Ecomodernism, yes or no?
Recently, I coverd the ecomodernist manifesto on this blog. Not everybody is too happy with this manifesto. José Sousa and (in a direct mail) remind us of this rebuttal (which might underestimate the alarmist nature of the manifesto). Below, some excerpts.First, however, 2 cents and 1 Euro from me.
1) The first cent: the first steps to limit global heating are simple and of an economic nature: energy nutcases like the USA and Venezuela have to end energy subsidies and to introduce energy taxes. While all countries have to start to tax kerosene. Water and meat have to become more expensive, too (low income households can be compensated using part of the proceeds). See (via Brad the Long) also this piece about the fast desertification of Texas.
2) The second cent: we are already really living in the ‘anthropocene’, the destiny of the earth is decided by man- and womankind. For better or worse. And there will, relatively fast, be 4 or 5 billion more of us (low scenario). We can’t deny these additional people (as well as the present poor) decent housing, decent food, decent healthcare and the like – which means that we do have to develop technological fixes: energy and water producing houses, better and denser cities which require less traveling by car, more productive agriculture. More and better houses and healthcare will show as ‘economic growth’. Growth is not the solution – it will be the arithmetical consequence of the solution. ‘Pay for levees, or for the ferryman‘. Aside: birth rates in many places of the earth are still way too high. But in a pretty conservative state like Iran it (the total fertility rate) has been below 2 for quite some time while in even more conservative Saoudi-Arabia it has dropped from around 7 in 1980-1985 to around 3 in 2005-2010.
3) My Euro (most of my publications are about long-term agricultural development): wheat yields in Zeeland, at the time at the efficiency border of the world, were, around 1860, 2300 kg. per hectare. In a very good year, like 1863. Nowadays, wheat yields in the entire Netherlands are in a bad year like 2007, and because of modern technology more than three times as high. Also, the sandy soil areas in the Netherlands were, in the nineteenth century and due to a tradition infield-outfield system of agriculture, prone to desertification. YES, DESERTIFICATION IN THE NETHERLANDS. Read the encyclopedial thesis of Theo Spek about (among many other issues) this process. Here, some pictures of the last remnants of these totally biodegraded areas (which we try to protect as there are some rare species of lichen to be found and because, well, we like them). Modern technology hadapted to local circumstances owever enabled us to turn most of these areas into fertile farmland (non of it has been restored to its former lustre as primeval woods). Thanks to improvements in the productivity of agriculture the Netherlands managed, despite fast population growth (5 millions around 1900, 17 millions now), to keep the per capita production of ‘arable’ calories more or less stable – though it stays dependent on large imports of food like it has (at least the cities in the west of the Netherlands) for about 500 years. The first point: we will need, on a global scale, comparable developments in a large number of countries, just to feed the world (mind that succesful technological fixes are always of a social/economic/technological nature and are often very situation specific). The second point: amazing progress can be achieved (Anybody who does not believe this is advised to investigate the development of infant and child mortality during the last 150 years). But there is no guarantee that amazing progress will take place.
Being an USA think tank, the ‘breakthrough institute’, which published the manifesto, is of course biased and partisan. But they are right to chide suburbs and inefficient agriculture (which does not mean that organic agriculture can’t ben efficient – it can, as long as it uses cutting edge technology adapted to local circumstances).By the way – all this ado about fission and fusion: at this moment fission and fusion is, in an economic sense, totally outdated due to the decline of the cost price of solar which still proceeds (solar panels are now thus cheap that low wage countries are starting to have a large cost advantage, as installment costs are by now often the larger part of total costs). Aside: they have the additional advantage (I’m having solar panels on my roof for thirteen years now) that they are extremely easy to maintain.
The excerpts (remarkably Clive Hamilton, the writer of the rebuttal, seems to see growth much more as a goal than the manifesto):
The world’s best scientists are warning that the world is warming inexorably, the oceans are becoming acidic and have turned into a “plastic soup,” and we are in the middle of the kind of mass extinction event not seen on the planet in millions of years. But don’t worry — a new breed of environmentalists has just released a manifesto declaring that, with a little faith in technology, humanity can move into a “great” new century of prosperity and universal human dignity on a thriving planet. How can this be? … Nuclear power has become an obsession for the institute, a kind of signifier by which players in the environmental debate are allocated to the “good guys” box or the “bad guys” box. In a perfect example of mimesis, the dogmatic stance of some anti-nuclear campaigners is reflected back by these pro-nuclear campaigners.
Describing themselves as “ecomodernists,” those gathered around The Breakthrough Institute are not anti-science; they are after all ecomodernists. But in order to maintain their belief in a bright new future, they must find ways to temper or reinterpret the increasingly dire warnings from the world’s scientists. The preferred strategy is to scan the world for good news stories and from them create an alternative perceptual reality. (The recently launched “Bright Spots” is a similar approach.)…In the end, however, the manifesto’s faith in technological breakthroughs means it substitutes a kind of Californian positivity for the hard reality of climate politics. As a roadmap out of our ecological and social predicaments it leads us nowhere….Yet as the scientific debate about the Anthropocene unfolded, some associated with The Breakthrough Institute began to reframe it in an unexpected way. If we live on an Earth dominated by humans, they reasoned, why not embrace our role as “the God species”? If humans have become the dominant force, why not extend our domination and turn it to the good rather than pull back?
Here the ability to set aside science is on full display. The manifesto does not say how long we will need to wait for the next generation of nuclear plants, or how much of the global carbon budget will be used up while we cool our heels. Perhaps it might take 20 years for the first plants to be built, and 40 before they are making a large dent in global emissions. By then the planet will be, in Christine Lagard’s arresting phrase, “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled,” and there will be no way to rescue the situation.
The ecomoderns’ techno-fetishism is possible only because they don’t think about politics. It is true that thinking about the politics of climate change is depressing. For those who “embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future,” the easiest path is to ignore the messy world of politics and focus one’s gaze on humankind’s amazing technological achievements.
And so in the manifesto, which tells a story of how we got here and where we should go, there is no mention of the forces, national and international, that have given us rising carbon dioxide concentrations, acidifying oceans and all the rest. We look in vain to find reference to the proven power of corporations and lobbyists to stop environmental laws, or to the total victory of money politics in the United States, now entrenched after Citizens United….The roadblock to climate mitigation has never been technological. Nor has it been economic. It has been political. The ecomoderns’ claim that we must wait for new technologies to make serious mitigation possible is not merely untrue, it is irresponsible….The technofix is in…An Ecomodernist Manifesto does not offer a new way out of the climate morass, but only a warmed-over version of the old-fashioned American technofix. Politics has gone AWOL in it. The only place politics intrudes is where the manifesto bewails social and institutional obstacles to the further spread of nuclear power…any reasonable reading rules out a rosy view of what the Anthropocene holds in store for us.