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What is Ecomodernism?

In recent years, a group of academic scientists, ecologists and economists realised that the way they viewed the world and its problems had much in common, contrasting starkly with that of many traditional green organisations. These ‘ecomodernists’, made their combined conclusions available in April 2015 with the release of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

Here’s an Excerpt:

“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.

Although we have to date written separately, our views are increasingly discussed as a whole. We call ourselves eco-pragmatists and ecomodernists. We offer this statement to affirm and to clarify our views and to describe our vision for putting humankind’s extraordinary powers in the service of creating a good Anthropocene.”

‘Skimmable’ version of complete manifesto

Table of differences to traditional greens

My Opinion

The whole Ecomodernist doctrine is great. It’s rooted in common sense, expert opinion and pluralism. Ecomodernists welcome criticism, and publish it on the main website. You can find numerous presentations from most of the signatories on YouTube, each giving clear, logical, thoughtful lines of argument. They sometimes put themselves right in the firing line, bravely taking on whole audiences who pick holes in the manifesto’s principles. I applaud them for this.

My only criticisms are that they have nothing officially to say about carbon pricing or geoengineering. Perhaps this is because they don’t all agree on the issues. I agree with Roger Pielke (a signatory) that carbon pricing done wisely (i.e. levied at the mine or port of entry and 100% rebated to households) would help speed up decarbonisation by incentivising consumers and industry to alter consumption patterns and encouraging new investment in clean energy solutions.

On geoengineering, let’s face it we’re going to need it. Atmospheric CO2 passed the ‘safe’ 350ppm mark 30 years ago in 1987. Today’s emissions have plateaued, but absent a global wartime-type program to deploy 10s of thousands of 10GW 4th generation nuclear reactors to power CO2 sequestration, the chance of getting back to 350ppm even this century is nil in the current political climate. Therefore I think further geoengineering research should be carried out asap, to minimise the chance of total disaster if abrupt climate change suddenly starts happening or otherwise irreversible tipping points set in. David Keith (another signatory) did a good job of explaining the issues here on BBC Hardtalk  in 2014, so it’s surprising the manifesto makes no mention.

Summary of the Ecomodernist Manifesto

 Clive Elsworth, March 2017

The Anthropocene

The Earth has become a very human planet and humanity has flourished here. Today’s societies are safer and freer than ever, and there are no real limits to the growth of human consumption. We have what we need to continue flourishing for millennia. However, our impacts are seriously damaging the world’s ecosystems. Many people suffer from immediate local environmental problems, indeed long term global threats loom.

Human impacts on the Earth have been so profound that they will last for millions of years and as such, the present era is now thought of as a geological epoch – the Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene would mean not just better lives for people, but in addition a stable climate and protected natural world. How can we continue to flourish in a damaged biosphere?


Decoupling Human Flourishing from Natural Ecosystems

Nature unneeded, is nature spared. Decoupling enables less destruction of nature.

Relative Decoupling

Relative decoupling is driven by technological trends.

Environmental protection is enabled by making human activities more productive and, as such, technology has enabled a reduced impact on natural eco-systems. For example, per-capita use of land for agriculture has vastly reduced, enabling reforestation. Peaking resource use and peaking consumption have led to employment sectors that use less natural resources, providing opportunities to re-wild and re-green.

Early humans each needed far more land than the average person today. In contrast, today’s urban populations enjoy the most land efficient fruits of globalization ever, notwithstanding modern processes have made possible bigger human populations and consumption. Increased decoupling will require conscious acceleration of technological substitutes.

Absolute Decoupling

Absolute decoupling is driven by demographic trends. Agricultural efficiency has enabled the growth of cities, and cities engender lower human fertility. With human populations peaking, further human impact on nature will be curbed.


Decarbonizing Energy

Energy consumption will continue to rise because billions of people aspire to modern living standards, therefore plentiful modern energy is needed to decouple economic development from nature. Given that climate mitigation will require rapid decarbonization, this will require a fundamental change in the technology of new power systems. Most societies that have decarbonised so far have done so by switching electricity generation either from coal to gas or coal to traditional nuclear power.

Most forms of renewable energy are insufficiently scalable to fully power the world’s economies, and people often fail to account for the cost and required scale of their preferred new energy source. Solar power might make a significant contribution if storage and smart grids can be deployed at scale, however ‘Generation 4’ nuclear will almost certainly be needed to provide sufficient cheap energy to sequester enough CO2 to stabilise the climate.

Rapid transition will require sustained public support.


Re-Wilding Natural Environments

Global ecological challenges are not a pressing concern for most people, for good reason. But we know that nature is important at least for psychological and spiritual well-being. So, is it fair to deny future generations today’s biodiversity? (As our forebears denied theirs to us.) If not, conservation science alone cannot indicate what to preserve, and there is no credible ‘baseline’ to which nature should be restored. We will have to choose which ecosystems to re-wild. For example, wild nature can be protected on land less intensively farmed.

However, shrinking our impact on nature does not require us all to ‘harmonise’ with it by living in it. A widespread return to subsistence farming would be disastrous because it does not support modern living standards and excessive human dependence on natural environments degrades them.

A Context for Modernisation

Modernization liberates people and does not mean increased capitalism and corporate power. It is for national and local institutions to make responsible and effective decoupling choices. Sustained commitment is needed from both private and public sectors – and internationally. Movements demanding more wild nature are to be encouraged.

An ecologically vibrant planet is now inseparable from human prosperity. Let’s eschew dogmatism and encourage a dialogue of pluralism and tolerance in service of creating a great Anthropocene.

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