Ecomodernism: Reassuring Baby Boomers and Stuffed Rabbits

elirabbitEli Rabett

The Guardian released a piece yesterday written by a chemistry professor (who blogs and tweets as a grumpy rabbit because why not?) called The Brave New World of Ecomodernism, where he gives the concept of urbanization a good beat down. I don’t know how old this stuffed rabbit is but something tells me he’s in the Boomer demographic because he had the exact same reaction to An Ecomodernist Manifesto that my husband’s boomer stepfather, Michael, did, right down to the Adolf Huxley reference.

Michael, like the rabbit, is a man of science and is very much on the same page as I am when it comes to climate change, GMOs, and nuclear energy so it was surprising to me that some aspects of the manifesto were chilling to him. To boomers, the word ‘manifesto’ may be something that will forever be associated with Marx and Stalin. They were raised in a time where totalitarianism was a very real threat. Their parents had seen the rise of the Soviet Union. They were born just as Nazism was defeated and they witnessed the technology explosion of the space race, not to mention the threat of a seemingly inevitable nuclear war. So, it may be that urbanization, advanced technology, and totalitarianism are inextricably linked in the minds of baby boomers. After all, they grew up seeing nothing of the Soviet Union but the grey, grim cities and they watched many of the technological predictions of 1984 and Brave New World come true. They were also the first generation to push back at technology and romanticize an idyllic agricultural past.

If I’m putting myself in their shoes and looking at the manifesto through that lens, I can see why boomers could have a dark interpretation of ecomodernism. Technology(nuclear and genetic engineering in particular) and urbanization could set off deeply ingrained fears that we were heading toward The New World Order or that Oceania and Fordlandia were becoming a reality. I really do get it and I don’t want to mock or dismiss their reservations because it’s an important discussion to have.

This is where I want to reassure Michael and the rabbit that I don’t think  totalitarian city states are what the authors of the manifesto had in mind. You can tell by my header how much I love mountains. I love being in those mountains and I don’t want to lose that. The whole motivation for me getting involved as an environmental activist is that I think that nature is beautiful and I love being in it. I see ecomodernism as a way to preserve that beauty so that my kids and I will always have that. I see ecomodernism as a framework for saving nature not as an edict for a “social monoculture” or a techno-utopia.

Urbanization and technological advancement are happening with or without ecomoderism. Nobody is calling for an organized herding of humanity into city slums. Likewise, nobody is calling for social engineering or specific social structures. (One could even argue that the Deltas and Epsilons are already supporting the Alphas but that has nothing to do with ecomodernism.)

The move toward urbanization and the good news of the slow (too slow) eradication of global poverty are happening with or without ecomodernism. Where ecomodernism comes in is addressing the massive energy and food needs that will come with these trends. Ecomodernism is about how to meet these needs without decimating nature and destroying the climate further. Saving nature is the point, not walling humanity off from it or stopping rabbits from “birdwatching and botanizing.”

I think I understand where Michael and the rabbit are coming from though and I hope that they can get past the visceral reaction they have to the language in the manifesto and look at ecomodernism in terms of the suggested pragmatic approaches rather than as a sinister doctrine.

And rabbit? If you read this, I’m really sorry if I’m wrong about your age and I called you old.

A Plea to Greenpeace on World Food Day

Note: This started out as an attempt to talk about the benefits of Golden Rice and morphed into a slightly hysterical rant but I’m leaving it as is because being hysterical about hungry and malnourished children isn’t entirely inappropriate, especially on World Food Day.

I have developed a great talent for working GMOs into dinner party conversations. Believe it or not, it’s not that difficult. (Actually, it’s very difficult but I’m queen of the non sequitur.) My husband has developed an even greater talent for making a smooth u-turn away from the group when he hears certain GMO-related keywords and phrases, one of those being ‘Golden Rice’. I love Golden Rice. It’s the reason I became so passionate about the potential of GMOs. I love it so much that if my kids weren’t little, I would fly to Bangladesh to help guard the test fields. I hate long flights, bugs, and dirt so this is a big deal for me. (I don’t do candlelight vigils or hold up posters but I’d throw my body across these rice fields to save them.)

Golden Rice is a white rice which has been genetically modified to produce beta-carotene (Vitamin A). According to the World Health Organization:

Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children and increases the risk of disease and death from severe infections. In pregnant women VAD causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.

Also from the World Health Organization:

  • An estimated 250 million preschool children are vitamin A deficient and it is likely that in vitamin A deficient areas a substantial proportion of pregnant women is vitamin A deficient.

  • An estimated 250 000 to 500 000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.

Those are huge numbers – up to a half a million children are blind or dead because their diets don’t contain enough Vitamin A. That would be like losing every kid in my city, every year. (By the way, these are conservative numbers. I’ve seen anywhere from 2 million to 6 million.) It’s almost impossible to wrap your head around those numbers. The reason for this massive problem is that a large part of the world depends on one staple crop, rice, to meet all of its nutritional needs. Modifying rice to produce beta-carotene could potentially save the eyesight and the lives of millions of people each year.

You can read more about the history of Golden Rice here. In summary though, it’s been around for a long time and has had to overcome numerous hurdles, including violence, to see the literal light of day. Hopes are high and fingers are crossed all over the world as the first field tests of Golden Rice are set to begin in November in Bangladesh, where according to the Bangledeshi Rice Research Institute (BRRI):

Consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of vitamin A for an adult. People in Bangladesh depend on rice for 70 percent of their daily calorie intakes.

And here is where I go completely off the rails and beg Greenpeace and its associates not to destroy these fields again. I know they think this is some giant multinational corporate conspiracy to control the world’s food supply. I know they think that it’s better to pass out vitamin supplements and encourage home gardens and nobody is saying those aren’t part of the solution but they aren’t enough. I am begging them to be on the right side of history. Their opposition to Golden Rice is understandable because then their anti-GMO house of cards might collapse if people stopped fearing the technology but is that really worth destroying the potential to save millions of lives? Children’s lives? Is winning a manufactured war on a technology worth the lives of millions of babies? (I’m working myself up into a froth.)

Nobody is trying to control the world’s food supply (whatever that even means) with Golden Rice. The Gates Foundation and the rest of the scientists and humanitarians involved in this project aren’t part of some nefarious scheme.

Officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation confirmed that as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice when released for commercial farming in Bangladesh will be of the same price as other rice varieties, and farmers will be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.

I feel like Rumpelstiltskin jumping up and down, ripping my hair out. THERE IS NO CONSPIRACY. It’s about starving, blind human beings.

Greenpeace does great things. I admire their defense of our oceans, especially the work they’ve done on the issues with tuna. I am with them on so much but not on GMOs and especially not on Golden Rice. It’s too important and there are too many lives at stake.  It’s World Food Day. Can we agree at least today that we all have the same goals in eliminating world hunger and malnutrition? Is there any chance Greenpeace would call a truce on GMOs for just a minute to “unite on hunger” and give Golden Rice a shot at succeeding?

I have no idea if petitions do any good but here’s one about condemning any attempts to destroy the field tests if you think they do.

I hope everyone has a great weekend. Maybe take a minute on World Food Day to be grateful for how many food choices we have because most people don’t.


Why GMO?

“When people go on the social media and start telling me that any farmer can go organic and should, I know that they know nothing about farming. They know nothing about losing your livelihoods to diseases.”

This is from the perspective a real farming family in Hawaii whose papaya farm was saved by genetic engineering, as were most of the papaya farms in Hawaii. The whole blog is great since most of us don’t know much about farming. (Gardens are not the same thing as farms.) Peace,


So why do farmers need biotechnology?

If you look closely at the image above, you can see tiny rings on the skin of the papaya. It looks like no big deal but in reality it’s the most dreadful thing a farmer can find. It’s caused by a little bug called the leafhopper. It flies around fields and takes little tastes of plants only to infect it with the virus. One could spray for these critters but once a plant is bit, sprays are ineffective.

Beneath that healthy looking plant is a disease that slowly weakens the it over time. Many farmers would see these rings on their fruit and think nothing of chopping down a tree with lots of good looking fruit on it. These trees are loaded with papayas. It’s money sitting on those trunks. The leaves show no sign of disease so a threat doesn’t appear imminent.


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McMansions and Minivans for all Mankind.

Watching the reactions to the roll out of Ecomodernism has been fascinating to me. I never realized how much infighting and competition there was between the different schools of thought within environmentalism. It’s given me a bit of a clue as to why a large chunk of the American public is mostly disengaged from the discussion and why politicians are able to get away with making climate-change either a non-issue or, at best, a back-burner one. My perception, as an outsider, of the environmentalist movement has always been that it’s vaguely anti-human (and sometimes not so vaguely) and that it’s somewhat centered around the concept of degrowth. As a Humanist, I was drawn to Ecomodernism because it values both the well-being of the planet and the well-being of humans. Evidently, arguing that economic development can ultimately be good for both is a sacrilege.

Some circles seem to be interpreting this positive stance on economic growth as somehow advocating McMansions and minivans for all mankind or that Ecomodernists think that everyone on the planet should strive toward Western materialism and consumerism. This isn’t how I interpret it. I see it as the acknowledgement that trends like a decrease in infant mortality and humans moving out of poverty are good trends but that with more people and less poverty there will be an increased demand for energy. It’s common sense.

Moving out of poverty means a person will want things like electricity and refrigeration. Refrigeration means a reduction in foodborne illness. That’s good, right? Economic development means more access to better healthcare. That’s also a good thing but how much energy does a hospital require? Should entire populations be denied the life-saving technologies we have? What about air-conditioning? (I live in Florida where it’s hot as hell so I will start a war if someone takes my air-conditioner.) Look at the heatwaves in India this year. Air-conditioning use skyrocketed there this summer but only for those who could afford it so the poorest were the hardest hit. We can’t have it both ways. You can’t eliminate poverty without increasing energy demands. You can’t accept that Earth is getting hotter without acknowledging the human suffering that will come along with it.

I don’t think anyone in the Ecomodernist camp thinks that adopting unfettered capitalism and Hollywood-style consumption (yeah, you guys are the worst so shut up) is a fantastic idea. That this is a raging capitalist free-for-all might be a misinterpretation on the right as well. They can cool their jets because I would want the shit regulated out of anything with the word “nuclear” in front of it. Plus, I think that any reasonable solutions will involve government and the private sector and even…[gasp]the United Nations.

Economic progress doesn’t have to look the same in every society and every culture and I hope that the developing world learns from our mistakes. I live in a place where forests are knocked down weekly to make room for more cookie-cutter houses and where old strip malls are abandoned as new ones are built.  Nobody should aspire to the land of parking lots and 7-Elevens. I would never champion that sort of approach to urbanization and I doubt the authors of An Ecomodernist Manifesto had that in mind either. (Wanting humans to be able to refrigerate their chicken or get an x-ray for a broken leg is not the same as calling for a television in every room and an annual Carnival Cruise.)

To me, the degrowth idea is fantasy land even if it’s philosophically the best approach. There would either have to be a huge cultural shift, which we don’t really have time for if we’re going to decarbonize fast enough, or it would require violent force, at least in the United States. Any country where people would rather shrug at the mass murder of children (“Stuff Happens”) than give up their basement arsenals, isn’t going to happily accept government policies that they perceive as forcing them to sacrifice, well, anything. We can hang out all day and chat about how much that sucks but that’s not going to build a clean energy infrastructure or feed a growing population. It’s a waste of time.

I think that the degrowth message has had a role in creating climate-change doubt as well. This piece came out in The Guardian a few weeks ago: Forget ‘Developing Poor Countries, It’s Time to de-develop’ Rich Countries. That’s playing right into the fears of people who deny climate-change plus the implication of what he’s saying about poor countries is horrifying. Just the headline gives the hard-right in this country all they need to dig in on their position that global warming is a socialist plot to take all their money and make their fetuses gay. Even the rational center-right crowd is going to be freaked out by that article and will be more apt to side with the deniers.

The author of this piece also throws out suggestions from the book, How Much is Enough, such as banning advertising or a basic income. I agree with him about over-consumption in rich countries. We do use a hell of a lot of energy and have an enormous ecological footprint but I don’t see how banning advertising will make an impact on consumption fast enough. If the author really believes that things are so dire that we’re “blowing past our planetary boundaries at breakneck speed”, then how exactly is the degrowth approach proactive enough to make an impact in time? If we accept this tipping point, why is the degrowth crowd wasting time on banning things? And why are they arguing against a clean energy technology that we already have? At which planetary boundary does nuclear become an option? Does it need to save 7 million lives? 8 million? What is the magic number where it becomes attractive? Or are human lives not actually the point? Because unless there is some apocalyptic event that culls the herd (sometimes I think that extremists on both sides are hoping for that), we are going to have more humans demanding more energy and more food.

Many of my new scientist and environmentalist friends will accuse me of oversimplifying and I completely agree but while they’re fighting about technology tribalism and Holocene conditions, they’re forgetting that the people who affect policy are usually elected by those who don’t have time to ruminate in their endless, exhausting words so there’s got to be a plan that will appeal to normal people. Bottom line – the fight for the planet is political and ordinary people don’t want to engage in fights about global hectares so it’s got to be simplified and it’s got to be pragmatic.

It’s time for unrealistic, dreamy ideas like degrowth to be retired along with the militant Earth First, anti-human ideas because humans tend to move forward and grow whether you like it or not, and funnily enough, humans are generally pro-human. Ecomodernism is just a framework to me, not dogma, but it’s a framework that could realistically engage a larger part of the general, voting population. Right now, it seems like the only people who are engaged are great thinkers but they’re wasting time fighting with each other.


EcoModernism and Coal: Or How to Get Out of Thanksgiving Dinner

In the unlikely event that this blog gets picked up by unfriendly forces, meaning anyone besides my friends and Twitter buddies, I want to make a full disclosure that I am directly tied to the coal industry. I probably don’t need to disclose that because advocating for nuclear energy and climate-change action is basically joining the war on coal and directly going against the financial interests of one side of my family. 

We aren’t coal barons or anything but we’ve owned land in Eastern Kentucky for probably a hundred years or more and this land is leased to mining companies. Since I inherited my little chunk, there hasn’t been much mining action because the coal industry is effectively dead or dying in that part of the country.

I hope I’m never faced with the ethical dilemma of what to do if there is suddenly a turnaround for Kentucky coal. A turnaround would mean that we’ve slid backwards on the climate (and probably elected stupid Donald Trump) but I will admit that there is a part of me that finds it hard to wish against a turnaround because I know how economically devastating the mining stoppage has been to the people of Eastern Kentucky. I’ve never been there but that’s where my family originated, where my dad spent summers, and where my relatives are buried so I feel emotionally connected to them. (Except for Kim Davis. I don’t feel connected to her at all.) As the coal industry dies, I hope we remember that it’s made up of human beings who are just trying to feed their families. We like the good vs. evil narrative but reality is never that simple. These are human beings who deserve to be a part of the global goals on poverty.

I’ll also be faced with what to do with any money I receive as the result of mining. I love my family so I would never do anything to hurt them plus they are my last connection to my dad.  (My conservative dad would have been just as annoyed at me as my liberal mom.) I’m  not the type to throw myself in front of a dump truck of coal in protest so nobody is ever going to write a book about my bravery. If I ever receive any money, I’ll upgrade my WordPress blog and donate the rest to a local hospice organization. How’s that for a rallying cry? I’m sure Big Coal is terrified of a mom with a PREMIUM template.

I wanted to put this out there in order to be transparent and to go ahead and call myself a hypocrite before anyone else does. (I own an SUV as well so I really suck.)  I also want to make the point that any real advances on climate-change are going to be driven by ordinary people (voters) with conflicted, messy lives. Most of us aren’t lifetime environmentalists with spotless eco-track records and few of us can say that we haven’t benefited from industrialization and fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean we don’t belong in the conversation and that we shouldn’t fully participate. Nothing will ever move forward if we don’t.
[This post started out as another story about how breaking ranks from my family’s ideology is a bit difficult which then turned into how this Thanksgiving could be interesting. You know…”Hey! I’m trying to kill your livelihood by shutting down coal and by the way, these organic vegetables aren’t actually pesticide-free.” I decided nobody needs that story but that I still like this sad, little turkey so I kept him.]