In Search of a New Eco-Narrative

More time will have to pass — and more minds will have to change — but the ‘new narrative’ on environmentalism supported by some may be establishing an early foothold.  It remains uncertain whether a pro-technology/pro-economic growth approach can gain more traction.

We humans have loved a good yarn ever since our earliest ancestors learned to roast marshmallows around the campfire. Cognitive researchers tell us that the human brain is hardwired to process information through stories. Today, we view everything through the construct of a narrative, be it the cosmos, a political election, or a baseball game.

In recent years, some prominent critics have suggested that environmentalism needs a new narrative. They say the existing one, organized around saving nature and reducing pollution, is getting long in the tooth. More importantly, it’s not up to addressing the challenges of climate change and an array of complex, interconnected ecological problems.

Commentary

While paying tribute to the crowning achievements of what many see as environmentalism’s golden era (the 1970s), Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued in their influential 2004 essay that, “modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis.” Their conclusion shook the green movement to its core:

“We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”

Leaders of the green establishment swiftly rejected that notion. Since then, however, calls for a new kind of environmentalism — one that is pro-technology and pro-economic growth — have grown louder. In 2009, Stewart Brand completed his transformation from counterculture hero to self-described “eco-pragmatist,” laying out a blueprint that advised greens to embrace nuclear power and genetic engineering, for the good of the planet.

Alas, there isn’t much evidence that American thinkers with any green cred share Brand’s techno-vision for the future.

But across the Atlantic, two well-known U.K. environmentalist writers have been assailing green orthodoxy these past few years. The most recent instance came in the spring when George Monbiot, in a succession of columns, argued forcefully that climate change could be seriously tackled only if nuclear power were a bigger part of the world’s energy portfolio. Monbiot challenged anti-nuclear greens to choose the planet over ideology.

Meanwhile, Mark Lynas, author of Six degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, has written a new book that calls on greens to accept genetic engineering and nuclear power — also as rationale for preserving the planet’s ecology. But the most striking aspect of the book is that it rejects conventional green wisdom about the nature of the climate change problem and the solutions needed to address it. Lynas writes:

“Global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology, or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal. It is, in other words, a technical problem, and it is therefore amenable to a largely technical solution, albeit one driven by politics.”

Lynas goes on to argue that drastic lifestyle changes and an economic reordering at the global level are wishful thinking:

“I often receive e-mails telling me that fixing the climate will need a worldwide change in values, a program of mass education to reduce people’s desires to consume, a more equitable distribution of global wealth, a ‘smashing of the power’ of transnational corporations, or even the abolition of capitalism itself. After having struggled with this for over a decade myself, I am convinced that these viewpoints — which are subscribed to by perhaps a majority of environmentalists — are wrong. Instead we can completely deal with climate change within the prevailing economic system. In fact, any other approach is likely doomed to failure.”

The philosophic shift that Lynas recommends is nothing short of seismic. After all, the predominant environmentalist narrative of eco-doom (and averting it through personal sacrifice) is now fairly entrenched. It’ll probably take more time and many more changed minds before this narrative gets rewritten — if it does — but some are paving the way.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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10 Responses to In Search of a New Eco-Narrative

  1. James Aach says:

    There is always a need for insightful, high-level thinking. But I’m afraid the media is also filled with energy “experts” who have never produced a kilowatt. Things can be a lot different at the ground level, and understanding that concept is important . My strong impression is that most citizens in the West don’t have a good feel for how their electricity is produced, no matter the source. This could lead to poor decisions on our energy future – not that there is a “right” way to go, as it depends as much on value judgements as on technical details. But you need to have some grasp of those details to make good judgements.

    I’d like to point out a resource that can provide an insider’s take on nuclear plants and how an unpleasant event at an atomic installation might unfold. “Rad Decision” is a novel available online free (no adverts, no sponsors). The event depicted is a lot like Fukushima, oddly enough. Just Google the title. The author has worked in the US nuclear industry for over 20 years and portrays the good and bad of this energy source.

    We’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present.

  2. Vinny Burgoo says:

    Monbiot’s and Lynas’s partial recantations were welcome but they won’t do much good. M and L helped get nonsensical ideas about energy, climate and society incorporated in the policymaking process in Britain and there’s no way they can undo that now. By partially recanting, they have destroyed whatever influence they still have with the creature they created.

    Ho hum.

  3. Mary says:

    Actually, that is a strategy I have personally used to some effectiveness–small though my platform is. In the ongoing debates on agricultural technology, I often ask those who want to prevent the developing world from having some things that have been effective elsewhere: Which technologies are you qualified to withhold from these farmers? Cell phones–they can have mining issues, right? WiFi–some people think it’s dangerous. Improved seeds? Really?

    Some of my opponents have been flustered by this.

  4. Jack Hughes says:

    Environmentalism is an incoherent movement based on feelings. A zeitgeist thing.

    It’s based on a feeling that “there is something about to go wrong” and that “humanity is the problem”.

    When you think too much about it you either end up as a human-hating population-control freak like David Attenborough with his “optimum population” movement. Or you start a slow pilgrimage back to rationality like Lynas and Monbiot are attempting.

    Let’s hope they can invent a new way forward – based on preserving wild places and particular species. Conservation is a better idea. Conserving and improving natural places for humans to enjoy. National Parks.

  5. Both Lynas and the ‘tradional eco-view’ of consuming less have set up a false dichotomy. It is clear that emissions could be lowered both by using carbon free energy (Lynas’ view) and by using less energy (the traditional eco-view). See e.g. the Kaya identity. Both are right. It’s a matter of choice:

    Don’t want to use less energy? Then use (and pay for) sustainable energy.

    Don’t want to use (and pay for) sustainable energy? Then use less energy.

    (http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/what-does-population-have-to-do-with-climate-change/ )

    One of the other choices is not more right or wrong than the other: They both result in lowered emissions. Besides that, they both have different other effects (e.g. on the wider socio-economic system), and those other effects are probably what deteremines many people’s choices.

    Don’t want to use (and pay for) sustainable energy (cf consumption pattern)? Then use less energy (cf population).

    Don’t want to use less energy? Then use (and pay for) sustainable energy.

    • BBD says:

      Bart

      A couple of things. You don’t say whether you include nuclear as a sustainable energy technology. Nor is it clear how what you suggest will apply to coal-fired industrialisation by the BRIC nations.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    Ordinary people are not using energy just to anger the greenies.

    They are driving to work, using machinery at work, cooking food, heating their homes in winter, washing clothes, having nice enjoyable showers, flying on holiday, travelling to see family, or even just relaxing in front of the TV.

    And there will be new and exciting things coming along that also use energy. More energy.

    Not sure if anyone is going to eat raw food in a cold cave instead. It’s gonna be a hard sell.

  7. Alexander Harvey says:

    From the introduction:

    “We humans have loved a good yarn ever since our earliest ancestors learned to roast marshmallows around the campfire. Cognitive researchers tell us that the human brain is hardwired to process information through stories. Today, we view everything through the construct of a narrative, be it the cosmos, a political election, or a baseball game.”

    Starting from there all else follows but why start from there.

    “In recent years, some prominent critics have suggested that environmentalism needs a new narrative. They say the existing one, organized around saving nature and reducing pollution, is getting long in the tooth. More importantly, it’s not up to addressing the challenges of climate change and an array of complex, interconnected ecological problems.”

    Theirs is the view that “the” narrative has failed rather than that narrative has failed.

    How does the narrative of narratives fare in the current information age? I would say badly now, going on to lost before long.

    Are we content with the neat and tidy, or with the dynamic whirlwind of information? Do we thrive on the predigested pap, or on the crunchy snippets, and tasty nuggets?

    If this is now a world where we choose to participate in the game rather than watch passively, what is the role of the narrative?

    I would challenge their premise, it may well have been true just a few years ago, but it is failing and fast.

    If am right, they need not a new narrative but a new paradigm, a non-narrative, non-message, non-framed one. They need new ideas and lots of them. Ideas that can slug it out for themselves, shouting “me, me, buy me”.

    This is not a message of despair. I believe that people wish to participate, to shop for the future, to buy in at the item level, buying the bits that make them feel good that fit their style, that make some personal sense.

    We know how this works, we know how to sell stuff, we know that people like paying for stuff, enjoying their participation in the process, literally buying in. We can sell one good product to a thousand different people for a thousand different reasons. We can personalise. An overarching narrative, message or frame is the antithesis of this.

    I think they need not narrative but spectacle, not a message but a discussion, not a lecture but a debate neither global nor local but one on one, or at least seemingly so. People want their say, and wish to express their right to shop for their solutions to their problems. It is we that solve problems now, and we reserve the right to do so at our peril.

    Alex

  8. John Atkeison says:

    Overconsumption is not a problem most folks have. Even in the “affluent West” only a relatively small percentage of the population has such a problem. Such concepts tend to blame everyone for the problems of a few.

    Also, saying that “it is a technical problem” avoids the fact that implementing a technical fix is an intensely political problem. (My working definition of politics is that it is the process through which it is determined who implements what policies… and has a certain flexibility of scale that covers revolutions and the length of validity of dog licenses.)

    I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the most powerful sections of the the most powerful social class are the ones most responsible for the continuation of the unfolding catastrophe of climate change caused by global warming.

    They own it, they should fix it.
    Otherwise, they should get out of the way.