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An ecomodernist manifesto

Eighteen scientists published an alarmist but optimistic, though pretty ‘western’, ecomodernist manifesto. It’s main message: considering the still growing population of spaceship earth the only solutions of the problem of combining reasonable prosperity with at least a little real nature as well as an end to global warning are urbanization and other kinds of social-economic-technological progress. My 1 cent: I like it, as its analysis and solutions are consistent with what I (an economic historian) know about economic history. Eating localy produced organic fruit is not the solution. Eating less, efficiently produced, meat is (mind however that even ‘organic’ chicken, like label rouge, is much more sustainable than whatever kind of ‘efficiently’ produced beef). Here, a competing alarmist manifesto by seventeen scientists, which, to my liking, contains way too much ‘we should’ (i.e: you should) thinking. The ecomodernist manifesto:

In fact, early human populations with much less advanced technologies had far larger individual land footprints than societies have today. Consider that a population of no more than one or two million North Americans hunted most of the continent’s large mammals into extinction in the late Pleistocene, while burning and clearing forests across the continent in the process. Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as threequarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution.

Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature.

Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less roomfor nature.

The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future. High-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials are an exception and have the potential to provide many tens of terawatts on a few percent of the Earth’ surface. Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales. Nuclear fission today represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy. However, a variety of social, economic, and institutional challenges make deployment of present-day nuclear technologies at scales necessary to achieve significant climate mitigation unlikely. A new generation of nuclear technologies that are safer and cheaper will likely be necessary for nuclear energy to meet its full potential as a critical climate mitigation technology.

all conservation efforts are fundamentally anthropogenic

Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation.

While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards. And international collaboration on technological innovation and technology transfer is essential in the areas of agriculture and energy.

  1. Garrett Connelly
    April 22, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    The historical analysis seems more modern than the suggestions, to me.

    Rather than accept military style agriculture and the five fold increase in breast cancer that the nuclear age and chemical products have undoubtedly contributed to, a drastic degrowth of economic activity to under one planet required for pollution recycling services is perhaps the fundamental technical research area that economists might recommend.

    Increases in education definitely reduce population yet may either increase or decrease consumptive Earth destruction disorder. This is also an area economists can help with. Capitalist propaganda to stimulate insatiable consumption needs could possibly be classified as an economically induced environmental crime against humanity and banned from schools as false education leading to environmental lunacy such as Europeans polluting at the rate of needing three Earths to recycle their mess.

  2. Garrett Connelly
    April 22, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Some say changing to local organic chicken for meat is the biggest first step. The US pollutes at a four planet rate of Earth recycling services and has evolved marketing to gigantic slabs of beef which are difficult to imagine one person eating.

  3. April 22, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    Mr. Connelly: they would be wrong. The best option is to use livestock (cattle especially) to enhance the capacity of grasslands to serve as a carbon sink. The carbon cycle is our friend. Indeed the solution. See Tony Lovell’s and Ichsani Wheeler’s Dubbo Tedx talks, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhSggAFw7TU and
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wgmssrVInP0

    • Garrett Connelly
      April 25, 2015 at 5:30 am

      Yes, Pearce, I’m talking about beef that looks as muscular as pro sports idols.

  4. Paul Schächterle
    April 22, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    Lauding nuclear fission and not even mentioning wind energy makes that “manifesto” somewhat suspect, IMHO.
    Fission is more or less a fiction since it is not even close to being able to actually produce energy while wind energy already produces vast amounts of energy in some countries.

    • Paul Schächterle
      April 22, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Sorry, typo: nuclear *fusion* is basically a fictional source of energy.
      Nuclear fission, unfortunately, is not a fiction but a highly dangerous reality that leaves us dangerous waste which we have to guard for 30,000 years.

  5. nicholbrummer
    April 22, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    The general message of the ‘ecomodernist manifesto’ is uncontroversial.

    However, it does contain a number of dogmas that are not obviously true. It seems to have a not very well founded preference for anything that is done at high intensity and high density. This may be often correct, but it is not a general truth.

    There is a strong preference for nuclear energy, solar energy is also approved of, but wind energy is not even mentioned. The problems with nuclear energy are assumed to be mainly social, not technical. I find that not so convincing. The current build-out of nuclear energy is not enough to replace fossil fuels.

    I also miss the mention of the all important energy efficiency improvements. These days our houses can be built to be energy neutral, or even so as to generate net electricity.

    I’m also not sure if extensive farming of cattle is necessarily a large burden on the land, if done correctly. In some climates it isn’t even possible to do intensive farming. Nature reserves and extensive farming can even mix, and have done so in many places. Such beef may be quite sustainable, if produced in moderation.

  6. nicholbrummer
    April 22, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    The main thing missing in the ‘ecomodernist manifesto’ is that it refrains from trying to formulate where and how the limits are to growth, and how it is hence also imperative to divide our resources more efficiently over a still growing world population.

  7. April 23, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    How long can neoclassical economists ignore the contributions of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen? (Herman Daly, 1999) After reading the manifesto I can reply: for ever. It’s astonishing how many people are living in the Garden of Eden.

    • Garrett Connelly
      April 25, 2015 at 5:36 am

      Yes, Nicholas blossomed wonderfully. He was a well loved man and so much fun to read; page turner, cliff hanger — What a guy.

  8. José Sousa
    • Garrett Connelly
      April 24, 2015 at 12:16 am

      Thank you, José.

      • Marko
        April 24, 2015 at 5:30 am

        Let’s see , Breakthrough Institute has teamed up with Brookings and AEI. I guess , then , I shouldn’t be surprised by this :

        ” America’s $1.3 trillion budget deficit is largely a consequence of low growth and the increasing cost of structural entitlement programs, but it can be overcome by a combination of higher growth, responsible entitlement reform, and targeted spending cuts.”

        http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/postpartisan_power

        Um , is none of that deficit due to overspending on weapons programs , and the ongoing interest expense from needless wars in the past ?

        This is Washington Consensus Ecomodernism , folks. More neoliberal big corporate giveaways , only now the big bags of green stuff will have warm and fuzzy Green labeling , to fool the hicks who’re paying for it.

        There’s a sucker born every minute.

        In the U.S. , it’s every second.

      • Garrett Connelly
        April 25, 2015 at 5:34 am

        Marko ! You have dragged the economic problem into daylight. Fantástico.

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