More time will have to pass — and more minds will have to change — but the ‘new narrative’ on environmentalism supported by some may be establishing an early foothold.  It remains uncertain whether a pro-technology/pro-economic growth approach can gain more traction.

We humans have loved a good yarn ever since our earliest ancestors learned to roast marshmallows around the campfire. Cognitive researchers tell us that the human brain is hardwired to process information through stories. Today, we view everything through the construct of a narrative, be it the cosmos, a political election, or a baseball game.

In recent years, some prominent critics have suggested that environmentalism needs a new narrative. They say the existing one, organized around saving nature and reducing pollution, is getting long in the tooth. More importantly, it’s not up to addressing the challenges of climate change and an array of complex, interconnected ecological problems.


While paying tribute to the crowning achievements of what many see as environmentalism’s golden era (the 1970s), Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued in their influential 2004 essay that, “modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis.” Their conclusion shook the green movement to its core:

“We have become convinced that modern environmentalism, with all of its unexamined assumptions, outdated concepts and exhausted strategies, must die so that something new can live.”

Leaders of the green establishment swiftly rejected that notion. Since then, however, calls for a new kind of environmentalism — one that is pro-technology and pro-economic growth — have grown louder. In 2009, Stewart Brand completed his transformation from counterculture hero to self-described “eco-pragmatist,” laying out a blueprint that advised greens to embrace nuclear power and genetic engineering, for the good of the planet.

Alas, there isn’t much evidence that American thinkers with any green cred share Brand’s techno-vision for the future.

But across the Atlantic, two well-known U.K. environmentalist writers have been assailing green orthodoxy these past few years. The most recent instance came in the spring when George Monbiot, in a succession of columns, argued forcefully that climate change could be seriously tackled only if nuclear power were a bigger part of the world’s energy portfolio. Monbiot challenged anti-nuclear greens to choose the planet over ideology.

Meanwhile, Mark Lynas, author of Six degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, has written a new book that calls on greens to accept genetic engineering and nuclear power — also as rationale for preserving the planet’s ecology. But the most striking aspect of the book is that it rejects conventional green wisdom about the nature of the climate change problem and the solutions needed to address it. Lynas writes:

“Global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology, or capitalism. It is largely the result of human beings generating energy by burning hydrocarbons and coal. It is, in other words, a technical problem, and it is therefore amenable to a largely technical solution, albeit one driven by politics.”

Lynas goes on to argue that drastic lifestyle changes and an economic reordering at the global level are wishful thinking:

“I often receive e-mails telling me that fixing the climate will need a worldwide change in values, a program of mass education to reduce people’s desires to consume, a more equitable distribution of global wealth, a ‘smashing of the power’ of transnational corporations, or even the abolition of capitalism itself. After having struggled with this for over a decade myself, I am convinced that these viewpoints — which are subscribed to by perhaps a majority of environmentalists — are wrong. Instead we can completely deal with climate change within the prevailing economic system. In fact, any other approach is likely doomed to failure.”

The philosophic shift that Lynas recommends is nothing short of seismic. After all, the predominant environmentalist narrative of eco-doom (and averting it through personal sacrifice) is now fairly entrenched. It’ll probably take more time and many more changed minds before this narrative gets rewritten — if it does — but some are paving the way.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.