Natural Products and the Destruction of Nature

by Martin Lewis

The following is an excerpt from Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism (Duke University Press, 1992). 

Assessing the eco-radical aversion to technology also requires considering the environmental effects of natural, low-tech products. Although this is an extremely intricate issue, many natural substances actually prove to be far more ecologically destructive than their synthetic substitutes.

Wood provides a good example of a destructive natural product. By relying on wood for building materials, simple chemicals, and fuel, countless societies have deforested their environments. The switch from wood to coal as an energy source helped save European forests from total destruction in the early modern age, just as it did for American forests in the 1880s (Perlin 1989). Pressures on forests were also reduced when the Leblanc process was developed, allowing soda to be manufactured from salt rather than from wood ash. (This discovery also drastically reduced the cost of soap, tremendously benefiting human health.) The Leblanc process was, however, highly polluting, but the subsequently developed ammonia process proved to be considerably cleaner and more efficient as well (Mokyr 1990: 121).

The common belief that wood is an environmentally benign and renewable resource is dangerously naive. Forests are effectively renewable only where population densities are extremely low. Unfortunately, areas of requisite density are becoming increasingly rare throughout most of the world. In the contemporary Third World, technological deprivation forces multitudes to continue living within an unsustainable wood economy Poor women often spend hours each day scrounging for firewood, a process both ecologically and socially destructive. Where electricity is available and affordable—as it should be everywhere—deforestation rates decline drastically.

The use of wood as a construction material in contemporary industrial societies is also environmentally devastating. The havoc wreaked on Southeast Asian tropical rainforests by the Japanese construction industry is a commonly acknowledged environmental outrage (see Laarman 1988), but the effect of American house-building on our own temperate rainforests is hardly less objectionable. Economic considerations ensure that even sustainably and selectively harvested forests are degraded as wildlife habitat. Foresters shudder at the idea of preserving dead and dying stumps that might form disease reservoirs, but it is precisely such hollow trees that provide denning sites for many mammals and nesting sites for many birds. While radical environmentalists might argue that we should therefore adopt less efficient forms of forestry the problems that would ensue because of the resulting decline in timber yield are not addressed. With a growing population continuing to demand lumber, a de-intensified forest industry would be forced to seek new supplies elsewhere, thus degrading even larger expanses of land. In the end, only by developing substitutes for wood can we begin to create an environmentally benign construction industry.

Many wood substitutes are readily available. Concrete, for example, is easily and efficiently employed in all manner of construction. Yet eco-radicals like Catton (1980: 135) warn against using concrete on the grounds that it is a nonrenewable resource. I would counter that the prospect of abandoning cement making and aggregate mining for fear that we will exhaust the planet's supply of limestone, sand, and gravel is an example of green lunacy. We might as well dismantle the ceramics industry for fear of exhausting the earth's clay deposits.

Paper, another natural product, embodies extraordinary environmental destruction. Papermaking remains one of the most polluting industrial processes in existence. Even if paper-mill wastes can be minimized (at some cost), and even if recycling becomes commonplace, paper production will continue to demand vast quantities of wood. Resource economics dictate that the necessary quantities of fresh pulp be derived largely from small, fast-growing trees, generally harvested in clear-cuts. The resulting pulp plantations are typically as ecologically impoverished as agricultural fields. By continuing to prefer paper to synthetic and electronic substitutes, we only ensure the needless degradation of vast tracks of land.

Many other examples of the ecological destruction inflicted by natural products could easily be cited. The damage entailed in cotton production, for example, was noted twenty years ago by Ehrlich (cited in Paehlke 1989: 60). While cotton could be cultivated without biocides, yields would plummet, necessitating a substantial increase in acreage to meet present demand. The area devoted to cotton is expanding at a rapid pace already, due both to population growth and to the mounting demand for natural fibers. Vast expanses of natural vegetation are now being cleared in order to grow cotton and to supply it with the water it requires. To provide high-class textiles, the Ogallala aquifer of America's southern Great Plains is being depleted, rain forests in Central America are being devastated, and the extensive Sudd Swamp of the southern Sudan is being threatened with drainage.

The standard environmentalist credo that renewable resources are intrinsically superior to nonrenewables rests on two fundamental errors. First, both eco-radicals and old-fashioned conservationists presume life to be so abundant that through wise use, directed either by primal affinity or scientific management, humans can obtain their needs organically without detracting from other species. Second, both camps have assumed that nonrenewables are so scarce that if we dare use them they will be quickly exhausted. Both principles are suspect.

In fact, the primary organic productivity of the planet is essentially limited. The more living resources are channeled into human communities, the more nature itself is diminished. The essential nonrenewable resources, by contrast—elements such as silicon, iron, aluminum, and carbon—may be tapped in extraordinary quantities without substantially detracting from living ecosystems. Aluminum and silicon are so wildly abundant that i t is ludicrous to fear that we will exhaust the earth's supply. Moreover, except in nuclear processes, elements are never actually destroyed; as recycling and sequestering techniques are perfected, resource exhaustion will become increasingly unproblematic. Even coal and oil would be fantastically abundant if only we would cease the insane practice of burning them and instead, as suggested by Amory Lovins, dedicate the remaining supplies to the production of synthetic organic materials (see Paehlke 1989:77).

A society based on the principles of Promethean environmentalism will cease as much as possible to provision itself through the killing of living beings, be they animal or plant. Instead, it will strive to rely on nonliving resources, whether formed of long-dead matter, like oil and coal, or simple inorganic substances, like silicon. Learning to build our material world out of nonliving resources will entail both high-tech and low-tech methods. Simple technologies using stone, brick, tile, and concrete have eventually been devised by all forest-destroying civilizations (Perlin, 1989), and they continue to be useful. More sophisticated approaches entail the development of superior composite materials and synthetic organic compounds. Many such products deliver additional environmental payoffs; certain composites, for example, are both strong and light, giving them profound advantages for energy-efficient transport systems.

Telecommunications and computer systems present another field in which technological advance could yield vast environmental benefits. Consider the advantages of electronic mail (e-mail) over the conventional mail delivery system. To operate the latter, entire forests must be dedicated to paper production, while huge fleets of trucks and airplanes must be maintained and fueled for parcel delivery. Transmission of e-mail, on the other hand, requires only silicon chips, glass cables, and energy-sparing pulses of information. Similarly, one would hope that improved transmission of video images will eventually obviate the need for much—perhaps most—business travel. The sooner we embrace the telecommunications revolution and dispense as much as possible with paper and with unnecessary personal contact, the less environmental damage our communications will inflict.


As all environmentalists recognize, deriving the bulk of our energy from fossil fuels is an unsustainable practice. Oil, gas, and coal deposits will eventually be depleted, undermining in the process the future of the synthetic organic chemical industry. The combustion of fossil fuels is also intrinsically damaging to the environment, especially by releasing stored carbon that threatens the planet's heat balance.

Many environmentalists have proposed that we obtain energy by burning renewable resources. Biomass derived from agriculture and forestry, they claim, could be endlessly recreated in future crop cycles (Porritt 1985: 177). But as the preceding pages have argued, large-scale biomass conversion would prove to be an ecological catastrophe. To supply our energy needs, tremendous expanses of natural habitat would have to be converted to croplands or tree plantations, resulting in a massive reduction of natural diversity.

The solution to the energy bind lies, as most members of the environmental community realize, in a combination of solar power and conservation. What eco-radicals fail to recognize, however, is that both effective conservation and the commercialization of solar energy demand highly sophisticated technologies. The modern frontiers of energy conservation may be found in such areas as low emissivity windows, energy-sparing fluorescent light bulbs, and computer-integrated sensor systems (Fickett et al. 1990; Bevington and Rosenfeld 1990). Due to a wide variety of such advances, the energy intensity of American industry in fact declined at a rate of 1.5 – 2 percent per year between 1971 and 1986, allowing industrial production to increase substantially while energy consumption actually fell (Ross and Steinmeyer 1990).

When it comes to harnessing solar power, technological achievement are even more vital. Admittedly, several important solar applications demand little technical sophistication. Simply by placing windows properly a significant power savings can be realized. But in order to do something slightly more complicated—such as heat water—certain high-tech applications are essential. The simplest passive solar water heating systems usually rely on components made of plastic, a substance many eco-radicals would like to ban.

But to address our needs for an ecologically benign power source, solar-generated electricity must be commercialized on a massive scale. No matter how this is done, significant technological advances will be necessary.

A certain amount of electricity can be indirectly obtained from the sun by harnessing wind energy. Careful estimates show that fifteen American states could supply all of their electricity needs from environmentally benign wind-driven turbines (Weinberg and Williams 1990). As incremental advances are made in turbine technology, wind power may be expected to become ever more competitive with conventionally obtained power. Such improvements are already being seen, the cost of wind-generated electricity having dropped nearly 90 percent since 1981 (Weinberg and Williams 990).

Yet in California, the state most committed to this alternative energy source, eco-radicals have recently begun to struggle against wind power development. The reasons: high levels of bird mortality caused by the spinning blades (admittedly a serious problem), and the fact that wind farms are an unsightly affront against the pristine landscapes in which they are typically located (discussed in Paehlke 1989:99). That only a minuscule portion of the state even has the potential for wind power development has not lessened their outrage. Here again many eco-radicals demonstrate a highly dangerous opposition to an environmentally promising technology.

Although wind power may someday be crucial in meeting the energy needs of a few windy states, direct solar power is far more promising as a possible solution to the energy crisis. Several competing technologies, notably solar thermal and photovoltaic, may supply tremendous amounts of relatively cheap electricity in the near future (see Weinberg and Williams 1990). Of the two, photovoltaics, or PVs, show the most promise.

The cost of PV-generated electricity has plummeted in recent years as solar cell efficiencies have increased and as economies of scale in manufacturing have begun to appear. At some 20 cents a kilowatt-hour, PV electricity is now competitive with conventionally derived electricity in locations not yet connected to power grids. With continued investment in both design and manufacturing techniques, IN costs are expected to continue to fall, offering the possibility of an impending breakthrough into the mass market. One especially promising horizon in photovoltaics is the development of solar cells composed of thin film amorphous silicon, which may potentially prove both inexpensive and highly efficient. Manufacturers are also conducting research on nonsilicon materials, including copper indium diselenide, gallium arsenide, and cadmium telluride, all of which offer specific advantages. Arco Solar, for example, has recently reported a very impressive 15.6 efficiency rate using translucent silicon and CIS (copper inidium diselenide) (Bernstein n.d.: 10; Ogden and Williams 1989). The most exciting recent breakthrough, however, is the development of silicon bead technology, pioneered by Texas Instruments and Arco Solar. This method of production appears to be so inexpensive that some researchers believe that it will soon make solar electricity fully competitive with conventional sources (Business Week, April 22, 1991, p. 90).

As large-scale PV generation becomes more feasible, the difficulties of storage will grow more prominent. Since PV electricity flows only when the sun shines, the challenge is to deliver power at night and on cloudy days. The lead-acid batteries now used for storage are both expensive and inefficient. Research is being conducted, however, on sodium-sulfur and zinc-bromine batteries that "store more energy in less space, offer longer lifetimes, and cost less than lead-acid batteries" (Bernstein n.d.: 14). Superconducting magnetic energy storage may offer even greater benefits, but only if a daunting series of technical and economic obstacles are first overcome (Bernstein n.d.).

Although a variety of problems remain, the successful commercialization of photovoltaics, unlike fusion power, will not require major scientific breakthroughs. Continued incremental advances along several fronts can be expected to render PVs increasingly competitive with conventional electricity sources. Importantly, PVs offer greater potential for the realization of economies of scale than do most competing power sources because they are constructed in the factory rather than the field (Ogden and Williams 1989: 5o). The difficulties currently being faced by the PV industry stem ultimately from its own immaturity—and from the negligible amount of governmental assistance that i t has received rather than from any intrinsic failings.

Yet even if solar-generated electricity were soon to fulfill its promise, the challenge of supplying energy for mobile applications would remain. Several automobile companies (most notably GM) have made great strides in designing electric cars, although the development of lightweight storage batteries remains a stubborn obstacle. Equally promising is the creation of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Unlike other fuels, hydrogen burns cleanly, releasing little but water vapor. In an integrated, environmentally benign energy system, solar-generated electricity could be used to reduce water to its constituent elements, supplying in the process high-energy hydrogen fuel (Weinberg and Williams 1990). Certainly many challenges remain, especially that of rendering hydrogen both safe and easily transportable. But several companies, notably Daimler-Benz, BMW, and Mazda are presently working on these problems (Business Week, March 4, 1991, pg. 59; Ogden and Williams 1989).

Tragically, many eco-radicals have joined anti-environmentalists in disparaging the possibility of a transition to a full-fledged solar economy. Radicals voice a variety of predictable concerns. Many consider the devotion of large expanses of land to solar collectors completely unacceptable. Especially galling is the prospect of relatively pristine desert environments being sacrificed for energy collection. More fundamentally, eco-radicals shun photovoltaics because of the sophisticated technology required (see Dobson 1990: 103)—the same technology implicated in the feared information revolution. PV manufacturing also generates toxic wastes, which many regard as reason enough to ban the entire industry. Moreover, PV systems could not possibly be constructed and maintained on a bioregional basis, thereby excluding them from the realm of the environmentally correct.

The anti-environmental opposition to solar power is a bit more curious. While anti-environmentalists exude unshakable optimism when considering ecologically destructive technologies such as nuclear fission, their forecasts quickly turn dismal when confronted with ecologically benign innovations. Dixy Lee Ray (1990:128), for example, dismisses solar power out of hand, stating simply that "solar generated electricity is not a practical alternative." If the prognosis for solar power were really so miserable, one might well wonder why the Japanese government and major Japanese corporations are pursuing it so avidly. According to the logic of Promethean environmentalism, solar technologies can provide our energy needs, but only if we are willing to adopt a long-range economic perspective. Seen in this light, the anti-solar stance of writers like Ray seems lit t le more than a pathetic attempt to justify the short-term thinking that is presently leading the American economy along a sustained curve of relative decline.

Techno-environmentalists like Oppenheimer and Boyle (1990) argue that if we have the foresight and fortitude to develop a solar-based economy, we can both avert the potential catastrophe of global heating and propel the United States into a renewed era of sustained economic growth (the so-called fifth wave of the Kondratiev cycle). Certainly a solar economy will entail some adverse environmental impacts, but compared to any of the alternatives, they are minimal indeed. Despite eco-radical fears that PV collectors would monopolize the earth's desert surfaces, careful calculations show that all of this country's electricity needs could be met be devoting only .37 percent of its territory to PV arrays (Weinberg and Williams 1990:149). This is one sacrifice that the earth can certainly afford. As Oppenheimer and Boyle argue, economic and ecological health are mutually supportive, not mutually contradictory. But so long as American environmental protagonists and antagonists continue to regard the two as incompatible, the United States will remain a sorry laggard in the global transition to an ecologically sustainable economic order.


Although Oppenheimer and Boyle present an exciting vision of the environmental possibilities offered by select high technologies, K. Eric Drexler (1986; Drexler and Peterson 1991) offers a far more daring and (guardedly) optimistic scenario of a future society enjoying the fruits of “green wealth.” Drexler powerfully argues that molecular nanotechnologies should make virtually all present-day technological forms obsolete, perhaps within the next few generations. "The industrial system won't be fixed," he informs us, " it will be junked and recycled" (Drexler and Peterson 1991:22). In his vision molecular assemblers guided by minuscule nanocomputers will be able to construct atomically precise yet surprisingly inexpensive goods of tremendous variety. A veritable cornucopia of smart materials, able to repair themselves and rearrange their shapes to fit the needs of their users, supposedly awaits just the other side of the impending nanotechnology revolution.

For the Promethean environmentalist, the appeal of nanotechnology lies more in its environmental promises than in its potential to provision human needs and wants. Not only will molecular processing release no pollutants, but molecular devices could be employed for cleansing the earth of its twentieth-century contaminants. Indeed, these very pollutants, especially waste carbon dioxide, should provide nearly the entire resource stock necessary for the new economy. Forestry fiber growing, and even mining will therefore become obsolete. Drexler even gives hope to the ultimate eco-Promethean fantasy: species restoration. Combining nano- and genetic technologies, he believes, may allow us to recreate extinct forms of life, so long as their genetic codes are preserved in tissue samples. Here one can appreciate how the Prometheans' perspective exceeds that of the Arcadians in its ultimate vision of environmental restoration.

Despite its careful grounding in physics, chemistry, and mechanical engineering, nanotechnology is still a somewhat distant dream, and the advances sketched above may never be realized. And even if the visionaries are proved correct, great dangers still await. As Drexler unhesitatingly reveals, nanotechnology could prove a potent carrier of military destruction (see also Milbrath 1989). A certain degree of social control is thus vital, just as it is for other forms of advanced technology. Moreover, nanotechnologies will never allow a complete decoupling of human beings from the natural world, most importantly because they will never yield foodstuffs (molecular devices will not mimic biological structures). As the following discussion reveals, agriculture continues to present some of the most intractable environmental problems.


The environmental dilemmas of agriculture seem especially vexing. The human population has no option but to feed on other living organisms, thereby of necessity monopolizing a large percentage of the planet's primary productivity. Because agriculture necessarily entails the manipulation of ecosystems, decoupling processes are not easily applied. The spatial organization of agriculture also makes pollution control remarkably difficult. Whereas factories spew out waste from a limited number of stacks or pipes, farmers disseminate fertilizers and biocides over a wide expanse of territory. Sophisticated pollution control devices cannot easily be installed where waste seeps from such nonpoint sources.

The eco-radical answer to the agricultural impasse is a return to organic farming. Chemical-free cultivation does indeed have much to recommend it, although if it is to become economically competitive, concerted (and highly specialized) research will be necessary in such areas as integrated pest management (IMP). In the absence of significant OM advance, increasing production costs will translate into either significantly increased food bills or lowered dietary standards, a situation few Americans would tolerate. In the near term, methods derived from organic farming might be combined with selected new technologies, allowing farmers to reduce their reliance on chemical inputs, especially those that present the greatest environmental hazards. In the Third World especially, such intermediated tech approaches to agricultural production are desperately needed (see The Economist, “The Green Counter Revolution,” April 20, 1991, pg. 85-86).

Many green extremists, however, deny that anything new is needed. Instead, they point to the agricultural success of the old order Amish, a people who rely on traditional farming techniques, shunning agricultural chemicals and modern machinery (Berry 1977: 210 ff.). What they fail to mention, however, is the fact that Amish patriarchs owe much of their success to their exploitation of the labor of their numerous children. If all of our farmers were to adopt an Amish way of life, rural America would begin to resemble rural Bangladesh, both in terms of population density and in regard to patriarchal tyranny, within the span of a few generations.

Yet agro-environmentalist tracts, even those of a radical bent, do contain many worthwhile suggestions. As most argue, the need to adopt a less carnivorous diet is paramount. Meat production is energetically inefficient and ecologically unsound; when cattle convert gain into meat, most of the original food value is lost in metabolic processes. By relying substantially on grain, pulses, and farm-raised fish, we could return vast expanses of agricultural land to nature, reduce our increasingly suffocating medical expenditures, and at the same time drastically curtail our use of pesticides and fertilizers. Eco-radicals are also correct in arguing that small-scale cultivation must persist at some level, if only to preserve the genetic diversity of crop plants. Modern farming relies on the diverse array of genetic materials maintained by indigenous farmers, particularly those living in remote Third World villages, yet consistently undermines that diversity by disseminating "improved" cultivars. Gardeners in the industrialized nations can do their part by assiduously cultivating "heirloom" fruits and vegetables, and by carefully selecting and exchanging their seeds (Pollan 1991, chapter 11). In agriculture, high-tech approaches are often helpful, but they will never prove adequate.

More innovative ideas from the eco-radical community could also help us devise less destructive forms of agriculture. The geneticist Wes Jackson, for example, daringly argues that we should abandon annual crops, such as wheat, and instead rely on perennial plants that produce year after year (Jackson and Bender 1984). The cultivation of annuals demands plowing, leading inevitably to soil erosion. Although no-till farming practices are now being explored by conventional agricultural researchers, these techniques generally require massive applications of herbicides and fungicides. Jackson, therefore, advocates cultivating perennial

grain crops that would require neither constant plowing nor chemical control. The only hitch is that such crops do not yet exist; Jackson and his colleagues are presently working to create them through breeding techniques. A similar and more immediately practical idea was forwarded several decades ago by geographer J. Russell Smith (1953), who urged farmers to reorient their agriculture toward perennial tree crops, such as chestnuts, primarily in order to save the country's remaining topsoil.

Yet while organic farming, reduced meat consumption, and permaculture offer some hope for solving the agricultural crisis, their impact to date has been marginal at best. Organic crops are generally too expensive, and often too imperfect, to appeal to a broad market. Despite a modest reduction in red-meat consumption (due primarily to health concerns), the deep attachment to animal flesh seems too strong to be overcome through moral persuasion. Finally, the perennial grains developed thus far yield insubstantial harvests, while arboriculture remains untenable for both economic and gastronomic reasons.

But these same environmental dreams could perhaps be realized if we were willing to harness technology to the task. Genetic engineering is particularly promising in this regard (Gasser and Fraley 1989). The traditional breeding techniques of artificial selection ultimately depend on the random appearances of desirable genetic mutations; at best they require dozens of plant generations to come to seed before modest improvements can be realized. High-yield perennial grains may someday appear, but probably not until many decades have passed—a time span we cannot afford. Through recombinant DNA, on the other hand, "designer" organisms can often be created in months. The careful application of biotechnology to other agricultural problems offers further environmental advantages. Organic farming, for example, will receive a tremendous boost as geneticists fabricate crops that manufacture their own internal pesticides. Similarly, fertilizer inputs can be drastically curtailed once genes for nitrogen fixation can be inserted into non-leguminous crops plants.

As advances in biotechnology make agriculture more efficient, large tracts of land can be progressively returned to nature. Similarly, intensive greenhouse cultivation, relying on high-tech glass construction, advanced atmospheric chemical control, and perhaps even the use of molecular anti-fungal agents, could increase food supplies while at the same time tremendously diminishing the extent of land needed for food production (Drexler and Peterson 1991: 175). Yet some American politicians appear to rule out such possibilities beforehand, assuming that increasing production will only translate into larger commodity gluts (Sagoff 1991: 353). Certainly the biotechnology revolution will require a difficult set of adjustments for American farmers, but only an anti-environmentalist would automatically rule out the possibility of reducing the extent of land monopolized by agriculture. Agricultural gluts represent political, not technological, failure.

Radical environmentalists will likely respond to the proposals sketched above with disgust if not revulsion. In their view, tampering with DNA is blasphemy, and even the consumption of artificial foods is something of a venal sin. But by sanctifying the human place within the natural world, radical greens only ensure the destruction of nature. The more we feel compelled to consume natural products, the more we monopolize the earth for ourselves.

The eco-radical denunciation of genetic engineering also betrays a misunderstanding of our historical relationship with the natural world. We commenced playing God millennia ago, as soon as Neolithic humans began to domesticate plants and animals. There has never been, for example, a single stalk of wild corn; maize was not domesticated so much as created by the crossing of different wild plants that would never have shared their genes without human meddling (Heiser 1981: 107 ). The primitivists, who do grasp this truth, conclude that agriculture represents our original sin. Perhaps it does. Yet I continue to believe that we can best atone for our past environmental crimes not by retreating toward an unreachable Arcadian past, but rather by moving forward into a benign Promethean future.

Of course, genetic engineering, like other forms of high technology, can certainly be misapplied. One current project that borders on insanity involves the development of a herbicide-resistant strain of tobacco (Gasser and Fraley 1989). This will only offer the world a more abundant supply of an addictive, deadly drug—as well as a more poison-filled environment. Genetic technology, like all others, requires firm political and moral guidance.

The proposals sketched above may offer hope for the long term, but for the short term more immediate steps must be taken. American agriculture is indeed in a crisis situation, which has very dangerous environmental implications. Heavily indebted farmers are forced to expand recklessly in order to ensure harvests large enough to cover their interest payments, a situation that leaves them no room in which to experiment with ecologically sound alternative methods. Because of its intimate connections with nature, farming cannot be considered just another economic activity, and the market certainly cannot be relied upon to generate solutions to the current impasse. Unfortunately for the consumer, somewhat higher prices for agricultural commodities are probably necessary if American farmers are to receive the breathing room they so desperately need. We must begin to break our addiction to chemical farming—a process that will entail some pain for society at large.


The development of ecologically forgiving technologies is not inevitable. Desirable advances can only be realized through great efforts undertaken by large segments of human society. Americans should devote unyielding efforts to enhance education, scientific research, and economic productivity. If present trends continue, any fifth wave of economic growth will be dominated by Japan, not the United States. It would not bode well for either human freedom or environmental protection if the United States were simply to abandon the effort. Yet the chances of American leadership in the development of an ecologically sustainable socioeconomic order seem slim indeed. Both eco-radicals, who despise capitalism and denigrate technology, and anti-environmentalists, who worship at the alter of the free market oblivious to environmental destruction, seem perfectly willing to watch the United States shed all its competitive advantages. As Porter (1990: 173) shows, nations either move ahead or fall behind in international economic competition. And as Mokyr (1990) demonstrates, the historical reality is that the forces of conservatism—in this case, including both the extreme right and the eco-radical left—more often than not thwart the development of promising new technologies, even in societies that were once technological leaders.

Technological advance has clearly been something of a two-edged sword. The vast majority of people in preindustrial times may have lived short and impoverished lives, but industrialization has brought us face to face with global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain. Given this trade-off, most green radicals would conclude that ecological salvation is more important than human comfort or longevity.

There are two fundamental problems with this line of reasoning For one thing, it fails to recognize that industrial pollution is only one kind of environmental degradation. Preindustrial peoples have proved themselves capable of extraordinarily destructive acts, notably by deforesting entire landscapes and exterminating major faunal species. More importantly, the antitechnology thesis ignores the fact that technological advance has the power to heal as well as to destroy. In the modern world technological poverty often forces immiserated peoples to degrade their environments. Similarly, old industrial processes are virtually synonymous with dirty industrial processes. I am convinced that we can develop a clean, environmentally benign industrial system, but only if we have the will to embrace technological innovation and support the educational infrastructure that makes it possible. And despite the claims of all eco-radicals, such a transition will only be possible if we retain a capitalist economic system.