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Decoupling society from nature through innovation is good for nature

My Times column on eco-modernism:


In the unlikely event that the G7 heads of state are reading The Times at breakfast in Schloss Elmau in Bavaria, may I make a humble suggestion? On their agenda, alongside Ukraine, Greece, ebola and Fifa, is Angela Merkel’s insistence that they discuss “sustainability”. The word is usually shorthand for subsidising things that are not commercially sustainable, but if they want to make it meaningful, they have a ready-made communiqué to hand. It comes in the form of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a short but brilliant essay published online recently by 18 prominent greens. It gets sustainability right at last.

Until now, green thinking has wanted us to go back to nature: to reject innovations such as genetically modified food, give up commerce and consumption and energy and materials and live simpler lives so that nature is not abused and the climate is not wrecked. The eco-modernists, who include the veteran Californian green pioneer Stewart Brand and the British green campaigner Mark Lynas, say this is a mistake. “Absent a massive human die-off, any large-scale attempt at recoupling human societies to nature using these [ancestral] technologies would result in an unmitigated ecological and human disaster.”

Seven billion hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers would devastate the planet. Seven billion people living mostly in cities and using plastic, glass, metal and farmed chicken instead of wood, skins, fur and bushmeat, could actually afford to set aside vast nature reserves. The ecomodernists say humanity must embrace technology and growth so as to “shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature”.

Look around the world. The places with the cleanest rivers, the cleanest air, the fastest rates of reforestation, the most abundant and expanding wildlife populations are in rich countries. Wolves, beavers, deer and raptors are reinvading much of Europe and North America even as human populations grow and prosper.

In Vancouver last year I watched otters dodging between joggers in a city park — in a country where they were once hunted almost to oblivion to make hats and coats. On the islands around Antarctica, seals, penguins and whales, once driven to the brink of extinction for their oil (yes even king penguins were hunted so their blubber could be rendered into oil), are now breeding in vast numbers again — because we get oil from holes in the ground instead.

Instead of seeking to live in harmony with nature, we should decouple from nature. The ecomodernists argue that “intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts.”

This is anathema to traditional greens, who see growth as the enemy and who prefer renewable to non-renewable resources. Actually, renewable resources keep running out; non-renewable ones do not. When kerosene was invented, sperm whales were suddenly off the hook (or harpoon), their lamp oil undercut by a non-renewable, but far more sustainable, resource.

The most striking example of this “sustainable intensification” is modern farming. By vastly improving yields, we use nearly 70 per cent less land today to grow a given quantity of food than we did half a century ago. On present trends we will need less and less land to feed more and more people during this century. That’s assuming we stop turning 5 per cent of the world’s grain crop into motor fuel, in the belief that it is somehow good for the planet, when all it does is raise food prices and encourage rainforest destruction.

In some parts of the world, we are already releasing land from agriculture: much of the Scottish highlands, for instance, no longer produces food. The home counties of England are dominated by horseyculture and golf courses. New England was once mostly farmland; now forest.

Energy was shrinking its footprint nicely, thanks to the shift from wood, water, wind and whales to fossil fuels and nuclear, until the green movement came along and told us to use the landscape for generating power again. Now we are back to cutting wood from forests and dotting the hills with windmills. Most renewables, say the ecomodernists, are a mistake because their footprint is too large.

(The ecomodernists rightly favour nuclear power, but partly because they think that cutting CO2 emissions is urgent. I disagree. On current trends — the rate of warming over the past half century is about 0.12C per decade — it will be about another century before the world hits the much-vaunted two degree threshold above pre-industrial temperatures, which is when climate change may turn damaging.)

Imagine a city on a desert coast at the end of the 21st century. Its main business is software. Its energy comes from advanced forms of nuclear power. Its food is grown in multi-storey, hydroponic factories in the desert, which exclude pests and use sunlight, LEDs, desalinated water and fertiliser manufactured from the air. The city’s metal comes from ore; its glass from sand; its plastic from oil. Its demands on the wild landscapes, free-flowing rivers and fertile soils of the rest of the planet are virtually nil. All just about feasible today.

Reconciling environmentalism with crony capitalism often takes the rather dismal form of getting greedy investors on side with hefty subsidies for crackpot schemes. Ecomodernism promises something better: to reconcile environmentalism with innovation and trade.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto promises a much needed reformation in the green movement. Its 95 theses should be nailed to the door of the Vatican when the pope’s green-tinged encyclical comes out next month, because unlike the typical eco-wail, it contains good news for the poor. It says: no, we are not going to stop you getting rich and adopting new technologies and leaving behind the misery of cooking over wood fires in smoky huts with no artificial light. No, we do not want you to stay as subsistence farmers. Indeed, the quicker we can get you into a city apartment with a car, a phone, a fridge and a laptop, the better. Because then you won’t be taking wood and bushmeat from the forest.

The G7 host Angela Merkel says it should be possible to achieve steady global growth without dangerous climate change, and points out that Germany has managed to “decouple” economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. She is an ecomodernist already.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times