fingers, is that they were better adapted for tool use. Ape hands
are great for climbing trees but not, it turns out, for striking flint
or making arrowheads. Those prehumans whose hands could
best use tools gained an enormous advantage over those whose
hands could not.
As our hands and wrists changed, we increasingly walked
upright, hunted, ate meat, and evolved. Our upright posture
allowed us to chase down animals we had wounded with our
weapons. Our long-distance running was aided by sweat glands
replacing fur. The use of fire to cook meat allowed us to consume much larger amounts of protein, which allowed our heads
to grow so large that some prehumans began delivering bigger-brained babies prematurely. Those babies, in turn, were able to
survive because we were able to fashion still more tools, made
from animal bladders and skins, to strap the helpless infants to
their mothers’ chests. Technology, in short, made us human.
Of course, as our bodies, our brains, and our tools evolved,
so too did our ability to radically modify our environment. We
hunted mammoths and other species to extinction. We torched
whole forests and savannas in order to flush prey and clear land
for agriculture. And long before human emissions began to affect the climate, we had already shifted the albedo of the Earth by
replacing many of the world’s forests with cultivated agriculture.
While our capabilities to alter our environment have, over the
last century, expanded substantially, the trend is longstanding.
The Earth of one hundred or two hundred or three hundred
years ago was one that had already been profoundly shaped by
None of this changes the reality and risks of the ecological
crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation,
overfishing, and other human activities— if they don’t threaten
our very existence—certainly offer the possibility of misery for
many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are
rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for
many hundreds of millions of years. But the difference between
the new ecological crises and the ways in which humans and
even prehumans have shaped nonhuman nature for tens of
thousands of years is one of scope and scale, not kind.
Humans have long been cocreators of the environment they
inhabit. Any proposal to fix environmental problems by turning
away from technology risks worsening them, by attempting to
deny the ongoing coevolution of humans and nature.
NEVERTHELESS, ELITES IN THE WEST—who rely more heavily on technology than anyone else on the planet—insist that development and technology are the
causes of ecological problems but not their solution. They claim
that economic sacrifice is the answer, while living amid historic
levels of affluence and abundance. They consume resources on
a vast scale, overwhelming whatever meager conservations they
may partake in through living in dense (and often fashionable)
urban enclaves, driving fuel-efficient automobiles, and purchasing locally grown produce. Indeed, the most visible and common
expressions of faith in ecological salvation are new forms of consumption. Green products and services— the Toyota Prius, the
efficient washer/dryer, the LEED-certified office building—are
consciously identified by consumers as things they do to express
their higher moral status.
The same is true at the political level, as world leaders, to the
cheers of the left-leaning postmaterial constituencies that increasingly hold the balance of political power in many developed
economies, offer promise after promise to address climate
change, species extinction, deforestation, and global poverty,
all while studiously avoiding any action that might impose real
cost or sacrifice upon their constituents. While it has been convenient for many sympathetic observers to chalk up the failure
of such efforts to corporate greed, corruption, and political cowardice, the reality is that the entire postmaterial project is, confoundingly, built upon a foundation of affluence and material
consumption that would be considerably threatened by any serious effort to address the ecological crises through substantially
downscaling economic activity.
It’s not too difficult to understand how this hypocrisy has
come to infiltrate such a seemingly well-meaning swath of our
culture. As large populations in the developed North achieved
unprecedented economic security, affluence, and freedom, the
project that had centrally occupied humanity for thousands of
years—emancipating ourselves from nature, tribalism, peonage, and poverty— was subsumed by the need to manage the
unintended consequences of modernization itself, from local
pollution to nuclear proliferation to global warming.
Increasingly skeptical of capitalist meritocracy and economic
criteria as the implicit standards of success at the individual level
and the defining measure of progress at the societal level, the
post–World War II generations have redefined normative notions
of well-being and quality of life in developed societies. Humanitarianism and environmentalism have become the dominant
social movements, bringing environmental protection, preservation of quality of life, and other “life-political” issues, in the
words of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, to the fore.
The rise of the knowledge economy—encompassing medicine, law, finance, media, real estate, marketing, and the nonprofit sector—has further accelerated the West’s growing
disenchantment with modern life, especially among the educated elite. Knowledge workers are more alienated from the
products of their labor than any other class in history, unable to