There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism – which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn't the environmentalism of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, Greenpeace's warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world's last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?
But the prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship can save the planet and that if environmentalists won't buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are the problem.
The modernists wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanisation and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest.
While many mainstream environmentalists want to make peace with nature through the sustainable use of natural resources, the modernists want to cut the links between mankind and nature. So the modernists are also the proponents of rewilding, the restoration of large tracts of habitat and the reintroduction of the species that once lived there. Rewilding is a popular theme in modern environmentalism. But the modernists say that without technology, it can only be done by culling humanity. With technology, they say, we can more painlessly usher in the return of the wild, because more land can be liberated.
This is deeply heretical for many mainstream environmentalists. So the question is how we should respond. Should we condemn the modernists for hijacking and subverting environmentalism in the name of capitalist and consumerist greed? Or do we concede they may have a point. The one certainty, I think, is that we cannot ignore it. The debate has to be joined.
The tension about how far technology can solve our environmental problems and how far it exacerbates them is not new. Didn't the automobile stop our cities being knee-deep in horse manure? But the emergence of an agenda harnessing technological advance to the restoration of nature is newer.
It emerged prominently with the 2009 publication of Stewart Brand's book Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary. Holed up on his houseboat in Sausalito, California, the 1960s hippie guru who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, has morphed into a techno-optimist.
But pre-dating Brand by a couple of decades was Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. An early advocate of action to fight climate change in the 1970s, he decided in the 1980s to start seeking solutions to our rising tide of environmental problems. He talked to technologists, and after supping with the devil, he emerged to call for a "great restoration" of nature by packing us all into high-density cities and intensifying farming. There is plenty of scope to do this with existing technology. As he told me a few years ago: "If all the world's farms could meet US farmers' current yields, we would need only half as much farmland."
Others have followed the leads of Ausubel and Brand. Notable is the philosophical U-turn of the British environmental writer Mark Lynas in his 2011 book, The God Species. The environmental modernists now have their own organisations too, such as the Breakthrough Institute, run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who gained prominence a decade ago with their critique of the green movement, "The Death of Environmentalism". And this thinking has reached into the heart of some of the most hallowed conservation groups. The Breakthrough Institute's fellows include Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, who was an active participant at the institute's conference last month in Brand's Sausalito back yard.
The conference, titled Creative Destruction, embraced the ideas of the early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter, which are currently undergoing a revival. Schumpeter argued that capitalism is driven not, as Adam Smith said, by incremental efforts to cut costs and boost profits in a competitive market, but by the pursuit of game-changing technological transformations. Nitrogen fixing for fertiliser, the invention of the automobile, the Green Revolution, the Internet, and the microcomputer have all transformed the world, tearing down old orders and making huge profits for those who started it.
Schumpeter's ideas are a kind of economists' version of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould's take on evolution as happening mostly in transformational leaps, which he called punctuated equilibrium, rather than through gradual, incremental change. Of course, the modernists see green technologies as the game-changers of the 21st century. In their view, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs.
A central agenda of the modernists is how to do conservation of nature. Existing conservation strategies simply do not work, they say. Human activity spreads inexorably. What is needed is to use the land we take more intensively, so that more can stay unfenced. The institute's Linus Blomqvist argues that, even as the world's population continues to grow, and as consumption rises, "land use can peak out in the next two decades".
All environmentalists would applaud that. But to achieve it, Blomqvist says, requires a lot of things they are conventionally less keen on, such as the further spread of large-scale industrial agriculture, accelerated urbanisation, and a switch out of using "renewable" biological resources. Shellenberger says that harvesting nature "is neither profitable nor sustainable" – it cannot alleviate poverty and leads to environmental degradation.
The modernist approach to conservation is to seek out technological substitutes for crops. We should, they say, give up cotton in favour of polyester or whatever else the chemists can come up with to clothe us. We should turn our noses up at wild fish and embrace aquaculture instead. Farmers should discard organic fertiliser in favour of chemicals.
Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the "de-ecologisation of our material welfare". Environmentalism has been taken over by "Arcadian sentiment" and has "become its own antithesis", he says. "Only technology can save nature."