Abstract—Recently a proposed alternative to the traditional conservationist approach has popped onto the scene. It calls itself “eco-modernism,” and rather than advocating decreased economic growth, it calls for the acceleration of technical and economic innovation, saying that this will leave more land for wildlife. The eco-modernists have also borrowed concepts like “rewilding” from the wildness-centered conservationists, which has led to charges of revisionism. This paper argues against the civilization/nature apartheid scheme that the eco-modernists advocate, and it outlines the moral differences between their humanist approach and the wildist approach to conservation.
Wildism seems to require the collapse of industry: we wildists state, very plainly, that we care for the autonomy of nature such that the civilized agricultural mode of production and later are morally unjustifiable. How, then, could we even entertain the notion that there is an alternative to collapse?
The answer is simple: if the overall process of technical evolution begins to decrease civilization’s footprint, especially in regards to the amount of physical land it requires, then this will result in an increase of wildness and nature’s restoration. Such a thing has not yet happened except through collapse, but that does not necessarily make it impossible. Our question, then, is whether technical development is decreasing human impact or looks like it will be doing this in the near future. Note that because of the wildist critique of progress (Jacobi, 2016, pp. 22-27), we have no illusion that any group of humans, no matter how organized, can steer overall technical development. Our concern is mainly one of analysis and prediction.
Some evidence suggests that civilization’s impact may indeed decrease in the coming years, thanks to digital technology, new energy sources, ecological necessity, and other such factors. Armed with this evidence, some have proposed various alternatives that all fall under the banner of “half-earth proposals.” These proposals are unique in that they are appealing both to progressivist environmentalists, like the so-called eco-modernists, while also maintaining appeal among wildness-centered conservationists. The idea is that humans can continue with civilization in some parts of the earth so long as non-human nature is able to flourish in wild conditions.
Here I will outline an apartheid proposal that is as attractive as possible to wildists and then explain why no such proposal would ever be sufficient as an end goal, for both moral and empirical reasons. That said, I argue that the logic of apartheid does not necessarily carry over to “half-earth” proposals, arguing that the later could be a positive development. With some caveats, then, I conclude that conservationists should engage in active work under these campaigns.
The Empirical Problems
The most important advocates of human/nature apartheid tend to be associated with The Breakthrough Institute, a think tank dedicated to “modernizing environmentalism.” Indeed, the landmark document in support of the idea was a report put out by the institute and entitled Nature Unbound: Decoupling for Conservation. Other important texts include Green Delusions by Martin Lewis, in which the idea of “decoupling” was first proposed, and most of the work of Jesse Ausubel, who is by far the most convincing and data-driven advocate of apartheid.
The empirical evidence in support of the eco-modernist program is strong, and in many instances it is modest in precisely the appropriate places. Indeed, many aspects of eco-modernism are refreshing to those environmentalists who find themselves surrounded on all sides by the irrationalism and lack of pragmatism pervading the movement. This is no doubt why it has gained such strength in such short time, especially when this is combined with their beautiful marketing.
The eco-modernists’ primary assertion is that industrial production can be “de-coupled” from land use and other environmental problems. This is not a new argument. The story of progressivism is the story of elites calling for more, more, more innovation. Where these newcomers catch attention, however, is their substantial evidence that this process has already taken place and could continue to. In fact, many industries began to decouple just as environmentalism became a dominant force in industrial societies, around the 1970s. This is a large part of the reason why the prophecies of doomers like Ehrlich never really materialized.
|Figure 1. Taken from Ausubel (2015). Data source: USGS National Minerals Information Center.|
One of the most striking examples of decoupling is corn production, which has “quintupled…while using the same or even less land.” A similar thing has occurred with potatoes and chicken (ibid.). One can also see many commodities plateauing and even dropping rapidly in recent years (see Figure 2), a trend that has been observed in plastics, paper, timber, lead, aluminum, copper, chromium, iron ore, and many more. Ausubel argues that several other commodities, like nickel, electricity, and cobalt, could also be peaking as well.
The beautiful thing about most of these commodities is that their decrease means more land for wildlife, whether or not they are being offset by other environmental trouble-makers, like digital technologies. Of course, where the new pressure is going (when it isn’t simply dissipating) is an important concern, and indeed it is one of the problems with the extent to which eco-modernists take their decoupling claims, but more, bigger, and more connected wildlands are good developments. This is not least because, as The Wildlands Network and others have shown (Foreman, 2004), it mitigates and protects against ongoing environmental problems, keeps basic ecological building blocks intact even if industrial civilization does begin to collapse, and allows these building blocks to restore themselves and remain resilient against permanent problems like climate change.
But the eco-modernists are not arguing anything like this. Instead, they argue that because of the decoupling phenomenon, humans should, instead of slowing down industrial and economic development, kick it into high gear. Moreover, instead of viewing the possibility of an Anthropocene as a great moral warning, humans should embrace it, baptizing themselves fully into the role of planetary managers.
But the empirical evidence does not support this narrative. For one thing, the trends are not all good, and though the eco-modernists are open about this, their response is essentially a faith-based one, compelling only to those who are so strongly attached to the civilizing project that they are willing to take great ecological risks to save it. Notable bad trends include the fact that industrial production has not decoupled from the oceans,—one of the eco-modernists’ major areas of concern—and greenhouse gas emissions are not at all on the decrease—something they don’t mention much at all, but, ironically, one of the main reasons the oceans are doing so poorly.
In fact, economic trends around emissions are a particularly powerful blow to the eco-modernist vision. Since the Industrial Revolution, CO2 emissions have almost only ever decreased in cases of economic decline and collapse, e.g., the Great Depression, the recession after the 1980 oil shock, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the recent 2008 recession (Caradonna, et al., 2015; Schneider, Martinez-Alier, & Kallis, 2011; Peters, et al., 2012). In the 2008-2009 case, emissions rebounded so drastically with economic rebound that they “more than offset…the decrease” that had been achieved (Peters, et al., 2012).
Furthermore, the extinction crisis continues to worsen. Scientists estimate that we’ve increased the extinction rate by at least 1,000 times since the Industrial Revolution, and it is now accepted that we are going through the sixth mass extinction event in geological history, the previous ones having been caused by asteroids or volcanoes or other natural phenomena, but this one being caused by industrial civilization (Kolbert, 2014). I have not witnessed any eco-modernists address the extinction crisis.
Even apart from specific problems and lines of evidence, the eco-modernists have not quite shown how the trend of decoupling applies or can apply to the industrial economy as a whole. For sure, the trends are observable for specific materials, but they can just as easily be offset by problems elsewhere, and problems like the ones just noted indicate that that is exactly what is happening. Because economics is complex, this failure is understandable, and only a confluence of data after some study would be able to make a convincing case. And this may just happen. However, the data available now are not looking good for the eco-modernists. Civilizations have a history of overreaching and then collapsing due to precisely the kinds of ecological troubles the industrial one is now facing, and some experts have argued that collapse of industry is very near inevitable (Motesharrel, Rivas, & Kalnay, 2014; Tainter, 1990; Wright, 2004).
In Nature Unbound, I only found one brief mention of one of the problems related to a whole-economy view, but it took up less than half a page and made clear the stark difference between eco-modernist and wildist goals. The section mentions the phenomenon known as “rebound,” where improved efficiency results in more consumption rather than less. But, the piece goes on to say, “had our…technologies not improved dramatically over centuries, the human population would probably be significantly smaller and poorer.” As if our current population levels are desirable! Their counter-argument to the rebound objection is also insufficient, as they note only that material goods eventually reach a point of demand saturation. Unfortunately, they do not address whether the demands for other, newer goods create a good trade-off.
There’s much more evidence to offer, but this is sufficient for now, especially since the moral case against apartheid is much more relevant. In regards to the empirical evidence, we can conclude that while it doesn’t quite support the eco-modernist narrative, it does strongly support the main soft claim: that insofar as it an observable and somewhat predictable economic trend, the phenomenon of “decoupling” is another strong tool in the hands of the conservationists. There is no reason to not take advantage of the phenomenon in the same way that conservationists have used wilderness areas, ecological and evolutionary science, and other tools to preserve nature and nature’s wildness.
The Moral Concerns
The Other Side
The real problem with the apartheid proposal is moral. Wildness-centered conservation, which in the conventional account began with Muir, began with a skeptical look toward civilization, a willingness to dispose of it in pursuit of nature. The eco-modernists begin from a radically different point: they love nature, fine, but their primary focus is saving civilization, which they believe can coexist with nature. This of course means that they believe it can coexist with only some of nature, since the apartheid proposal explicitly legitimizes a non-natural side, a side for civilization.
One could say, then, that the eco-modernists “do not go far enough.” But this is not quite accurate. The problem isn’t that the eco-modernists aren’t radical enough, but that they want something fundamentally different. This is clear when we pay closer attention to the civilization side of apartheid, see how disgusting it is, and realize that they are arguing for it.
Crist (2015) has written a poignant critique on the topic of nature on the civilization side. She points out that the eco-modernists advocate concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), intensified agriculture, “aquaculture,” and other similar technical solutions to intensive production. But, she writes,
Industrial agriculture occupies extensive territories, after stripping them of their native life and engineering them for the production of grains, protein, oils, and fiber, most of which do not even directly serve as human food but as raw materials for industrial processing. An even larger portion of the globe allotted to livestock grazing is also roundly dominated, displacing wild animals, plants, and natural ecologies. In CAFOs farm animals are dispossessed of their natural life cycles, and treated as little more than easily subjugated objects to be rapidly turned over into commodities. Meanwhile, the vast majority of so-called fisheries are fished to capacity or overfished, nine out of ten big fish are gone, and massive habitat destruction of continental shelves and increasingly of sea mounts are the legacy of industrial fishing. On all fronts, industrial food production is a ruthless, machine-mediated subjugation of land and seas as well as of wild and domestic beings.
In other words, the civilization side of the apartheid scheme will leave humanity “still very much coupled” with nature—except, Crist writes, “ ‘coupled’ is hardly the right word—comprehensively dominated is a more accurate depiction.”
One might argue that this is mere tugging on the heartstrings. With a pragmatic approach, the math is simple: more intensive production here means vastly freer circumstances elsewhere. That doesn’t mean the “here” is pretty, but it’s the most promising approach we’ve got.
Indeed, the eco-modernists argue just this. Lewis, one of the originators of the decoupling idea in its eco-modernist incarnation, calls his approach “radical pragmatism.” The language of pragmatism and compromise also pervades the writings and reports of The Breakthrough Institute.
However, the ethical claims on which this equation is based are faulty. Admittedly, Crist herself remains susceptible to the eco-modernist response, and she is not alone among us wildness-centered conservationists. A common ethical scheme in our ranks speaks of the “rights” of nature or some similar concept. It speaks as though nature should be the next beneficiary of an expanded humanist philosophy, a continuation of what has occurred throughout the history of civilization in its move from band to tribe, tribe to race, race to nation, nation to humanity.
This is also the common ethical lens through which the public sees environmentalism. Animal rights ideologies are rapidly becoming more common, and oftentimes conservation projects find it easiest to mobilize people when they can put specific animals or ecosystems before the public. When nature or elements of nature are branded as victims of humanity’s technical ambitions, it is easy to invoke the dominant values of sympathy, equality, and solidarity to incite political action.
But, as I argue more extensively in “Relations and the Moral Circle,” this ethical lens is foggy and broken to begin with, and it is completely shattered under a scientific materialist approach. When we acknowledge the core materialist assertion—that matter is all that exists, and that our ethical values are therefore rooted in our biologies and evolved—one can only speak of one’s own wants and values and, in the context of collective action, an agreed upon spectrum that unifies a politically discrete population. After this, which values become dominant is a question of power and chance in the short term and fate and chance in the long term.
With this in mind, the eco-modernists can and do still say that the belief in the goodness of technical progress is their starting point. But then we see why wildism can have nothing to do with eco-modernism, since its central claim is that progress is a flawed mythology—including its applications to human nature. In other words, it is a delusion to think that nature, including human nature, can be improved by civilization.
A more thorough treatment of these claims can be found in “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” particularly pages 22-44. The critique consists of two parts, each invalidating the two remaining components of the progressive mythology: the first attacks the idea that humans can rationally implement their blueprints onto a society in a successful manner, that is, the idea that humans control the direction of progress; and the second attacks the idea that the process of progress is good, regardless of whether or not humans have directed it.
Although eco-modernist texts do not always make clear that they accept the first element of the critique, many times they do, and Ausubel in particular makes it clear that he holds views similar to wildists in this regard. This is why Ausubel’s primary emphasis is on predicting continued decoupling trends rather than on implementing an abstract blueprint of how the economy should run. However, eco-modernists, including Ausubel, still believe the fundamental point that progress has been good, including and especially for human beings.
This is the core difference between them and wildists. As I point out in “Foundations,” civilization is simply not desirable, and the process of domestication—which has been and is happening to humans just as much as the animals we breed—is a repugnant process, especially at industrial scales. One clear and well-understood implication of civilization, for example, is increased complexity, which leads to more regimentation and more power to large organizations at the expense of small groups. I write,
In the context of wild nature, nature provides the necessary components for survival. But when humans modify nature, they must keep up the process of perpetual modification, because the rest of the natural system has not evolved to function in that state. That is, humans must use their energy and labor to “fill in the gaps.” For example, without any human intervention, natural processes will deal with animal feces. But a toilet requires entire technical systems of human labor, waste disposal, state management, and so forth. The plumbing is convenient, this is true, but at the cost of great overhead, necessary policing, and further modification of nature. A civilization is the same kind of problem magnified a thousandfold.
A final point to note on some of the empirical problems of eco-modernism: its “modernization for all” rhetoric is almost certainly false, and I’m quite sure that the men who espouse it are aware of this. Ausubel in particular strikes me as an exceedingly reasonable man, which ultimately means that the eco-modernist rhetoric probably only points toward an ideal rather than an actual, exactly achievable vision.
More realistically, the eco-modernist vision will leave still many excluded pockets, whether that be due to inertia from bureaucracy, politics, technical ability, negative reactions from those being modernized, or, a problem no one has addressed yet, where resources actually are, that is, geographical restrictions. There is a problem with the vision of “modernization for all” when coltan, for instance, which is vital for digital technologies, mostly exists in a few places in Africa and Australia. Of course, we might move from coltan to some other good, but the bottom line is that almost any resource will only be available in particular geographies. The geopolitical factors this entails brings quite a bit of inertia to deal with, and the problem is only magnified when we consider multiple similar problems for the complex network of goods necessary for something like modernization to even be possible.
Of course, this means that the vision of island civilizations might actually be more insidious than it sounds when packaged with nice words. That’s not to say that it isn’t worth pursuing—in fact, I sincerely doubt that any response to the great problems we are facing will be without some distasteful elements—but there are serious threats associated with it, which I will discuss further in section IV, “The Dangers of Half-Earth Rhetoric.”
The first argument against apartheid, then, is that the civilization side is illegitimate in relation to both human and non-human nature, and wildists don’t want to live in it. Two responses to this, in favor of apartheid, are possible. The first says that even if civilization is not good for humans, it is the most promising moral option available, and humans who do not wish to live under civilized circumstances should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of non-human nature. The second says that any humans who do not want to live in the civilization side are free to move to the nature side.
E.O. Wilson and to a lesser extent Dave Foreman have arguments similar to the first. Wilson said in one interview that he supports the half-earth proposal because it will decrease damage to the biosphere until humans decide to “settle down” (Worrall, 2014). I am unsure, but I believe that Wilson was being intentionally vague and is aware that settling down could likely mean collapse, or, as some technophiles have argued, space travel, or any other number of options, some of which are clearly undesirable. Foreman (2015) is more open about the possibility of collapse when he says that “the system is going to come down, one way or another way, on its own. My task is keeping all the building blocks of future evolution that we can.” The nature half, of course, would consist of these building blocks.
This leads us to a necessary point of clarification. The eco-modernist apartheid proposal is actually an outgrowth of a much older half-earth proposal that came from the wildness-centered conservationists. After leaving the radical conservationist group Earth First! in the late 1980s, some of the original founders created an organization that is now called The Wildlands Network. This new organization was built around a proposal that expanded the original Earth First! reserve system into a comprehensive and scientifically based proposal, later called “continental-scale conservation” and “rewilding.”
The conservation biologists who outlined this proposal introduced many new and exciting concepts, and one of the most important of these is connectivity—the fact that wild areas are better when linked. As a result, they devised a system of wildlife corridors and, in North America, four major megalinkages spanning the whole continent, which would leave about half of the land for wildlife and will be extremely important for animals who need to migrate due to climate change. They also counter the rather devastating effects of roads.
The most recent political formulation of this idea has been taken on by the WILD Foundation’s Harvey Locke, who is spearheading what is called the Nature Needs Half campaign, and Wilson has also come out in support of the idea with his book Half-Earth.
The wildness-centered origins of the half-earth proposal is part of the reason the revisionism of the eco-modernists is so appalling. They have taken the ideas of half-earth, rewilding, and “the positive agenda,” as well as many of the other concepts from wildness-centered conservation, and then they’ve wrapped them all up in a polemic for industry and civilization. Note that the tangible proposal itself has not entirely changed, save the new talk of economic acceleration; the revision instead takes place in the narrative, in what it legitimates.
Still, the narrative does subtly and not so subtly transform the long-term implications of the proposal. Under the eco-modernist narrative the half-earth idea literally becomes apartheid. As many have pointed out, they strongly encourage the modernization of non-modernized people and look with disdain on the environmental damage (and alleged environmental damage) of those who are not “decoupled.” In many cases this translates to a “don’t touch it” mentality, a revulsion at actually interacting with nature in any natural way. This is more than clear in works like Nature Unbound. Contrast this with the rhetoric around Nature Needs Half, where Locke (2014) writes repeatedly that the earth needs “at least half” (his emphasis) and has sparse things to say about the other side.
So if we move away from the apartheid proposal and onto the more legitimate (in wildist eyes) half-earth proposal, what is the problem with the idea that humans should be willing to sacrifice their wildness and freedom for the sake of the wildness of so much more non-human nature? The answer is, simply, that wildists do not wish to be martyrs for something as abstract as “all of nature” any more than we would be martyrs for “all of humanity.” This is a direct outgrowth of our challenge to humanist ideology.
The explanation here will seem a little like hairsplitting, but it is vital. When we go with the prevailing paradigm in environmental ethics, we are told that we should extend our unrelenting altruism from humans to all of nature, and we should therefore be willing to fight to the death for nature’s own sake. This only makes sense if we assume that nature’s value is something legitimate outside of our own existence, something we must align ourselves with. But wildists acknowledge that “nature has intrinsic value when it is valued (verb transitive) intrinsically” (Callicott, 1995). In other words, there is no objective value in nature. We fight for it because we want it, not because something external to us demands it to be so (sometimes the implicit meaning behind the shoulds and woulds of moral imperatives). See “Relations and the Moral Circle” for more on this point.
This does not mean, of course, that we cannot sacrifice our lives for the sake of something else. But an abstraction like “all of nature,” while useful for intellectual parsing and theoretical discussions, is not that thing. Rather, wildists chant “live wild or die!” because we have analyzed the situation and have found that freedom and the freedom of our relations is impossible under the current conditions. Our willingness to risk death is the most assured way to regain it. Our slogan is therefore said in the same spirit as Patrick Henry’s passionate words: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!” (See also “Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” p. 17.)
To be clearer, this split in ethical foundations is not between the wildness-centered conservationists and the eco-modernists. It is instead a division within environmental ethics. However, it is a necessary division to point out because the eco-modernists are more in line with the prevailing paradigm, which is part of the reason their ideas have so much strength. When, for instance, Crist refutes the eco-modernist position on the assumption that humanist altruism should be expanded (rather than challenged) she leaves open the possibility of the martyrdom rebuttal. And in truth she may not even be totally averse to such a rebuttal, if she means what she says and is not simply unaware of some of the implications of her rhetoric.
The full reasoning behind the wildist view and why we still fight for non-human nature with it can again be found in “Relations in the Moral Circle.” Here I will simply conclude that martyrdom is not a strong response to the moral critique of apartheid.
Humans on the Nature Side?
The second response to the moral critique is, as stated above, the age-old argument, “if you don’t like it, leave.” A weak counter-argument would bring up the eco-modernist aversion to non-industrial forms of human-nature interaction. If adopted widely, and especially if adopted as policy, this could make it impossible for some and hard for most to leave the civilization side of the divide (see also section IV, “The Dangers of Half-Earth Rhetoric”). Recall that eco-modernists are repelled by natural human-nature interaction and are much more in favor of a “don’t-touch-it” attitude. Indeed, the main value of wilderness espoused by various eco-modernist tracts is a spiritual or aesthetic one. We’d also be wise to heed the words of a very conservative, bearded homeless gentlemen I became friends with back when I too was homeless: he told me that although he believed immigration was a problem, he didn’t support increased border security, because “walls don’t just keep people out; they also do real good at keeping people in.”
The stronger argument points out that it is actually not a solution to wildist grievances. Is escape actually an option? The reach of industry’s impacts is global, and escape is among the most impotent responses available. And given the global nature of those impacts, “escape” is far from an accurate word. A man who has left the city for the forest has reclaimed his life in only the most insignificant of ways. He may feel better, and as far as psychological health is the argument this is a somewhat reasonable justification. But on the whole he has merely fogged up his view of the world that still determines the trajectory of his life, so he is able to more easily delude himself into thinking he has freedom.
Meanwhile, the technicians continue to do their work, the emissions continue to increase, the possibility of runaway technologies remains, nuclear, biotech, and nanotech are still developed, and the escape artist remains fundamentally powerless. Interestingly, the infamous Kaczynski (2010) put it best when he said, “One does not have freedom if anyone else (especially a large organization) has power over one, no matter how benevolently, tolerantly and permissively that power may be exercised. It is important not to confuse freedom with mere permissiveness.”
Which brings us to the final point against the escape argument: it assumes that civilization will always remain benign toward the other half. The whole history of civilization up to this point is not a great record, and the economic predictions of the eco-modernists are not nearly empirically sound enough to convince us otherwise.
A Note on Collapse
It seems, then, that collapse is still the only option worth pursuing, since the eco-modernists’ only remaining argument with vague persuasive power is that accelerated decoupling will result in less physical environmental damage than collapse would. But this is hardly a claim worth paying attention to.
For one thing, the evidence that collapse is good for nature in the long-term is far-reaching, so much so that it will be a topic for another essay. But consider as an example the case of nuclear power, often invoked as a reason why collapse couldn’t happen without devastating repercussions. While this seems intuitive, the evidence of astounding wildlife rebound in the Chernobyl exclusion zone suggests a more haunting possibility: nuclear meltdown does less harm to nature than civilization.
Furthermore, the eco-modernists argue that decoupling happens only after production of a given material reaches “peak impact,” which by their account was only reached by most commodities between 1940-1970. If we are to accelerate the modernization of all remaining non-modernized peoples, this would amount to an immense amount of devastation until the future vision of complete decoupling can be achieved. Unless the eco-modernists can dream up an alternative pathway to modernization, something that would betray the aversion to abstract blueprints that makes their argument so strong in the first place, they are left having to accept the fact that their plan is likely to do more physical damage to the earth than collapse, not less. And in any case, the desire to come up with an alternative pathway to modernization would only underscore their commitment to saving civilization rather than achieving a future where nature, including human nature, can be wild.
The Dangers of Half-Earth Rhetoric
As has been established, the eco-modernist apartheid proposal differs from the conservationist half-earth proposal in some important respects. However, the half-earth rhetoric is clearly only a few steps from the eco-modernist perversion, and this is just one of the many threats associated with it. So while I am tentatively supportive of the Nature Needs Half campaign and would like to see it achieve its goals, before undertaking any actions in support of it we should fully understand the risks and especially the potential perversions that the campaign could produce.
To do this, we need to understand some of the economic and technical determinants that have brought environmentalist rhetoric to the forefront of many civilized conversations. Indeed, even though wildism and, in general, wildness-centered conservation are challenges to the dominant superstructure of industrial civilization, mainstream environmentalism is clearly and in contrast a part of it. This has been true at least since the 60s and 70s and became especially clear with the establishment of Earth Day.
Arne Naess pointed this out in the document that set off the Deep Ecology movement when he noted that some environmentalism has a shallow approach, some of it a deep approach. The former agrees on many of the facts: civilization will collapse if the ecological context of economics is ignored, it would be a great loss to have animals and nature gone from our lives, etc. But their normative claims are far from the same. Mainstream environmentalism, or shallow environmentalism, recognizes the very true fact that climate change, mass extinctions, and other such things influence the world, even the world of humans, because humans are, in fact, still limited by nature, even if they don’t always recognize it. Mainstreamers also note that things like pollution and other environmental problems could hurt the humanist ideal of human well-being, or even the whole progressive project of civilization. But they do not actually question progressivism and its various incarnations.
Eco-modernism is, to date, the purest form of this progressivist environmentalism, and just as mainstream environmentalism popped up at just around the time that ecological problems were becoming dire and impossible to ignore, so too is eco-modernism arising at an uncannily appropriate time, given the current material demands of civilization. The major threat is that half-earth rhetoric will take on some form similar to the eco-modernist version to be a new legitimizing narrative for these new conditions. The major threat, that is, is conservation as our new government.
Let’s paint the picture of a likely future, ideological visions of either the wildists or eco-modernists aside. The scale of the current impacts of climate change, combined with politicians’ unwillingness and inability to deal with it, combined with the speedy pace that any sufficient response would need but will not perfectly achieve, all combine to make it clear that at least some places, probably even a few major cities, will become casualties within the next fifty to one hundred years. Some places are going to lose, regardless. To be clear, this is not fearmongering, and it doesn’t translate directly to the collapse of civilization. It’s simply a reality and the conditions with which the civilizations of the future will have to cope. The US’ Pentagon, for instance, lists climate change as a national security threat (Scarborough, 2016), and we know that rising sea levels will affect cities as major as Boston and Miami. One study found that over 400 American cities have already passed their lock-in date—meaning that the focus should be mitigating damage, since preventing it is out of the question (Strauss, Kulp, & Levermann, 2015).
Recall the eco-modernist vision of “island cities” connected by highly efficient transport systems and with vast expanses of wilderness everywhere else. The above evidence indicates why such a vision might be a serious contender for the dominant narrative of the new conditions. To be clear, the vision isn’t going to actualize itself as a smooth transition where everyone is modernized and voluntarily migrates to wherever the islands are. Instead, we can expect the use of force in many cases, and, more likely, no human intervention at all as the wilderness spreads from natural disasters. Just a look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina indicates what this might look like. (The example is especially appropriate because, despite the actual horrors, life for most has gone on as normal—what could be called apocalypse certainly doesn’t feel like it, and won’t, especially to the decadents in the Capitol.)
More than just the eco-modernists have suggested this vision. The market has moved emphatically in that direction as well. For instance, Google is working on self-driving cars, which are by now clearly going to catch on, and soon, and on the whole allow for much more efficient travel and use of resources. Musk is working on a hyperloop—perfect for connecting island cities, and devised to do just that—Tesla motors, SolarCity, and recently OpenAI. These places will not reach the whole world, but make the vision of efficiently run islands connected by high modes of transport very feasible.
And the non-wildness-centered side of conservation has a dark history standing very much in line with these kinds of visions, although perhaps more relevant are the modern instances. In recent years, ecological problems and the rhetoric of crisis has increasingly been used to justify global cooperation and the institution of global management schemes. This does not necessarily mean a government, especially since markets do so very well at making cooperation look nice, but a government is within the realm of possibility, especially given the low number of political actors total (fewer than 200 independent states) and the even lower number this island vision implies.
Consider, for instance, the ideas of the Club of Rome, which is well-known for producing the environmentalist tract Limits to Growth:
In Nature organic growth proceeds according to a Master Plan, a Blueprint. Such a ‘master plan’ is missing from the process of growth and development of the world system. Now is the time to draw up a master plan for sustainable growth and world development based on our global allocation of all resources and a new global economic system.
Or consider the suggestion of Ronald Wright, the author of A Short History of Progress, that we institute a global government in order to have “managed capitalism.” The basis for this argument, and the subject of his book, is the current intensity of environmental degradation and the increasing disparity between the rich and poor, which he points out were two common factors in the majority of collapses in history.
Wright’s argument is naïve, particularly because he doesn’t pay attention to the increased energy input that any management system requires—this is part of the reason the eco-modernist vision of letting nature do a lot of the work for us is so convincing—but the fundamental drive toward global unity is there, and the primary rhetoric is of an environmentalist and “collapsist” nature.
Even E.O. Wilson, who wildness-centered conservationists have come to view as an ally (and in whom even wildists find inspiration), is at best a fickle advocate of our ethic and a mixed blessing. He should by no means be shunned for his mistakes, both because he offers a loudspeaker for the ideas and because he clearly cares about wild nature dearly. But he has always toed the line between a wildness-centered ethic and a management one, and taken together what he really advocates is a sort of chimera. One could walk away from his recent book on the half-earth proposal as either an eco-modernist or a wildist, and that’s even taking into consideration his rebuttal of the Anthropocener argument.
The threat, then, for any radical conservationists is that they may unwittingly become the vanguard for the new apartheid schemes. One can imagine an unholy union between those who have no regard for civilization and those who hope to save it when the latter acknowledges, at least in an implied sense, that civilization won’t make it unless some wildernesses are created, unless some civilized places go under. One can imagine, in other words, a tactical spectrum where the radical factions make eco-modernist proposals look good rather than being beneficial to the wildness-centered, anti-industrial conservationists.
A striking example came to me when I was working with a young conservationist on a wilderness magazine. At some point he told me that he imagined a program of “voluntary land abandonment” in order to institute the land requirements for the half-earth idea. But of course that is unrealistic. What is realistic? Well, forced land abandonment, which is precisely the kind of thing that happens or is considered acceptable when people are swept up in revolutionary fervor, if history is any indication. Of course, the apartheid moderates would not be able to propose such a thing, and in fact would have to stick to the rhetoric of willingness and non-violence. But they could certainly be benefitted by a more radical faction.
Even more threatening is if this fervor is directed toward only the parts of the program that are beneficial for the creation of civilized islands. A true anti-industrial effort, that is, a radical faction on the wildness-centered tactical spectrum, would need to devote a good bit of its energy to making sure those islands aren’t possible. This is because if the eco-modernist version is instituted, the human half legitimized, and the islands made efficient, it could mean a very long time until industry falls again. The eco-modernist vision in its realistic version is quite powerful because it simplifies the machinery of civilization. Instead of added complexity from artificial energy input, civilization is made to instead harness energy from systems that already exist, through the creation of wild spaces, through biotechnology, etc. (Indeed, one of the great arguments in favor of wild spaces is their benefit to biotechnics—see E.O. Wilson’s “Encyclopedia of Life” project, for instance, and his 2016 Aeon essay.) Last time this happened without corresponding damage to infrastructure was the Bubonic plague, and it actually helped keep civilization going, jump-started markets and trade, and increased the quality of life for many of the surviving. In other words, simplification without collapse would just increase the lifespan of civilization.
Of course, perhaps even with a radical eco-modernist faction the civilized islands will not be made efficient enough to survive. But the pro-civilization environmentalists have a solution for this too: space travel. Indeed, Martin Rees in his book Our Final Hour, after giving an overview of the great threats to civilization we are currently facing, pointed out that it may be the only way to keep up the progressive project. And Elon Musk, who was mentioned earlier, has another project called SpaceX, which he has explicitly said is to function as a backup plan if his other projects—for sustainable energy and efficient travel—don’t have the impact he hopes they will.
Let this sink in. A common argument against the wildist proposal is that collapse could have negative repercussions for vast swaths of humanity. But the technician alternative of space travel is arguably worse. How many people do you think they’ll be able to fit on those ships, and what will those on earth be left with? Talk about a civilized island.
The de-coupling trend identified by the eco-modernists is real in at least a limited way, and it offers another tool for conservationists hoping to preserve and restore wildlands, including wildist conservationists. However, the prevailing narrative of the eco-modernist cadres, including and especially those at The Breakthrough Institute, is appalling, unsupported by the evidence, and points toward a future that no wildist wants. It is also a shameless attempt at revisionism, a perversion of concepts that originated from wildness-centered conservationists who first espoused a half-earth proposal.
Luckily, the wildness-centered conservationists are behind some of the largest organizations espousing the half-earth proposal, including The Wildands Network and the groups behind the Nature Needs Half campaign. Wildists have a clear role to play in benefitting these campaigns, but should take care to avoid revisionist perversions that could transform half-earth from a radical proposal to protect at least half of the earth’s wildlands to a literal, institutional apartheid policy separating humans from wild nature.
The best way to do this is to focus on the moral rather than empirical problems with the apartheid proposal. While empirical problems should be discussed and we should be open to changing our arguments in light of new data, graphs, facts, and numbers rarely fare well in the main channels of communication available to us, like the mass media or internet articles. Probably three arguments are worth focusing on with special forcefulness.
First, wildists, in public debates or in articles, should focus on the morally appalling things that will have to occur on “the human side” of the eco-modernist proposal. Refer, for instance, to the problems with CAFOs and aquaculture brought up by Crist. Although the argument is more complex than just this point, it has enough emotional power that it will be a major blow to eco-modernists, especially in live debate.
Second, wildists should point out the conflict between the “modernization for all” dictum and the wants of the people who would be effected by this. While it is true that all of wildists would be good examples for logical argument, more effective figureheads would be non-industrial peoples, preferably wildists themselves, who say that they do not want to be modernized. However, if any wildists use this tactic, they should be careful not to argue that all non-modernized peoples do not wish to be modernized, or even that most do. This is simply not true, especially amongst agricultural communities. However, on TV or in non-text-based media, the emotional force of a non-industrial wildist saying that he wishes not to be modernized and has a right to fight against it will make it difficult for eco-modernists to respond, especially since the attention of the audience of industrial humans watching will be brought to the inherently forceful nature of industrialization that they too often do not have to pay attention to.
Finally, wildists should focus heavily on the problem of “herding” populations into the fully modern, civilized islands that the eco-modernists envision. Here the eco-modernists will have to say that they do not advocate violence and that the entire process must be voluntary. However, the data makes it clear that this is wrong, and in this case wildists must be armed with that data and ready to use it. Remember, though, that in non-text-based media the audience will usually just hear “this person sounds like they know what they are talking about, because they are using numbers.” This means that, although we should under no circumstances use false data, especially when accurate data is sufficient, the actual content matters less than the structure of the argument. Do not spit out so many numbers that the audience stops listening.
Finally, we should occasionally return to this question of apartheid and investigate whether economic trends have changed. If they have, we may recalibrate our argument. But the moral argument will of course remain, and with that we can say confidently that wildists will never support apartheid.
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