A new kind of environmentalism

Classic environmentalism wants to restore things to their pristine condition, untouched by man.  But a new kind of environmentalism thinks that man should actively take the lead in steering “spaceship earth.”

More and more environmentalists and scientists talk about the planet as a complex system, one that human beings must aggressively monitor, manage and sometimes reengineer. Kind of like a spaceship.

This is a sharp departure from traditional “green” philosophy. The more orthodox way of viewing nature is as something that must be protected from human beings — not managed by them. And many environmentalists have reservations about possible unintended consequences of well-meaning efforts. No one wants a world that requires constant intervention to fix problems caused by previous interventions.

At the same time, “we’re in a position where we have to take a more interventionist role and a more managerial role,” says Emma Marris, author of “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.” “The easy answer used to be to turn back time and make it look like it used to. Before was always better. Before is no longer an option.”

Although Marris is speaking about restoration ecology — how to manage forests and other natural systems — this interventionist approach can be applied to the planet more broadly. In his book “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans,” environmental activist Mark Lynas writes, “Nature no longer runs the Earth. We do. It is our choice what happens from here.”

via Spaceship Earth: A new view of environmentalism – The Washington Post.

Read the whole article for examples of this “ecopragmatism,” which depends on technology to give us a better environment.

How is this different from not being an environmentalist?  Doesn’t this describe the “dominion” over nature that the Bible describes and that human beings have been carrying out for millennia?  It seems different mainly in its utopian trust in human capabilities, which nature has been humbling for a long time.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I’d be much more convinced about environmental arguments if almost every single one of them did not entail government empowerment.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I’d be much more convinced about environmental arguments if almost every single one of them did not entail government empowerment.

  • SKPeterson

    Somewhere the word “hubris” needs to be applied to this concept.

  • SKPeterson

    Somewhere the word “hubris” needs to be applied to this concept.

  • Haleigh

    This isn’t new, though. This argument has been going on since the beginning of the various environmental movements. Preservationists, like Gifford Pinchot, argued more for responsible management and believed that the dominion mandate actually meant active and deliberate dominion/management on the part of mankind. Conservationists, like John Muir, argued that mankind should not interfere with nature, should not use natural resources, and practically deified “Nature”.

  • Haleigh

    This isn’t new, though. This argument has been going on since the beginning of the various environmental movements. Preservationists, like Gifford Pinchot, argued more for responsible management and believed that the dominion mandate actually meant active and deliberate dominion/management on the part of mankind. Conservationists, like John Muir, argued that mankind should not interfere with nature, should not use natural resources, and practically deified “Nature”.

  • George

    In concept it seems a little biblical, though I always thought of the dominion of earth as more of a gardening enterprise than a spaceship endeavor. However, I doubt scientists are inspired by the bible. Rather, I am sure they are inspired by the idea that this new take on environment will make scientists more important, because they, of course, are the only people competent enough to guide “spaceship earth.”

  • George

    In concept it seems a little biblical, though I always thought of the dominion of earth as more of a gardening enterprise than a spaceship endeavor. However, I doubt scientists are inspired by the bible. Rather, I am sure they are inspired by the idea that this new take on environment will make scientists more important, because they, of course, are the only people competent enough to guide “spaceship earth.”

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I’d give this breed of enviromentalists a shot.

    The run of the mill, tree-hugger variety won’t be satisfied until we are all living in pup tents…in the dark…without toilet paper.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    I’d give this breed of enviromentalists a shot.

    The run of the mill, tree-hugger variety won’t be satisfied until we are all living in pup tents…in the dark…without toilet paper.

  • DonS

    I’d be much more convinced about environmental arguments if almost every single one of them did not entail government empowerment.

    Amen, J. Dean @ 1. Funny how government empowerment always seems to result in favored donors getting exceptions to the byzantine regulatory scheme imposed on everyone else. And also funny how the worst Superfund sites are surplus government property.

  • DonS

    I’d be much more convinced about environmental arguments if almost every single one of them did not entail government empowerment.

    Amen, J. Dean @ 1. Funny how government empowerment always seems to result in favored donors getting exceptions to the byzantine regulatory scheme imposed on everyone else. And also funny how the worst Superfund sites are surplus government property.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Ah, I’m happy to see the Luddites are here too. Hallo, George!

    But Steve has a point. The current crop of greenies are getting more and more ridiculous. A balanced approach is what is needed. We just need to balance it between private and public interest as well….

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Ah, I’m happy to see the Luddites are here too. Hallo, George!

    But Steve has a point. The current crop of greenies are getting more and more ridiculous. A balanced approach is what is needed. We just need to balance it between private and public interest as well….

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This doesn’t seem all that “new” to me.

    It actually reminds me a lot of the approach to forest management that “conservatives” have typically argued for, in which we try to prevent wildfires (which are viewed as bad — if perhaps more for human dwellings in or near forests than actually for the forests themselves) through careful “management”.

    Of course, the problem is that for such tactics to work, we have to know all the possible inputs into the systems involved. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t.

    But the article didn’t really seem to have a point.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This doesn’t seem all that “new” to me.

    It actually reminds me a lot of the approach to forest management that “conservatives” have typically argued for, in which we try to prevent wildfires (which are viewed as bad — if perhaps more for human dwellings in or near forests than actually for the forests themselves) through careful “management”.

    Of course, the problem is that for such tactics to work, we have to know all the possible inputs into the systems involved. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t.

    But the article didn’t really seem to have a point.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Careful scientifc study will go a long way though, Todd. We have learnt more and more, the last 20 years or so. For example, our northern forests here in SK used to burn naturally maybe once every 20 years or so, on average. But with fanatical firefighting, that timespan is getting longer and longer, which means that the brush is getting denser and denser, so that when the fires do eventually happen, they burn so hot that they kill the trees (and every other living thing) completely – whereas before that did not happen. They also grow so big that they threaten the few northern communites. All because of the unrestrained impulse to kill every fire in sight – countering the scientific knowledge we have, which tells us that the boreal forest needs occasional fire to regenerate and stay healthy.

    They learnt that lesson in the Kruger Park in South Africa back in the 60′s and 70′s, and introduced controlled fires, and thus kept the park’s biodiversity up etc etc.

    Just one small arboreal example.

    Responsible and sustainable resource utilisation etc is also important, such as in responsible mining. One can, for instance, destroy a mining resource by “high grading” it – that is, going after the highest grades quickly, and then creating a situation whereby the mine becomes unmanageable and unprofiteable. Whereas a long term grade and production management plan can prolong the production of ore, profits and employment. A completely different example, to be sure.

    But the commonality here is basically applying brains to the situation. Like carefully planning and enjoying your food, instead of gobbling up fast food and becoming obese, or abstaining and becoming anorexic. Unfortunately, most folks tend to favour, when it comes to the environment, either obesity(Drill baby Drill!) or anorexia (mud huts, equal sentient creature!).

    Leaving us scientists, engineers, economists and other braniacs (I’m being very humble here :) , just like Sheldon), in the middle…..

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Careful scientifc study will go a long way though, Todd. We have learnt more and more, the last 20 years or so. For example, our northern forests here in SK used to burn naturally maybe once every 20 years or so, on average. But with fanatical firefighting, that timespan is getting longer and longer, which means that the brush is getting denser and denser, so that when the fires do eventually happen, they burn so hot that they kill the trees (and every other living thing) completely – whereas before that did not happen. They also grow so big that they threaten the few northern communites. All because of the unrestrained impulse to kill every fire in sight – countering the scientific knowledge we have, which tells us that the boreal forest needs occasional fire to regenerate and stay healthy.

    They learnt that lesson in the Kruger Park in South Africa back in the 60′s and 70′s, and introduced controlled fires, and thus kept the park’s biodiversity up etc etc.

    Just one small arboreal example.

    Responsible and sustainable resource utilisation etc is also important, such as in responsible mining. One can, for instance, destroy a mining resource by “high grading” it – that is, going after the highest grades quickly, and then creating a situation whereby the mine becomes unmanageable and unprofiteable. Whereas a long term grade and production management plan can prolong the production of ore, profits and employment. A completely different example, to be sure.

    But the commonality here is basically applying brains to the situation. Like carefully planning and enjoying your food, instead of gobbling up fast food and becoming obese, or abstaining and becoming anorexic. Unfortunately, most folks tend to favour, when it comes to the environment, either obesity(Drill baby Drill!) or anorexia (mud huts, equal sentient creature!).

    Leaving us scientists, engineers, economists and other braniacs (I’m being very humble here :) , just like Sheldon), in the middle…..

  • SAL

    Todd:
    “Of course, the problem is that for such tactics to work, we have to know all the possible inputs into the systems involved. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t.”

    I don’t think that’s exactly right. Management doesn’t require perfect knowledge of inputs (and relationships).

    Essentially in a complex incomprehensible system (like Nature or the Stock Market) we learn by trial and error. We make adjustments looking for a temporary best course of action. We don’t have actual solutions.

    This is essentially how our management of nature proceeded until conservationism became normative.

    I’m confident in some local management of nature because it allows the some variety for good outcomes to serendipitiously arise.

    I’m skeptical of global management of nature because a single solution is almost always too complex, too slow and too massive to allow trial and error learning. Too-large solutions simply starts out bad and gets worse with the effort too large, too costly and too time consuming to stop once their failure becomes obvious.

  • SAL

    Todd:
    “Of course, the problem is that for such tactics to work, we have to know all the possible inputs into the systems involved. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that we don’t.”

    I don’t think that’s exactly right. Management doesn’t require perfect knowledge of inputs (and relationships).

    Essentially in a complex incomprehensible system (like Nature or the Stock Market) we learn by trial and error. We make adjustments looking for a temporary best course of action. We don’t have actual solutions.

    This is essentially how our management of nature proceeded until conservationism became normative.

    I’m confident in some local management of nature because it allows the some variety for good outcomes to serendipitiously arise.

    I’m skeptical of global management of nature because a single solution is almost always too complex, too slow and too massive to allow trial and error learning. Too-large solutions simply starts out bad and gets worse with the effort too large, too costly and too time consuming to stop once their failure becomes obvious.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Klasie (@9), I believe you’ve made my point. It seems to me that the only way we learned that occasional (natural) wildfires are actually good things was by positing that they were bad … and learning from the mistakes that this stance led to.

    Now, maybe in this particular case, the controlled-fire policy (that was introduced in reaction to the foregoing “extinguish all fires” policy) solves all known problems and is how we should always proceed in the future. Or maybe in a few decades we’ll learn that wildfires are not the same as controlled fires like we’d previously thought.

    Maybe, like SAL suggests, we can learn from our mistakes and get better. Or maybe our mistakes are something we’re just going to have to learn to live with, because they can’t be fixed (rabbits and cane toads in Australia, anyone?).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Klasie (@9), I believe you’ve made my point. It seems to me that the only way we learned that occasional (natural) wildfires are actually good things was by positing that they were bad … and learning from the mistakes that this stance led to.

    Now, maybe in this particular case, the controlled-fire policy (that was introduced in reaction to the foregoing “extinguish all fires” policy) solves all known problems and is how we should always proceed in the future. Or maybe in a few decades we’ll learn that wildfires are not the same as controlled fires like we’d previously thought.

    Maybe, like SAL suggests, we can learn from our mistakes and get better. Or maybe our mistakes are something we’re just going to have to learn to live with, because they can’t be fixed (rabbits and cane toads in Australia, anyone?).

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I think we agree, Todd. And some mistakes can be fixed, and some possibly not, although time will tell.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I think we agree, Todd. And some mistakes can be fixed, and some possibly not, although time will tell.

  • –helen

    Kudzu in the southeast : brought in deliberately to “control erosion” I believe, perhaps 70 years ago?

    Fire ants in the South : brought in accidently about 30 years ago, they claim, (and I surely can’t find a reason to bring them in deliberately!) [So glad my camping days preceded them!]

    Bed bugs : coming in with travelers, I guess. [They are invasive enough so that my apt. complex has mandated a luggage check, if you have been to a hotel/motel on a trip.]

    And aren’t those toads in Florida now? I know they have fish that got away or were dumped out of aquariums and are pests.

    I wonder when some disease or disaster will destroy genetically modified crops… and send us looking for unmodified seed that won’t be there, in too many places, because the American giants wanted a choke hold on the farmers and forbid them to save native seed from year to year.

  • –helen

    Kudzu in the southeast : brought in deliberately to “control erosion” I believe, perhaps 70 years ago?

    Fire ants in the South : brought in accidently about 30 years ago, they claim, (and I surely can’t find a reason to bring them in deliberately!) [So glad my camping days preceded them!]

    Bed bugs : coming in with travelers, I guess. [They are invasive enough so that my apt. complex has mandated a luggage check, if you have been to a hotel/motel on a trip.]

    And aren’t those toads in Florida now? I know they have fish that got away or were dumped out of aquariums and are pests.

    I wonder when some disease or disaster will destroy genetically modified crops… and send us looking for unmodified seed that won’t be there, in too many places, because the American giants wanted a choke hold on the farmers and forbid them to save native seed from year to year.

  • Tom Hering

    What does “pristine” even mean? Weren’t previous, local ecosystems also the result of local climate changes, species migration, etc.? And the local ecosystem before that, and the one before that – a series of changes stretching way, way back.

    I guess “pristine” means whatever was there most recently, before man had an identifiable influence.

    I also wonder if attempts at restoration are objective, or whether they’re driven by human preferences. For example, songbird lovers want to get rid of feral cats, using the justification that they’re an “invasive species” (conservation lingo). Ignoring the fact that species invasion is a natural occurance, even when a species “rides on the back of man” from place to place , because man is also a part of the natural/created world.

  • Tom Hering

    What does “pristine” even mean? Weren’t previous, local ecosystems also the result of local climate changes, species migration, etc.? And the local ecosystem before that, and the one before that – a series of changes stretching way, way back.

    I guess “pristine” means whatever was there most recently, before man had an identifiable influence.

    I also wonder if attempts at restoration are objective, or whether they’re driven by human preferences. For example, songbird lovers want to get rid of feral cats, using the justification that they’re an “invasive species” (conservation lingo). Ignoring the fact that species invasion is a natural occurance, even when a species “rides on the back of man” from place to place , because man is also a part of the natural/created world.

  • inexile

    “Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana…worries about a possible overreliance on technology to fix problems that humans have made.”

    Although we are given the intellectual equipment necessary to fix what we’ve broken, we inevitably turn the gift into our excuse to remain as we are and continue to sin, knowing that science will eventually save us all. Real solutions to the problem have got to involve a combination of repentance and action. Only the gospel has the power to make something like this happen.

  • inexile

    “Albert Borgmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Montana…worries about a possible overreliance on technology to fix problems that humans have made.”

    Although we are given the intellectual equipment necessary to fix what we’ve broken, we inevitably turn the gift into our excuse to remain as we are and continue to sin, knowing that science will eventually save us all. Real solutions to the problem have got to involve a combination of repentance and action. Only the gospel has the power to make something like this happen.


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