The Poverty of Environmentalism: I

Environmentalism is stuck at a crossroads. A couple of years ago, I went to Denver where I presented a paper titled, “Calculating Survival: The Role of the Social Sciences” at the Summer Seminar of the National Social Science Association (NSSA). In the paper I argued that the biggest problem with climate change is not technological, it is sociological. We have all sorts of technical means of reducing carbon emissions, But we seem at a complete loss regarding how an entire society could possibly implement them.

Colorado Rocky Mountains_google.images

Rocky Mountain High

The green slopes of the Front Range near Denver contrast strongly with Santa Fe’s sparse green of our late summer “monsoon season.” Neither will survive our failure to attack accelerating climate disruption aggressively to achieve net-zero carbon in the biosphere. Everyone seems to think “they” will take care of the problem.


The NSSA is an association of social scientists most of whom teach in community colleges and universities. They work on diverse problems in the social sciences and emphasize effective teaching and learning strategies. My paper argued that the problem of mounting an adequate effort at climate action is not really a matter of technology; it is essentially a problem of societal transformation. That is the purview of the social sciences, which have not done much at all to illuminate this issue. How can we instill widespread recognition of that fact if the public discussion of climate policy focuses on pie-in-the-sky new technologies?

Stagnation of Vision

Nothing much has changed in the last couple of years, except for more dire warnings from the IPCC and from diverse scientists studying various impacts of climate destabilization. Environmentalism is still mostly in bed with the Corporate State. Most climate-crisis discussions focus on new energy technology and ignore the deep changes in society and culture needed to reach critical emissions reduction targets.

Some supposed environmentalists call themselves “eco-modernists” because they believe that we can have our modern industrial economy and “manage” the environment too. They emphasize replacing carbon-intensive purchases with products that have a low carbon footprint. They imagine that we can “decouple” modern economic growth from the climate the same way the industrial system sustained its growth for 200 years: technological innovation, new materials, and new product development. I don’t think they pay much attention to the numbers. Such sci-fi technologies are long-shots with little prospects for success. Even if they could be developed, we just do not have time to wait. Climate chaos is now and it is rapidly accelerating.

We do not have the time to do a lot of high tech research and development. We must reduce carbon emissions and restore diverse ecosystems around the world within the next decade if we are to have a chance of at least partly re-stabilizing the climate and the ecosystems that depend on it. If we do not, widespread crop failures, starvation, climate-refugee migration, resource wars, and societal collapse will follow.

Societal Change Like You Would Not Believe

To get there from here will require deep societal change, not new technology. In fact, we must rapidly revive and update a wide range of technologies that do not rely on heavy energy inputs, while we quickly “shrink the technosphere,” as Dmitri Orlov puts it.

What we need is exactly the opposite, for example, of Bill Gates’ imaginary new-technology, some “energy miracle” he wants rich nations to invest in order to keep the pace of the high-energy globalized economy. Actually, neither we nor the planet can afford such utopian dreams. Gates has assembled a collection of some of the world’s richest billionaire “entrepreneurial philanthropists.” I call them “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club.” He wants the 20 richest nations to collaborate with them to fund research and development of new high-tech energy production systems. They are way off base. [See my article on Bill Gates’ Big Mistake, for the details.]

We will resolve the climate crisis not by racing further down the same energy-intensive path that caused the problem. We have appropriate technologies; we must conserve energy, consume less, and reduce our carbon footprint now. We are unlikely to achieve the necessary deep cuts in carbon emissions unless we face the fact that it will require comprehensive changes in how we live, work, and produce, profound changes we have still not yet acknowledged. The “Green New Deal” is at least a conceptual step in the right direction.

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