environmentalists’ fallacies


I’ve read some good things in Orion, but this essay by “bright green” environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus wasn’t one of them.  Looking over the readers’ comments, I see I’m not the only one to be disappointed (“This was by far the worst article I have read in Orion yet.”)  But although this is a particularly dense congregation of bad arguments, I’ve seen each of them individually in quite a few places, and so I thought I’d take a minute to diagnose them here.  Let us never commit these fallacies again!

 … Elites in the west—who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet—insist that development and technology are the causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable) urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce.

This is straight up ad hominem tu quoque.  Maybe “elites in the west” (a tendentious phrase, to say the least) contradict in practice what they recommend in speech.  It doesn’t follow that those recommendations should be disregarded.  (Note also the puzzling implied claim that purchasing locally grown produce, rather than the non-local kind, contributes to the extravagant consumption of resources.  I suspect the authors aren’t taking care to distinguish their populism from their environmentalism.)

 These postmaterial values have given rise to a secular and largely inchoate ecotheology, complete with apocalyptic fears of ecological collapse, disenchanting notions of living in a fallen world, and the growing conviction that some kind of collective sacrifice is needed to avoid the end of the world … [H]ypocrisy has rarely been a hindrance to religion and, indeed, contributes to its power. One of the most enduring characteristics of human civilization is the way ruling elites espouse beliefs radically at odds with their own behaviors. The ancient Greeks recited the cautionary tales of Prometheus and Icarus while using fire, dreaming of flight, and pursuing technological frontiers. Early agriculturalists told the story of the fall from Eden as a cautionary tale against the very agriculture they practiced. European Christians espoused poverty and peacemaking while accumulating wealth and waging war.

I don’t know a name for this one, and I’m tempted to call it a “narrative fallacy.”  The idea is that once we can assimilate an idea to a familiar story—in this case, a religious narrative—then we should treat it as a mere story, an idea without any genuine import for the real world.

But of course even if (and that’s a big if) we can successfully read environmentalism as a form of religious narrative, it doesn’t follow that any of its concerns are groundless.  In particular, concerns about energy decline and its consequences for industrial society need to be evaluated by looking at the evidence for such, not at the narrative archetypes it might fit.  (To be clear: looking at the cultural seeds of environmentalism could be an interesting and valuable project, but it wouldn’t tell us anything about the validity of its claims, any more than the sociology of religion can tell us whether God exists.)

The apocalyptic vision of ecotheology warns that degrading nonhuman natures will undermine the basis for human civilization, but history has shown the opposite: the degradation of nonhuman environments has made us rich. We have become rather adept at transferring the wealth and diversity of nonhuman environments into human ones.

This is some kind of weak induction.  Sometimes I hear philosophers say “ceteris isn’t paribus,” which seems like a good label.  Sure the exploitation of natural resources makes us rich, ceteris paribus.  But when those resources become scarce or pricey or inaccessible, we don’t do as well.  And when the resources in question are fundamental to human existence, it would be a bit thick to point out how rich we could become by degrading them.

The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity—just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.

This appears (among other things) to confuse the actual with the possible.  Assuming for the sake of argument that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have correctly identified the actual solutions in these two cases, and that these cases are representative of technological problems, it still doesn’t follow—as the authors imply—that these were the only possible solutions, and that scaling back the problematic technology wouldn’t have done the job.

To pursue: David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies

Leave a Reply


There aren't any comments at the moment, be the first to start the discussion!