I have been rather often quaintly known as a green activist for around 20 years now. I sometimes like to say that the green movement was born in the same year as me – 1972, the year in which the Limits to Growth report was published by the Club of Rome – and this is near enough to the truth to be a jumping-off point for a narrative.

If the green movement was born in the early 1970s, then the 1980s, when there were whales to be saved and rainforests to campaign for, were its adolescence. Its coming-of-age party was in 1992, in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. The 1992 Earth Summit was a jamboree of promises and commitments: to tackle climate change, to protect forests, to protect biodiversity, and to promote something called sustainable development, a new concept that would become, over the next two decades, the most fashionable in global politics and business. The future looked bright for the greens back then. It often does when you’re twenty.

Two decades on, things look rather different. In 2012, the bureaucrats, the activists and the ministers gathered again in Rio for a stocktaking exercise called Rio+20. It was accompanied by the usual shrill demands for optimism and hope, but there was no disguising the hollowness of the exercise. Every environmental problem identified at the original Earth Summit has got worse in the intervening 20 years, often very much worse, and there is no sign of this changing.

The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Despite all their work, their passion, their commitment, and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right, greens are losing. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?

There are plenty of people who think they know the answer to that question. One of them is Peter Kareiva, who would like to think that he and his kind represent the future of environmentalism, and who may turn out to be right. Kareiva is the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, an American NGO that claims to be the world’s largest environmental organisation. He is a scientist, a revisionist, and one among a growing number of former greens who might best be called neo-environmentalists.

The resemblance between this coalescing group and the Friedmanite neoliberals of the early 1970s is intriguing. Like the neoliberals, the neo-environmentalists are attempting to break through the lines of an old orthodoxy that is visibly exhausted and confused. Like the neoliberals, they are mostly American and mostly male, and they emphasise scientific measurement and economic analysis over other ways of seeing and measuring. Like the neoliberals, their tendency is to cluster around a few key think tanks: back then, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and the Adam Smith Institute; now, The Breakthrough Institute, The Long Now Foundation, and the Copenhagen Consensus. Like the neoliberals, they are beginning to grow in numbers at a time of global collapse and uncertainty. And like the neoliberals, they think they have radical solutions.

Kareiva’s ideas are a good place to start in understanding them. He is a prominent conservation scientist who believes that most of what the greens think they know is wrong. Nature, he says, is more resilient than fragile; science proves it. “Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment,” he writes, “and 80% of the time it recovers pretty well.” Wilderness does not exist; all of it has been influenced by humans at some time. Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.”

Now that science has shown us that nothing is pristine and Nature adapts, there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon ... feasible?” Kareiva and colleagues ask. “Is it even necessary?” Somehow, you know what the answer is going to be before the authors give it to you.

If this sounds like the kind of thing that a US Republican presidential candidate might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva and colleagues are not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the US thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg and Wilfred Beckerman.

Beyond the field of conservation, the neo-environmentalists are distinguished by their attitude to new technologies, which they almost uniformly see as positive. Civilisation, Nature and people can be saved, they declare, only by enthusiastically embracing biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, geoengineering, and anything else with the prefix ‘new’ that annoys Greenpeace.

Neo-environmentalists also tend to exhibit an excitable enthusiasm for markets. They like to put a price on things like trees, lakes, mist, crocodiles, rainforests and watersheds, all of which can deliver “ecosystem services”, which can be bought and sold, measured and totted up. Tied in with this is an almost religious attitude to the scientific method. Everything that matters, they say, can be measured by science and priced by markets, and any claims without numbers attached can be easily dismissed. This is presented as “pragmatism” but is actually something rather different: an attempt to exclude from the green debate any interventions based on morality, emotion, intuition, spiritual connection or simple human feeling.

Some of this might be shocking to some old-guard greens – which is the point – but it is hardly a new message. In fact, it is a very old one: it is simply a variant on the old Wellsian techno-optimism that has been promising us cornucopia for over a century. It’s an old-fashioned Big Science, Big Tech and Big Money narrative, filtered through the lens of the internet and garlanded with holier-than-thou talk about saving the poor and feeding the world.

But though they burn with the shouty fervour of the born-again, the neo-environmentalists are not exactly wrong. In fact, they are at least half right. They are right to say that the human-scale, convivial approaches of many of the original green thinkers are never going to work if the world continues to formulate itself according to the demands of late capitalist industrialism. They are right to say that a world of 9 billion people all seeking the status of middle-class consumers cannot be sustained by vernacular approaches. They are right to say that the human impact on the planet is enormous and irreversible. They are right to say that traditional conservation efforts sometimes idealise a pre-industrial Nature. They are right to say that the campaigns of green NGOs often exaggerate and dissemble. And they are right to say that the greens have hit a wall, and that continuing to ram their heads against it is not going to knock it down.

What’s interesting, though, is what they go on to build on this foundation. The first sign that this is not, as declared, a simple eco-pragmatism, but something rather different comes when you read statements like this:

For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature.

This passage appears on author Emma Marris’s website, in connection with her book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, though it could just as easily be from anywhere else in the neo-environmentalist canon. But who are the many “people” who have “unquestioningly accepted” this line? I’ve met a lot of conservationists and environmentalists in my time, and I don’t think I’ve ever met one who believed there was any such thing as “pristine, pre-human” Nature. What they did believe was that there were still large-scale, functioning ecosystems that were worth getting out of bed for to help protect them from destruction.

To understand why, consider the case of the Amazon. What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is pristine and pre-human? Clearly not, since it’s inhabited and harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is untouched: it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. Humans live in and from it, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix.

This is what intelligent green thinking has always called for: human and nonhuman nature working in some degree of harmony, in a modern world of compromise and change in which some principles, nevertheless, are worth cleaving to. Nature is a resource for people, and always has been; we all have to eat, make shelter, hunt and live from its bounty like any other creature. But that doesn’t preclude our understanding that it has a practical, cultural, emotional and even spiritual value beyond that too, which is equally necessary for our wellbeing.

The neo-environmentalists, needless to say, have no time for this kind of fluff. They have a great big straw man to build up and knock down, and once they’ve got that out of the way, they can move on to the really important part of their message. Here are Kareiva and fellow authors Robert Lalasz and Michelle Marvier, giving us the money shot in their Breakthrough Journal article:

Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people … Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.

There it is, in black and white: the wild is dead, and what remains of Nature is for people. We can effectively do what we like, and we should. Science says so! A full circle has been drawn, the greens have been buried by their own children, and under the soil with them has gone their naive, romantic and antiscientific belief that nonhuman life has any value beyond what we very modern humans can make use of.

The neo-greens do not come to rejuvenate environmentalism: they come to bury it. They come to tell us that Nature doesn’t matter, that there is no such thing as Nature anyway, that the interests of human beings should always be paramount, that the rational mind must always win out over the intuitive mind, and that the political and economic settlement we have come to know in the last 20 years as globalisation is the only game in town, now and probably forever. All of the questions the greens have been raising for decades about the meaning of progress, about how we should live in relationship to other species, and about technology and political organisation and human-scale development are to be thrown in the bin like children’s toys.

Over the next few years, the old green movement that I grew up with is likely to fall to pieces. Many of those pieces will be picked up and hoarded by the growing ranks of the neo-environmentalists. The mainstream of the green movement has laid itself open to their advances in recent years with its obsessive focus on carbon and energy technologies and its refusal to speak up for a subjective, vernacular, nontechnical engagement with Nature. The neo-environmentalists have a great advantage over the old greens, with their threatening talk about limits to growth, behaviour change, and other such against-the-grain stuff: they are telling this civilisation what it wants to hear.

In the short term, the future belongs to the neo-environmentalists, and it is going to be painful to watch. In the long term, though, I suspect they will fail, for two reasons. First, bubbles always burst. Our civilisation is beginning to break down. We are at the start of an unfolding economic and social collapse, which may take decades or longer to play out – and which is playing out against the background of a planetary ecocide that nobody seems able to prevent. We are not gods, and our machines will not get us off this hook.

But there is another reason that the new breed are unlikely to be able to build the world they want to see: we are not – even they are not – primarily rational, logical, or ‘scientific’ beings. Our human relationship to the rest of Nature is not akin to the analysis of bacteria in a Petri dish: it is more like the complex, love–hate relationship we might have with lovers or parents or siblings. It is who we are, unspoken and felt and frustrating and inspiring and vital, and impossible to peer review. You can reach part of it with the analytical mind, but the rest will remain buried in the ancient woodland floor of human evolution and in the depths of our old ape brains, which see in pictures and think in stories.

Civilisation has always been a project of control, but you can’t win a war against the wild within yourself. We may have to wait many years, though, before the neo-greens discover this for themselves.

This is an edited extract from Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth, edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist and Tom Butler (Island Press).

Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize.