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.

For instance, consider the grossly unbalanced energy consumption in different nations, as highlighted by a commentary on ecomodernism by New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter. A typical Nepal citizen consumers 100 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, Porter writes, while an American consumes 13,000.

Proposals on “sustainable development” that require low-energy, low-technology pathways are likely to fall on deaf ears as developing nations aspire to similar standards of living. This is a reality we must face if we are to deal seriously with climate change.

Conscious decoupling

Intensifying resource use can decouple environmental impacts from human development. There are many successful examples of intensification and decoupling.

For instance, large swathes of North America and Europe have reverted to forest, after substitutions and technology-driven enhancements in agricultural productivity led to the abandonment of marginal farmland.

This trend might be further enhanced by the adoption of vertical farms and bio-engineered crops. Emerging plasma-arc torch technology can almost completely recycle and recover materials from solid waste.

There are also many instances where decoupling has not (yet) occurred, or where technological progress has enabled increasingly destructive environmental practices. Examples include the ongoing clearance of primary rainforest for biofuel productionand the link between growing national wealth and net environmental impact. This has fuelled critiques of the “techno-fix”.

Ecomodernists admit that technology itself is not a panacea, but we do hold that its judicious application and associated knowledge transfer can be incredibly effective. The alternative, “power down” solutions have proven to have limited social and political traction.

The energy problem

Energy use is an aspect of human development that has a motley record in terms of decoupling.

When communities shift from a reliance on biomass (for instance, wood, agricultural waste, dung) to fossil fuels, there is typically a reduction in local environmental damage and a net improvement in economic and health outcomes. But globally this practice will promote long-lasting problems like climate change.

The alternative is to use advanced technologies like nuclear energy that, like coal and gas, can deliver a reliable, cost-effective and concentrated form of energy in the form of electricity, but do so without the associated carbon and other emissions.

Development and conservation are possible

The principal message of our manifesto is:

Both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.

In short, we need to equip global society with both the willingness and capability to conserve nature. This is not an easy task.

But a philosophy underpinned by universal human dignity is, we argue, the most plausible pathway to securing a wildlife-filled and thriving planet for future generations.

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25 Comments

  1. This statement shows an increasing understanding that the denial path is not productive. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come from an understanding that a diversified nature serves as the foundation upon which human lives depend.

    It views a technology-focused approach as an alternative which demonstrates that the authors are unaware that that focus is what got us into this mess. Why is it that each new generation doesn’t understand that those that came before us felt extremely confident that the technologies they were bringing forth would create a better future for future generations and the planet? Many of those people were confident that they had a much better grasp on the environmental interconnectedness than all the previous generations. They believed that ,armed with that knowledge, they could engineer a much better future for future generations.

    Most of us grew up steeped in the concept that for every problem man creates, man can find an engineering solution to overcome that problem. Perhaps it’s time we begin questioning that blind faith as a weakness in our species.

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  2. I love this new evidence-based environmentalist vision. It’s nice to know others are thinking along the same lines. Development is key to not only sparing biodiversity, but restoring it.

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  3. Gasbuggy, besides not giving a viable, reasonable, or feasible alternative, your statement demonstrates what’s wrong with the old outlook: that something is fundamentally wrong with humans. It’s a bleak, cynical, doomsday-scenario perspective. And it’s just that– a perspective. So much unnecessary grief in the world is caused by broken perspectives.

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  4. Why is it that each new generation doesn’t understand that those that came before us felt extremely confident that the technologies they were bringing forth would create a better future for future generations and the planet?”

    The technologies brought forth have overwhelmingly created a better future for humanity (including its habitat), on any objective measure such as life expectancy.

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  5. The approach is yet another tech-fix dream which totally fails to grasp that solutions to the array of global problems about to destroy us cannot be found unless we face up to dramatic reduction in the amount of producing and consuming going on. Limits to growth and footprint analyses show that the reductions have to be more or less 90% on present rich world affluence and gdp etc. We could have idyllic lifestyles in secure Simpler Way communities if we wanted to do this … many in communes and ecovillages more or less do it. … but this society has no interest whatsoever in relinquishing, or even thinking critically about, the manic quest for ever-increasing material wealth. That is the core of western culture, and the supreme goal of national economic policy. Just figure out how much producing and consuming will be going on when about 2 billion Chinese and maybe another 7 billion others have all risen to the level of producing and consuming Australians will be on by 2050 given 3% growth … that’s where the tech-fix school assumes we can all go. It is going to be a very interesting century.

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  6. Ted, hence my noting above: ” The alternative, “power down” solutions have proven to have limited social and political traction.” If the majority of society isn’t going to accept this ‘solution’, then we need to look at forging ahead with the alternative ‘better technology, smarter deployment’ pathway. It’s far better than BAU. Ultimately, either techno-fixes will work (sufficiently) to realise the ecomodernism goals, or else something serious will give (and global civilization could potentially crumble, leaving local remnants that live more along the lines of the simple way). I’m betting on the former (I have a strong inclination towards human ingenuity), you suspect the latter is more probable. As you say, it will be an interesting century, either way!

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  7. Advocates of the “power down” approaches fail to understand that a parent with a cold, hungry child will cut down the last tree in the world to ease her suffering.

    “Power down” is just a recipe for ecological disaster as people denied the benefits of modern energy wealth attempt to self-help by gathering from the local environment. See, for example, what is going on in Vermont forests as electricity and gas prices rise during the cold winters.

    “Techological Fixes” are the only real fixes for ecological issues. People are not going to set aside their survival instinct and quietly starve or freeze to death, nor even endure relievable discomfort. All of nature is in peril as long as it is bordered by discomfited humans.

    The answer is not to remove the humans. The answer is to saturate the needs of the humans with compact, advanced technological solutions.

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  8. Barry, I fully endorse your response to Ted Trainer. There are clearly limits to growth, but there is a chance that we can avoid reaching them if we can,first, stabilise and then reduce human population growth. If this is to be achieved in a non violent way, it will take time and a huge amount of affordable and non polluting energy.

    “Powering down”, though a theoretical possibility,seems to ignore the fact that individuals of our species, along with all others, have “selfish genes”,which drive behaviour. Thus, it seems to me to offer only the prospect of war, famine and disease on a grand scale.

    Of course, one might question why or how it is possible even to contemplate voluntary reductions of global human population growth in the longer term. It would seem, judging from European case studies, to depend either upon female education (liberal theory) or upon the drive to acquire material wealth, leading to a reduced drive to breed because primacy is given to the former when both together are rarely affordable (“selfish gene” theory).

    Our species is unique in having access to reflexive consciousness. Does this mean that evolution has stopped with us? We (excluding ISIL!) tend to share cultures that encourage tolerance and it is generally deemed admirable to support the weakest (least fit) members of society. Is this not a reversal of “survival of the fittest” behaviour? Perhaps,as a species, we’re doomed. J B Colhoun’s “rat utopia” studies are possibly relevant in this context.( disease-free rats were given access to ad libitum food in a fixed space. After a few generations, numbers stabilised and then fell, some individuals getting together in aggressive gangs and others withdrawing from society, becoming self-obsessed and not attempting to breed).

    This has become a ramble and strayed from the point. However, I do wonder how many of our behaviours are hard wired and whether those that genuinely seem conscious may be aberrant in the evolutionary sense..

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  9. Barry, you are of course quite correct in saying that there is no significant interest in solving the problems over consumption is creating by shifting to ways that do not involve or require it, but it is not that this option has been considered or tried or rejected; the point is that it has not been considered, because the whole overconsumption-limits etc syndrome has only recently come onto the agenda and has only been attended to by a relatively few people. The task for those who want to save the planet is to work at getting it more centrally on the agenda. When the scarcities begin to impact, and the supermarket shelves become bare, people will be a bit more inclined to attend to us.

    In my very firm view the limits and footprint facts show that the overshoot is so huge that the problems cannot be solved unless we do shift resource use and environmental impact down by something like an order of magnitude. Tech fixes cannot make more than a dint in this … note that if the commitment to growth, which is built into the entire structure of growth and greed society, remains, then output doubles every 23 years. What tech fixes are going to keep up with that?

    Above all, “better technology” cannot alter the idiocies and injustices built into the foundations of this economy. Tell me what tech fixes are likely to curb the skyrocketing wealth being accumulated by the 1%, who now apparently have half the world’s wealth?

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  10. @Ted Trainer

    The problem with limit to growth thinking is that it assumes growth will continue indefinitely unless some kind of radical change in people mindset happen. I don’t think this is proven. I think per cape growth of resource use stops when people get what they need and some amount of what they want. Exactly where this point is isn’t certain. It varies from person to person and culture to culture. It is make even more blurred by the fact that the line between need and want is itself somewhat blurry. Usually need is defined as what you need to stay alive, but we are all going to die eventually. Some things may extend people life time by some years, or not, which makes it difficult to define exactly what need is. For example does a society really need something that will extend the average life span by one month? Basically were I’m going with this is that people have different values. You wish for people to all take on your values, but expecting this isn’t very practical. I think compromise has a much better chance of working. Getting people to compromise so that they can continue leading a life that is somewhat to their tastes is much easier than getting everyone to change completely. Your message is one of sin and redemption under your rules, but I think a better message is one of hope. Tell people that they are sinners and some will repent while others will not want to listen. Not everyone reacts well to being blamed, but everyone likes hope which is why it is a much better message.

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  11. Gasbuggy overlooks the inverse relationship between carrying capacity and agricultural diversity– focusing agriculture on developing many varietires of a very few species allowed population and culture to grow in ways unknown to hunter gatherers.

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  12. Depopulation of the countryside implies a mass migration, where people are either being drawn to the benefits of the cities, or fleeing increased perils in the countryside. The Manifesto refers to increasing the attractions of the city, but is quiet on growing threats to life in the countryside.

    An imminent peril is that the weather that has shaped the agricultural community of each area will become too unreliable to support its population density. There will be downstream perils arising from climate change too, such as the spread of disease-bearing insects threatening folk and livestock. In a destabilised ecology, we would expect the emergence of “weed species” other than our own, such as plagues of locusts, or vast flocks of crop-eating birds.

    Migrating to the big smoke has not always proved to be a destiny for the individual to have many descendants. I am under the impression that compared to the siblings they left behind on the farm, young people were more likely to aggregate with others of the same sex (perhaps in teams, such as convents, armies or workhouses) than to found a healthy family home. I wonder if our species has evolved with urbanisation as an inherent mechanism to limit our population density.

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  13. The alternative, “power down” solutions have proven to have limited social and political traction.

    It’s interesting that you say this about reducing demand, but you are in complete denial that the exact same argument holds for nuclear power.

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  14. When the choice is eat today, but tomorrow my grandchildren may starve, what would most people pick? Remember, if I starve today, I won’t ever have any grandchildren who may starve later.

    I submit that the green movement, by steadfastly opposing nuclear energy and other technology like GMOs, and supporting insane ideas like biofuels, is the primary cause of enormous destruction to the planet. It is they, not us, who is responsible for the problems we face. Every prognostication and proposal they make is exactly wrong, and simply leads us further down the road to ruin.

    If everyone on earth lived in a giant city, at the same density as Manhattan, and at the same level of power, food, fuel, etc., we could cram everyone into an area the size of Texas, leaving the remainder of the planet to nature. All we need to achieve this goal is a lot of energy.

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