A new type of environmentalist: the “ecomodernist”

ecomodernistThe Breakthrough Institute recently released The Ecomodernist Manifesto which gives us a window into the mind of a new type of environmentalist: the “ecomodernist. The Ecomodernist Manifesto does not call for a tree-hugging back-to-nature movement, nor does it seek the execution of capitalism as does Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. The manifesto outlines a roadmap for creating a future in which economic growth is “decoupled” from environmental impact– in other words where prosperity is no longer dependent on the destruction of natural places. According to the manifesto, their vision requires a deliberate and sustained effort to foster technology that will allow humanity to thrive while curating wild space and biodiversity.

The assertion that economic growth and sustainability can be accomplished together is often met with a retort that capitalism is fundamentally at odds with our world of finite resources. Yet, when you look at the authors of the manifesto it is clear that they form a smart, pragmatic group of people. It’s also clear that they are genuine environmentalists. Authors include Martin Lewis, senior lecturer at Stanford University; Stewart Brand, biologist/ex-military/founder of Revive and Restore; the co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger; and many other thought leaders in the environmental arena. So, how do they believe we can pull this off?

They start off with a few observations about humanity’s impact on the environment. Amid the greater signals of environmental destruction there are some positive trends showing up that we should seek to understand and accelerate. They do not site the following trends to prove that everything is peaches and cream like controversial statistician Bjorn Lomborg has tried to do. It is more to help illuminate what aspects of our economy could be leveraged for environmental benefit.

Firstly, they challenge the idea that the average hunter gatherer lived more lightly on the land than the average person in a modern developed country. Ancient humans’ total impact was lower because of lower population levels, not because each person had a lesser impact on the landscape. It may come as a surprise that three fourths of Earth’s deforestation occurred before the industrial revolution, or that humanity was responsible for the extinction of the majority of Earth’s megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene over 10,000 years ago– see prior EcoScienceWire article for more on megafauna. Societies that currently rely on bush meat and lucrative wildlife products such as rhino horn pose hazards to biodiversity in complex tropical ecosystems. When a society is more advanced, it is able to use resources more efficiently, and in a way that has a less direct impact on the landscape. Today we use more efficient sources of energy for heat and cooking such as natural gas, and rely less on forestry products. They also cite the per capita environmental impacts of slash and burn agriculture compared to modern agriculture. Despite its setbacks, modern agriculture produces more food on less land.


Poaching is the best means of making a living in many developing countries

The authors of The Ecomodernist Manifesto point out that the per capita use of many resources is currently peaking. In developed countries the amount of water needed for the average diet has declined by twenty-five percent and the amount of forestry products per person is also declining. In developed agriculture the amount of nitrogen needed per land area has dropped. They cite improved technology as the reasons for these positive trends. I think it is important to be reminded that the environmental impacts of more advanced forms of resource utilization may be harder to track than deforestation and poaching. Nevertheless, the point is well taken that moving backwards through technological time is absolutely not an option. There are too many people and it would only cause more environmental destruction.

Lest we become lulled into a false sense of security, the authors only point out these trends to show that meaningful decoupling of economic growth from environmental destruction is possible, and in some instances has started to occur. This process will not continue to a satisfactory level on its own. According to ecomodernists, the public sector needs to pursue a sustained and aggressive effort to promote technologies that will accelerate these trends.

So, how does the developing world get up to modern living conditions without making all the same mistakes the developed world did?

The manifesto states that the developing world needs abundant, cheap, and clean sources of energy. Often times we associate energy with climate change. The word “energy” itself almost seems sullied. However, the manifesto reminds us that there is a lot of good that can be done with the right type of energy. Energy allows recycling, more food to be grown on less land, desalination, and perhaps even carbon capture one day.


Philipsburg Nuclear power plant in Germnay

So where is all this energy going to come from? It’s now scientific and political consensus that we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels… sorry climate deniers, things are going to get lonelier, but hey, the evolution-deniers might appreciate fresh company. The manifesto points out that human civilization could “flourish for centuries” on a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle or on hydrogen-deuterium fusion. Solar is making all the right advancements, and bioenergy could be a stop gap measure. Of course, there are still a lot of questions around the safety, scalability, and/or economic feasibility of these technologies. They believe that next gen solar coupled with safer, cheaper, nuclear fission could power a green economy one day.

Of course, many conversations about the environment eventually circle back to people shaking their heads and saying, “in the end it’s just a problem of over-population”. While that may be true, the most recent demographic data shows that the world population will peak this century. With a peak in sight, we can have something to plan around.

So, what kinds of things should we do as we hit peak human population levels? Ecomodernists would say the following: urbanization, aquaculture, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, and desalination. EcoScienceWire will look at each of these activities in more detail in future articles, but there certainly is a common theme. Most of these activities leave more room for nature by condensing human activities to smaller areas, and by promoting the use of abundant clean energy to power more efficient resource use. If your goal is to live in a world with wild places and biodiversity, where you can still roam around places like Yellowstone National Park or the Canadian Rockies, then urbanization is your ally. The manifesto points out that cities occupy 1-3% of earth surface but are home to 4 billion people. By 2050 seventy percent of Earth’s human population is expected to live in cities. Thankfully, urbanites have a lower ecological footprint than their suburban and rural counterparts.

Whether or not you agree with their approach, ecomodernists appear to me to be people who envision a future where technology has enabled us to do more with less so that we can leave parts of Earth for non-human life. An ecomodernist is a person with guiding principles about what they want the world to look like, a pragmatic approach, and a quest for solutions.


Photo Credit

Featured Image is from front page of The Ecomodernist Manifesto

Elephant is from Flikr

Nuclear Power Plant, Lothar Neumann via wikipedia

Deforestation, igeo news

5 replies »

  1. Adam,

    I enjoyed this blog – this is such an important topic for national discussion- economic growth and protection of our environment need not be mutually exclusive, as our republican friends would have us believe. again I think you did a nice job of distilling down the key issues and making it digestible and understandable to me – the lay person. Keep up the good and important work.


    PS: I’m pretty sure Naomi Klein- is the pen name of the one and only Naomi Fe


    • Hey Rick! Thanks so much for the comments here. For some reason this comments section wasn’t on my radar earlier otherwise I would have definitely responded earlier! Thanks so much for all the great interest and support.


  2. Thanks Adam good article . The info about cities being more eco friendly is certainly an interesting point and although you do say population is peaking i think it still needs to be part of the solution as technology is also only a part.


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