How to discuss the environment in the media: Step one, call up two caricatures from central casting, one from the “market-good-regulation-bad-freedom-murica” department and one from the First Church of Impending Doom. Step two, let them yell past each other for a couple of minutes. This, we’re told, is “the conversation."
This is frustrating, since our relationship to the natural environment is one of the defining challenges of our time and it seems to be getting little to no serious discussion in the public sphere. One side seems bent on denying that there’s a problem (a time-tested means of problem solving) and the other seems bent on making sure that we’re all very, very sorry about what we’ve done. Both seem more keen on affirming their dogmas than offering a constructive way forward.
Enter Ecomodernism, a seeming “third way” to not only frame the discussion of the environment, but also to guide our thinking about the world that we’d like to build together.
In a nutshell, Ecomodernism is a movement whose goal is to create a “good Anthropocene,” by accelerating the process of decoupling the economy and the environment. In their words: “Humans should seek to liberate the environment from the economy.” The way in which they propose to do this involves “intensifying” human activities such as agriculture, energy extraction, urbanization and forestry so that it uses less resources while delivering more outputs. Doing so will lessen the human footprint on the earth, allowing more nature to remain unused.
Of course, intensifying these activities leads Ecomodernists to embrace technologies perceived as anathema to the “Old Green” agenda. Ecomodernists see nothing inherently wrong with industrial agriculture, GMOs, desalinization, nuclear energy or carbon capture. In fact, some of these things may be necessary to meet the legitimate demands of developing countries for electricity, a secure food supply and material comforts.
The Ecomodernist manifesto advances the following propositions.
- There has never been a better time to be alive; our lives are freer, longer, healthier and more comfortable than ever before in history. But the technologies that make human life awesome in this day and age come with dangerous side effects that need to be addressed. Addressing them means more technology and less finger wagging.
- In order to achieve economic growth (which is necessary to meet the demands of a still-growing population), we have to separate economic growth from environmental impact. This is known as decoupling. First we have to relatively decouple, as in emit fewer tons of CO2 per percentage of GDP growth. Then, we have to absolutely lower the consumption of primary environmental inputs. This process is already well on its way for other environmental inputs, such as water and wood for example.
- We need to move beyond the myth that early human societies lived more lightly on the land than we do. Previous societies lived “lightly” because they had drastically fewer people. Yet, even in absolute terms, “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.” Per capita, even our wasteful, consumerist society is lighter than less technological societies.
- Access to energy is key to a better life. We take it as given that we should extend access to energy to all of those who currently do not have it. Theres is debate on how to do it, but energy has to be “cheap, clean, dense and abundant.” A combination of incremental improvements to existing technologies and funding for novel breakthroughs should be pursued.
- In most cases, there is no single baseline prior to human modification to which nature might be returned. This is why all “conservation” efforts are essentially anthropogenic. There must still be a conservation politics and a wilderness movement to demand more wild nature for aesthetic and spiritual reasons, but we should not try to defend it in terms of utility.
- Ecomodernism does not conflate modernization with capitalism. The “modernism” in Ecomodernism is a "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.” We believe that a more abundant society can afford to subsidize important but non-economic facets of human society like art, culture, health and spirituality.
Ecomodernism appeals to me for two reasons. The first is that it is realistic and pragmatic. It does not deny basic facts of human existence: that we are a technological species and that we will continue to strive to make our (material) lot in life better. The second reason is that is a counter-narrative to Old Green mentalities which mixed too many non-productive elements together. Old Green was too focused on emotions of guilt and portents of doom. Old Green environmentalism also treats environmentalism as a trojan horse to sneak in all sorts of other critiques to which it is not naturally related, such as "Capitalism," "Western Values" and god knows what else.
Is it a panacea for all of the world’s problems? No. But, frankly, I’m sick of silver-bullets. They often as not blow up in your face.