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Enlightenment Now? — The Environment

Is the past 250 years of progress sustainable or are we heading towards an unprecedented environmental disaster?

Our whistle-stop tour of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now continues – so far we’ve looked at how, over the past 250 years, humanity has made tremendous progress in the fields of life, health, sustenance and wealth. In the previous post, we looked at a major problem of all this progress – how has it been distributed? Have a disproportionate amount of the benefits gone to the rich and powerful? In this post, we’ll look at another major problem – what about the environmental impacts of this boom in human population and productivity? And, in particular, what about climate change? Is all this progress leading humanity off a cliff?

Climate change is a problem (which can be solved!)

Pinker does admit that climate change is a real problem. But his main point in this chapter is that, “environmental problems, like other problems, are solvable, given the right knowledge.”

Why wouldn’t you believe this? Pinker is rallying against a tendency within the traditional environmental movement to catastrophize – to see the growth of humanity as a plague on the Earth, one which will eventual reach its limits, and all hell will break loose. He gives the example of environmentalists who believed that over-population would bring on the apocalypse. This didn’t happen because, as people get richer and more educated, they stop having as many babies. Other predictions of the environmental movement, such as resources running out (remember “Peak Oil”?), also didn’t turn out to be true.

Pinker has faith that, if the problem is large and important enough, we’ll most likely find ways to solve it, and probably just in time. He gives the example of how food technologies have enabled greater population growth, which in turn creates the need for more food technologies, which enables greater population growth, and so on. According to Pinker, our situation is very rarely sustainable, but that’s okay. Our solutions to life problems inevitably create new problems, which we then have to solve. But this process isn’t a bad thing. It’s progress – albeit, a very risky form where it seems like humanity is constantly on a knife edge.

A Green Revolution?

In support of the idea that, when it comes to environmental problems, everything isn’t all doom and gloom, Pinker shows how plenty of progress has already been made. In particular, he points towards the finding that, the richer nations get, the more they care about environmental issues (similar to how, as nations get richer, they care more about inequality). Pinker highlights improvements in deforestation, air pollution, oil spills, conservation of natural habitats and the healing of the ozone layer.

He also shows how the world is steadily dematerialising. We may well have reached, for example, Peak Paper, Peak Car and, in general, Peak Stuff. The most intuitive examples of this process at work is to think of all the material things you use to have that are now obsolete – all those VHS tapes, DVDs, CDs. Digital technologies are creating what technologists call a “soft world” – where we trade less and less in physical things and more in digital information. Which, in general, has a much less negative impact on the environment.

Okay, but what about climate change?

We can accept all these arguments so far, but still see climate change as an altogether bigger and more “wicked” problem. Should we really be as optimistic as Pinker is that it can solved, like other problems, given the right knowledge?

Pinker admits that the challenge of keeping the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 or 2 degrees is daunting. He notes that, “fossil fuels provide 86% of the world’s energy, powering almost every car, truck, train, plane, ship, tractor, furnace, and factory on the planet, together with most of its electricity plants. Humanity has never faced a problem like it.” So, how can we solve it?!

The answer, according to Pinker, is “deep decarbonization”. This involves two things. First, a carbon tax, or carbon credits – effectively charging people and companies for the carbon they put into the atmosphere. Pinker notes that, “without carbon pricing, fossil fuels – which are uniquely abundant, portable, and energy-dense – have too great an advantage over the alternatives.” This is a political move that almost every economist and climate scientist agrees on. So far so good.

The second major part of Pinker’s solution is nuclear power. He argues that it’s the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels – a prospect that far outweighs the risks and costs commonly associated with it. Pinker also notes that we need other technological breakthroughs, such as batteries to store the intermittent energy from renewables, smart grids the decarbonization of cement, fertiliser, and steel production and methods of capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

Problem solved?

Well, maybe not. Again, Pinker admits that, “even with fair winds and flowing seas, the effort needed to prevent climate change is immense.” The political changes and technological innovations required are unknowns – they may not happen or they may not happen soon enough.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Pinker emphasises that previous environmental problems have been solved as a result of “activism, legislation, regulation, treaties and technological innovation”. We need more of the same.

But we also recognises that we need a back up option. This is where climate engineering comes in. Pinker outlines what he sees as “moderate, responsive and temporary” forms of geo-engineering, which could be implemented now, with existing technologies. This seems like a very risky option to me. The question is, are there no other options? Is climate engineering the only Plan B? Or, more to the point, could we create a less risky Plan A, one that doesn’t rely so much on unknown technological breakthroughs?

Radical Politics vs Radical Technology

A number of environmentalists – in particular those in the “de-growth movement” – argue that we shouldn’t wait to see if we can solve climate change through a combination of carbon pricing and green technologies. What we need to do, they argue, is rapidly slow down our productivity and consumption – the activities producing all the greenhouse gases. Moreover, we need to do so in a way that is fair, which probably requires the mass redistribution of wealth from rich to poor nations, as well as greater investment in public goods in all nations. The logic is fairly simple: we’ve got enough stuff already, we just need to fairly share it around, and stop producing any more.

Pinker, and many other “ecomodernists” hate this idea. To them, it is politically radical and therefore unrealistic. He mocks the social and climate activist, Naomi Klein, for instance, who wants to solve climate change through “abolishing free markets, restructuring the global economy, and remaking our political system”. Why do that, Pinker argues, when you can solve it through a combination of “societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology”?

Well, the answer is that desperate times call for desperate measures. Many environmentalists want a radical political solution to climate change if that means avoiding radical technological solutions such as geoengineering. It’s an issue of risk – what is more risky, and what kinds of risks are we willing to take at each stage? Pinker is happy to wait until things get much worse before employing some very risky technologies. Other activists are happy to start making big political risks now to make sure that doesn’t happen.

This gets to the heart of an issue prevalent through Enlightenment Now. It seems that, for Pinker, liberalism and economic growth is the only way humanity has found to make progress and the only way in which it ever will. We mess with that at our peril. The book goes at lengths to show that we’ve never had it so good – any alternatives we can think of are probably going to be much worse, like the majority of human history. I’m not sure things are so black and white as this. It seems to me that, as we continue to grow economically, new possibilities and present themselves, including other routes to progress. I’m not sure what they are exactly, but major issues such as climate change might just compel us to find out. Unfortunately, it seems that Pinker doesn’t even want to look.

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