Environmentalism For The 21st Century

The New York Times has a fascinating piece on environmentalist pioneer Stewart Brand who is advocating a fusion of environmentalism and high-technology to mitigate the effects of climate change and other environmental woes:

Stewart Brand has become a heretic to environmentalism, a movement he helped found, but he doesn’t plan to be isolated for long. He expects that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power. They’ll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating sprawling megacities. They’ll stop worrying about “frankenfoods” and embrace genetic engineering.

He predicts that all this will happen in the next decade, which sounds rather improbable — or at least it would if anyone else had made the prediction. But when it comes to anticipating the zeitgeist, never underestimate Stewart Brand.

…He is now promoting environmental heresies, as he called them in Technology Review. He sees genetic engineering as a tool for environmental protection: crops designed to grow on less land with less pesticide; new microbes that protect ecosystems against invasive species, produce new fuels and maybe sequester carbon.

…He’s also looking for green nuclear engineers, and says he feels guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power. Alternative energy and conservation are fine steps to reduce carbon emissions, he says, but now nuclear power is a proven technology working on a scale to make a serious difference.

I think that Brand’s environmentalism is far more sustainable than the “Learjets for me, but not for you” hypocrisy of people like Al Gore. Realistically, the idea that everyone can be “carbon neutral” is a fallacy. For one, not everyone can afford to buy “carbon credits” and even if they could, those “carbon credits” are hardly based on any scientific exchange.

What Brand proposes to embrace a version of environmentalism that’s truly progressive — using advanced technology like nuclear power to create a more environmentally friendly economy. We need power, and while efficiency continues to increase, we can’t escape the laws of physics. Electric or hydrogen-powered cars don’t help the environment if the power they need comes from the same CO2-belching coal plants that we use today. With nuclear waste, the end products are contained. Spent fuel recycling is a proven technology — the French have done it for years. The Chinese are investing heavily in nuclear research, including putting hundreds of megawatts of new nuclear plants online in the next few years.

If we want to reduce our CO2 emissions, we can’t do it buy buying indulgences, we have to get serious about fixing the problem. Nuclear energy is the only viable solution we have. We can supplement our nuclear production with wind, solar, and other technologies, but none of those can replace the energy-generating power of nuclear energy. As Brand explains:

“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”

Ultimately, Brand’s view is the one that will win out. If we’re serious about climate change, things like Kyoto are meaningless efforts designed to reward bureaucracies over encouraging the sort of innovation that will truly fix the problem. Technologies like nuclear energy, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology have the potential to erase decades worth of environmental damage — provided that the primitivist impulses of many in the environmentalist movement don’t continue to blind the majority to the promise of new technologies.

The solution to climate change may be under construction in someone’s garage right now. Human history teaches us that demanding that people make drastic cutbacks in their lifestyle is a loser — human innovation is what keeps human society advancing in the face of adversity. We need an environmentalist movement that is all about fostering innovating, encouraging new technologies, and not becoming a secular religion that demands that the eco-sinners repent with carbon credits while the high priests of the environmentalist movement wear lecture us from their mega-mansions and private jets.

Brand’s form of environmentalism may be the minority now, but Brand has the right idea — and the future belongs to innovators, not eco-Puritans. The path to a better life requires us to embrace the sometimes-frightening world of technological change. Trying to set back the clock won’t work, but embracing the innovations of the future can ensure that we live more ecologically-sound lives without sacrificing our quality of life.

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