An intriguing debate was rekindled this past week involving the age-old philosophical argument regarding the role of humans in nature. This one was sparked by the publication of the so-called The Ecomodernist Manifesto, a 30-page entreaty that fundamentally changes the way in which we think about and approach the environment, technology, and human ingenuity. Eco-modernists are also affectionately known as Eco-pragmatists. While many within the established, left-leaning environmental community, such as Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, remain skeptical and even hostile to the movement, others are beginning to awaken to the real possibilities for sustainable environmental protection. Steve Hayward over at PowerLine likens it to the Protestant Reformation for environmentalism, which according to Hayward is in need of a “Martin Luther figure to nail a new 95 Theses to the front door of the Sierra Club.” The Ecomodernist website calls it
A manifesto to use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.
We offer this statement in the belief that both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.
The manifesto is signed by a number of thoughtful individuals, including Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Roger Pielke, both left- and right-of center environmentalists, conservatives and liberals. Among other things, the manifesto calls for greater urbanization, aquaculture, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, and desalination as examples of critical developments that can reduce human demands on the environment and allow more room for non-human species. Eric Holthaus over at Slate calls the manifesto an end to “People are Bad” environmentalism. We can only hope so. But ending the “people are bad” environmentalism will be difficult as that demonizing approach has made lots of money for many activists; it’s been a boondoggle that has propelled many profitable campaigns and “corrupted” many organizations.
Thanks to abundant energy, the ecomodernists argue, humanity has done wonderful things: Life expectancy is on the rise, infectious disease risk has plummeted, natural disasters kill fewer people, and abject poverty is on the decline. Of course, those gains have not come without sacrifice: We’re losing species at an incredible rate, and climate change could add ever more stress on human and natural systems. The answer, according to the authors of the new document, is to “liberate the environment from the economy.” Ecomodernists argue that by focusing the human footprint into cities and prioritizing high-efficiency agriculture and energy production, we’ll be able to retreat from nature and let it recover.
The Manifesto offers the following perspective on deployment of markets and emerging technologies to promote greater efficiencies to reduce consumption:
Modernizing processes are far from complete, even in advanced developed economies. Material consumption has only just begun to peak in the wealthiest societies. Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts will require a sustained commitment to technological progress and the continuing evolution of social, economic, and political institutions alongside these changes. Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. 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.
This is good stuff. And while I wish the authors had used a term other than “manifesto” – for all the obvious political reasons that have nothing to do with its substance – that’s about the only fault I can find with it. It’s just that it’s typically crazy people, like Hitler and unabombers, that spend timing cooking up manifestos. But in this case, the Ecomodernists’ document is laudable, cogent, and balanced, and refreshingly doesn’t promote world domination by demonizing others. Rather, the work is a simple yet profound recognition that humans, capable of destroying the environment, also have the propensity and capacity to protect it. In that one material respect, we are distinct from all other living creatures on earth.