Enlightenment Environmentalism: A Humanistic Response to Climate Change

The author counters the prevailing pessimism about the environment, which he calls “Romantic Declinism,” with his own “Enlightenment humanism,” which is informed by science and belief in the possibility of progress. While sharing environmentalists’ goal of protecting the air and water, species, and ecosystems, the author begins with the conviction that environmental problems can be solved, given the right knowledge and proper use of it. Economic growth, while no doubt contributing to the problem, is also a major and essential part of the solution. Where Romantic Declinists see modern humans as “vile despoilers of a pristine planet,” the author views human ingenuity and technology as the path not to ecological suicide, but to a more prosperous, and eventually greener, global society.

Enlightened environmentalism recognizes the human need to produce energy to lift itself out of poverty, and seeks the means to do so while minimizing the damage to the planet and the living world. As recounted by the author, the 200-year trend of energy decarbonization provides clear evidence that, as the world gets richer and more technologically advanced, it “dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies,” thereby sparing land and species. And new technology, notably nuclear power, holds out the promise of generating electricity with little or no carbon emitted, while carbon capture holds out the possibility of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. As the author sums up this approach,

Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology.