The New Nature

January 11, 2016
The New Nature

By David Keith

David Keith responding to Jedediah Purdy, who opened the debate: It is impossible to divorce nature from human influence. Can that influence be democratic?

Jedediah Purdy is right to wish for a democratic Anthropocene, one with new institutions to facilitate democratic decision-making about the environmental choices we face. In the case of climate change, a necessary first step is to recognize that there are hard choices between alternate futures, not simply a political fight about carbon pollution.

The way we frame a problem shapes attempts to solve it, so thinking of environmental dilemmas as pollution invites an obvious, almost axiomatic solution: less pollution. If the problem is just an unintended side effect of economic production, we can draw on the neoliberal architecture of markets to manage the externalities. All we have to do is weigh the costs of pollution cuts against the benefits to find the social optimum and then decide how to distribute the costs. Problem solved.

But this framing takes far too much for granted, and it blinds us to the normative choices that underlie the most significant environmental problems we face.

The pollution frame does work well for certain problems, such as lead in gasoline, which cut the IQs of people born in my age cohort by several points. Though one can imagine that the tetraethyl lead lobbyists argued that it was not cost-effective to cut emissions too fast, I am confident that none of them wanted more lead in their kids’ blood. But pollution is a wholly unsatisfactory way to think about landscape-management choices such as the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone or the possible re-creation of wooly mammoths.

If environmental problems span a continuum with lead pollution on one end and rewilding on another, where does climate change fall? It would fall closer to pollution if climate changes were uniformly harmful and if carbon emissions from energy production were the only way humans influence the climate.

But climate change is change, not pollution.

Over the last few millennia, the biosphere has experienced what may be among the lowest carbon dioxide concentrations in geologic history, low enough to force plants to adapt in novel ways to manage the low-carbon environment. This doesn’t mean that increasing carbon dioxide concentrations is “natural” or right. While an increase in carbon concentration will bring some benefits, such as higher growth rates for some crops, there can be no doubt that the harms of climate change will outweigh the benefits, particularly when the climate changes quickly. From humanity’s crops to the location of our cities on the current coastlines to the physiology of our sweat, we have adapted to the current climate.

The pollution frame suggests that the only way we affect the climate is by carbon emissions. But there are many more tools in the carbon-climate toolbox. We can also engineer adaptations to a changing climate for us and for other species. We can move carbon from the atmosphere to the active biosphere or even put it back underground (carbon geoengineering), and we can directly alter the earth’s climate by changing the amount of sunlight the earth absorbs (solar geoengineering). Whether to pursue these approaches is a question for Purdy’s democratic institutions, but it and many others are invisible from within the pollution frame.

In the short term our focus should be on cutting emissions, and for this objective “carbon pollution” is both an effective political label and a sensible guide to action. But looking further ahead, climate change poses deeper dilemmas that do not offer obvious answers. Grappling with them is a job for Purdy’s democratic Anthropocene: it is my hope that ours becomes, as Oliver Morton neatly puts it in The Planet Remade, his new book on geoengineering, “the deliberate planet.”

Published by Boston Review on January 11, 2016.


See also: David Keith, Op-Ed