies, was swept from office in a landslide, losing 141 of 142 contested seats in the areas with the highest rate of sterilizations. At least the people of India had recourse to the ballot box; the new environmental constitutionalism will surely aim to eliminate this remedy.
A System without a Brain
One reason why enthusiasms and programs maintain their forward momentum in the face of changing facts and circumstances is the culture of corruption that inevitably comes to envelope self-selecting leadership groups organized around a crisis. Connelly ably captures this seamy side of the story:
Divided from within and besieged from without, leaders created a "system without a brain," setting in motion agencies and processes that could not be stopped. The idea of a "population crisis" provided the catalyst. But this was a system that ran on money. Earmarked appropriations greased the wheels of balky bureaucracies, and lavish funding was the fuel that drove it forward. But so much poured in so fast that spending became an end unto itself. The pressure to scale up and show results transformed organizations ostensibly dedicated to helping people plan their families into tools for social engineering.... Rather than accept constraints or accountability, they preferred to let population control go out of control. (Emphasis added.)
Corruption extended on a personal level to the New Class directing these world-saving crusades, what Connelly calls "the new jet set of population experts."
The lifestyle of the leaders of the population control establishment reflected the power of an idea whose time had come as well as the influence of the institutions that were now backing it.... Alan Guttmacher was in the habit of beginning letters to the Planned Parenthood membership with comments like "This is written 31,000 feet aloft as I fly from Rio to New York." He insisted on traveling with his wife, first class, with the IPPF picking up the tab. Ford [Foundation] officials flew first class with their spouses as a matter of policy. One wonders why Douglas Ensminger [the Ford Foundation's India officer] ever left his residence in Dehli—he was served by a household staff of nine, including maids, cooks, gardeners, and chauffeurs. He titled this part of his oral history "The ‘Little People' of India." Ensminger insisted on the need to pay top dollar and provide a plush lifestyle to attract the best talent, even if the consultants he recruited seemed preoccupied with their perks. One of these strivers ran his two-year old American sedan without oil just so that the Ford Foundation would have to replace it with the latest model....
For population experts this was the beginning of constantly expanding opportunities. The budgets, the staff, the access were all increasing even more quickly than the population growth their programs were meant to stop. There was "something in it for everyone," Population Association of America President John Kantner later recalled: "the activist, the scholar, the foundation officer, the globe-circling consultant, the wait-listed government official. World Conferences, a Population Year, commissions, select committees, new centers for research and training, a growing supply of experts, pronouncements by world leaders, and, most of all, money—lots of it."
Sounds rather like the moveable feast that is the IPCC's annual meetings, often held in hardship locales such as Bali, to press ahead with anti-global warming efforts. The magnitude of the traveling circus of the climate campaign has come to dwarf the population crusade. Prior to the arrival of climate change as a crisis issue, the largest single U.S. government science research project was the acid rain study of the 1980s (the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Project, or NAPAP for short), which cost about $500 million, and concluded that the acid rain problem had been vastly overestimated. (Public opinion polls in the late 1970s rated acid rain the most significant environmental problem of the time.) Today the U.S. government is spending multiple billions each year on climate research—so much through so many different agencies and budget sources that it is impossible to estimate the total reliably.
With so much money at stake, and with so many careers staked to the catastrophic climate scenario, one could predict that the entire apparatus would be resistant to new information and reasonable criticism. This is exactly what happened in the population crusade. When compelling critics of the population bomb thesis arose—people who might be called "skeptics," such as Julian Simon—the population campaign reacted by circling the wagons and demonizing its critics, just as global warming skeptics today are subjected to relentless ad hominem attacks. Connelly again:
Leaders of the population control movement responded...by defending their record and fighting back. They lined up heads of state, major corporations, and international organizations behind a global strategy to slow population growth. But they also worked more quietly to insulate their projects from political opposition by co-opting or marginalizing critics, strengthening transnational networks, and establishing more free-standing institutions exempt from normal government oversight.
This is exactly the playbook of the climate campaign today. Nevertheless, it is likely to follow the same trajectory as the population control movement—gradual decline in salience to the point that even the United Nations, in the early 1990s, officially downgraded the priority of the issue. This is likely to happen to climate change even if dramatic predictions of climate change turn out to be true.
A few environmentalists on the left understand the profound defects of the radical green approach to politics, along with the conventional green approach to global warming. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, self-described "progressives" and authors of one of the most challenging recent books on the environment, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, recognize and lament the authoritarianism of conventional environmentalism. "Environmental tales of tragedy begin with Nature in harmony and almost always end in quasi-authoritarian politics," Nordhaus and Shellenberger observe. While environmentalists like Eckersley embrace the postmodern language of "privilege" to denigrate traditional individual rights, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point up the obvious irony that it is environmentalism that is making the boldest claim to be given the most privileged position in politics: "The problem is not simply that it is difficult to answer the question ‘Who speaks for nature?' but rather that there is something profoundly wrong with the question itself. It rests on the premise that some people are better able to speak for nature, the environment, or a particular place than others. This assumption is profoundly authoritarian."
Above all, they reject the "limits to growth" mentality that has been near the center of environmental thought for two generations:
Environmentalists...have tended to view economic growth as the cause but not the solution to ecological crisis. Environmentalists like to emphasize the ways in which the economy depends on ecology, but they often miss the ways in which thinking ecologically depends on prospering economically.... Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises.
For this very reason, Nordhaus and Shellenberger insist that constraints on greenhouse gas emissions as contemplated by the Kyoto process will never work and should be abandoned. Instead they advocate massive research (with government paying for the largest share) into post-carbon energy systems. With due caveats about government-funded research, this seems a better approach than Gore's hair-shirt agenda. They may underestimate the sheer technical and economic difficulties of energy technology, but Break Through is not primarily a policy tome—it is intended to reorient our general thinking about the environment. In the second half of their book it becomes clear that Nordhaus and Shellenberger aren't just trying to save environmentalism; they are trying to save contemporary liberalism, which they regard as nearly as intellectually dead as environmentalism. "[E]nvironmentalism is hobbled by its resentment of human strength and our desire to control nature, and liberalism by its resentment of wealth and power," they write. This part of the book is less successful though no less serious and thoughtful. In arguing that liberals need to be more philosophical (hear, hear!), Nordhaus and Shellenberger deploy a number of philosophical categories that are problematic, at the very least, and embrace the core principles of postmodernism—though, happily, that overused term does not appear in their generally clear, direct prose. The duo are against Platonic essentialism when it comes to conceiving nature (including, it would seem, human nature), and for a revival of Deweyite pragmatism as well as empowering individual "authenticity." The reader gets dizzy at times following the back and forth between Richard Rorty, Thomas Kuhn, Francis Fukuyama, the "metaphysics of becoming," and more down-to-earth wonkish discussions of gas mileage standards for automobiles.
But despite these flaws, Break Through is still a refreshing departure from most environmental discourse, and the young authors probably aren't done, either, rethinking fundamental aspects of political life and man's relation to nature. Their rude treatment from fellow "progressives" (the American Prospect dismissed the book as containing "a lot of wasted ink") will surely encourage more reflection.
A Green Reformation?
Even in academia there are a few lonely voices who've noticed that the conventional green outlook is badly defective and in need of revision. Seymour Garte, professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, makes his bid to become the next "skeptical environmentalist" (after Bjorn Lomborg) with his book Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet. Garte recalls his surprise, and the surprise of fellow experts attending a professional conference in Europe, when presented with data from a speaker showing steadily declining air pollution trends along with the claim, "everyone knows that air pollution levels are continually decreasing everywhere." "I looked around the room," Garte writes:
I was not the only nonexpert there. Most of my other colleagues were also not atmospheric or air pollution scientists. Later I asked one of them, a close friend, if he had known that air pollution levels were constantly decreasing throughout Europe and the United States on a yearly basis. "I had no idea," he said. It was certainly news to me. Even though I was a professor of environmental health and had been actively involved in many aspects of pollution research for many years, that simple fact had somehow escaped me.... I had certainly never seen it published in the media.
Garte goes on to argue that excessive pessimism about the environment undermines good scientific investigation and distorts our understanding of important environmental challenges. He displays the frequent naïveté of a scientist observing the political world: "I have never understood why pessimism has for so long been associated with a liberal or progressive political world view." He criticizes anti-technological biases prevalent among environmentalists, but is also skeptical that market forces alone will suffice to continue our environmental progress in the future. He is guardedly optimistic that the creativity and adaptability of the human species will enable us to confront surprises and new problems. "We should pay attention to our successes as much as to our failures," Garte writes, "because in order to know where to go next, it is just as important to know where (and how) we went right as it is to know where we have gone wrong."
One of the persistent problems with environmentalism is its bait-and-switch character. The essentially political character of the movement cloaks itself with the seemingly objective authority of modern science, as though science were immune from politicization, or led to self-evident political or policy conclusions. Laying aside the value-laden premises of the ways science is used and misused in environmental controversies, it is startling to discover how limited our scientific grasp of many environmental conditions really is. The worst abuse of science comes in the almost daily predictions of future environmental conditions based on sophisticated computer models that often lack a solid empirical grounding for their assumptions and are seldom validated or back-tested with any rigor. Orrin Pilkey of Duke University and his daughter Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, a government geologist, note these failings in Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can't Predict the Future.
The most famous prediction racket these days is climate modeling, but Useless Arithmetic mostly avoids the Super Bowl of enviro-modeling in favor of tackling more limited prediction modeling exercises, such as fishery management or forecasting coastal erosion, invasive species, and nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Environmental forecasting is a classic case of being hoist by one's own petard. The inherent weakness of most exercises stems precisely from the core principle of modern pop environmentalism—that everything is connected to everything else. As the Pilkeys point out,
[p]erhaps the single most important reason that quantitative predictive mathematical models of natural processes on earth don't work and can't work has to do with ordering complexity. Interactions among the numerous components of a complex system occur in unpredictable and unexpected sequences.
Contrary to the usual process of science in which defects and errors become the platform for refinement and new approaches to the problem, environmental science finds itself caught in the grip of "politically correct modeling" (the authors' emphasis) in which there is enormous pressure on scientists, many of whom discover "that modeling results are easier to live with if they follow preconceived or politically correct notions." The models take on a life of their own, and become obstacles to conducting serious field studies that might strengthen our empirical grasp of ecosystem dynamics. "Applied mathematical modeling has become a science that has advanced without the usual broad-based, vigorous debate, criticism, and constant attempts at falsification that characterize good science," the Pilkeys conclude.
Neither Garte nor the Pilkeys are full-blown green skeptics; to the contrary—they are global warming believers who lean slightly left-of-center in their politics. But they represent a gathering backlash among academic scientists against the straightjacket of orthodox environmentalism. There are a number of others like them whose names never appear in the media or before congressional hearings. The prospect that a new generation of environmentalists such as Nordhaus and Shellenberger, along with academic dissenters such as Garte and the Pilkeys, can work a reformation of the movement may not seem very bright. But such voices were virtually unheard of even ten years ago. Stay tuned: a new shade of green might yet emerge.
This essay is part of the Taube American Values Series, made possible by the Taube Family Foundation.