An Ecomodernist Manifesto: intensify to spare nature

Originally published here on The Conversation.

Earth is now a human planet. Our species uses of a large proportion of its land-surface area for living space, agriculture and mining. We domesticate and transport a multiplicity of plant and animal species across continents. We sequester and divert freshwater.

We heavily exploit the world’s plants, animals and ecosystems, including the oceans. We are altering the atmosphere and changing the climate.

So if humanity wants to preserve “wild nature” forever, it seems reasonable to argue that we must pursue policies and actions to reverse these drivers of global change. This argument has been a cornerstone of environmental advocacy for decades.

This view motivates concern for the “population bomb” and “limits to growth”, and underpins ideas involving the transition of consumer societies to simpler, ecologically sustainable cooperatives.

In a newly released thesis, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”, I join with 17 other leading environmental scholars to advocate for an alternative, technology-focused approach to conservation. We stress the need to embrace the decoupling of human development from environmental impacts, by seeking solutions that intensify activities such as agriculture and energy production in some areas and leave others alone.

These processes are central to economic modernisation, improved human welfare and environmental protection. Together they offer the prospect of allowing people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature and to alleviate global poverty.

Unbalanced development

Our proposal is a declaration of principles for new environmentalism. It should be considered a working document that is open to refinement. But it is also based on evidence.

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The Limits of Planetary Boundaries 2.0

Back in 2013, I led some research that critiqued the ‘Planetary Boundaries‘ concept (my refereed paper, Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?, appeared in Trends in Ecology & Evolution). I also blogged about this here: Worrying about global tipping points distracts from real planetary threats.

Today a new paper appeared in the journal Science, called “Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet“, which attempts to refine and clarify the concept. It states that four of nine planetary boundaries have been crossed, re-imagines the biodiversity boundary as one of ‘biodiversity integrity’, and introduces the concept of ‘novel entities’. A popular summary in the Washington Post can be read here. On the invitation of New York Times “Dot Earth” reporter Andy Revkin, my colleagues and I have written a short response, which I reproduce below. The full Dot Earth article can be read here.

The Limits of Planetary Boundaries
Erle Ellis, Barry Brook, Linus Blomqvist, Ruth DeFries

Steffen et al (2015) revise the “planetary boundaries framework” initially proposed in 2009 as the “safe limits” for human alteration of Earth processes(Rockstrom et al 2009). Limiting human harm to environments is a major challenge and we applaud all efforts to increase the public utility of global-change science. Yet the planetary boundaries (PB) framework – in its original form and as revised by Steffen et al – obscures rather than clarifies the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by humanity this century.

Steffen et al concede that “not all Earth system processes included in the PB have singular thresholds at the global/continental/ocean basin level.” Such processes include biosphere integrity (see Brook et al 2013), biogeochemical flows, freshwater use, and land-system change. “Nevertheless,” they continue, “it is important that boundaries be established for these processes.” Why? Where a global threshold is unknown or lacking, there is no scientifically robust way of specifying such a boundary – determining a limit along a continuum of environmental change becomes a matter of guesswork or speculation (see e.g. Bass 2009;Nordhaus et al 2012). For instance, the land-system boundary for temperate forest is set at 50% of forest cover remaining. There is no robust justification for why this boundary should not be 40%, or 70%, or some other level.

While the stated objective of the PB framework is to “guide human societies” away from a state of the Earth system that is “less hospitable to the development of human societies”, it offers little scientific evidence to support the connection between the global state of specific Earth system processes and human well-being. Instead, the Holocene environment (the most recent 10,000 years) is assumed to be ideal. Yet most species evolved before the Holocene and the contemporary ecosystems that sustain humanity are agroecosystems, urban ecosystems and other human-altered ecosystems that in themselves represent some of the most important global and local environmental changes that characterize the Anthropocene. Contrary to the authors’ claim that the Holocene is the “only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies,” the human-altered ecosystems of the Anthropocene represent the only state of the planet that we know for certain can support contemporary civilization.

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Current World Energy Demand, Ethical World Energy Demand, Depleted Uranium and the Centuries to Come

Guest Post by NNadir (who blogs occasionally at Daily Kos, profile here). This is a long but really interesting post. If you’d rather a PDF version, click here.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) released last year, 2013, a free PDF brochure, available online, entitled “Key World Energy Statistics”[1] which reports total world energy consumption, comparing figures from 2011 with those of 1973.    The energy unit that is used to described is the non-SI, if evocative, unit, “MTOE” which is an abbreviation for “Million Tons of Oil Equivalent,” a somewhat artificial energy unit – given that the energy content of grades of oil vary considerably depending on their source – that pretends that all the world’s energy comes from a standardized form of the dangerous fossil fuel petroleum, which, of course, it doesn’t.    The conversion factor, as given in the free IEA brochure, between the SI unit, the Joule, here reported as terajoules, TJ, a trillion Joules, is 1 MTOE = 41,868 TJ.

The actual forms of primary energy that the consumed energy took are shown in the following graphic from the text:

As shown in the graphic, the document reports that in 2011, world energy consumption (TPES = “Total Primary Energy Supply”) was 13,113 MTOE; in 1973, the year which those old enough to remember will recall as the year of the “oil shock” where gasoline prices in the United States surged toward the then unheard of figure of $1.00/gallon, world energy consumption was, according to the document, 6,109 MTOE.   Before leaving this somewhat curious unit for the more satisfying SI units, it serves to note that it suggests, on a planet with a population in 2011 reported as 6.9 billion[2], plus or minus some 100 million human beings, that, on average, each person, as recorded in recent times, is responsible for burning the equivalent of 1.9 tons of oil equivalents per year.  In 1973, the world population was something on the order of 3.9 billion people, and on average, each person on the planet was responsible for consuming 1.5 tons of oil equivalent energy each year.

In 1976, which – if I have the math right – was 3 years after 1973, the energy mystic Amory Lovins published a paper in the social science journal Foreign Affairs, “Energy Strategy, The Road Not Taken?”[3] that suggested that by the use of conservation and so called “renewable energy” all of the world’s energy problems could be solved.    The thin red sliver on the 2011 pie chart, identified as “other” – solar, wind, etc, – obviates the grotesque failure of so called “renewable energy” to become a meaningful source of energy in the worldwide energy equation, despite consuming vast resources and vast sums of money, this on a planet that could ill afford such sums.   As for conservation, in 2011 we were using 147% of the dangerous petroleum we used in 1973, 286% of the dangerous natural gas we used in 1973, and 252% of the dangerous coal we used in 1973.  The rise in average figures of per capita energy consumption, as well as total energy consumed worldwide, show that energy conservation as an energy strategy has not worked either.

The reason that energy conservation as an energy strategy has failed is obvious, even divorced from population growth.   According to the 2013 UN Millennium Goals Report[4], as shown in the following graphic from it, the percentage of the Chinese population that lived on less than $1.25 (US) per day fell from 60% of the population in 1990 to 16% in 2005 and further to 12% in 2010.     From our knowledge of history, we would be fair to assume that the situation in China was even worse in 1976 than it was in 1990.


By the way, it ought to weigh on the moral imagination…that figure…less than $1.25 a day…less than $500 per year…for all a human being’s needs…food, shelter, transportation, child care, education, health, care for the elderly…

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An Open Letter to Environmentalists on Nuclear Energy

Professor Barry W. Brook, Chair of Environmental Sustainability, University of Tasmania, Australia.

Professor Corey J.A. Bradshaw, Sir Hubert Wilkins Chair of Climate Change, The Environment Institute, The University of Adelaide, Australia.

An Open Letter to Environmentalists:

As conservation scientists concerned with global depletion of biodiversity and the degradation of the human life-support system this entails, we, the co-signed, support the broad conclusions drawn in the article Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation published in Conservation Biology (Brook & Bradshaw 2014).

Brook and Bradshaw argue that the full gamut of electricity-generation sources—including nuclear power—must be deployed to replace the burning of fossil fuels, if we are to have any chance of mitigating severe climate change. They provide strong evidence for the need to accept a substantial role for advanced nuclear power systems with complete fuel recycling—as part of a range of sustainable energy technologies that also includes appropriate use of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency. This multi-pronged strategy for sustainable energy could also be more cost-effective and spare more land for biodiversity, as well as reduce non-carbon pollution (aerosols, heavy metals).

Given the historical antagonism towards nuclear energy amongst the environmental community, we accept that this stands as a controversial position. However, much as leading climate scientists have recently advocated the development of safe, next-generation nuclear energy systems to combat global climate change (Caldeira et al. 2013), we entreat the conservation and environmental community to weigh up the pros and cons of different energy sources using objective evidence and pragmatic trade-offs, rather than simply relying on idealistic perceptions of what is ‘green’.

Although renewable energy sources like wind and solar will likely make increasing contributions to future energy production, these technology options face real-world problems of scalability, cost, material and land use, meaning that it is too risky to rely on them as the only alternatives to fossil fuels. Nuclear power—being by far the most compact and energy-dense of sources—could also make a major, and perhaps leading, contribution. As scientists, we declare that an evidence-based approach to future energy production is an essential component of securing biodiversity’s future and cannot be ignored. It is time that conservationists make their voices heard in this policy arena.

Signatories (in alphabetical order)

  1. Professor Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Andrew J. Beattie, Emeritus, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Assistant Professor David P. Bickford, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  1. Professor Tim M. Blackburn, Professor of Invasion Biology, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Daniel T. Blumstein, Chair, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Los Angeles, USA.
  1. Professor Luigi Boitani, Dipartimento di Biologia, e Biotecnologie Charles Darwin, Sapienza Università di Roma, Italy.
  1. Professor Mark S. Boyce, Professor and Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries and Wildlife, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Canada.
  1. Professor David M.J.S. Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Professor Scott P. Carroll, Institute for Contemporary Evolution and Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of California Davis, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Phillip Cassey, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Professor Stuart Chapin III, Professor Emeritus of Ecology, Department of Biology and Wildlife, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, USA.
  1. Professor David Choquenot, Director, Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  1. Dr Ben Collen, Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Richard T. Corlett, Director, Centre for Integrative Conservation, Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.
  1. Dr Franck Courchamp, Director of Research, Laboratoire Ecologie, Systématique et Evolution – UMR CNRS, Member of the European Academy of Sciences, Université Paris-Sud, France.
  1. Professor Chris B. Daniels, Director, Barbara Hardy Institute, University of South Australia, Australia.
  1. Professor Chris Dickman, Professor of Ecology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  1. Associate Professor Don Driscoll, College of Medicine, Biology and Environment, The Australian National University, Australia.
  1. Professor David Dudgeon, Chair Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.
  1. Associate Professor Erle C. Ellis, Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, USA.
  1. Dr Damien A. Fordham, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Dr Eddie Game, Senior Scientist, The Nature Conservancy Worldwide Office, Australia.
  1. Professor Kevin J. Gaston, Professor of Biodiversity and Conservation, Director, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Dr Jaboury Ghazoul, Professor of Ecosystem Management, ETH Zürich, Institute for Terrestrial Ecosystems, Switzerland.
  1. Professor Robert G. Harcourt, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Professor Susan P. Harrison, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, USA.
  1. Professor Fangliang He, Canada Research Chair in Biodiversity and Landscape Modelling, Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Canada and State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol and School of Life Sciences, Sun-yat Sen University, Guangzhou, China.
  1. Professor Mark A. Hindell, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Professor Richard J. Hobbs, School of Plant Biology, The University of Western Australia, Australia.
  1. Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Professor and Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Professor Marcel Holyoak, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, USA.
  1. Professor Lesley Hughes, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Australia.
  1. Professor Christopher N. Johnson, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Julia P.G. Jones, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology, School of Environment, Natural Resources and Geography, Bangor University, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Kate E. Jones, Biodiversity Modelling Research Group, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Dr Menna E. Jones, Department of Zoology, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Lucas Joppa, Conservation Biologist, United Kingdom.
  1. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Adelaide, Australia.
  1. Professor Charles J. Krebs, Emeritus, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Canada.
  1. Dr Robert C. Lacy, Conservation Biologist, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Susan Laurance, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Studies, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair in International Nature Conservation, Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science and School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Peter Ng Kee Lin, Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore.
  1. Professor Thomas E. Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation and University Professor in the Environmental Science and Policy department, George Mason University, USA.
  1. Dr Antony J Lynam, Global Conservation Programs, Wildlife Conservation Society, USA.
  1. Professor Anson W. Mackay, Department of Geography, University College London, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Helene D. Marsh, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Michelle Marvier, Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Santa Clara University, USA.
  1. Professor Lord Robert M. May of Oxford OM AC Kt FRS, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  1. Dr Margaret M. Mayfield, Director, The Ecology Centre, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Dr Clive R. McMahon, Sydney Institute of Marine Science and Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Australia.
  1. Dr Mark Meekan, Marine Biologist, Australia.
  1. Dr Erik Meijaard, Borneo Futures Project, People and Nature Consulting, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia.
  1. Professor Scott Mills, Chancellor’s Faculty Excellence Program in Global Environmental Change, North Carolina State University, USA.
  1. Professor Atte Moilanen, Research Director, Conservation Decision Analysis, University of Helsinki, Finland.
  1. Professor Craig Moritz, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University, Australia.
  1. Dr Robin Naidoo, Adjunct Professor, Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability University of British Columbia, Canada.
  1. Professor Reed F. Noss, Provost’s Distinguished Research Professor, University of Central Florida, USA.
  1. Associate Professor Julian D. Olden, Freshwater Ecology and Conservation Lab, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, USA.
  1. Professor Maharaj Pandit, Professor and Head, Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi, India.
  1. Professor Kenneth H. Pollock, Professor of Applied Ecology, Biomathematics and Statistics, Department of Applied Ecology, North Carolina State University, USA.
  1. Professor Hugh P. Possingham, School of Biological Science and School of Maths and Physics, The University of Queensland, Australia.
  1. Professor Peter H. Raven, George Engelmann Professor of Botany Emeritus, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden, Washington University in St. Louis, USA.
  1. Professor David M. Richardson, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Centre for Invasion Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa.
  1. Dr Euan G. Ritchie, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Australia.
  1. Professor Terry L. Root, Senior Fellow, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University, USA.
  1. Dr Çağan H. Şekercioğlu, Assistant Professor, Biology, University of Utah, USA and Doçent 2010, Biology/Ecology, Inter-university Council (UAK) of Turkey.
  1. Associate Professor Douglas Sheil, Department of Ecology and Natural Resource Management, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway.
  1. Professor Richard Shine AM FAA, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Australia.
  1. Professor William J. Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild Professor of Conservation Biology, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Chris D. Thomas, FRS, Department of Biology, University of York, United Kingdom.
  1. Professor Ross M. Thompson, Chair of Water Science, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Australia.
  1. Professor Ian G. Warkentin, Environmental Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
  1. Professor Stephen E. Williams, Centre for Tropical Biodiversity and Climate Change, School of Marine and Tropical Biology, James Cook University, Australia.
  1. Professor Kirk O. Winemiller, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Interdisciplinary Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Texas A&M University, USA.

Note: Affiliations of signatories are for identification purposes, and do not imply that their organizations have necessarily endorsed this letter.


Brook, B. W., and C. J. A. Bradshaw. 2014. Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology doi:10.1111/cobi.12433.

Caldeira, K., K., Emmanuel, J. Hansen, and T. Wigley. 2013. An Open Letter to those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power. CNN. (Accessed 14 March 2014).

The Left vs The Climate

I’m still in the process of moving house (I’ve now arrived in Tassie, but my furniture is still in transit…). But I have my Notebook computer, so I’m set, right?

Anyway, on the weekend I had time, over a large coffee, to read through Will Boisvert‘s essay on pastoral fantasies and the alternative ‘high energy planet’ (a critique of Naomi Klein’s new book). It is absolutely brilliant, and I immediately thought it was a perfect exposition of the philosophy that developed on BNC over the last 5 years, in reaction to the global sustainability challenge.  Anyway, I asked Will, and Michael Shellenberger from The Breakthrough Institute (who published the original article) if I might reproduce it here on BNC, and they graciously agreed. So here it is.

Read this (please!), and think carefully. We must all think and act rationally to tackle this challenge. There is no room for cognitive dissonance or denial, whatever ‘side’ you feel you are on.

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein’s Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Liberal and progressive politics used to embrace energy, technology, and modernity for human liberation and environmental quality. Today it embraces a reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism epitomized by Naomi Klein’s latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As such, Klein’s book is symptomatic of the Left’s disturbing turn against progressive, pragmatic action for people and the environment.

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.

Now comes global warming, a cataclysm seemingly so dire that it cannot be finessed with reformist half-measures, so all-encompassing that capitalism would have to leave the planet to dodge it. For many on the Left, capitalism is at the heart of climate change: the crisis of over-combustion stems from the capitalist dynamic of overproduction and overconsumption, all driven by the logic of over-concentration of profits in the hands of the wealthy few. And nothing will resolve the crisis, the Left hopes, but the transformation of every aspect of the world capitalism has made — to pull consumerism, waste, hierarchy, competition, trade and alienation up by the roots and replace them with a political economy of sufficiency, recycling, egalitarianism, cooperation, localism, and nature.

It was almost inevitable that Naomi Klein, the Left’s preeminent celebrity journalist, would make herself the mouthpiece of this mind-wave. The Canadian writer-pundit and Nation columnist is a master of broad frameworks and far-reaching implications. She has already written two books — No Logo, on the corporate takeover of culture, and The Shock Doctrine, on the neoliberal take-over of economies — that crystallized huge clouds of progressive discontent into catchy memes. Her trademark blend of light wonkery, sardonic prose, sharp-eyed reportage and fist-waving militance appeals to every left constituency from academics to Occupiers. Most important, her penchant for tying absolutely anything she can think of into her thesis du jour feels tailor-made for climate change, the most omnipresent and multifaceted of subjects.

Her new manifesto, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a wide-ranging synthesis of Left-green doctrine on the entwinement of ecology and economy. It’s about belching smoke-stacks, thickening carbon dioxide, melting icesheets, acidifying oceans, shattering hurricanes, and searing droughts. It’s also about callous oil companies, preening billionaires, corrupt politicians, environmental groups subborned by corporate cash, hard-pressed farmers, desperate workers in dirty jobs, and downtrodden natives defending their land. This is all of a piece to Klein: the fight for a sustainable economy is also the fight for a fair and humane one, a furtherance of struggles for labor rights, civil rights, welfare rights, and land reform, for grassroots democracy against elite power.

By aligning these immediate struggles for justice with the collective battle to save the planet, she writes, climate change can “bring together all of these still living movements” and “right those festering wrongs at last — the unfinished business of liberation” [459].

For Klein, that alignment will spark not just programmatic clarity and mass mobilization, but spiritual redemption as well. Coal, in her view, is the dark heart of industrial capitalism and its mania for “total domination of both nature and people,” [173] and has turned us into “a society of grave-robbers” feeding off buried fossils. In abandoning it we will forge a new bond with the natural world and “[derive] our energy directly from the elements that sustain life” [176].

Even more than in her previous books, Klein advances a grand vision of “changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth,” [4] along with a sensibility that combines apocalyptic dread with utopian yearning to stimulate revolutionary determination.

Unfortunately, the result is a garbled mess stumbling endlessly over its own contradictions. Her understanding of the technical aspects of energy policy — indispensable for any serious discussion of sustainability — is weak and biased, marked by a myopic boosterism of renewables and an unthinking rejection of nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources. Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,” [15] she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.

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