In April 2015 ahead of the 45th Earth Day, a group of 18 authors, including the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, released An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a report outlining how to “use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene”. Released on the 26th September in the UK, the publication outlines the authors’ beliefs that human well-being must be decoupled from environmental destruction and that alongside reducing our impact on the environment we must refrain from trying to balance nature with development if we are to “avoid economic and ecological collapse” and “make more room for nature”. This decoupling is to be achieved through several ways such as intensification, demographic change and through the use of technological substitutes.
Intensification of agriculture, energy extraction, forestry and human settlement is believed to be key to separating the natural world from ongoing human development and to enhancing nature, alleviating poverty and mitigating climate change. Authors use as evidence of this effect the fact that since the mid-1960s the amount of land needed for growing crops and animal feed for the average person has decreased by about half. Net reforestation has also been made possible in some areas such as New England due to agricultural intensification and a reduction in the use of wood as fuel.
Technology has, over history, reduced our reliance on natural ecosystems (or at least their directly obtained goods) and increased our resource-use efficiency but it has also allowed the human population, and associated consumption, to expand exponentially as well as increase the reach of society’s impact on global ecosystems. Although our consumption patterns are changing (in developing countries diets are shifting to include more meat and processed foods, while in some developed countries more sustainable protein sources are growing in popularity) and human population is predicted to peak and decline this century, globalisation and the distance between societies and the resources they consume, continues to increase. The development of technological substitutes could lower the impact our lifestyles have on ecosystems far away. Technological development supported by the report include urbanisation, nuclear power, agricultural intensification, aquaculture and desalination. On the other hand suburbanisation, low-yield farming and some forms of renewable energy production are believed to increase human demands on the environment.
In reading the manifesto one is almost convinced by their optimism and wealth of experience but it also comes across as naïve. They acknowledge that intensification in the past has brought about wide environmental degradation yet give no solutions to overcoming this. Many technologies have had disastrous unintended consequences such as pesticides yet what are the alternatives if we are to increase productivity? They state that “increasing agricultural yields can reduce the conversion of forests and grasslands to farms” and yet provide very little evidence in support. Indeed they fail to address instances where intensification and higher agricultural yields have brought about increased conversion of natural lands to farming rather than so-called land sparing, for example as seen in South America.
They also claim their manifesto will reduce global poverty but provide little evidence this is a likely outcome. Indeed intensification may not be possible for many, particularly the poorest farmers and foresters who lack access to the inputs, finance and tools required for intensification. If only available to all but the poorest then intensification threatens to increase wealth inequality. These impacts are not discussed at all in the publication. In fact much of what is written is focused on the developed world yet much of the wilderness we seek to lose in the coming decades as well as habitats important for a vast array of biodiversity are in developing countries. Where more intact ecosystems exist there are often communities reliant upon them. [Read more…]