The Eco-Modernist Paradox: Snakeoil?


An Ecomodernist Manifestodemands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.” The eco-modernists argue that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while human societies must not harmonize with nature because in their opinion that will not avoid economic or ecological collapse. They claim that as a general rule, natural systems will not be be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being.

Instead they claim that “intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.” I am not certain how you can intensify forestry without being extractive unless you turn the forests into wood farms. Nor am I certain how one can extract fuels more intensely without extracting them…

Looking Backward and Forward

There is an historical precedent on which we can draw to predict the future results of just such a scenario. In the 1700s and 1800s a new energy source was introduced just as the eco-modernists propose for the current twenty-first century. Here is a very brief summary of the results of the first introduction of cheap abundant energy allowing for vast extractive activities and technological advances.

1700’s – 1900’s
The introduction of an intensely concentrated energy source (fossil fuels) sparked
• increased technological innovation and production,
• increased efficiency of agricultural land use,
• increased general standard of living,
• vastly increased pollution,
• intense degradation of natural lands and resources,
• rapidly reduced biodiversity,
• vastly increased population levels.

If we simply project the same results for the next introduction we would get this (I highlighted where the eco-modernists would veer away from history):

2000’s – 2300’s
The introduction of an intensely concentrated energy source (nuclear fission/fusion) will spark:
• increased technological innovation and production,
• increased efficiency of agricultural land use,
• increased general standard of living,
• vastly increased pollution,
• intense degradation of natural lands and resources,
• rapidly reduced biodiversity,
• vastly increased population levels

But wait – that is not what the eco-modernists predict. In nature as well in our past history any sudden increase in available energy and resources results in increased population sizes. In marked disagreement with nature and history, the eco-modernists see a decrease in population levels, a decrease in resource scarcity (by switching endlessly to new resources?), and a return of good agricultural land to natural lands. This didn’t happen in the past…. why would it happen now?

Why should these two histories be different?

What economic system will choose to reduce pollution as a business rationale?
What economic system will choose to return good agricultural land to natural land as a business rationale?
What economic system will choose to cease extraction of natural resources in favour of recycling as a business rationale?
With all that energy and easy resource available what incentive is there for reduced population growth?

Paradoxes and Mind-Boggling Statements

The paradox is quite simply adding energy and resources will reduce the human population and reduce our resulting impact on nature, whereas nature itself reacts in the exact opposite manner – populations rise to meet the available resources and energy levels. That boggle my mind. This first and most important underlying assumption that human population increase will slow down, stop and reverse itself, they claim is supported by an analysis of current trends to a modestly reduced rate of population increase co-related to education of women and increased concentration of population centres. One could just as easily suggest limiting family sizes is due to decreasing certainty of resource and energy supplies as various groups wage war over resource rich territories. It is also dramatically true that even slightly educated women with minimal access to planned parenting have much reduced fertility rates.

The reduced certainly is perhaps because there are essentially no self-sustaining opportunities for subsistence within an urban environment, whereas previously one could feed, clothe, and house oneself in a rural, agricultural mode of life. If the eco-modernist policies hold sway, even rural life will become corporate-based and the small farm will be discouraged if not eliminated by law or regulation. Yet the eco-modernist manifesto claims that: “With proper management, humans are at no risk of lacking sufficient agricultural land for food.” Presumably this at least in part relies on population growth stopping and reversing itself – which I regard as highly unlikely if the rest of their policies are implemented.

One other mind-boggling statement is this one: “Given plentiful land and unlimited energy, substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive.

The mind-bogglers:

1) Plentiful land – Well yes, of course, but what other planet are you going to use besides this one for “plentiful land” when essentially all of the useful agricultural land is already in use?

2) And another mind-boggler: “unlimited energy?” This is not science fiction, but it is a very long way off unless some amazing new discoveries are made soon. They speak of nuclear power from thorium-based generators. Sounds promising for sure, but there are many disadvantages and most of those are expensive to deal with. The first thorium reactor is due to go into service in 2016, so the story is not even begum yet on this type of reactor, let alone ready to power the world.

The hydrogen-deuterium fusion reaction is easier than straight fusion, but is not commercially available yet. Deuterium is plentifully available in ordinary water. Once the system gets going, tritium can be produced by combining the fusion neutron with the abundant light metal lithium to create the needed tritium in the reaction. Less easy but still an important new huge source of energy, is straight fusion (the ITER project and other tokomak ideas). So in a sense, fusion has the potential to be an inexhaustible source of energy, and a number of very large projects are currently underway, but not scheduled for test production until nearly mid-century.

3) Here is another mind-boggler, although still the foundation of some economic theories as a way to avoid internalizing external costs to any project. “…substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive.” Well, that is the dream of endless resources by way of endlessly finding new ones to substitute for anything you deplete. The world is an enormous place, but there are limits to many resources. This is a remarkably recent realization for biology. It was fairly recently that Ryther and Dunstan in 1971 demonstrated that nitrogen was a critical and limiting factor for plankton (and therefore for everything else in the ocean) and furthermore it was unlikely human intervention could alter that limitation. Perhaps in some innovative way the eco-modernists have assumed that for oceans and land, manufactured chemicals can endlessly rejuvenate the soils and waters. Frankly I don’t think soils (I live on a farm) or waters (my background is marine biology) are endlessly capable of handling the pressures an intensified agriculture or aquaculture would place on them.

I like these sentiments as stated: “Plentiful access to modern energy is an essential prerequisite for human development and for decoupling development from nature. The availability of inexpensive energy allows poor people around the world to stop using forests for fuel. It allows humans to grow more food on less land, thanks to energy-heavy inputs such as fertilizer and tractors. Energy allows humans to recycle waste water and desalinate sea water in order to spare rivers and aquifers. It allows humans to cheaply recycle metal and plastic rather than to mine and refine these minerals. Looking forward, modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warming.

If they had been less over-the-top in predictive hyperbole, I think there are elements of valuable ideas here.

Similarly, while they recognize the need to decarbonize energy sources and the atmosphere, they immediately give license to exploit fossil fuels well beyond the limits that would hold the climate in check, claiming that the world economy and the living standards of poor people are put too much at risk in the short-term, and instead they rely on future technology such as sequestering carbon captured from the atmosphere to solve any future carbon-caused climate problems. They specifically reject the idea that modernization is equivalent to, or conflated with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies. Instead they envision modernization as “long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies toward vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom.” This sounds like a snake-oil sales pitch. I recall Peter Munk (Peter owned Barrick Gold at the time) telling me: “Mining is not extracting resources from the ground. No, Alan, mining is building civilizations.” Similar rhetoric by eco-modernists does not change the fact that mining is digging stuff up from the ground, even if it does build civilizations.

So where are we?

In many ways, the eco-modernist provides a faux credibility and policy license to continued increased use of fossil fuels and increased technological impact on agricultural practices without acknowledging the ecological services the soils provide. That faux credibility extends to predicting that humans will not respond with increased population levels when offered increased energy, food, and material resources. Somehow they “know” that human beings not behave tomorrow as they have always behaved in the past. The faux permission is based on assuming that technological energy advances and carbon capture systems will save us in time, while smoothly glossing over the reality that all of these systems have not yet been developed. The ideals of reduced population size, lesser impact on nature, increased non-extractive energy sources that are carbon free, tapping the huge potential of solar and nuclear energy sources, increased efficiency in agriculture, returning human-used land to natural land are all good, but they have not provided a realistic blueprint to get there.

Extolling the virtues of endless resource substitution, planning on artificially replacing natural ecological services in agriculture by adding huge amounts of fertilizer derived from “unlimited energy,” is dangerous at best. Assuming dense urban populations with educated women will necessarily reduce population growth if resources and energy are as unlimited flies in the face of historical precedent and the natural tendencies of all organisms. Placing future human population growth control entirely as the responsibility of minimally educated women is not only grossly unfair, it conveniently forgets that men should take an equally enlightened responsible role. Whether they will or not is unclear.

In my informed opinion, eco-modernism is inherently dangerous to humankind – not because of its idealistic rhetoric about reduction of impacts – that’s good stuff. It is dangerous because it gives license to commercial exploitation and extraction of fossil fuels without sufficient warning of the potential climate consequences. It is dangerous because it advocates increased stress on agricultural lands. It is dangerous because it predicts paradoxical behaviour of human population growth against both historical human example and parallel ecological evidence for the rest of the animal kingdom. And most dangerous of all it assumes innovative technology will swoop in and save us, even though essentially all of the critical technological advances they use as examples have not yet been developed and in some cases have not yet been invented.

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