Are Greens Anti-Progress? Eco-modernity vs Green Traditionalism

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Along with the idea that environmentalism is a religion, another irritating notion seems to keep cropping up recently—that environmentalism, or some environmental solutions, are just about taking us back to the past. When I wrote about homemade bone meal fertilizer, for example, commenter Richard responded to the idea that vegetarianism can be more efficient by asking if "we should just go directly back to living in trees and eating whatever roots and berries we can find lying on the ground?" It's a common refrain. And it's one that I find particularly irritating, mostly because it has at least a grain of truth to it. Let me be clear—I utterly reject the idea that just because environmentalists critique elements of the status quo, they are somehow rejecting modernity, or the benefits that technology or science have brought. After all, many environmentalists are at the forefront of pushing stunning solar power innovations, wireless soil sensors for sustainable farming, or technology to encourage greener driving.

But even pointing out that many greens are pro-technology sells ourselves short—because there is nothing wrong with low tech solutions or a respect for traditional cultures, and there is nothing inherently good or sustainable about the high-tech. You only have to look at the revived scientific interest in Biochar, originally pioneered by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin, or review the potential for recycling human urine to preserve our scarce phosphorus reserves, to understand that revisiting the way things were done in the past can be a rewarding and valuable experience. Heck, look no further than the benefits of the solar clothes dryer for evidence that progress sometimes means looking back.

But where criticisms sometimes ring true is that the green movement can fetishize the past. More than once I've heard passionate laments for why we can't just "return to simpler times", or reject the evils of capitalism/modernity/urbanism/technology (delete as appropriate). Sometimes these laments are accompanied with a coherent argument for why the old ways were better, and sometimes they are little more than thinly-veiled nostalgia for a time isn't coming back, and may never have been quite how we imagine it today.

And while Alex Steffen may have gone too far in his exploration of the dark side of Transition Towns, his follow up piece on why the revolution will not be handmade does touch on a bias within the parts of the green community for the folksy, the craftsy and the handmade—the 'appropriate technology' model, if you will.

Undoubtedly, appropriate technology solutions are often the best solutions—why use a sledge hammer to crack an egg, after all. And many high tech solutions are not without their own problems, including relying on an immensely complex supply chain of energy intensive materials. But I can't help but worry that restricting ourselves to "small is beautiful", "local is best", "if only we could go back", or any other blanket notion, we risk painting ourselves into a corner, just as much as if we adhere to a doctrine of modernity and technology at all costs.

So let's take inspiration from the past by all means, but let's keep looking to the future. After all, it's the direction in which we are headed, whether we like it or not.

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