Ecomodernist Manifesto

The idea of an ecomodern view point makes eminent good sense. Take the best of modern technology combined with modern understanding of global ecology, human societies, human needs and desires and put them all together in a winning package. The purpose of this Ecomodernist Manifesto, authored by some 26 scholars is essentially to propose an economic strategy (although the authors categorize it as a strategy to improve ecological and human well-being):

“We offer this statement in the belief that 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.”

WOW! That is to say, they believe that continuing on the path we currently have embarked on will save the day if we emphasize technological innovation to provide limitless energy and intensive primary production that will not limit the population growth of humans for the foreseeable future (centuries or thousands of years).

“In this, we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”

I must have read this little piece a dozen times and still shake my head. This is a completely unnecessary straw man argument. Except for a very few people, no one is advocating a return to hunting and fishing for sustenance and well-being. For centuries farmers have been innovating and developing new technologies. In the rest of the manifesto, the authors tell us to keep innovating and developing new technologies to be more efficient users of the land – well yes, that is our intention. I see no evidence that organic farming or small family farms are necessarily inefficient, and no evidence that large farms intend to get smaller. In fact many small operations are already moving indoors at least to greenhouses, and sometimes vertically to further intensify the productivity of the land.

The basic enabling assumptions for an ecomodernist viewpoint seem to be simplistic at best and wildly optimistic at least. They include: 1) there is “remarkably little” evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future (They reject the notion of ecological carrying capacity and global footprint as it applies to humans.), 2) we have at hand essentially unlimited energy sources in nuclear fission and fusion (It is not really “at hand.” A more accurate statement would be that it is possible.), 3) given plentiful land (They neglect the fact that almost all the arable land is already in use.) and unlimited energy (This claim is based on an as yet undeveloped Thorium nuclear system and an experimental and as yet untested fusion technology), substitutes for exhausted resources (This old saw is based on the economic argument that innovation will always replace any resource that becomes limiting.) will be found, 4) human population will peak by the end of the century (Human population growth might have peaked by the end of the century in face of dwindling energy, land, and resources, but that decline is unlikely if we add unlimited energy and limitless resources and food.) and it is not a big problem because steadily increasing technology will feed everyone well 5) increased agricultural efficiencies will continue to grow (I am sure this is a truism that has been in effect for centuries.) and nature will be returned by reforestation of abandoned agricultural land (In fact, the forested land in the US in 1600 before the Europeans arrived was about 4 million square kilometers and today the figure stands at 3 million square kilometer with forest cover relatively stable since about 1980.), 8) demand for material growth will become saturated soon (wild assumption unless massive recycling and circular economic ideas take hold).

The basic risk assumptions include: 1) anthropogenic climate change (They agree it is potentially a big deal but claim innovation will solve the problem even if we continue to add carbon to the atmosphere for now), stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification, 2) local air pollution, water pollution and degraded watersheds, 3) inherited degraded natural environments. Thus, although they acknowledge risk factors, they seem largely to play down the significance of the risks.

The term decoupling is an important concept and is not the same as that in the opening statement unless human well-being is equated to economic growth. The coupled aspects to be decoupled are environmental impacts and economic growth. They coin the term relative decoupling to mean the environmental impacts rise more slowly that economic growth. They also coin absolute decoupling to mean the impacts decline as economic growth continues. The opening statements in the document make the assumption that human well-being has increased in step with economic growth.

They use the argument that a poor person today is a rich person by comparison to a rich person in the past. The idea is that a definition of poverty that includes developed countries (60% below national mean wage is the definition of relative poverty) is not really poverty in the sense that it is not a gruesome as in developing countries. Thus, in a sense excusing or dismissing poverty as almost a faux definition. One of the problems that the industrial age introduced was the separation of the pauper from a self-supporting subsistence potential to a wage dependent existence. I am not sure which is worse.

In their view the enabling assumptions (trends in their terminology) mean that total human impact on the environment will decline this century and we can begin to re-wild and re-green the Earth. They point to the use of fossil fuels, mechanization and manufacturing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, electrification and modern communication and transportation technologies that have made modern society possible and imply that they will continue to do so.

As I am sure you have detected, this whole idea is good rhetoric at the conceptual level, but once the eco-modernists start to put flesh on the ideas, they suddenly look remarkably dangerous.

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