Sustainability, not environmentalism

Via Wayne Maceyka, an accomplished pal in the sustainability realm, I’ve now been confronted with the “ecomodernist,” who believes “technology is the solution and not the problem,” according to writer Fred Pearce.

The modernists wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization 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.

These are deep ideas, and I don’t feel I’m going to get myself around them before I’m done writing this post. If accomplish nothing more here, I recommend you read the article to try on these ideas for yourself. I read it at, but it apparently was written originally for Yale E360.

As many readers know, I espouse not environmentalism but sustainability, considering environmentalism a subset of it. I feel this strongly, in part because when I started working in/for the sustainability movement, I was pretty wrong about what sustainability constituted. I was really focusing on the technology of green building.

I love that stuff still, but a higher good, for me, is to try to approach all questions — personal as well as planetary — through the lens of sustainability. Influenced by Janine Benyus, my measuring stick for sustainability is nature. I believe nature’s welfare is my welfare, and nature is the ultimate guide for all life.

That doesn’t mean I’m anti-technology, by any stretch. Technology will definitely help us survive, if we do.

But if I have to be pro-nuclear, pro-GMOs, pro-megadams, and pro-geoengineering to qualify as an ecomodernist, I don’t think I can do it. I think those thinks, on balance, are not pro-nature. To me, they’re all examples of how we think we know better than nature, when I just can’t find evidence for that. It’s been thriving for 3.8 billion years, while we’ve been upright only about 200,000 years, and during that time, have become the only species that spoils its habitats. If we’re the evidence-based species, where’s the evidence that we promote life?

Instead of nuclear, I’d ask why it isn’t solar or wind, which I regard as far less perilous for nature, even if they also have environmental costs?

I can be with technologists who say their goal is to use their wiles to concentrate humans so that more of nature can be less undisturbed or restored. But I have severe skepticism that that will happen, given how humans have deployed technology in the natural world so far.

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