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.