Sunday, May 03, 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto': Truth and confusion in the same breath

I really do want to applaud the Breakthrough Institute's recently released paper called "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." It speaks with candor about the possible catastrophic consequences of unchecked climate change. It recognizes the large footprint of humankind in the biosphere. It wants to address both, and it wants to do so in a way that offers a positive vision for the human future that will attract support and, above all, action.

But, I can't applaud it because of its underlying assumption: that humans are in one category and nature in another. The key paragraph starts with the key sentence:

Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree. Even if a fully synthetic world were possible, many of us might still choose to continue to live more coupled with nature than human sustenance and technologies require. What decoupling offers is the possibility that humanity’s material dependence upon nature might be less destructive.

"Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree." This statement seems reasonable only if humans and nature are in different categories. But, they aren't--a concept that is distressingly NOT clear to most everyone who styles himself or herself as an environmentalist. Humans and their creations are as much a part of nature as everything else. Humans don't "materially depend on nature to some degree." Humans are entirely and completely dependent on nature (of which they are a part) for EVERYTHING. Even every synthetic substance uses feedstocks and energy from the natural world.

It may seem to other readers of this manifesto that it acknowledges these facts in some of its statements such as "humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere." That's where the confusion comes in. Because, while there appears to be such an acknowledgement, the authors' conclusions belie such an understanding.

The distinction I am making is not merely a semantic one. Here's how I know that the authors of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" will agree. The following is from the introduction:

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.

Humans actually cannot avoid harmonizing with nature. All our insights about how to extract an ever-increasing material prosperity from the biosphere and the crust of the Earth DEPEND on us harmonizing our thinking with the laws of nature. We exploit our understanding to increase our access to energy and other resources in order to obtain higher levels of what we regard as security and well-being.

The key question is HOW we will harmonize our thinking and actions with the nature that we are a part of. The authors call for "decoupling human development from environmental impacts." By this they mean that we should find ways to do less damage to the environment while seeking the well-being we crave. And, few who are devoted to creating a more sustainable world would argue with this. But it is when we get into the details that confusion arises.

Let us return to the fragment I quoted above concerning our dependence on the living biosphere and provide the complete context:

Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?
The role that technology plays in reducing humanity’s dependence on nature explains this paradox. Human technologies, from those that first enabled agriculture to replace hunting and gathering, to those that drive today’s globalized economy, have made humans less reliant upon the many ecosystems that once provided their only sustenance, even as those same ecosystems have often been left deeply damaged.

So much confusion here. Let's try to sort it out: Humans are completely dependent on the biosphere--yes, of course. They damage natural systems--yes with an important qualification; the word "damage" should be replaced with "alter." Humans alter natural systems without much harm to themselves--possibly in the short run, but obviously not in the long run since humans are completely dependent on the biosphere. Technology reduces humanity's dependence on nature--completely wrong. It only enables us to exploit nature more efficiently by applying our understanding of nature's recurring patterns.

Everything from agriculture to the global economy has made humans less reliant on many ecosystems--almost completely wrong. We are as dependent on the world's ecosystems as we ever were except perhaps for fuel--which we now extract mostly from deep underground in the form of fossil fuels, the burning of which threatens us with catastrophic climate change--hardly a great tradeoff. But, wait a minute! That very fuel comes from ancient ecosystems, growth from which had been buried and "cooked" under intense pressure to give us carbon fuels. And, we are not free of the hunting and gathering method. That's how we get fossil fuels and mineral resources. But I digress.

Those ecosystems (that we supposedly "formerly" depended on so much) have been deeply damaged--yes with the important qualification noted above, the word "damaged" should be replaced with "altered." So the "damage" which is really "alteration" is really the shifting of entropy upon those ecosystems away from human settlements. Again, wait a minute! There is no "away" because as our ecomodernist authors tell us "humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere."

Our ecomodernists also tell us that any limits to our growth as a species are not in evidence:

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.
To the degree to which there are fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant.

Their reference to the landmark study "Limits to Growth" first published in 1972 and then updated twice, most recently in 2004, betrays a surprising misunderstanding of the premise. What limits growth according to "Limits to Growth" is not resources, but adequate capital. Capital must be spent on maintaining the existing and exponentially expanding productive infrastructure and on mitigating ever-growing pollution of air, water and land (and now the effects of climate change) in order to maintain a livable society. At some point this capital expenditure becomes so large THAT THERE IS NO CAPITAL LEFT OVER TO INVEST IN GROWTH.

The ecomodernist authors view cities in one place as follows:

Cities occupy just one to three percent of the Earth’s surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts.

In another excerpt they recognize that cities are a vast drain on ecosystems:

It is also true that large, increasingly affluent urban populations have placed greater demands upon ecosystems in distant places — the extraction of natural resources has been globalized. But those same technologies have also made it possible for people to secure food, shelter, heat, light, and mobility through means that are vastly more resource- and land-efficient than at any previous time in human history.

The authors don't actually forget that it is absolute impacts and not per-capita impacts that matter. They say so elsewhere, just not here. But there seems to be only a dim awareness that the entropy created by cities is felt not only in distant ecosystems, but also in rural human-dominated ecosystems which are not "less efficient" than cities, only exploited by them as Howard Odum explains so eloquently in his writings. Cities do not pay the full value of raw materials from rural communities, only the cost of extraction and transport. The value that nature provides for free in trees, plants and minerals is only realized to any extent by those who process them for resale, typically those in the city. This is partly why city dwellers appear to be more efficient and end up more prosperous.

The manifesto adopts the triumphalist rhetoric of the rise of humankind over the centuries. It reminds me of Professor Pangloss who informs young Candide that "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds." But, there is an environmental twist, of course.

I confess that any narrative about a way forward that does not project an optimistic vision of the future and a path to prosperity for all is probably doomed from the start--at least, doomed not to attract very many supporters. And, we desperately need a narrative that will attract wide support to speed up a transition to carbon-free energy and to help reduce impacts on the biosphere dramatically.

What the ecomodernist narrative misses is that we are dealing with complex systems that support our very existence and that we don't really understand those systems well. When dealing with things that are so complex that they are beyond our comprehension and control--especially if we are entirely dependent on those things--the first rule is not to perturb them. They will react in unpredictable and possibly ruinous ways.

The ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute mean well. But their vision lacks the humility which nature demands if it is going to sustain us. They have a vision which has some laudable elements, but they still view humans as the ultimate arbiters of the planet. We are simply not going to "harmonize" ourselves with nature, they say defiantly. And, yet there is no escape.

A friend of mine put it aptly when he said, "We think we are great ships sailing on the sea of the biosphere, able to withstand its storms while drawing whatever sustenance we need from it as we travel. Instead, we are really corks on the ocean bobbing up and down with every wave and only imagining that we are great ships."

The biosphere is our home. We are inhabitants along with countless other species. We humans are limited creatures--clever, yes, but limited, and every one of us as much a part of nature as all other species on the planet. A positive vision of the future which takes this into account is more likely to succeed at extending the life of homo sapiens than one that still considers us as separate from nature, a view that in many ways is the cause of the very environmental challenges we are seeking to address.

Conforming human activities to the dictates of "An Ecomodernist Manifesto" will at best lead to a much more efficient version of business-as-usual. If we are really going to address the problems that threaten the survival of human culture, we're going to have to do better than that.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

The manifesto adopts the triumphalist rhetoric of the rise of humankind over the centuries.......and that entire history results from the incineration of dead lives (wood, animal, plant...). Even a nuclear reactor is just a giant teapot exploiting the thermal energy of fission to boil water, and its components were built with the thermal energy derived from burning dead things.

Anonymous said...

That "humans and nature are in different categories" is a common assumption, especially on the anti-environmentalist right. Ross McKitrick, in an article deriding 'Earth Hour', wrote "I like visiting nature, but I don’t want to live there."

King of the Road said...

Kurt, It's not like you to argue in this way. I see your point and acknowledge its validity BUT you subtly shift the goalposts in moving from "harmonizing with nature" to "harmonizing our thinking with the laws of nature."

Well, of course we harmonize our thinking with the laws of nature. When we send a rocket to Mars, we harmonize out thinking with the laws of nature. Their argument distinguishes where yours does not.

If you take that position that "we are a part of nature so all we do and think is natural" then yes, your argument is tautologically true. But it's clear that they're talking about the possibility of a distinction and your argument assumes its conclusion by saying that no such distinction can exist without arguing against how they make it.

Let me hypothesize an extreme example, one in which I don't believe in the slightest, to highlight the problem in your argument. Suppose that I come up with a way to harvest however much energy I want from the so-called "zero point energy field." Then I find a way to use this energy to transmute matter (with infinite energy, such a way can surely be found). I can now recreate the nature we've destroyed to my heart's content. Breakthrough Institute would argue that that's not "natural" but, by your argument, it is because we're a part of nature so all that we do is natural. Such broad definitions carry no meaning.

They are arguing something much less extreme than the silly hypothetical I outlined above, but you don't provide an argument against that.

Again, I firmly acknowledge the validity of the conclusions of "Limits to Growth," given its hypotheses. It's these hypotheses against which Breakthrough Institute argues.

John Weber said...

It is so easy to have "Truth and Confusion in the same breath". Do it all the time. Telling the difference, hmmmmmmm.

Kurt Cobb said...

Rob Ryan's thoughtful comments highlight the vexing history of the word "nature." "Nature" can mean the entire universe including humans and their creations. And, no human would claim that he or she is not part of the universe.

"Nature" can also mean the material world as opposed to the spiritual or mental world. It can mean our bodies as opposed to our minds. It always carries with it religious connotations as when we speak of our "earthly nature" as opposed to our spiritual life. "Nature" has an evil connotation in this context.

If we had a handy word that means "the all" or "the everything" that everyone understood, I'd be better off using that; the word "nature" spawns so very much confusion because of its deep and varied history.

"Nature" can also just mean "wild" areas untouched by human habitation. But, of course, I don't mean anything like this.

I would agree with Rob that under my definition a huge amount of energy made available to humans by the exploitation of so-called zero point energy (which we both acknowledge to be a highly improbable outcome) would be considered "natural."

But Rob should know that there is no such thing as "unlimited" energy. There are always practical limits. Still, under his improbable premise, we humans could have a lot of extra energy on our hands.

What we could not do, as he claims, is "recreate the nature we've destroyed." All we can do is alter the nature that is in front of us. We cannot reverse the entropy of the universe, that is, run the clock backwards to the point of restoring some landscape to its exact previous stage no matter how much energy we have. The whole system we live in is in constant flux. And, it is never possible to do just one thing. All our actions reverberate through other systems and affect them as well, even the act of "recreating" or "restoring."

In any case, we cannot ever fully understand a system in which we are embedded. There is no objective viewpoint from which to do so. Moreover, the systems we live is are so complex and overlapping that we will never solve the knowledge problem. What we learn in one area--say, the discovery of chlorofluorocarbons and their deployment--we become blind to in another--their effect on the ozone. As it turns out, ignorance springs up with every new invention, ignorance of its ultimate effects.

Walter said...

Another paper. More blather from a columnist (however well-respected). Let me give you an easy way to move forward. Go outside and work on something with your hands. I grow food. Not only does it give me something to eat, it also gives me an immediate view of how fast climate change and resource depletion is proceeding.

I recommend this option as it creates new capital from the soil, but there are all kinds of other manual tasks that are much more positive than writing another article.

Jason Heppenstall said...

A great essay, Kurt. It seems to me that the only decoupling going on out there is that involving people's minds from the wider ecological reality.

I confess that any narrative about a way forward that does not project an optimistic vision of the future and a path to prosperity for all is probably doomed from the start--at least, doomed not to attract very many supporters.

That's the paradox I have worked with as I wrote my book The Path to Odin's Lake It seems impossible to get anything published that doesn't offer a vision of 'hope' i.e. hope that 'everything will be fine in the end'. That's why I have woven Stoicism and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius into the story. It hope, Jim, but not as we know it.

Any attempt to further drive a wedge between ourselves and nature is a dangerous venture, in my opinion.

casamurphy said...

It seems to me that the truth underlying the age old struggle against the degradation of the environment beyond its ability to provide habitat for humans is expressed by the Buddhist concept of the oneness of life and its environment: