In the 1970s and 80s, environmental policies rose to prominence as environmentalists scored many political victories. But our successes in cleaning rivers and air pollution were unfortunately followed by an environmental populism that led to an intellectual and economic downward spiral, often driven by fears of approaching ecological cataclysm. This devolution of the environmental movement is what German journalist and environment expert Edgar Gaertner has recently written about in his new book Eco-nihilism: A critique of a Political Ecology.

The term nihilism was coined by French writer Albert Camus and refers to people who believe in things that do not exist. Most modern-day nihilists also consider certain policies more important than freedom and dignity, and according to Gaerter there are strong nihilist tendencies among many of today’s environmentalists.

Eco-nihilism chronicles how, after the successful ending of serious ecological threats such as water and air pollution, environmental activism soon replaced what was previously known as environmentalism in general. This new activist form of environmentalism slowly began to embrace policies that promoted the “precautionary principle,” a line of reasoning that chased after risks (no matter how small) and took up fights against hypothetical future threats (no matter how remote). The reason for this new turn in environmental thought was that some activists became addicted to the political successes they enjoyed advancing their environmental policies and wanted to see them continue.

Gaertner explains how the idea of precautionary principle dates back to Cold War era. At that time it was used to prop up policies and investments that were perhaps inefficient, but they were justified to help the free West survive a dangerous Soviet threat. Nowadays this logic is mis-applied by eco-nihilists to hypothetical dangers, and because it carries costs and risks that can harm humanity, the world faces a strong threat from the use of this rigorously stringent principle.

Gaertner also maintains in his book that certain activists appear to care more about imposing their solutions to hypothetical environmental threats, such as global warming, than the very real problems being fostered through implementation of their agenda (such as increased energy and food prices on the poor). Such approaches undertaken by nihilists ultimately deteriorate the conditions for innovation, economic growth and new technologies which are important for modern society to advance.

Edgar L. Gaertner: Oeko-Nihilismus. Eine Kritik der Politischen Ökologie. ISBN 978-3-00-020598-9. 284p. Euro 24,50.  Available from CFACT Europe.