Meet “Eco-Modernism”—The New Face of 21st Century Environmentalism

For a long time I’ve been arguing that environmentalism needs its own Protestant Reformation, with a Martin Luther figure to nail a new 95 Theses to the front door of the Sierra Club (on recycled paper, of course).  The first attempt at this was Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus’s 2007 book Breakthrough: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists.  Though Michael and Ted are left-leaning figures, they broke with many of the main points of orthodox environmentalism in this book, and thereby made a lot of enemies.

Yesterday, a larger circle of center-left thinkers unveiled “Eco-Modernism: A Manifesto,” which extends the work of these renegades to chart a new course for environmentalism.  Just for one example, the manifesto embraces nuclear power!  I never thought I’d live long enough to see anyone from the environmental camp come out publicly for nuclear power: Jane Fonda would beat them up. (Privately, I have had several environmentalists in significant positions of influence tell me that the single biggest mistake the environmental movement ever made was opposing nuclear power back in the 1970s. But many organizations feel constrained from publicly changing their mind because their mailing-list memberships would blow a gasket.)  And you’ll also note that this manifesto is blessedly free of the usual jargon, especially “sustainable development.”

One of the terms of art in ecology today is that we live in the “Anthropocene” era, in other words, a geological age determined by the actions of humans. For orthodox or old school environmentalists, this is another term of Malthusian dread. For Eco-Modernists, it is an age to be embraced and celebrated! From the opening:

As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. 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.

In this, we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.

This is an environmentalism that is hopeful, confident, pro-human, and pro-technology.  It is more open-ended about the future, skeptical of Malthusian doomsday claims and attitudes, and scornful of the dogmatism that hobbles the “mainstream” environmental establishment today. It is also realistic about the energy needs of the developing world, and not buying the energy romanticism of the climate campaign that the world’s energy needs can be met with sunbeams, wishful thinking, and unicorn flop sweat.  (Hence the embrace of nuclear power.)

The Eco-Modernist manifesto is a long and thoughtful document, but if you haven’t time for the whole thing, here are a few of the more worthy highlights:

Despite frequent assertions starting in the 1970s of fundamental “limits to growth,” there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future. . .

Even as human environmental impacts continue to grow in the aggregate, a range of long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts. . .

The specific technological paths that people might take toward climate mitigation remain deeply contested. Theoretical scenarios for climate mitigation typically reflect their creators’ technological preferences and analytical assumptions while all too often failing to account for the cost, rate, and scale at which low-carbon energy technologies can be deployed. . .  Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy.

Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. The scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future.

Having watching this effort unfold over the last few years, I can report first hand that the environmental establishment—the Sierra Club in particular, but also other organizations I can name—have reacted viscerally against the early expressions of Eco-Modernism, chiefly on account of their intellectual and organizational corruption.

And here’s the New York Times‘s favorable report on Eco-Modernism.

POSTSCRIPT: Several commenters below have picked on the phrase “stabilize the climate,” and have done so for the right reason.  However, I believe most of the authors/signers of the manifesto do not mean it in the precise way it is being read by some here: they do not mean that the climate should be “stable” or in a steady state and never change for any reason, but that human influences on the climate should be rendered neutral.  Some of them I know are skeptical of the catastrophic climate scenarios, and even open to the idea that some human influence to warm the world might not be a bad thing.  In any case, it would be a mistake to fix on this one point to overlook how strongly this document breaks with environmental orthodoxy overall.  Just watch: I expect the Center for American Progress, Bill McKibben, and many other usual suspects to launch bitter attacks on this manifesto.

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