In fact, mass prosperity and economic progress have brought enormous benefits to humanity. There are many ways in which this improvement can be measured, but perhaps the most striking is average life expectancy. It has increased from about 30 in 1800 to over 70 today. That increase alone – which it should be remembered is a global average – gives the lie to the claim that only the wealthy have benefited from mass affluence. An average of over 40 extra years of life is a considerable feat, worthy of huge celebration.
Yet this view that humans should strive to dominate nature has fallen out of favour. Since the 1970s, an alternative conception of man’s relationship to nature has become dominant. This perspective holds that humans should be constrained by natural limits. If they do not accept such limitations, so the argument goes, we will suffer all sorts of nasty consequences.
Historically, this view was most commonly associated with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). For Malthus, these limits were expressed in the form of overpopulation. His Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, argued that if the human population was not kept in check, then there would be famine and war. Malthus’s essay has influenced conservatives, miserablists and misanthropes ever since.
As it happens, Malthus’s argument was not original. Many had argued before him that humans were constrained by natural limits. He gained prominence because his views were a direct riposte to the optimism of Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet, William Godwin and Adam Smith. He restated the case for pessimism when it was on the defensive, and sought to undermine faith in the power of human reason.
Over the past two centuries, Malthus’s predictions of doom have fared terribly. The global population is over seven times the size it was in his day, and yet people are far better off. Although the world is far from perfect, the average person lives a longer, better and healthier life than ever before. Under such circumstances it should not be a surprise that Malthusians have been on the defensive for over a century and a half.
Sadly, similar ideas have come to the fore again, albeit in a modified form, since the 1960s. The emphasis this time around is not so much on population – although that preoccupation has not disappeared – but the idea of overconsumption. Contemporary green thinking has reinvented the idea of a natural limit in a slightly different guise.
This notion is not confined to campaigning groups or self-proclaimed green political parties. Since the 1970s, it has become mainstream among Western governments and international organisations. Often the discussion is posed in terms of the need for sustainability – essentially a codeword for permanent austerity. From this starting point, the green-minded deride popular consumption and argue that the economic development of poor countries needs to be constrained for the sake of the environment.
One of the main goals of Andrea Wulf’s widely acclaimed The Invention of Nature is to rewrite the history of green thinking with the dashing Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) as its founder. Although he is little-known in the English-speaking world – or at least he was until Wulf’s book became a bestseller – the German scientist and explorer was a much more attractive figure than Malthus.
He was perhaps the best-known scientist of his age – comparable in fame to Napoleon – and a renowned explorer. He met and influenced a tremendous range of historical figures, including German literary giants such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, US president Thomas Jefferson, and the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Charles Darwin, writing in his autobiography, credited Humboldt with giving him the ‘burning zeal’ to study the natural sciences. Humboldt’s best-known expedition was a six-year trip to Latin America, where, despite facing many hardships, he did a systematic botanical study of tens of thousands of plants in the region. Humboldt was also staunchly anti-slavery and opposed to colonialism.
If Wulf’s book was a straightforward biography of an unfairly neglected historical figure, it would deserve all of the plaudits. But its many admirers seem either to ignore or fail to recognise the significance of the ill-advised second goal the author set herself. In the prologue, she states that she aims to ‘understand why we think as we do about the natural world’. But, in that respect, the book is a failure. For one thing, to achieve that objective it would be necessary to write an entirely different book. Rather than focus on Humboldt, she would need to examine critically the changing perspectives of the natural world. On an even more basic level, the discussion of Humboldt’s life leads to a neglect of green ideas that existed before him.
The main focus of Wulf’s study is what Humboldt called his Naturgemälde (which can be roughly translated as his ‘painting of nature’). This was a sketch drawn by Humboldt that showed that nature was a complex web in which everything is connected. In that respect, it anticipated the idea that contemporary greens sometimes refer to as Gaia.
Yet Wulf, rather than drawing out its significance, more or less asserts that this is a foundational idea for green thinking. She fails to point out that the claim that humans are merely part of nature, rather than playing a special role, is a key element of anti-humanism. From a green perspective, it is reasonable to see humans as fundamentally on a par with any other animal. Indeed, from this vantage point, humans can be seen as worse than any other animal as they are viewed as destroying the world’s natural balance. In this way, the idea that humans are simply a part of nature is just another way of arguing that humans should respect natural limits.
As it happens, Humboldt himself was an empiricist rather than someone with a broader interest in philosophical issues. His Naturgemälde was simply an attempt to describe nature as he saw it. Unlike Malthus, he did not draw out any overt political views from his conception of nature. Wulf is essentially reading history backwards when she classifies Humboldt as a green thinker.
This unfortunate tendency of projecting the present on to the past is also apparent in the several references she makes to climate change. She may be right in arguing that Humboldt was the first scientist to recognise that humans can alter the climate. However, this claim shows that she fails to recognise what is distinctive about the contemporary debate. Even most of those derided today as ‘climate deniers’ would accept that human action can modify the climate. The distinctive feature of the current green orthodoxy is that it contends that a rapacious humanity is laying the ground for catastrophic climate change. It overestimates the extent to which humans cause problems and underestimates our capacity to devise solutions.
The Invention of Nature therefore works as a fascinating biography, but it is a total failure in its second stated goal of exploring how humans understand the natural world. It is a misguided attempt to rewrite the history of green thinking with the adventurer and scientist Humboldt as its founder. It fails to understand what is distinctive about green thinking or appreciate that its intellectual antecedents predate Humboldt.
The multi-authored Ecomodernist Manifesto represents an alternative attempt to put a positive spin on environmentalism. Its writers concede that economic progress has brought enormous benefits, but contend that it is right to hold on to an environmentalist ideal.
To maintain this position, they essentially split the idea of natural limits in two. They argue that humans should reduce their impact on nature, but they do not need to live in harmony with it: ‘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 harmonise with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.’
It is hard to see how such a position is tenable. Economic and social progress depend precisely on humanity increasing its impact on nature. We need to enhance our control over the natural world, rather than step back from it. Hunger, disease and even straightforward scarcity still present formidable challenges. Even tackling climate change, to the extent it is a problem, will demand enhancing the technological powers of humanity, not scaling back.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto’s writers attempt to square this circle by advocating what they call a ‘decoupling’ of human development from environmental impacts. That means allowing humans to flourish, while protecting nature at the same time. But couching the arguments in this way blurs a key distinction. It may be that humans decide, for example, that they want to leave some of the planet as wilderness. But that should be on the basis of what is in the interests of humanity, rather than a belief in the need to respect natural limits.
By couching the manifesto in such pragmatic terms the authors manage to avoid the overt miserablism of much green thinking. However, there are clear signs that anxiety about economic progress is lurking not far beneath the surface. For example, the manifesto talks of the need to bolster resource productivity – the efficiency with which raw materials are harnessed – but it avoids any mention of labour productivity. Yet it is labour productivity – the amount that can be produced for each hour or day of human labour – that is key to economic progress. To abolish scarcity on a global scale – in other words, to make everyone affluent – would require a huge boost to average levels of labour productivity.
A related problem is indicated by the references to alleviating poverty. At first sight, this seems unobjectionable. Who could be against such a goal? But the manifesto focuses on reducing the most extreme forms of material deprivation and, by implication, eschews the goal of prosperity for all.
Ecomodernism cannot work as a coherent vision because green thinking is fundamentally opposed to modernity. A truly modern vision has to be based around the needs of humanity. It makes no sense to talk about the planet – which, when it comes down to it, is basically just a lump of rock – as if it has its own independent interests. The planet is not, and cannot, be a conscious being.
The ecomodernists are simply trying to give green thinking a makeover. They are playing down its anti-human premises and blurring its negative consequences. They are repackaging a miserablist and misanthropic outlook in a bid to make it seem palatable.
Now, more than ever, it is important to insist on a humanist conception of the relationship between man and nature This means insisting that humans should not constrain their ambition and creativity for the sake of the natural world. On the contrary, we owe the enormous gains we have made to our success in bolstering our control over nature. If anything, we need to take this process even further, rather than scaling back.
Perhaps it is also time to rehabilitate the reputation of Francis Bacon and his immense contribution to modernity. Without his insight, that humans should strive to dominate nature, we would all be far worse off.
Daniel Ben-Ami is a writer based in London. Visit his website here. An expanded version of Ferraris for All, his book defending economic prosperity, is available in paperback (Buy this book from Amazon (UK)).)
Picture by: Adolph Tidemand & Hans Gude: Bridal Procession on the Hardangerfjord.
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