Ted Nordhaus / Weston Roundtable (Nov. 17, 2022)
Modern environmental thought and action has been built upon pillars of sand — a series of intuitions and claims about the world that are not well supported historically or empirically.
Against long-standing environmental claims, wealth and abundance bring lower fertility rates in modern societies, not a population explosion. Capitalism does not require endless exponential economic growth and economic growth is not inherently energy, resource, or material intensive. Abundant energy substitutes for labor and resources and decouples human material production from environmental impacts. And large human populations have thrived over the last several centuries as they have become less dependent on ecosystem services and more dependent on highly managed or fully artificial and technological systems for the provision of human material needs.
The errors of contemporary environmentalism are not purely accidental. They are the detritus of a politics and a movement born of the effort to exclude working, non-white, and native people from landscapes that the leisure class wished to claim for itself, that came of age in the post-war years standing athwart industrial modernity and technological society, and that in seeking to speak for nature in politics, has too often instead attempted to naturalize its political claims.
What would a powerful post-environmental politics, unshackled from these ideas, habits of mind, and pseudo-scientific authority claims look like? It would embrace the agrarian, demographic, urban, and forest transitions. It would see the material benefits and liberatory possibilities of large scale, intensive, and technological food and energy systems. And it would abandon primitivism, scientism, and technocracy for an emergent view of the human future, focused on giving humans tools to make better worlds and trusting them to use them well.
The Weston Roundtable is made possible by a generous donation from Roy F. Weston, a highly accomplished UW-Madison alumnus. Designed to promote a robust understanding of sustainability science, engineering, and policy, these interactive lectures are co-sponsored by the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Office of Sustainability.