Just recently I was triggered by an interview in a Dutch newspaper about a new movement: eco-modernism. The article was a lot of nonsense, running forward away from problems to try to maintain the luxury life we have. Examples given where laughable: One Woolf entering the Netherlands, as an example of nature restoring. It was just that the Woolf took a wrong turn and ended on a ecoduct crossing the highway to Holland from Germany. Science from the pub that is.
But thats just one single interview. What is it really about? The roots seem to be a manifesto published by a group of people, scientists, writers, university researchers of all kinds, a film maker and a writer. Among them Mark Lynas, who made a complete change of views as in his previous books.
So I start reading the manifesto . With an open mind, since I am constantly looking for two things: where am I wrong in my own analyses, and secondly where is the way out, what did I miss that maybe is huge opportunity out of this mess? But I was disappointed. It turned out to be a lot of words, free rides, and wishful thinking. Unfortunately.
In general its posed that humanity can continue to flourish, and keep up todays standards, if we forget about emotions and start organizing ourselves in cities, increase agriculture output , use nuclear power and solar renewables. In other words, if we give technology a chance.
A important point is that absolute decoupling is at the horizon: population will decline by the end of the century, and “starting in the mid-1960s, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person declined by one-half “
And concluding that : “these trends mean that the total human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century.”
Suppose they are right, in that case its still a problem to overcome the next 85 years or so. (and we are all dead by then) . In both cases (population, land use) its pure gambling that things will develop as they hope. Besides, its only valid for say 1/3 of humanity in rich countries, there is 2/3 that does not meet that trend, and is still on the path of growing consumption. And with population: no word about medicine that predicts people will become 120 years this age: from 80 to 120: that the same as 50% more people ( at the same time on the planet) (And some of you will still live and face the problems. )
The land use declined by one -half: its only for direct land use like indeed greenhouses for instance have a higher output per m2, but not counting materials and energy that went in and have a land impact as well. Not to speak about water and artificial fertilizer land impacts . Its misleading to put it that way.
Its all packed in a plea for urbanisation: “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”.
And where do these urbanists get their resources from? Its irrelevant for the system earth where people live: all together in say France ( its possible), or spread over the globe with each a small parcel of land. Its where their resources come from that is decisive for our substance level. (And, in times of crises people are better of spread over the countryside as packed into cities)
“Meat consumption,for instance, has peaked in many wealthy nations and has shifted away from beef toward protein sources that are less land intensive”.
Again , only the wealthy fraction of the world is addressed. Meat consumption in the rest is growing. I feel irritation coming up while reading. It looks like a luxury view from 1/3 of the world that has it all, wants to maintain that situation and suggests they can make sure the other 2/3 can have the same. No way. Its just an excuse to continue.
As with many other movements technology is seen as the Saviour of humanity .History examples are used to make their case: “in earlier days there was much higher impact on the environment to meet their needs, partly since they had less advanced technologies leading to increased land footprints.”
This is just choosing some random issues and use them in the debate. : Another example of free pub-style talk.
People in the past stayed within their carrying capacity limits,and if they went over the borders large famines and diseases corrected population densities. Cities before the industrial revolution where a kind of population sinks: people went to cities, but more people died as arrived. The system corrected itself. Nowadays we have solved that, but not by less land impact: only the land impacts are hidden now, even for the apparently blind eco-modernists.
Another historic argument is that “three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution”. Correct, but thats no proof we are doing better… its the art of using statistics. Every nation in the past has depleted its wood stocks. Like china, that changed for brick construction when the wood ran out. So you might think thats a technological solution and advancement. No: some 20 year ago it became forbidden in the Northern part of China to use burned products like bricks and roof tiles: there was not enough river sediment , and huge amounts of fertile agricultural land was used to support the brick based urbanization. So they shifted again, now to concrete, increasing CO2 emissions to unprecedented levels .
The thing humanity does constantly is exploiting resources till they become a problem, and then shift the burden to another resource. Even sand is in problems: the sandtype for concrete is getting scarce in Asia, and illegal trade is coming up (Delestrac, Sand wars) . Soon we will shift the burden to another resource, if there is some left.
“Urbanization, aquaculture, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species”. By increasing energy use, that is, in the form of nucleair power.
“And Looking forward, modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warming.”
What in fact is posed here, is to use more energy to correct the use of energy….
In fact the whole eco modernist case stands with enough energy, by which they have a point: Its always all about energy, but then this could be seen as nothing more as a nuclear lobby, to maintain the luxury 1/3 of the world defends. We need “profound technological change “ , but thats what brought us into problems in the first place ….
but not for the eco modernist: :
“A new generation of nuclear technologies that are safer and cheaper will likely be necessary for nuclear energy to meet its full potential as a critical climate mitigation technology.”
Yes but its a cheap argument, after decades of research there is nothing substantial in sight yet. High-efficiency solar cells are mentioned as well, and again, decades of research , with only a few percent of increase performance.
A bit further down I read: “Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives.”
Can you still follow ? Now its coal again, which will maybe save lives in Bangla Desh. What about , killing others due to climate change effects like severe droughts. And in stead of a ecology centered approach it shifts to a people centered approach. Thats not a system approach.
Yes, the acid rain has disappeared ( used in the interview as argument ) ; Yes we can raise agricultural production everywhere; yes we can all live in cities. We are however only at the beginning of of global energy and material use. Less then 1/3 of the world is involved in modern welfare. The next decades will require as much cities to be build as there already are on the planet, to house the growing population (growth and urbanisation) The amount of cars will double and possibly triple, next decades. The greenhouse effect will increase enormously, not to speak of the enormous amount of materials we will need, for which exponential amounts of energy are needed due to reducing ratios of concentrated ores.
And we want all to run on renewable energy . We dont have the materials for that. And thats not even counting the materials need to adapt to climate change. Read Kleijn or Smil, and learn that we can’t afford a global renewable energy system, material wise, with current consumption. ( see book review in news)
I am not a environmental activist, I am a analyticus. And the way of life here described is theoretically and physically not viable. Its not about side effects, air pollution, or 250 km2 forest added, ( as was brought forward in the interview: which is just enough to provide bioenergy for the public lighting in Amsterdam-Rotterdam) . Its about a basic supply of welfare, equally divided over the worlds population. And for the moment we consume too much, and its not equally divided.
We are only increasing entropy, decreasing the potential of resources in the system earth. Only the sun can support us , but even current wind turbines and solar cells are hopelessly primitive ways to harvest that at any interesting scale. And mind that even the old predictions by the club of rome, are still on course! ( Randers, “2052” , book from 2012)
Show me where all material and energy is coming from, to supply our way -industrialised style- of urban living for 9-10 billion people somewhere this century, and I am in. Untill then: nice story, giving false hope, covering their own luxury interest, and nice for pubtalk.