What techies get wrong about environmentalists

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© wk1003mike/Shutterstock

I've been thinking about wizards and prophets lately because of a book I read in high school — and no, it didn't involve a teenage wizard with a scar.

I'm a "Freakonomics" freak. I read Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitts' "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" in school. The book used economic philosophies to understand everything from sumo wrestlers to baby names; reading it turned me into a wannabe economist detective. I still listen to Dubner's Freakonomics podcast, and a recent episode about the environment really got under my skin.

In the episode, Dubner claimed there are two kinds of people who think they can save the planet: prophets and wizards. "Prophets" warn everyone that environmental horrors are coming — we must stop we're doing or face certain damnation. "Wizards" on the other hand, think humans can find technological solutions to anything.

Dubner pitted a wizard and prophet against each other. He brought in Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology officer (the wizard) and Mary Robinson, an environmental activist and Ireland's former president (the prophet). The podcast goes back and forth between the wizard and prophet, but it never really gives Robinson the chance to share her larger worldview. I got the feeling that Dubner understands wizards, but he doesn't really get prophets. So I'm going to try and help him out.

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Myhrvold, like most wizards, thinks the history of mankind is a series of triumphs. When we encounter a problem, we come up with amazing technology to solve it. In this wizarding point of view, global warming is just the latest soon-to-be-fixed problem.

"I think that if we put our heads together, we will come up with ways to cope," Myhrvold explained.

Prophets, meanwhile, rant about doom.

"How could we be mad enough, cruel enough, insane enough to leave a world for our children and grandchildren which will be unlivable?" asked Robinson. "And that is what we’re headed toward at the moment."

Myhrvold considers all this gloom absurd.

"The way to have a dramatic message is to say we’re all going to die," Myhrvold says. To the contrary, Myhrvold thinks that life for humans has been improving steadily for thousands of years.

"There was no golden age of mankind that was better than today," Myhrvold says.

Many prophets don't share this "forward march of progress" view of history. Prophets say humanity has caused plenty of problems that we never managed to solve. For instance, we started polluting the air a few centuries ago, and we never stopped. One study estimated that more people die from pollution today than war and hunger combined.

Myhrvold acknowledges that humans create environmental problems, but he thinks all these problems are separate, and that once an individual problem is solved, it goes away forever. Global warming, for instance, just needs a shiny tech fix.

"Well, my company has come up with some very practical and cost-effective ways of deliberately putting particles into the upper atmosphere. And on paper, it works out that you could nullify all of global warming that way," Myhrvold said, suggesting people pay him to LITERALLY BLOCK THE SUN to stop global warming.

On the other hand, many environmentalists don't think tit-for-tat solutions like this will do the job. They see air pollution, rainforest destruction, climate change and other issues as symptoms of the same trend: as humans continue to grow, we take over the planet. This slow, steady destruction has been going on for millennia, and no tech solutions have ever solved it. Only by recognizing and addressing that will we get to the root of the problem.

nature v industry© Beautiful landscape/Shutterstock

Part of the issue is that every short-term solution humans come up with seems to create even bigger problems. For instance, humans have been great at inventing technology to keep hunger at bay. But we literally eat the planet in the process. More food means more people; the population has skyrocketed over the past few centuries. Today, nearly half of all land on earth is farmland. If this 10,000-year-old trend continues, then even if we somewhat manage to feed everyone, we're headed for a world made up of humans and cornfields.

Besides, environmental problems aren't just in the future. Most Americans say climate change is already hurting people in the present. Some scientists even think global warming caused the chaos in Syria. Perhaps, as global warming caused farmland to dry up, Syrians moved from the countryside to the cities in mass, straining the society for resources.

And it's not just about humans. Prophets don't care about nature just because humans need it. Prophets care about nature for nature's sake. Sure, people depend more on clean air and biodiversity than we realize, but we share the planet with other forms of life too. Prophets care about animals going extinct and tropical rainforests turning into cornfields. Wizards don't seem to care about anything besides humans.

It's true that some environmentalists go overboard with the doom and gloom. But they're not merely imagining a destructive future. They're looking at a destructive past and present. They view techies as mouthpieces for businesses who don't want to have to slow down production. Environmentalists aren't waiting for techie solutions because they think humans already have the technology we need to save the planet. What we're missing is the willpower and organization, and a political system not controlled by the industries bent on using the planet like our personal pantry.

Perhaps that's changing. 70 percent of Americans think protecting the environment is more important than growing the economy. Though they may rant about oncoming doom, in one key way, prophets are more optimistic than wizards. According to prophets, we already have the tools to fix the problem ... Although we may need to stop listening to wizards to get started.

What techies get wrong about environmentalists
Freakonomics says prophets and wizards can't agree on how to save the planet.

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