The Eco-Optimists

The Eco-Optimists

Allan Savory speaking about Holistic Planned Grazing in February 2013 (TED Conference / Flickr)

An optimistic environmentalist may sound like an oxymoron (or perhaps just a moron). In recent months alone, headlines have spotlighted the irreversible melting of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet and the latest report from the UN IPCC, which noted that the effects of global warming are already worse than previously predicted. Daily extinctions of species do not even make the news. And the U.S. midterm elections in November handed power to some of environmentalism’s most hostile foes.

Yet expressions of optimism have been popping up in various green quarters. In June Al Gore published an article in Rolling Stone titled “The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate,” hailing “surprising—even shocking—good news” about a shift toward a solar-powered future. “[I]t is now clear that we will ultimately prevail,” he declared. September’s climate march in New York exceeded expectations, attracting some 400,000 people and spurring pronouncements that a mass movement had finally arrived. Longtime New York Times environmental reporter (now blogger) Andy Revkin has also attracted attention for his relatively upbeat outlook. “We are going to do OK,” he told an audience of environmental science researchers last summer.

Of course, different optimisms have different sources and different implications. Gore’s is relatively narrow: it’s based on diffusion of a particular technology, and the triumph he predicts (while somewhat ambiguous) is presumably that human civilization will survive. A more expansive vision, coming from the left wing of the climate movement, is found in Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything. Her professed optimism derives, in a sense, from horror at the status quo, which she feels is becoming so intolerable for so many that we might actually do something about it. Klein proposes that the devastation of climate change can serve as a catalyst for a broader social justice movement that will deliver us to a world better than the one we now inhabit—less exploitative of the vulnerable of all species, human and otherwise.

But perhaps most provocative are the worldviews that ground their optimism in a reconsideration of our relationship to the natural world. A couple of emerging sub-movements share certain familiar green principles but challenge others. They highlight the value and the pitfalls of optimism for social movements generally, but also the unique challenges for environmentalism. And they raise questions about what it means to be an environmentalist when the environment is rapidly changing.


It’s not just the relentless bad news in recent years that makes environmental optimism difficult. Environmentalism as a school of thought is prone to pessimism. It couldn’t exist until humans had begun to destroy nature on an appreciable scale. In reaction to this destruction, early environmentalism—with its conservationist roots—often depicted man as nature’s enemy. In his 1905 book Man and the Earth, for example, Harvard geologist Nathaniel Southgate Shaler wrote, “as he mounts toward civilization, man becomes a spoiler.” This ethos, while only one strand of environmentalism, holds powerful sway. Indeed, the advent of climate change has seemed to vindicate it and push it to the extreme: human actions are wreaking not only local damage but planet-wide havoc. By this logic, the ideal outcome for the planet would be our immediate disappearance. As long as humans are present, the best we can hope to do is restrain ourselves, do less harm, shrink our footprint.

The justifications for this viewpoint are obvious—everywhere we look, we see evidence that man is indeed a spoiler—but it has its drawbacks. From this perspective, it’s hard to imagine a healthy way for people to relate to the planet. It’s even harder to envision a future we can get excited about fighting for—let alone see a way we can win. As British environmental writer George Monbiot argued in the Guardian in June, we need a framework “that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.”

But under the circumstances, how can we conceive of a better world?

One possibility is to change our perspective and redefine nature. This is the path taken by a loosely affiliated group of scientists, writers, and activists sometimes called “New Conservationists” or “eco-pragmatists.” While acknowledging the crises our planet faces, they take a less value-laden view of our relationship with nature than their more traditional counterparts. The crux of their philosophical departure is that they do not see human impact as bad by definition. Indeed, they explore the ways that human influence could even be positive. In essence, they are able to be optimistic by altering—critics would say lowering—their standards.

Among the New Conservationists is science writer Emma Marris, who makes an eloquent case for this point of view in her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. Marris’s notion of a “rambunctious garden” captures two ideas. One is that pristine wilderness no longer exists; we must accept that the entire planet has been affected by humans and therefore embrace our role as “gardeners” or responsible, fond stewards. But the garden need not be tidy and tame; it can be beautifully, vitally “rambunctious.” The other idea is that spaces we think of as human, or ugly, or unnatural can be places of hidden nature—the wildflowers on the highway median, the cardinals in your backyard. We can cherish nature wherever it appears—even as a product of human intervention.

“The rambunctious garden is everywhere,” Marris writes. “Rambunctious gardening is proactive and optimistic; it creates more and more nature as it goes, rather than just building walls around the nature we have left.”

Marris, following some of the scientists she interviews, uses unorthodox criteria to evaluate natural spaces. For example, Hawaii is full of species that have been imported by humans, often displacing native species. The resulting areas are sometimes dubbed “trash ecosystems” by conservation biologists. But if the species are finding ways to thrive together—if the ecosystems are vital and lush and green—their human provenance doesn’t strike Marris as inherently problematic. In fact, these novel ecosystems can appear more vibrant—wilder—than the elder ecosystems that conservationists try valiantly to preserve. One paradox of our current situation is that due to climate change, the most “pristine” environments, the ones that most resemble their former states, are by necessity the ones most intensively managed by humans.

To some extent, the arguments here are academic—they’re between professional conservation experts. Most laypeople don’t need permission to enjoy the trees in their urban backyard or to find beauty in Queen Anne’s lace, an exotic wildflower. Few would even realize that those Hawaiian jungles were deemed deficient; indeed, that’s part of Marris’s point. Still, she’s right to identify a deep-seated and widespread feeling that if humans have influenced a landscape, it is not fully “natural.” According to that logic, very little, if any, nature remains, and as climate change continues to exert its pervasive effects, nowhere will be truly natural. Even if we humans manage to fend off civilizational collapse, that loss will be a tragedy.

Bill McKibben, now a leading climate activist, first articulated this view twenty-five years ago. In The End of Nature, his 1989 book that is considered the first about global warming for a popular audience, McKibben defined nature by “its separation from human society.” When he was hiking, the sound of a distant chainsaw in the woods could spoil his experience, because it would “drive away the feeling that you are in another, separate, timeless, wild sphere. . . . Now that we have changed the most basic forces around us, the noise of that chainsaw will always be in the woods.”

For Marris, this outlook is too purist. This conception of nature, she argues, was an idea created by humans in a specific context, and it can and should evolve. Once we shift our perspective, the possibility arises of making “more nature. We can make things on Earth better, not just less bad.”

Laura J. Martin, a doctoral candidate in Natural Resources at Cornell, conveys this idea succinctly in a Scientific American blog post. In place of the frequently invoked metaphor of a “footprint,” she suggests that we imagine our impact on the planet as a “handprint.” “A footprint is a mark one never meant to leave,” Martin writes. “A handprint, as opposed to a footprint, is deliberate, skilled and artful. It evokes human agency and the human ability to shape the world by choosing among many possible natures.”

To some staunch conservationists, this new ethos is perverse. If we can just redefine nature as we choose, what’s to keep us from our destructive path? Yet Marris expresses commitment to many of the same goals as mainstream environmentalists: protecting the rights of other species; slowing the rate of extinctions; and protecting the spiritual and aesthetic experience of nature. She is sometimes misinterpreted as giving up on wilderness areas, but her point is that even those areas are now influenced by humans (due to climate change, if not more direct intervention), and yet we can still enjoy them as nature.

Indeed, in the practical details, New Conservationists largely overlap with their more mainstream counterparts. The essential difference is making the “gestalt switch,” in Marris’s words, that allows us to see the whole environment in a new way, to see nature everywhere, to embrace our potential to make more of it.

But there’s a serious caveat: Marris’s book does not take into account the very real possibility of catastrophic climate change. It is addressed to the planet today, or to a recognizably similar version. If we are unable to forestall runaway warming, the rhetoric of handprints and gestalt switches will seem increasingly irrelevant.


How then can we avoid that fate? Another emerging group of eco-optimists claims to offer at least a partial answer.

While conservationism has historically advocated a hands-off approach to nature, another strand of environmentalism has been decidedly hands-on. Environmental heroes such as Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan have focused on agriculture: on how to make our interactions with the land sustainable and respectful. This second sub-movement grows out of that lineage but takes it to the next level, contending that we can not only reduce the negative ecological consequences of agriculture but turn it into a net positive.

This group argues that we’ve neglected a major opportunity to address the climate crisis. That forgotten factor is soil. To oversimplify a bit: carbon is bad in the air, but good in the soil. Global soils have lost a huge proportion of the carbon that fortified them; deforestation and tilling have released it into the atmosphere. Smart methods of farming and ranching can restore carbon to the soil through the process of photosynthesis. While agreeing that we must halt emissions, this contingent argues that by fully maximizing the soil’s potential for carbon sequestration, we can actually reverse global warming.

A recent report from the Rodale Institute claims that we could sequester “more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions”—accommodating, that is, some of the increase in emissions projected for coming decades—by shifting to these practices, which they call “regenerative organic agriculture.” We can turn agriculture from a problem—currently responsible for three-quarters of global deforestation and about a quarter of total greenhouse gas emissions—into a solution. The specific techniques involve cover crops, residue mulching, composting, and crop rotation. These techniques substitute diversity for monoculture and always leave the soil covered, preventing the loss of carbon that results from bare soil.

The basic idea is far from fringe: no less of an authority than James Hansen has written that “improved agricultural practices can convert agriculture from a CO2 source into a CO2 sink.” He projects that such a shift, in conjunction with steep emissions reductions and reforestation, could get us back to 350 parts per million by the end of the century.

A more controversial element of the program involves raising livestock according to a method known as Holistic Planned Grazing, advocated by a Rhodesian-born septuagenarian named Allan Savory. Through their stimulation of plant growth, cows can help restore carbon to soil. In stark contrast to conventional environmental wisdom—which holds livestock responsible for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions and tells us to eat less meat—proponents of Holistic Planned Grazing argue that we should repopulate deserts with cattle. This idea has incurred strong disparagement from critics, including environmentalists wary of methane and of detracting attention from emissions.

Unresolved questions remain about the effectiveness of different methods and the magnitude of the possible results. But philosophically, the movement’s underlying challenge to green orthodoxies dovetails with that of the New Conservationists: as Michael Pollan, a prominent convert, has written, this soil-focused agricultural ethos “asks us to reconsider our pessimism about the human engagement with the rest of nature. The bedrock of that pessimism is our assumption that human transactions with nature are necessarily zero-sum: for us to wrest whatever we need or want from nature—food, energy, pleasure—means nature must be diminished. . . . Yet there are counterexamples that point to a way out of that dismal math . . .”

The core tenet of ecology is that everything is connected. Usually this is a threat. If one species goes extinct, say, the other species that depend on it also suffer. The feedback loops threatened by climate change are particularly scary: if rising global temperatures cause the permafrost to melt, tons of methane will be released, thereby exacerbating the warming, and so on.

But the corollary is the possibility of virtuous circles. Specifically, various kinds of “regenerative” agriculture can purportedly sequester carbon, make land more resistant to both drought and flood, and render soil much more conducive to growing nutritious plants. The notion that “everything is connected” becomes a source of optimism.

The emphasis on carbon sinks in some ways smacks of geo-engineering. It promises to offset warming, to counteract our emissions, to absolve our sins. But unlike schemes to dump iron into the sea or shield us from the sun with mirrors, changing agricultural practices has a low risk of large-scale unintended consequences. Rather than add another layer of techno-intervention, proponents seek to harness the power of natural processes. They are proposing a more bottom-up model, which ties in with efforts to promote food sovereignty and resist agribusiness.

But this approach does pose one of the risks of geo-engineering: that is, fostering a sense of complacency, implying that we don’t need to worry about emissions because we can just suck them back into the ground. This is particularly dangerous if, as some detractors believe, the movement’s claims about the potential for sequestration are inflated. And whatever its theoretical potential may be, there are still formidable political obstacles to the rapid and complete overhaul of global food systems.

Still, the agri-optimists are wise to join the New Conservationists in proposing a new perspective. They make a compelling case that humans, rather than being either destructive or protective, can be “regenerative”; that we can go beyond stewardship to engage with the environment in a mutually beneficial way.

Of course, humans have always claimed to improve on nature: we take the earth’s raw materials and transform them in ways that are useful or pleasing to us. That is arguably the defining activity of humankind, which separates us from other species. Our heedlessness in that activity is precisely what environmentalists have rebelled against.

But what these new breeds of environmentalists seem to be saying is different. They want to respect and facilitate the earth’s nonhuman systems, rather than conquer or disrupt them. The two groups, for example, seem to share an overriding faith in photosynthesis and our ability to encourage it. Through our agricultural practices, we can add carbon to the soil, making it rich and loamy, possibly even creating new soil. We can foster nature in the middle of the city, giving weeds and birds and insects pockets in which to thrive. Instead of expecting nature to be our handmaiden, we can strive to be nature’s handmaidens, learning as much as possible about how its systems work and seeking to augment them.

When I interviewed Seth Itzkan, an activist at an organization called Biodiversity for a Livable Climate, he invoked a concept from science fiction: terraforming. It means altering a planet to make it like Earth or to make it conducive to life. By restoring depleted ecosystems, he told me, “We can terraform planet Earth.”


In the context of social movements, it’s more common to declare optimism than pessimism; it’s a necessity to attract adherents and maintain momentum. (I suspect this motive played a role in the recent assertions of hope from Al Gore and Naomi Klein.) In this sense, optimism can be self-fulfilling. Optimism has been called a moral imperative; I doubt pessimism has been characterized as such.

And yet, in the face of current realities, expressions of optimism can sound either ignorant or callous. You’re unaware of the facts or willfully blind to them—or worse, you’re condoning the outrages. The eagerness to put a positive spin on current conditions has offended a number of environmentalists. Last summer, a group including Andy Revkin held a discussion on the concept of the “good Anthropocene.” (The Anthropocene is an unofficial name for the current geological era, in which humans are the dominant force of change.) Clive Hamilton, the Australian author of books such as Requiem for a Species, assailed them for even entertaining the idea. (He also called out Marris.) The suggestion that human transformation of the planet’s most elemental systems could have an upside was insensitive, Hamilton pointed out, to the millions of people in poor countries who will be devastated by climate change. “In the long term,” he wrote, “this kind of thinking will prove more insidious than climate science denial. . . . [G]rasping at delusions like ‘the good Anthropocene’ is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts.”

There is certainly a risk of being too sanguine. What is often missing from the rhetoric of the eco-optimists is grief. We can and must grieve for all those who have been and will be affected by the senseless disasters brought on by climate change. We can grieve for what we’ve lost—the possibility of pristine wilderness; of the regular, grounding rhythms of the natural world; of a planet where we’re the children of nature rather than (at our best) the guardians.

But grief is not the same as despair or pessimism. Crafting an affirmative vision of the future is essential: a future that is not likely, but at least conceivable; not perfect, but worth striving for. Seeing a way to get there is equally essential. Both are difficult in any social movement, but perhaps especially so given the historical context of environmentalism and the daunting scale of climate disruption. Environmental optimism is fraught with dangers. Abandoning hope is more so.


Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a columnist for Next City, an online urban affairs journal.