Ecologists and environmentalists I’ve worked with by and large insist that more things can go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they can go right. It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability; negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Nature on its own is too complex to control, but our mismanagement of nature unleashes forces we ourselves cannot control. Probabilities of large system failure and cascades are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat. Next means worse.
We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one can expect technology to help us do so. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always a sufficient condition for precaution—except when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, and “thus” everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.
Let’s call my colleagues’ standpoint, Next-Is-Worse.
This—realism, manifold anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world certainly not made to my colleagues’ specification. There is no the slightest intimation or whiff of possibility that the decades of environmental advances since the 1960s have been a noble experiment. Nor acknowledgement it’s no surprise that if you spread environmental practice worldwide—plant more trees and such!—you spread tree diseases worldwide, and such.
Not a scintilla of recognition that their specifications to get us to do the right thing by way of the environment pale and wither before the historical record of really-existing humans with real problems in real time who routinely do not follow all orders given them, even in the most totalitarian of regimes (as we now know to have been the case in communist East Germany and China).
So where does their Next-Is-Worse leave me? It no longer surprises me that this standpoint fails to create anything like a shared, collective dread to manage better. It’s also easier for me to understand why “the environmental movement” is itself blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change or species extinction and biodiversity loss. Corporate and economic interests certainly can and do brainwash us into believing things are better than they are environmentally; we don’t need any more evidence to corroborate that! But one can scarcely credit the same interests for having brainwashed my colleagues into believing their version of next-ism.