EcoModernist Claptrap

SUBHEAD: Taking on the fools at the Breakthrough Institute regarding their separation and alienation from Nature.


Image above: Stewart Brand, is a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute and an nuclear power enthusiast who thinks nuclear power can sace the world. From (http://inhabitat.com/video-interview-stewart-brand-says-nuclear-power-could-save-the-world/stewart-brand-interview-1/).

[IB Publisher's note: In April of this year the Breakthrough Institute releases a document entitled "An Ecomodernist Manifesto". It can be found at (http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5515d9f9e4b04d5c3198b7bb/t/552d37bbe4b07a7dd69fcdbb/1429026747046/An%20Ecomodernist%20Manifesto.pdf). Below are the opening introductory paragraphs. Beyond are Kurt's  Cobb's responses from May 3rd and 10th]


AN ECOMODERNIST MANIFESTO

To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans.

As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with one conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use thei growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.

In this, we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impact 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.


Truth and confusion in the same breath

By Kurt Cobb on 3 May 2015 for Resource Insights -
(http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2015/05/an-ecomodernist-manifesto-truth-and.html)

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.



Terms of Debate
SUBHEAD: Destroying vs altering nature, the fragile vs the resilient Earth

By Kurt Cobb on10 May 2015 for Resource Insights -
(http://resourceinsights.blogspot.com/2015/05/terms-of-debate-destroying-vs-altering.html)

Last week's piece drew responses (primarily from Mike Shellenberger  - Ecomodernist. President, Breakthrough Institute. Time Magazine 'Hero of the Environment.') that throw into relief how much the language we use depends on our most basic assumptions about how the world works. If left unexamined, that language leads to further conclusions that go unchallenged because the underlying assumptions are never scrutinized.

I challenged the Breakthrough Institute's notion that humans are in one category and nature in another. If one views humans as merely a part of nature or the universe or the web of existence--however one chooses to name that which includes everything--then our role becomes distinctly different.

Under my assumption humans are embedded in the natural world. They are not the sole actors or agents in it, only one of countless actors, most of which we probably know nothing about. We cannot get one up on nature. We can only cooperate with its workings.

When we put nature in one category and humans in another, we make humans an outside and preeminent force over nature. We (falsely) imbue ourselves with god-like power to "control" nature. In this case, "control" means we get what we want without self-annihilating effects. For who could say that they are in "control" of a plummeting airliner headed for a crash just because they still have the ability to move the throttle.

Now, if humans are one with nature, then the only thing they can do to it is alter it. They cannot "destroy" nature. Only if we conceive of ourselves as living on a different plane from nature can we "destroy" it. And, only if we conceive of nature as immutable can we "destroy" it.

But nature is always in flux including any flux that results from human action. There is no immutable nature to "destroy" or to "restore." We cannot run entropy in reverse and reassemble the universe into exactly a state that existed in the past, not anywhere.

I was characterized by one of the Breakthrough Institute's analysts as someone who believes that nature is "fragile." I'll forgive him for not having time in his busy schedule to read my writings more thoroughly. If he had had time, he would have realized that I think nothing of the sort. Instead, I regard humans as fragile and nature as resilient. Nature, the universe, the everything, will be here long after humans have disappeared.

The upshot is that we humans need to be concerned with how our alterations of the biosphere affect our survivability precisely because we are so fragile and precisely because the biosphere holds no special brief to keep humans alive indefinitely.

The upshot is that we cannot "fix" the planet upon which we live. We cannot roll it back to some status quo ante--before climate change; before deforestation; before the depletion of soil, water, energy and other natural resources; before the population explosion; before the vast loss of biodiversity. The arrow of entropy really does go only in one direction. No technology can reverse the path of that planetary entropy.

That means we must figure out what to do from this moment forward inside this thin membrane of life which clings to the surface of planet Earth. We can, of course, continue to host a daily series of energy-intensive, fossil-fueled blowout parties--the biggest parties ever thrown by humans for humans--until the punch bowl (read: energy and resources) runs low or the air-conditioning blinks off leaving us sweltering in the summer heat (read: climate change)--causing people to say their good-byes in search of the next party (if they can find one).

Or we can choose to adopt a healthier lifestyle that will extend our lives (as a society and as a species) and shrink the daily blowout parties to an occasional bash to celebrate the results of our sensible choices and newfound vigor and health.

The idea that human well-being depends on ever-increasing per-capita consumption of energy and resources is already discredited. The notion that we can alter the biosphere to accommodate such irrational plans without fatal consequences in the long run is sheer folly--one born of mistaken assumptions and aided by confusing language.

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