The Energy Reckoning, Political Polarization, and the Future of Environmentalism

For over half a century, environmentalists have been promising us that renewable power – wind and solar, essentially – will solve our energy dilemma. This was the main lesson that I learned as a student in the new Environmental Studies Program [1] of the University of California at Santa Cruz in the 1970s. I remember well my final exam for the core course, which was to write a letter to President Jimmy Carter advising him on the environmental crisis. My response, parroting the professor, was well received. First, I argued, the United States must reject economic growth, which I unoriginally claimed was based on the “ideology of a cancer cell [2].” Second, our “addiction” to fossil fuels required gradual but firm withdrawal, whereas nuclear power was so deadly that it had to be immediately eliminated. Instead, I earnestly wrote, we had to take the soft-energy path of the sun, the wind, and biomass. Renewable energy, I admitted, was expensive, but costs were dropping and would surely plummet if only we could redirect the subsidies that were flowing to noxious sources. Since the sun is always shining somewhere just as the wind is always blowing, renewable energy would soon be inexpensive, allowing us to ease into a sustainable economy that could truly meet everyone’s needs.

This message has changed little over the intervening decades. To be sure, biomass no longer commands much enthusiasm and climate change has replaced pollution as the focus of concern. But the emphasis on renewable power remains a staple feature of environmental discourse. As the cost of solar- and wind-generated electricity continued to decline, the green movement remained convinced that renewables would soon be cheaper than conventional energy. Intermittency was an admitted problem, but we were assured that storage improvements would soon provide the solution. (Technological optimism in other sectors, however, continued to be derided as “cornucopianism.”) Renewable energy, we were told, is truly clean, unlike nuclear power or fossil fuels. Keep the faith, retain the subsidies, invest in green tech, and all would be well. And indeed, a few years ago the day of deliverance was widely announced, as renewable energy was being briefly generated at costs below those of the non-renewable sector. As a result, environmentalists enthused, market forces were already propelling a wholesale energy transformation. If we could fully electrify transportation, net zero carbon-dioxide emissions could be realized within a decade or so with little if any cost to our living standards.

It soon became apparent, however, that the proclamation of energy parity was premature at best. Rather than continuing to decline, the cost of renewable energy began to edge upward. As it turned out, low interest rates and cheap fossil fuels, used to manufacture wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays, had helped hold down prices. Evidence was emerging, moreover, that over-reliance on renewable electricity could threaten grid stability. The storage problem also proved to be more challenging than had been imagined and more environmentally worrisome. Solar and wind power turned out to be more than a little dirty. Local opposition to windfarms and solar installations began to mount, while renewable-energy firms began to pull back, with some falling into bankruptcy. Electric-car sales started to flatline, hitting a wall of consumer reluctance. Germany, global leader of the energiewende (“energy turn-around”), began to slide into deindustrialization and economic stagnation, and conditions in the United Kingdom were not much better. Many observers concluded that the vaunted energy transformation was a mirage. Green stalwarts maintain that it is still on the horizon, but the longer the delay lasts, the more public trust wavers. An energy reckoning, in other words, appears to be at hand [3].

The disappointing results of the green-energy revolution do not mean that renewables do not have an important role to play, much less that the climate concerns that have driven it are misplaced. Here the evidence is strong. For those who doubt the reality of global warming, regular inspection of the global temperature anomaly maps produced by the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute [4] is worth the effort. The drive to decarbonize the economy also remains compelling, although how – and how quickly – it should be accomplished is a matter of debate. But as mainstream environmentalism rejects nuclear power and is skeptical of carbon scrubbing and geo-engineering, how then can climate change be meaningfully addressed? The standard green response, or so it seems, is to remain on the renewable path and just accept the resulting energy inflation and grid destabilization.

The drawbacks of reducing carbon emissions through austerity, however, are considerable, particularly for the working class. Higher energy prices translate into inflated prices for food and other necessities, putting a severe strain on those with little disposable income; for people with ample wealth, in contrast, the sacrifices are minor. Rural and exurban non-elites are particularly hard hit, as they have no option but to do a lot of driving. The millions of workers whose livelihoods require haulage, moreover, cannot simply tighten their belts and turn to electric trucks, as they are not adequate for the task, especially in cold climates. It is thus hardly surprising that those facing such threats are turning to rightwing populism, which is associated not only with the denial of climate change but also with the dismissal of most other environmental problems. There has got to be a better way.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. What is most essential is to remain on the path of carbon-emission reduction, which the United States has been traversing for some time. Mandating ahead of time how and when net-zero is to be reached, in contrast, is a reckless strategy with a low chance of success. Eliminating fossil fuels in the U.S. within a decade or so is probably not feasible, and even it if were possible it would have a minor effect, given the surge in coal combustion that is occurring in China, India, and other countries. If we are to take climate change and other environmental problems seriously without undermining our economy, immiserating the working class, and depopulating remote lands, we need to question environmental orthodoxies and open ourselves to new ideas.

To take on climate change – and almost every major issue – we may first need to address the country’s meta-problem: rampant political polarization. Although most of us are concerned about the growing extremism of “the other side,” the underlying problem is the extremity of polarization itself. Increasingly, each party conducts its campaigns not by advocating its own policies but by attacking the opposition. Such attacks are becoming ever more shrill, often focusing on the threat to democracy posed by the other party. These assertions are not necessarily without merit. As both parties have lost popularity, and as neither seems capable of scoring decisive national victories in an evenly divided electorate, both have become willing to bend the rules and engage in underhanded tactics. On the left, calls for censorship and the deplatforming of conservative and independent writers are mounting. On the right, many pundits no longer even rhetorically support democracy, insisting that the United States “is a republic, not a democracy” – as if the two terms were mutually exclusive [5]. In the process, the extremes of each party feed on the other’s extremism, weakening democratic governance and republican norms. The paucity of impartial voices makes it difficult for partisans to understand the motivation of their opponents. The left mislocates the prime source of rightwing extremism in white supremacy, which is a small component. The right mislocates the prime source of leftwing extremism in communism, which is a small component. What primarily propels them both is distrust and contempt for each other.

Toxic polarization immerses us in a fog of hate, with detestation of the other side permeating everything. It clouds our future and takes a toll on our mental health and basic wellbeing. Most of us sense its dangers, with 77 percent of Americans fearing that the country will be even more politically divided in 2050 than it is today [6]. But few are willing to step back, dial down the rhetoric, and look for common ground. Most of my Democratic friends and relatives tell me that the Republicans pose such a severe threat to the country – and the Earth – that we must do everything in our power to crush them at the ballot box, delegitimate their ideology, and consign their ill-begotten policies to oblivion. The right-populist writers whom I read [7] have the same view of Democrats, who are often disparaged by their commentors as “demon-rats.” Both sides favor the same strategy: doubling-down and ramping-up the attacks, thus enflaming the underlying infection. Venomously negative campaigning might temporarily work, but its returns will eventually diminish. The two parties have consistently alternated in power since the end of World War II, and there is little reason to believe that this pattern will not persist. The electorate is, after all, as evenly divided as it has ever been. As animosity grows, so too does thirst for revenge when the inevitable shift occurs. There has got to be a better way.

This book suggests some possible ways forward. It advocates, as the title signals, a middle path, or via media [8], one that avoids ideological extremes and seeks instead a solid center on which most Americans might find enough agreement to make a real difference. Finding commonality requires small steps, but many of them. Embarking on this venture is not as difficult as it might seem, as there are many issues on which most Americans agree. All over the country, local environmental groups are working closely with conservative rural residents to conserve nature and protect local livelihoods. Even in the midst of heated controversies, people in opposing camps sometimes find that they can collaborate for the common good. As this happens, tensions alleviate, facilitating further cooperation.

An instructive example of such conciliation comes from Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. Tensions between ranchers and wildlife conservationists had been brewing since the 1970s, generating intense ill-will and constant litigation. In 1999, however, the deputy director of the refuge and a local rancher decided to explore a different approach. They discovered that both camps detested the invasive Asian carp that were wreaking havoc in the massive refuge and pledged to work together to reduce the threat. They subsequently formed the High Desert Partnership, which sought to avoid court battles and devise a collaborative land-management system. Some ranchers rejected this approach, and the more recalcitrant ones partnered with angry activists from outside the region. In 2016, this group seized and held government buildings for 40 days; after U.S. marshals stormed the facility, nine rightwing radicals ended up in prison. The story attracted considerable national attention, with local ranchers often portrayed as wild fanatics. But as Georgia Reid relates in an innovative environmental-studies honors’ thesis [9], “the occupation’s extremist stance did not cause much disruption in local politics; …  community members attributed their resilience in large part to the ‘culture of collaboration’ forged by the HDP [High Desert Partnership].” Inspired by this story and others like it, Reid went on to form an environmental consultancy aimed at such bridge building. It has not been easy, and she has had to endure considerable abuse from people who despise environmentalists. But she has been able to patiently win some of them over. In such a manner, small but meaningful steps in environmental progress and political conciliation and are taken.

Dampening political tensions requires confronting the city-country divide. Currently, the two best predictors of voting behavior are educational level and location on the urban-rural spectrum. A large majority of rural people almost everywhere [10] cast their ballots for Republican candidates, and they are heading in an increasingly populist direction. But this is not a long-standing pattern. As recently as the 1990s, many sparsely populated, white-majority counties in the upper South and upper Midwest regularly supported Democrats; now they are almost all bright red on the electoral map. What is of long-standing is urban disdain for rural folk [11]. Bias against “hicks” is perhaps the last unstigmatized form of bigotry in the United States [12]. Such contempt is now being magnified as political animosity compounds locational prejudice. Is it surprising that a virulent anti-establishment reaction is raging across the heartland?

In some green circles, residents of remote places are increasingly cast as environmental villains, and as a result their livelihoods are coming under threat. This is a counterproductive strategy. If we want to preserve biodiversity and enhance wildlife habitat, it is extraordinarily helpful to have the support of the people who live in nature’s midst. To the extent that they are antagonized, the long-term chance of success plummets. But it does not have to be this way. As anyone who has spent time with non-absentee rural property owners knows, most of them love their land and want to protect it. If provided adequate incentives and a proper policy environment, a great many would be eager to help take on the conjoined crises of land degradation, biodiversity loss, and, yes, even climate change.

One key issue on which Americans find broad agreement is the excessive power and privilege of the billionaire-dominated overclass. Polls shows that between 60 and 70 percent of the population thinks that the ultrawealthy have too much political power [13] and that the United States has too much economic inequality [14]. While most Democrats and Republicans view each other as a threat to democracy, a growing cross-party contingent sees the ultrawealthy as the real threat, concerned that the United States is descending into a tech-dominated oligarchy. It would be extremely difficult for either political party to crush democracy, even if they wanted to do so, given the elaborate system of checks and balances built into the constitution. More likely is a gradual erosion of democratic governance at the hands of self-entitled billionaires and the semi-monopolistic corporations that they run. Oligarchs have always been suspicious of democracy. The creeping control of the hyper-elites over information technology gives them more political leverage than they have ever had, enhanced daily by the growth of easily manipulated artificial intelligence.

Unfortunately, public concern about the burgeoning might of the overclass is voided by political polarity, with right-populists and left-progressives too devoted to opposing each other to do anything about it. Rampant polarization, in other words, divides the people, shielding the budding oligarchy from their discontent. The ultra-wealthy have a personal motivation to ramp up the divide, which is one reason why many of them donate heavily to far-left groups that superficially act against their interests. Counter-polarization efforts, in contrast, foster solidarity across cultural and political lines, threatening the 0.001 percent. The supporters of the would-be oligarchs in the media, both on the right and left, are therefore keen to marginalize voices that stray from strict party lines.


My Long Journey to the Environmental Center

Since adolescence in the early 1970s, I have maintained a consistent set of environmental beliefs. On the one hand, I cherish the diversity and abundance of life on Earth; on the other, I value humankind, wanting it to thrive as well. Most environmentalists see these values as at least somewhat incompatible, with their more extreme voices arguing that humans should quit reproducing and slip quietly into extinction to give other species the respite they need. I disagree.  In my view, human flourishing and environmental health can be profoundly complementary.

My views on how these twin goals might be reconciled and realized have swung in wildly different directions over the years. As a young adult, I was a devoted eco-romantic, convinced that nature could be saved and humanity redeemed only by abandoning cities and returning to the land. Only there could we live in balance with the natural world. Such harmonization could be accomplished by breaking-up our “hyper-coherent” economy and embedding its pieces in local ecosystems. This was one of the main teachings that I imbibed as an undergraduate at Santa Cruz and later as a graduate student in the Sauerian [15] wing of the geography department of the University of California at Berkeley. There I found ample scholarly validation for my desire to opt out of industrial society, which seemed poised to crash and burn.

In my late twenties, however, deep disillusionment set in. A pivotal moment came when I was conducting doctoral research in the highlands of Northern Luzon in the Philippines. The so-called tribal people with whom I was living had abandoned subsistence cultivation in favor of chemically intensive, commercial vegetable farming immediately after World War II. I found this transition appalling; they did not. One day my wife and I made an arduous journey to interview an elderly woman who, we were told, remembered well the pre-war ways. It took half a day hiking along leech-lined, cloud-forest trails with Maoist insurgents lurking about to reach her house. When we finally arrived, she refused to talk about the past, quipping only that “the old days were terrible; we only ate sweet potatoes.[16]” Afterward, I could no longer convince myself that the pre-war subsistence economy was better than the post-war commercial economy.

Within a few years I abandoned the eco-romanticism of my youth, concluding that it had been largely based on wishful thinking. The more I learned about both the past and present, the more convinced I became that we needed to take the opposite tack. To save nature and help humanity, I concluded, we had to embrace technologies that could decouple our economy from ecosystemic processes. I advocated synthetic fibers, reasoning that if we could jettison cotton for polyester, millions of acres of farmland could be restored to forests, grasslands, and swamps in the United States alone. Likewise, I endorsed intensive urbanization. Concentrating our population would allow us to bolster economic output while expanding natural habitat. To convey this ideological conversion, I wrote a polemical book called Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism [17]. It was, in essence, an argument against my younger self. I later affiliated with the Breakthrough Institute [18], an ecomodernist [19] think tank that advocates a technological path to both environmental protection and socio-economic betterment.

But although I convinced myself that dense cities are environmentally preferable, I never wanted to live in one. My own background was largely rural, spent in sparsely populated Calaveras County in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and I continued to find the countryside compelling. I taught for a few years at the George Washington University in the District of Columbia but found it stiflingly urban. In the early 2000s, my family and I decamped to the Stanford campus in the heart of Silicon Valley. Although commonly deemed “the Farm,” Stanford is relentlessly suburban. I felt no more at home there than in downtown D.C. I once found myself flummoxed at a dinner party when a Japanese visitor asked about my hobby, but was rescued when my wife dryly replied, “rural living.”

Rural living, needless to say, is not easily accomplished in Palo Alto. My solution was to buy a plot of remote land. Partnering with a high-school friend, we found a magnificent 40-acre parcel deep in the redwood-tanoak forests near Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, part of the storied Emerald Triangle. I was soon staying there as many weekends and vacation periods as possible. Ironically, considering what I had written in Green Delusions, I found myself immersed in a community of back-to-the-landers, most of whom supported their rural dream by cultivating tiny plots of cannabis. In some ways, I found myself more at home among them than in the faculty lounge. I was fascinated by their viewpoint diversity, impressed by their cultural sophistication, and relieved by their lack of pretention. These were people who were more inclined to play with ideas than profess them. I was, however, a few years late to the party, as epic stories are told of the days when Kary Mullis – 1993 Nobel laureate in chemistry and fabled “mind surfer” [20] ­– was part of the scene.

When I began sojourning in Anderson Valley in 2002, the cannabis growers I met all had legal status as far as the county and state were concerned, operating under California’s lax medical marijuana provisions. Mendocino County at the time limited cultivators to 25 plants, which was enough, if they were large, to support a family at a modest middle-class level. Even the district attorney, Norman Vroman, was found to have been growing two dozen plants at the time of his death in 2006 [21]. As the legal environment was murky and constricting, most growers eagerly supported full state legalization in 2018. Acquiring the necessary permits, however, proved onerous and expensive, requiring multiple jumps through many hoops. More than a few luddites had to learn how to use a computer to navigate the byzantine “track-and-trace” system, originally designed for the pharmaceutical industry.

Despite such hurdles, most growers soldiered on, having no other options and eager to gain a permanent license. But in 2021 the wholesale price of cannabis collapsed, dropping from around $1,200 a pound to $450, where it still stands. (Retail prices, curiously, saw only a modest decline.) As the cost of production and processing was now roughly equivalent to the wholesale price, the local economy was soon in shambles. So too was California’s entire legal cannabis sector, with retail, distribution, and marketing firms dissolving by the scores. The huge tax intake that the state had been banking on began to dissipate as well.

The causes of California’s cannabis crisis are hotly debated. The collapse of the wholesale price is usually attributed to the large number of corporate, high-carbon (indoor and greenhouse) operations that the state permitted. Simply put, small-scale, outdoor growers could no longer compete. In the conservative viewpoint, this is how capitalist competition works, driving many firms into bankruptcy but generating efficiency in the process. Such a survival-of-the fittest argument, however, does not consider carbon footprints. It also ignores illicit production. California effectively tolerates illegal cultivators, who pay no fees or taxes and sidestep all regulations; these criminals can out-compete all licensed growers. Many of them, moreover, are guilty of environmental despoliation and a host of nasty crimes. Need I say that there has got to be a better way?

When the wholesale cannabis price crumpled, it not only devastated the local economy but also undermined a unique subculture and way of life. To add insult to injury, some growers who persisted found themselves harassed on ostensibly environmental grounds. One couple received a stern letter informing them that their license was in jeopardy because satellite imagery showed that a tree had disappeared from their property. They were dumbfounded, unsure if the tree in question was a huge tanoak that had toppled in a winter storm or an exotic coulter pine that they had removed under orders from the fire marshal. A few months later, two absentee landowners with adjoining properties received clearance for a large winter-time logging operation that threatened local salmon and steelhead runs. Their permit also allowed them to spray herbicide after the timber harvest to eliminate tanoaks, grotesquely simplifying the ecosystem. The hypocrisy, needless to say, is staggering.

The case that I make in this book puts me in an ironic position. Three decades ago, I attacked the deep-green philosophy of the back-to-the-landers; now I defend their livelihoods, which are under assault from a supposedly deep-green political establishment. I once again find myself disillusioned, this time with the technophilic stance that I embraced in the 1990s. Unrestrained modernism, it now seems clear, threatens the rural ways of life that I find restorative, whether in Mendocino County or anywhere else. The technical developments that I thought would allow us to preserve nature while enhancing human wellbeing turned out to have major downsides, particularly those that pull us out of the physical world and push us into its computerized counterpart. Urban intensification comes with its own costs and is rejected by most Americans. And while I still believe that economic decoupling from nature can have profound benefits, I now see that it is sometimes detrimental, both to people and to other species.

My growing skepticism of modernism does not mean that I have turned against modernity. Hardly anyone wants to opt out of the modern world. But it is foolhardy to automatically embrace whatever schemes futurists imagine and would like to foist on the rest of us. Modernism, as a philosophy, lionizes the new and disparages the old, seeking restless change across all human domains. Traditionalism, its opposite, fears the new and revels in the past, seeking not just stasis but retreat. The vast majority of Americans reject both poles, preferring a middle path. It is on these grounds, I now think, that an effective environmental philosophy might be established.

Seeking Middle Paths

This via media encompasses more than the twin dichotomies of modernism versus traditionalism and economic-ecological coupling versus decoupling. On the crucial climate front as well, a middle path is preferable, one that avoids both the environmentally threatening and scientifically unjustifiable denialism of the populist right and the economically perilous and scientifically unwarranted catastrophism of the green left. Numerous polls show that the American public is in broad agreement [22]. Unfortunately, such a stance finds little institutional support, undermined as it is by unrelenting political polarization.

The rising populist right has many troubling ideas about nature that dismay environmentalists. But the main response by the left – incessant vilification – is both callous and counterproductive. Responding to populism through insult and hyperbole prevents well-meaning Democrats from understanding the genuine grievances that underlie it. It is also essential to recognize that populism also comes in a leftwing variant [23], which threatens the Democratic establishment and is also rooted in legitimate concerns. To constructively handle the populist challenge, a different kind of middle path is needed, one that recognizes that the opposite of populism – establishmentarianism [24] – is equally perilous. Populism has surged largely because the political establishments of both parties have become disconnected from the people, too dependent on, and hence too responsive to, special interests, particularly those with deep pockets. As a result, working- and middle-class voters get lip-service and targeted subsidies, but little that addresses their core concerns. The economic foundation on which they stand is unstable and deteriorating. Refurbishing it is essential if we are to restore national wellbeing.

But the impetus behind the populist surge runs much deeper. Populists, whether right, left, or center, are suspicious of intellectual authority and expertise, distrusting the institutions that support them. Such an attitude can be corrosive but can also point to much-needed correctives. Science, the most powerful source of intellectual authority, is a precious undertaking that I have striven to defend [25]. But, like all other human endeavors, it is vulnerable to corruption. Such vulnerability seems to be intensifying. The replication crisis in psychology and the shameful resignation of the president of my own university for manipulating images and data [26] indicate as much. As the New York Times recently reported, more than 10,000 scientific papers were retracted in 2023 alone, up from 400 in 2010 [27]. And although I continue to trust most climate science, it is not unreasonable to suggest that some climate scientists have become so politicized that their findings should be questioned. Beyond that, expertise itself has its own limitations, as experts typically overestimate their own abilities and discount much of what lies outside their own domains of proficiency. As the gadfly of the intellectuals Nassim Nicholas Taleb bluntly notes, “The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know [28].”

Ironically, expert analysis has illuminated the shortcomings of expert analysis. Over decades of painstaking research, Philip Tetlock has shown that experts usually perform poorly at predicting future events, such as the likelihood of a war breaking out in some part of the world or the position of the stock market at some future date [29]. They usually flounder because they are wedded to specific theories that capture some aspects of reality but miss most others. Tetlock has found that those who do best at the task, so-called “super-predictors,” are usually curious generalists who do their homework but remain wary of trendy academic ideas. They tend to employ basic statistical analysis, understanding that significant deviations from the “base rate” of any phenomena are relatively rare in the short run. Most important, they always couch their predictions in probability ranges [30].

Probabilism, Possibilism, and the Determinist Trap

Assessing future developments in terms of probabilities is an essential aspect of scientific investigation. Climate researchers do this as a matter of course, with their models always including error bars that estimate the degree of uncertainty involved. But when their assessments are translated for public consumption by journalists and activists, uncertainty tends to be replaced by bold prognostications. To be sure, journalists often hedge their predictions with words such as “may” or “might,” but a fundamental distortion remains. There is a world of difference between a possible development that is given a probability rating of 50 percent and one that comes in at 0.1 percent, but both can be accurately conveyed to the public by writing “scientists warn that [terrifying development X] may occur.” Probability evaluations are often contested by other investigators, adding another layer of uncertainty. As this lack of certainty is sidelined in public discussions, the climate debate easily sinks into pseudo-scientific assertions and counter-assertions. Slippage into talking points is also evident is the omnipresent confusion of weather with climate. For one set of believers, hot weather proves a pending global catastrophe, while for the other cold weather confirms that we have nothing to worry about [31]. This disingenuous game is easy to play, as some parts of the world are always warmer than average whereas others are always cooler [32]. (Today, however, warm anomalies are more widespread and intense than cold anomalies; global trends matter, not local anecdotes.)

Whereas climate science is based on a probabilistic stance, public environmentalism is veering in the opposite direction, toward strict determinism [33]. In this view, future climatic conditions, given a certain level of greenhouse-gas concentration, are seen as fundamentally knowable, if not already known. They are not. The mathematical models used to predict the contours of climate change face challenging obstacles. The complexities of atmospheric dynamics are extraordinary, riven with feedback loops both positive and negative. Modeling such processes is still an essential tool of analysis, but climate models are precisely that: tools, not crystal balls. As the well-known statisticians’ adage puts it, “All models are wrong; some are useful [34].” Climate-change models need to be constantly reevaluated and honed. Some evidence suggests that they have been exaggerating the pace and intensity of global warming, although some researchers think that the opposite is true. The jury is still out, in other words, although time will eventually tell. In the meantime, honest assessments of the uncertainty involved is essential, as are public debates about the risks entailed and the proper societal level of risk acceptance. Such risks cut both ways. An overly zealous rush to decarbonize everything would imperil the economy, chancing a social breakdown of potentially devastating consequences. In the final analysis, insisting that “the science is settled” and “the time for debate is over,” as many environmentalists are wont to do, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of both science and public policy.

A century ago, leading geographers argued that climate determines social organization, political development, cultural forms, and even the emergence of abstract ideas. Famed scholars such as Ellsworth Huntington of Yale University maintained that the favorable climatic conditions of the temperate zone foster progressive and productive human societies, whereas the heat, humidity, and resulting torpor of the tropics preclude social and economic development [35]. (Was it coincidental that Huntington drew his isoline of optimal climatic mental energy as passing just outside New Haven?) In the anti-deterministic reaction of the mid-twentieth century, called environmental possibilism, such theorizing was cast aside. Climatic determinism was shown to have little empirical support and its close association with racism and ethnocentrism rendered it increasingly unpalatable. But today, under the guise of environmental concern, climatic determinism of a different sort is relodging itself in the public imagination. Almost any negative development – from war to refugee flows to wildfires to the spread of disease to inflated prices to domestic violence – is now routinely attributed to shifting climes. In many cases climate change does play a role, but it is usually minor and rarely definitive.

The eco-possibilist position advocated here, in contrast, takes climate change seriously but not obsessively, resisting its use as an all-purpose explanation for any series of unfortunate events. As its name implies, possibilism sees a whole range of outcomes as possible, partly because of our ability to adjust our behavior. Long-term predictability [36] is thwarted by random processes, chaotic conditions, and “black swans” (events that cannot be anticipated) [37]. The poverty of long-term prognostication is further indicated by the poor track-records of futurists of all stripes, including environmental alarmists. By accepting the futility of foresight, eco-possibilism might have some modest use as an antidote to the climate despair that is ravaging our mental health. At the same time, the guarded optimism that it might generate is best tinged with a sense of the tragic, as climate change will probably overwhelm entire ecosystems and displace many of the animals and plants that inhabit them. But a loss for one species is usually a gain for another. Nature will abide.

Chapter Outline

As currently envisaged, this book will have six chapters. Chapter One outlines my problems with modernism as a philosophical movement and questions its relevance for environmental thought. It advises the self-proclaimed ecomodernist movement to adopt a less pointed and more general designation. This chapter also assesses the linkage between excessive modernism and declining mental health. It concludes by arguing that mainstream environmentalism has, in essence, become just as modernistic as its ecomodernist rival.

Chapter Two takes on the issue of decoupling economic systems from ecological processes. It argues in favor of decoupling in many sectors, but contends that active recoupling is sometimes preferable. Selective and salvage logging, for example, can improve the health of many overgrown forests devastated by a century of over-zealous fire suppression. It can also reduce the current fire hazard and help depressed rural communities. If the salvaged wood is transformed into mass timber, a significant amount of carbon can be sequestered in long-lasting structures. Doing so also reduces the construction industry’s carbon footprint by weaning it from concrete and steel. This chapter showcases environmental actors who are helping bring such projects to fruition. Equally dedicated to protecting nature and supporting beleaguered rural communities, they show how the yawning gap between blue and red American can sometimes be bridged, to the benefit of both.

The next two chapters examine environmental issues from the vantage point of deep time. Chapter Three considers the climate crisis in light of the geological record. It shows that there is nothing unprecedented about either elevated carbon-dioxide levels or rapidly changing climatic conditions. In past eras that had high levels of atmospheric CO2, warming was concentrated in the high-latitude belts, with the tropics remaining fully habitable by macroscopic life. Although no grounds for climate complacency, these facts do pour water over the burning Earth of the apocalyptic imagination.

Chapter Four turns to the long-term relationship between humankind and the natural environment. It argues that “we” have been drastically altering ecosystems since before we were fully human [38]. Removing the human presence from the landscape would not, therefore, restore primordial harmony, but would create novel ecosystems of a kind never seen before. Our ancestors, however, were sometimes guilty of extraordinary ecological destruction, probably including the extermination of most large mammal species in North America. To redeem ourselves, we can intervene in nature to restore part of what we have stripped away, a process that is already taking some tentative steps. The guiding metaphor for this part of this chapter is “gardenism,” as imagined by Robert Pogue Harrison and William Rosenzweig, a term that evokes places intimately touched by well-intentioned human hands [39]. Finally, I argue, such a path can be philosophically facilitated by rejecting the reification of nature, as well as the distinction between humanity and the natural world [40], which remain foundational to most forms of environmentalism.

Chapter Five takes on the establishment-left’s growing hostility to rural people by focusing on micro-scale cannabis farmers in Mendocino County. This is a politically revealing case study. The Emerald Triangle is one of only three [41] primarily rural, white-majority, non-elite portions of the country that still supports the Democratic Party – which as often as not repays the favor with hostility. The state’s supposedly green political establishment evidently wants to force the hippies out of the hills, favoring instead the vastly more environmentally damaging corporate cannabis sector. While the rightwing often accuses the left of “eating its own children,” what we encounter here is more akin to subjecting its grandparents to human sacrifice. Modern environmental philosophy emerged out of the great cultural upheaval of the late 1960s, with one branch of devoted adherents departing to the countryside and the other settling down in large cities. The latter contingent gradually evolved in a more technophilic and corporatist direction, with its most extreme members becoming so resolutely anti-rural that they are now trying to obliterate the vestiges of the original back-to-the-land movement. It is not a pretty picture.

The concluding chapter asks if a “middle path” could help mend the divide that is tearing the United States apart. It begins by questioning the threadbare notion of a one-dimensional left-right spectrum. This schema is so foundational to political discourse that we cannot seem to do without it, yet it is debilitating. If it made sense, it would have to be at least somewhat consistent over time. But it is not. Positions that have been historically coded as “left,” such as dedication to free speech, have in an eye-blink shifted right with little notice and less debate. By the same token, conservative populism is almost universally regarded as “far-right,” but several of its key attributes have long been linked to the left. These include misgivings about corporate power, concern for the working class, hostility to military adventurism, and suspicions about the “deep state” and its security apparatus. As these examples reveal, our ideological universe is complex, multidimensional, and in constant flux.

Owing to such unacknowledged complexity, many Americans are now politically homeless, disillusioned with both major parties and unable to locate a viable alternative. This is not simply a matter of finding themselves somewhere in the unrepresented middle, as their own positions often fail to clump together anywhere on the spectrum. Is a person who is strongly “right” on some crucial issues but firmly “left” on others [41] therefore a centrist, with their divergent views somehow averaging out? Not exactly. In the public imagination, a self-proclaimed “centrist” or “moderate” is more often regarded as a mushy-minded invertebrate unable to take a solid stance on anything.

If there is no meaningful spectrum, then there is no single political center, just as there is no sole middle path. Establishment-oriented centrism, of the kind advocated by David Brooks [43], is a world away from the populist centrism associated with writers like Michael Lind [44]. Many observers who recognize the perils of hyper-polarization stumble on this point. Political movements such as No Labels that seek to build an establishmentarian alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties are going nowhere fast. Any meaningful program for counter-polarization is going to have to embrace a wide range of viewpoints and acknowledge populist grievances. The best way to do so, I argue, is through our traditional institutions of democracy, beleaguered though they are. In the final analysis, the more faithfully democratic governance is pursued, the more radically “centrist” it necessarily becomes, reflecting the desires of the people as a whole rather than those of well-funded interest groups. Truly democratic governance would also be profoundly anti-oligarchic, striving to rein in the powers and privileges of the overweening overclass.

This work does not offer a comprehensive environmental platform, nor does it advocate a specific solution to the climate dilemma. Giving my own prescriptions would not be helpful, as the last thing we need is another set of directives. Although I unsurprisingly favor a middle path between top-down and bottom-up approaches, we currently have a surfeit of the former and a deficit of the latter. Adequately addressing our interlaced energy/environmental/economic crisis will require many initiatives, some of which have not yet been imagined. What I can offer are some hopeful stories of how some people are taking small but meaningful steps on their own. These often entail pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in wood, soil, and biochar. Those who do so are helping create more resilient ecosystems and, in the case of mass-timber construction, more sustainable urban environments as well.



1. I was in the first class (1979) in which one could graduate with a sole major in environmental studies. I was a senior when this policy was adopted and promptly discarded my geology co-major. This was not, in hindsight, a wise decision.

2. The original quote, “growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness,” is found in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, 1968, page 114.

3. For a skeptical view of renewable energy, see the works of Robert Bryce, including A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations (2020, PublicAffairs). See also Bryce’s Substack essays at

4. See the Climate Reanalyzer website at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute:
Climate-change skeptics distrust this source, but I have not seen any convincing evidence.

5. “Democracy” refers to a form of governance whereas “republic” refers to a form of government. These are different things. A republic can be more-or-less democratically governed, but it can also be autocratically governed, as is the case with the People’s Republic of China. By the same token, a monarchy – which is the antithesis of a republic – can be democratically governed (Australia) or autocratically governed (Saudi Arabia).

6. “Americans Take a Dim View of the Nation’s Future, Look More Positively at the Past,” by Andrew Daniller. Pew Research Center, April 24, 2023.

7. To gain perspective, I habitually read across the political spectrum.

8. Both of these terms have religious connotations. “Middle Path,” the most common English translation of Majjhimāpaṭipadā, refers in Buddhism to the call for monks to avoid both worldliness and extreme asceticism. “Via media” is a Latin term, translatable as “middle path,” that perhaps stems from the ancient Greek ideal of moderation, dating at least to Socrates and arguably found in the Oracle of Delphi’s adage, “nothing in excess.” It has been used most extensively to refer to moderate Protestant sects, such an Anglicanism and Nordic Lutheranism, that seek a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and radical Protestantism.

9. Georgia Reid, “Environment as Plural Public Realities,” Senior Honors Thesis, Lewis & Clark College Environmental Studies Program. 2020. Page 7.

10. The exceptions fit regular patterns. Black-majority rural counties are still solidly Democratic. Many Hispanic-majority ones remain dark blue, such as those of northern New Mexico, but others, particularly those of southern and western Texas, are trending Republican. Non-metropolitan areas that are demographically dominated by Native Americans mostly remain loyal to the Democratic Party, but there are exceptions. The most prominent one is Robeson County, North Carolina, which is home to the Lumbee people, the largest indigenous group east of the Mississippi. Robeson County was until recently a liberal stronghold, famous in civil right circles for sending the KKK packing in 1958 in the “Battle of Hayes Pond.” In 2016, Robeson narrowly supported Donald Trump, and in 2020 it gave him 59 percent of its votes.

11. For an egregious if amusing example of such bigotry from century ago, consider the following passage by journalist H.L. Mencken about William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate:

“Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him in contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”

Revealingly, this passage was showcased by art critic Jan Herman in 2020 as befitting an obituary for Donald Trump, who is about as urban as a person could be. Whatever his faults – which are considerable – Trump is anything but “a peasant come home to the dung-pile.” I can only wonder whether Herman is aware that Mencken was not just a hard-core racist but a proto-Nazi (, or that Bryan was not just a celebrated orator but also a firm opponent of U.S. imperialism, corporate trusts, eugenics, and the corporate financing of campaigns, as well as a strong proponent of progressive taxation, the direct election of senators, local ownership of utilities, direct democracy through referendums, and a social security system. To be sure, Bryan was a hard-core cultural conservative (see footnote 23 below), but to analogize him with Trump – who is not – is to reveal a lack of understanding of American political history. Unfortunately, Herman is not the only one to have made this comparison. For an insightful rejoinder, see “Donald Trump Is No William Jennings Bryan,” by Michael Kazin, Politico Magazine, February 24, 2017.
See also footnote 19 (below)

12. For a recent example of stereotype-infused bigotry against rural Americans, see White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman. 2024. Random House.

13. “What Americans Really Think About Billionaires During the Pandemic,” by Theodore Schleifer. Vox, March 30, 2021.

14. “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” by Julianna Horowitz et al. Pew Research Center, January 9, 2020.

Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority

15. “Sauerian” refers to the school of geography developed at Berkeley by Carl O. Sauer (1889-1975). Sauer studied the relationship between rural people and the natural environment and was harshly critical of modern agriculture, industrialization, and political centralization. I was in the last cohort of Berkeley graduate students to be exposed to the Sauerian tradition.

16. My research in the Philippines is recounted in Wagering the Land: Ritual, Capital, and Environmental Degradation in the Highlands of Northern Luzon, 1900-1986. 1991. University of California Press.

17. Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism. 1992. Duke University Press.

18. See the institute’s website:

19. For a comprehensive introduction to ecomodernist thought, see Ecomodernism: Technology, Politics, and the Climate Crisis, by Jonathan Symons. 2019. Polity.

20. “Nobel Chemist Kary Mullis, Making Waves as a Mind Surfer,” by Peter Carlson, November 3, 1998. Washington Post,

Mullis was in many ways a highly objectionable person, as the ultra-brilliant often are. In today’s political climate, he would be near the top of any cancellation list. But the Emerald Triangle is noted for its tolerance of ideological diversity. The community includes so many self-proclaimed eco-feminist witches that the Village of Mendocino had, until recently, a witching-supplies store ( But there are also fundamentalist Christians in the mix, as well populists left, right, and center, establishment-oriented Democrats, and many people who do not fit into any social, cultural, or political categories.

21. “Agents Preparing to Search D.A.’s Property for Suspected Pot, Weapons,” by Mike Geniella, The Press Democrat, October 28, 2026.

22. “What the Data Says About Americans’ Views of Climate Change,” by Alec Tyson, Cary Funk, and Brian Kennedy. Pew Research Center, August 9, 2023.

What the data says about Americans’ views of climate change

The Democrats’ Agenda Has a Green Achilles’ Heel: Voters Don’t Share Their Fervent Commitment to Renewables and EVs.” The Liberal Patriot, July 20, 2023.
A 2023 Pew report, for example, found that while a substantial majority of Americans “back steps to address climate change,” only 31 percent “support phasing out the use of fossil fuel energy sources altogether.”,Climate%20Change%20%7C%20Pew%20Research%20Center

23. Arguably, populism is intrinsically leftwing in that it champions the common people against the elite. If, however, populism is racialized and upholds the dominant population while denigrating other groups, it falls into a distinctive variant of far-right political thought. Although this charge is often leveled against the current right-populist movement in the United States, its proponents deny the charge. But their version of populism can still be construed as rightwing if one takes a strictly global vantage point, as it embraces immigration restrictions and can thus be seen as discriminating against undocumented migrants and would-be migrants, who tend to be poor, in favor of American citizen, who tend to be better-off. Populists respond that unlimited immigration economically undermines the working class while helping the elite, who eagerly take advantage of the resulting reduction of wages. Only within a bounded nation-state, they contend, can workers gain traction and thus push society in a fairer direction. This argument is, of course, also contested.

Populism is also categorized as rightwing due to its common embrace of culturally conservative positions, such as opposition to abortion and support of gun rights. These positions, however, have no intrinsic connection with the “left/right” spectrum as it has been historically construed, which is based instead on economic and political concerns. As the Wikipedia defines the political left: “Left-wing politics describes the range of political ideologies that support and seek to achieve social equality and egalitarianism and often in opposition to social hierarchy as a whole” ( Today we expect economically rightwing and culturally conservative positions to coincide, but that is not the historical norm, as anyone familiar with American political history understands. Consider, for example, the career of William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Democratic presidential candidate. Economically and politically far to the left by the standards of the time, Bryan devoted much of his efforts in his later years to trying to ban the teaching of ungodly evolution; here he was opposed most vociferously by the undeniably brilliant but uber-elitist, deeply racist, and virulently antisemitic journalist H.L. Mencken. With the current rise of populism, connections between economic and cultural conservatism are again unravelling, muddying our political discourse and calling for more a subtle classification scheme. See also footnote 11 (above).

24. “Establishmentarianism” originally referred to the movement that supported the legal establishment of the Church of England in the United Kingdom, but the term has more recently acquired a broader definition. When I was a child, most of my peers knew that “antidisestablishmentarianism” was the “longest word in the dictionary,” but no one had any idea what it meant. I find the two negative prefixes intriguing, as they effectively cancel each other out, yielding an ungainly word that essentially means “establishmentarianism.”

25. See The Flight from Science and Reason, edited by Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, and Martin W. Lewis. 1996. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 775. (Reprinted in 1997 by Johns Hopkins University Press).

26. “Stanford President Will Resign After Report Found Flaws in His Research,” by Stephanie Saul. The New York Times, July 19, 2023.,he%20supervised%20going%20back%20decades.

27. “The Next Battle in. Higher Ed May Strike its Soul: Scholarship,” New York Times, January 24, 2024.

28. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. 2007. Random House.
Page 147.

29. Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? (New Edition), by Philip Tetlock. 2017. Princeton University Press. See also Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. 2015. Crown Publishers.

30. To be fair, Tetlock’s prediction tournaments are themselves based on probabilistic assessments, as indeed they must be.

31. It goes further. Even frigid weather is sometimes adduced as proof of global warming, leading to derisive howls from climate skeptics. This claim, however, is not without scientific justification, as global warming is linked to a weakening of the polar vortex, which can allow cold polar air to push into the midlatitudes. But such outbreaks long predate anthropogenic climate change. The pertinent question is whether they are becoming more common and intense. As the UCAR Center for Science Education cogently notes: “It is currently uncertain from the observational record whether these meanderings of the jet stream are becoming more or less frequent, and there is an active debate within the scientific community on this topic.”,as%20Arctic%20air%20moves%20south

32. Again, see the daily temperature-anomaly maps at the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer:

33. Although nature itself is fundamentally probabilistic, at least at the quantum level, human nature seems predisposed to determinism. We hunger for clear causes yielding unambiguous effects. Those of materialist bent see this in mechanical terms, while those with spiritual leanings often imagine a divine hand, or hands, crafting the contours of destiny. (In the ancient word, probabilism was suspect precisely because it denied that fate is the province of the gods; in pre-modern Christendom, it was sometimes seen as an insult to God and was further cast into suspicion by its association with gambling.) But the ultimate effect is much the same: even the distant future is imagined as potentially knowable. Fantasies of clairvoyance have been a cultural staple since our earliest days. Traditionally, those gifted with foresight or in possession of some occult device could divine the future. Today, their role has been usurped by scientists, whose elaborate models can supposedly do the trick. In Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi Foundation series, mathematical virtuosos use “statistical laws” to foretell the course of galactic civilizations over tens of thousands of years. Written more than a half-century ago, Foundation has enflamed the imaginations of ambitious thinkers as varied as Elon Musk, Paul Krugman, and Newt Gingrich. It is still highly popular, both in print and on screen.

34. The saying is attributed to the famed statistician George Box.

35. Civilization and Climate, by Ellsworth Huntington. 1915. Yale University Press.

36. Technically speaking, this is a feature of probabilism rather than possibilism, but the two positions are closely related.

37. This is the central theme of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s indispensable take-down of epistemic arrogance, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbably. 2007. Random House. See also Taleb’s other books.

38. This is only true of Africa and Eurasia. In the Americas, however, Homo sapiens has been the apex predator for at least 12,000 years.

39. Harrison introduces the term “gardenism” in an episode of his interview-based podcast, Entitled Opinions. See “On Gardenism with William Rosenzweig,” August 31, 2023.

40. On the reification of nature in environmental discourse, I recommend the works of James Proctor. See, for example:

Proctor, James D. 1998. “The Social Construction of Nature: Relativist Accusations, Pragmatist and Critical Realist Responses.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88 (3): 352–76.

Proctor, James D. 2013. “Saving Nature in the Anthropocene.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (1): 83–92.

Proctor, James D. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–52.

41. The others are far northeastern Minnesota and much of northern New England, focused on Vermont. Far northeastern Minnesota, however, is trending in a more Republican direction. See also footnote 10.

42. If one doubts that such people exist, I recommend a visit to rural Mendocino Country, where a hippie-redneck synthesis has produced some interesting political positions.

43. Brooks describes himself as a moderate conservative, but most rightwing writers see him as an occasionally reluctant leftist, focusing on his support of Barack Obama. Whatever his position is on the one-dimensional spectrum, Brooks’ establishmentarian inclinations were made clear in a 2022 op-ed that offered advice to the No Labels movement: “To think this through I’ve imagined a 2024 campaign in which the Republicans nominate Trump, Biden retires and the Democrats nominate some progressive and the No Labels group nominates retired Adm. William McRaven and former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. (I’m just grabbing these latter two names off the top of my head as the sort of people who might be ideal for the No Labels ticket).” Needless to say, neither of these potential candidates would appeal to disgruntled populists. (“If an Alternative Candidate Is Needed in 2024, These Folks Will Be Ready,” By David Brooks, New York Times. September 1, 2022.

Rightwing populists incessantly mock Brooks for his sartorially obsessed and revealingly elitist comment about Obama: “I remember distinctly an image of – we were sitting on his couches, and I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant, and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president and b) he’ll be a very good president.” (This comment is recounted in, “The Courtship,” by Gabriel Sherman, The New Republic, August 30, 2009.

44. See, for example, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, by Michael Lind. 2020. Portfolio. See also Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America, by Michael Lind. 2023. Portfolio.