The Case for Ecomodernism

Can technology liberate nature from humanity?



In recent years many scientists have come to use the term “the Anthropocene” for the geological era that started when human beings began to alter the earth’s environment in a major way — defined variously as the mass extinctions produced by Ice Age hunters, the transformation of landscapes by Neolithic farmers, or more recently, with the industrial revolution. Dubbing themselves “ecomodernists,” a group of environmental thinkers associated with the Breakthrough Institute have published a new manifesto calling for a “good Anthropocene.” They write: “A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

Their point is simple and irrefutable: in an industrialized world with billions of people, there can be no return to a planetary ecosystem unaffected by human activity. The only relevant question is how human civilization and the biosphere can best co-exist. The ecomodernist answer is a maximum “decoupling” of technological civilization from the biosphere. As Jesse Ausubel and Martin W. Lewis among others have argued for decades, decoupling means replacing biomass like wood and wool and leather with other materials for energy, fiber and tools.

The decoupling of humanity from the biosphere also involves the migration of most people on earth from farms to cities, a migration enabled by the productivity of high-tech agriculture. “Farm sprawl” has done far more damage to the earth’s environment than suburban sprawl. Farms and ranches take far more land from wilderness than all the cities and suburbs in the world combined.

Industrial agriculture has its own side-effects, including the contamination of water by fertilizers and massive consumption of fossil fuels. But industrial agriculture produces far more food on far less land than traditional agriculture, allowing vast tracts of former farmland to revert to wilderness. New technologies like genetically-modified (GM) crops and even “cultured meat” grown in clean laboratories from stem cells promise to reduce the acreage used to produce food even further — to the benefit of wilderness.

Although the terms “ecomodernism” and “decoupling” and “rewilding,” like the phrase “Anthropocene,” are new, the idea of using technology to minimize human competition for the earth’s surface with wildlife is not. The British science writer Nigel Calder outlined his own version of ecomodernism, calling it “the environment game” in his 1967 book of that title. In Calder’s utopia, humanity would live on synthetic food in enclosed cities with a high degree of recycling. Most of the earth’s surface would revert to wilderness, which Calder imagined would be explored in nonintrusive ways both directly and by means of remote sensors and computers. (Imaginative as he was, Calder did not envision billions of people mesmerized by Facebook and viral cat videos).

Around the same time, the environmentalist thinker Paul Shepard came to similar conclusions from different premises. Anticipating today’s Paleo Diet enthusiasts, Shepard believed that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers had enjoyed healthier and more challenging lifestyles than the stunted peasants of Neolithic times and modern industrial proles, fueled for drudge-work for landlords or capitalists by an unhealthy, grain-heavy diet. In The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973) among other books, Shepard argued that agriculture has been a social as well as an ecological disaster. In his utopia, Americans fed by synthetic food would live in high-tech cities along the coasts, in order to allow the continental interior to become wilderness parks, in which young people would venture to re-connect with humanity’s Paleolithic roots. Shepard despised livestock, which he considered to be moronic mutants compared to healthy wild animals. Like many great thinkers Shepard was a bit crazy, but I for one find his vision more appealing than the neo-Neolithic vision of emptying the cities and returning to peasant agriculture a la Pol Pot.

You might think that the mainstream environmental movement would have embraced something like this vision of high-technology, recycling-based cities with small geographic footprints in a rewilded earth long ago. But what is called the environmental movement is actually a collection of distinct movements. Two schools of thought in particular reject the ecomodernist vision: the neo-Malthusians and the back-to-the-land movement. Neither movement is progressive; each originated on the political right.

Named after the British thinker Thomas Malthus, Malthusianism in the nineteenth century provided upper-class conservatives with the argument that there was no point in trying to ameliorate the condition of the poor, because that would only allow them to breed to the point of starvation. In the twentieth century, neo-Malthusianism became a fad among affluent whites in the U.S. and Europe who became obsessed with alleged overpopulation in non-white developing countries as well as their own. Malthusianism tends to be associated with conservatism of a highly reactionary kind, because it treats birth rates as a variable to be manipulated while ignoring technological innovation and treating class and power relations within societies as fixed.

The racial and class biases of neo-Malthusianism are evident, in the argument that global underdevelopment is caused, not by bad policies or unequal distribution of economic gains, but by “natural” limits to growth imposed by resources or pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. Neo-Malthusians who argue that the earth is overpopulated naturally lash out against any suggestion that technology-based economies, combined with liberal democratic reforms, can allow billions of people on earth to enjoy higher living standards than they do today, while freeing vast tracts of former farmland for wilderness.

Farming in Bolivia on cleared rainforest
Farming in Bolivia on cleared rainforest

The back-to-the-land movement is the other strain of environmentalism that is predictably hostile to the message of ecomodernism. The back-to-the-landers want the “eco” without the “modernism.”

Like the Matlhusians, the back-to-the-landers originated on the reactionary right in the early 20th century, with groups like the Southern Agrarians and Ralph Borsodi, who was influenced by Jeffersonian agrarianism. The expansion of the universities after World War II created a huge new audience for ideas about the alleged superior virtue of rural life and the evils of modern industrial and urban civilization.

Back-to-the-land romanticism survives today, in a commercialized form, in the fetish for everything “organic.” But as a cultural force, this version of environmentalism peaked in the 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter, the honest peanut farmer, symbolized a return to Jeffersonian innocence and the natural foods advocate Euell Gibbons asked TV viewers in a 1974 commercial: “Ever eat a pine tree?” Today’s trendy upper-middle-class Millenial hipsters dream of operating a microbrewery in Brooklyn, not skinning goats and churning butter in rural Vermont. Stewart Brand, editor of the Bible of the back-to-the-land movement, The Whole Earth Catalog, is one of the supporters of the ecomodernist movement. He believes that a combination of urbanization and nuclear energy is the best way to help the biosphere and avert global warming.

It might be expected that environmentalists whose chief concern is global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions would embrace the ecomodernist label. After all, they tend to view climate change mitigation chiefly as a technological problem, with technological solutions, including alternatives to fossil fuels in energy generation and transportation.

But some of these potential allies of ecomodernism are upset because some of the signers of the ecomodernist manifesto agree with environmental thinkers like James Hansen and James Lovelock that CO2-free nuclear energy should be part of the mix of any energy program designed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, the non-hydrocarbon energy sources favored by conventional environmentalists — windmills and solar panels — tend to require vast amounts of land, because sunlight and wind are such diffuse sources of energy. Nuclear energy presents localized problems of pollution, but unlike solar power and wind power it spares land for wilderness, instead of competing with wild fauna and flora for acreage.

Some Greens have accused ecomodernists like Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute of being “conservative” or “neoliberal.” This is the opposite of the truth. Many ecomodernists share the New Deal liberal tradition of support for state-sponsored technological innovation and public enterprise, symbolized by public agencies like the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The true “neoliberals” among Greens are those whose vision of environmental progress involves taxpayer subsidies to rich people who invest in uneconomical solar and wind power production, via crony-capitalist scams like “renewable energy portfolios”and “cap-and-trade” pseudo-market, in which the public absorbs the costs of more expensive energy and private investors reap government-guaranteed profits.

Nobody would accuse Franklin D. Roosevelt of being a “neoliberal.” Here is Roosevelt in a speech he gave at Milton Academy in 1926, before he became governor of New York and president of the United States, describing the promise of advanced technology.

Roosevelt mocked those in his day who predicted falsely that the world was about to run out of energy sources:

Do you remember that only a few years ago we were worrying about the day, soon to arrive, when there would be no more coal, and , therefore, no more power or light? Scientists told us not to worry, that a substitute would be found in plenty of time to save us from utter freezing and darkness. Yet, if you look back to the newspapers of the time, you will find volumes written and spoken in favor of the careful conservation of coal, with dire predictions of the fate ultimately in store for the world.

Roosevelt accurately predicted: “Power and light will cost less and less, and our lives will be altered to meet their new cheapness.” Back in 1926, FDR also foresaw the possibility that technology would transform or eliminate traditional agriculture:

Finally, chemistry is entering into a new realm — the production of food by synthetic processes. We dislike the thought of substituting a farinaceous pill for our morning cereal, or a tablet for our eggs: we shudder at an apple or a peach made in twenty-four hours in a laboratory. Yet chemistry is to-day developing efficient substitutes for the fruits of the field and the yield of animal life; and it is more than possible that economic law will force upon our race a synthetic diet….If science can make one acre yield what ten did before, and at the same time decrease the demand for agricultural produce, there seems little possibility of checking the flow of the human race into urban communities, for those cities will have solved at last the question of their food supply.

FDR was right then, and the ecomodernists are right now. The technological intensification of food production, including perhaps even what Franklin Roosevelt in 1926 called “a synthetic diet,” can feed a world of billions of city-dwellers — while allowing many former farms and pastures around the world to revert to the wild. That is a vision of a good Anthropocene worth fighting for. •

Photos by Plant Chicago via Flickr (Creative Commons) and Sam Beebe via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

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