Sunday, May 24, 2015

Is human flourishing inconsistent with living in harmony with nature?

A view of Sydney in 2014

I like many of the ideas in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, but I don’t like the idea of having to choose between making room for nature and living in harmony with nature. Before discussing this issue I will provide some background.

The Manifesto, published in April of this year, has 18 authors of whom the best known are probably Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthough Institute.

The Ecomodernists begin with the proposition that the earth has entered into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or age of humans. That provides the backdrop for consideration of the interaction between human flourishing and the natural environment.

Many environmentalists assert that a good Anthropocene is not consistent with the ongoing expansion of opportunities for human flourishing which economic growth provides. By contrast, the authors of the Manifesto are optimistic that the Anthropocene can offer expanding opportunities for humans, as well as protecting the natural environment, if knowledge and technology are applied with wisdom.

I endorse this proposition:
“A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

My problem is with what follows immediately after:
“In this we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.
These two ideals can no longer be reconciled”.

I don’t see any necessary conflict between the two ideals. It seems to me that the ideal of harmonizing with nature means that we should seek to live in harmony with the natural laws of the world in which we live. That means accepting that humans are in many respects like other animals and have deep emotional connections to the natural environment and other living things. These emotional connections are explicitly recognized in Chapter 5 of the Manifesto.

That suggests to me that the problem is just definitional. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand why the authors of the Manifesto would risk losing support by asking people to make an unnecessary choice between ideals.

What is the real choice that the authors want us to make?  When they object to the ideal of human societies harmonizing with “nature”, it seems that what they are referring to are natural systems - the part of the natural environment that has not yet been significantly modified by human activity. 

The authors argue:
“Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being.
Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty”.

The real choice the authors want us to make is between intensifying human activities in particular regions and allowing them to spread in ways that would be detrimental to the natural environment.

The idea of decoupling human development from environmental impacts seems to me to make a great deal of sense as a broad generalization. I expect that governments will encounter difficulties in implementing such a strategy sensibly, but outcomes are likely to be worse if they do not try. One of the difficulties that is likely to stand in the way of implementation in some areas is the need to recognize the rights of indigenous people to use the natural resources they own. Another difficulty is the tendency of over-zealous supporters of wilderness to oppose the eco-tourism which is likely to be necessary to maintain broad political support for protection of wilderness areas. In some areas the involvement of indigenous people in eco-tourism is helping to meet the twin objectives of improving their economic opportunities and enlisting their support for greater environmental protection.

It seems to me to be particularly important for human well-being that attempts to decouple human development from environmental impacts does not occur at the expense of the ideal of living in harmony with nature in areas of intense human activity. The emotional needs that humans have for connection with the natural environment and other living things are unlikely to be satisfied by observing nature on TV and a once-in-a-lifetime visit to a wilderness area. 

In my next post I discuss the link between happiness and feeling connected with nature. 

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