How we save nature

Maybe I should stop discussing Ecomodernism, but I do find it interesting and I do think that there are aspects of it that are worth taking seriously. It’s really a pity that it’s being promoted and presented in a way that is likely to alienate many who would like to engage with it.

Today I watched Michael Shellenberger’s recent TED talk (the video for which is at the end of this post). I was more impressed than I expected to be. The last part was a bit of a sales pitch for nuclear – which was maybe a bit more positive than is actually warranted – but I do think that nuclear will almost certainly play a crucial role in future energy production. It might not be quite as easy and straightforward as Michael Shellenberger’s talk seemed to suggest, but being optimistic is not necessarily a bad thing.

The main theme of his talk, however, was about how we’d save nature. One key point was that we save nature by no longer needing it. For example, we saved the whales by finding an alternative to whale oil. I understand what he’s getting at, but it just seems remarkably dismissive. We didn’t specifically plan to save the whales; it just happened because we no longer needed to kill them? It almost suggests that we would have just simply kept going if we hadn’t found some kind of alternative.

The other problem I have with this framing is that it seems to largely ignore why the whales needing saving in the first place; it’s because we almost wiped them out. Finding an alternative to whale oil that then meant we did not need to keep killing whales, is not really the same as saving them. I agree with the idea that modernisation and technology development can help us to decouple from, and to minimise our impact, on nature, but framing this as a way to save nature – rather than as a way to stop us from destroying it – seems to be a somewhat rose-tinted way of looking at this. I also think that we can learn from what has helped us in the past to minimise our impact on nature, as well as learning from what got us to the point where minimising our impact became a necessity.

On the other hand, I do broadly agree with the general idea; modernisation and technology development can allow us to no longer need nature, and can allow the parts that we have used to recover and possibly thrive. We find alternatives to what nature has been providing; oil from fossil fuels, rather than whales; natural gas instead of wood and charcoal; nuclear instead of fossil fuels. However, in my view, this general idea doesn’t scale; it might be true that we can save parts of what we regard as nature by no longer needing it, but we can’t do this for the planet as a whole. We don’t have another planet; we can’t save the planet by no longer needing it, because we will almost certainly need it for the foreseeable future.

On that note, Bill Borucki – who recently won the Shaw prize for Astronomy and donated some of the prize money to the Union of Concerned Scientists – has spent his career searching for planets around other stars, and says

While we can detect other worlds, we cannot go to them. Our future is here on Earth and we must do much more to ensure that our planet’s climate remains hospitable.

As it stands, we’ve currently confirmed nearly 2000 planets around other stars and have a few thousand other planetary candidates. To date, however, we know of no other habited planets and don’t even know of any that could potentially be habitable. Even if we did, the distances are so vast, that getting to another planet is – at the moment at least – virtually impossible. For all we know, a thin shell around a small rocky object, orbiting a pretty standard star, in the outer parts of a spiral galaxy, is the only place in the universe where life exists. Even if this isn’t the case in reality, it may as well be as far as we’re concerned; it’s essentially the only place we have.

So, I don’t disagree with the general theme of Ecomodernism; modernisation and technology development will almost certainly be crucial. However, that this will be necessary does not mean that it will be sufficient. Finding past examples where modernisation and technology development helped us to “save nature” does not mean that if we modernise and develop technology that it will – by definition – “save nature”. To be fair, Michael Shellenberger did get more specific towards the end of his talk when he promoted nuclear as a way to reduce carbon emissions. Of course, that nuclear is an energy source that could substantially reduce carbon emissions does not mean that it is possible to implement it on a timescale that would, by itself, be sufficient. It’s one thing to have an ideal solution, but another to have one that we can realistically implement on relevant timescales.

Anyway, I’ve said more than enough. The video of the talk is below, so it would be interesting to get other people’s views. I should also make clear that this is what I took from it. If anyone thinks I’ve misunderstood – or misrepresented – what was presented, feel free to point out why.

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61 Responses to How we save nature

  1. Something I didn’t mention in the post is that – like Bill Borucki – I also have spent some of my career as part of a team that is searching for planets around other stars. I don’t know if it is simply coincidental that he too regards climate change as a risk to our future, or if being more directly aware of how potentially rare we are puts this into a perspective that may not be obvious to others.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful essay that identifies some of the obvious inconsistencies inherent in the Ecomodernism concept.

    However, ecologically, modernisation and technology development cannot allow us to no longer “need” nature. Even in a high-tech human world, all materials for production and consumption come from the natural world, and all human produced wastes go into the natural world. Whether or not humans “need” nature is irrelevant. Human consumption and waste production negatively impacts the natural world. Intensification only increases that impact. (http/

    Understand also that the authors of “Ecomodernism” are not disinterested ecosophists. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus have long had day jobs as public relations representatives for nuclear energy, industrial and chemical agriculture, and GMOs. Their Ecomodernism essays are in support of those industries that hire them.

  3. Todd D. says:

    Thanks for this article, ATTP. I believe the typical environmentalism is not going to cut it, I like this statement from Ecomodernists of Finland

    I agree that nuclear needs to play a significant role in decarbonization, as per the USA’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the UK’s Energy Research Partnership “Managing Flexibility Whilst Decarbonizing the GB Electricity System”

    Shellenberger did not mention about Integral Fast Reactors that perhaps could have been in operation for about 15 years now if Clinton had not cancelled the EBR-II in the mid 90’s. It could have been using most of the 95% of that spent nuclear fuel mentioned and

  4. Todd D. says:

    One more point, the USA Dep’t of Energy recently released their Quadrennial Technology Review and on page 102 it compare electricity capacity and generation of all sources between 2010 and 2014, shows how much more progress is required. Also, on page 390, we need to be aware of raw materials required to decarbonize electricity and some supply risks of some of these materials.

  5. Michael,
    Yes, I’m somewhat aware of the backgrounds of some of those involved. In his talk Michael Shellenberger made a number of claims about what he’s done in the past. Seemed quite impressive but I have no way of confirming – or not – those claims.

    Thanks. For some reason, your link to the review does not seem to be working. May be that my internet speed is a little slow.

  6. Willard says:

    > Finding an alternative to whale oil that then meant we did not need to keep killing whales, is not really the same as saving them.

    Banning whaling only prevents doing one kind of harm to whales. It does not remove all the ways we allow harm to them, say by making sure their habitat gets wrecked in the process of ecomodernizing ourselves. For more on that distinction:

    Whaling seems to beg for a transposition of a famous thought experiment where a contract killer kills accidentally runs over his target with his car on his way to the intended murder scene.

  7. JCH,
    Interesting link, thanks. Although it mainly seemed to illustrate how complex these situations really are.

    Indeed, even more complexity than one might at first assume.

  8. Todd,
    The statement from the Ecomodernists of Finland does indeed seem quite reasonable.

  9. Joshua says:

    One piece I didn’t understand…Shellenberger says that sustainability doesn’t save nature, but then he goes on to talk about how much land is being used for agriculture than in the past – because agricultural practices have become more efficient. Isn’t that the same thing as saying that sustainability saves nature?

    Of course, that is on top of your point, Anders, about how it’s more accurate to say that technology can reduce the extent to which we destroy nature – not exactly the same thing as saying that technology saves nature…but I guess that’s mostly a semantic point.

    I’m also had some trouble understanding exactly what Shellenberger’s larger point was, other than that we should rely more on nuclear energy…and as you touch on, it’s disappointing that he doesn’t address questions about whether we can build enough nuclear fast enough to meet energy needs, nor the questions of how nuclear build-up would be financed given the strong association between nuclear power and centralized, “socialistic” policies, and strong political opposition to centralized and “socialistic” policies. Maybe someone can point to where BTI takes on those issues more directly?

  10. Joshua,
    That’s a good point, actually. I get the impression that he thinks that we can draw a formal dividing line between what we call nature, and what we regard as regions that we use. So, his argument is probably that efficiency gains in agriculture is not really using nature more efficiently because where we farm, is not what we would regard as nature. By farming more efficiently we release land back into the part we call nature, which we don’t then use at all.

    The thing that struck me was how much land we use for meat – 24%. It almost feels that unless we address this (i.e., eat less meat) we’ll just be fiddling at the edges. Rachel will probably be pleased to see me say that 🙂

  11. Todd D. says:

    Here’s a link for the Quadrennial Technology Review in which one can download one chapter at a time, page 390 is in chapter 10 and page 102 is in chapter 4

  12. In fact, the whole whaling story seems remarkably simplistic. We had alternative oils by the mid-1800s and yet whaling seemed to peak in the mid-1900s with the peak catch being just under 40000 whales in the late-1950s. If it really was simply because we no longer needed them, it seemed to take a long time to actually take effect.

  13. Todd,
    Still can’t seem to actually access it. Will try again later.

  14. Joshua says:

    ==> “The thing that struck me was how much land we use for meat – 24%. ”

    Yeah – meat looks to me like fruit…. the sense low hanging fruit that BTI seems to not look at?

    …Shellenberger (as with Nordhous in another Ted talk) discusses the importance of growing more food on less land without discussing the comparative ratio of calories per unit of land use for raising cattle – whether feedlot beef or grass-fed beef – and growing vegetables.

    I don’t get that.

    Maybe someone could point me to something where they deal with that issue.

  15. Sam Taylor says:

    I always find his analyses somewhat simplistic, never bothering to look under the hood too much, just getting some large-scale disaggreagted statistics that maybe prove his point and having done with it. Take agriculture for example. Is it really that efficient? I read a while ago (I think in Pimentel) that the US system takes about 10 calories input energy per calorie that ends up on the plate (this is sustainable?). Furthermore, there are the massive inputs of nitrogen fertiliser (haber process requiring methane) and phosphate fertiliser (again a finite resource). Both of these inputs helped make agriculture more “efficient”, at the expense of algal blooms, river pollution and potentially altering the global nitrogen and phosphate cycles. Furthermore, how much of the land that’s ‘returned to nature’ is done so because it’s highly degraded due to the soil being eroded away? The natural state that quite a bit of farmland has been returned to is desert. Plus, from what I’ve seen, there’s still arguments over whether yields from large mechanised monoculture vs small scale labour intensive agriculture.

  16. I always find his analyses somewhat simplistic

    Indeed, one of my issues too. Even the whaling story seems, at best, simplistic, and – at worst – simply wrong. According to JCH’s link

    The amount of camphene on the market was far above 90 million and probably close to 200 million gallons per year. That’s about the same level as kerosene in 1870. Whale oil peaked at 18 million gallons in 1845

    Unless I’m reading this wrong, we were using far more alternative oils in the mid-1800s than whale oil. Yet whaling continued well into the 20th century, and peaked – I think – in the 1950s. That’s either a long time for the availability of alternative oils to make us no longer “need” whales, or it was something else that finally lead to the end of the whaling industry (not that it has completely ended, even today).

  17. NevenA says:

    It’s not about saving nature, or the environment, or the climate. It’s about saving human society, and end the vicious cycle of war and progress. It’s about ending and preventing unnecessary suffering.

    The problem with the ecomodernists is two-fold:

    1) They want to double down on the thinking that has led to the predicament in the first place, inflating the balloon to an even greater size. Instead of talking about root causes or systemic changes, they are focused on symptoms only (and not even being rational about it, no numbers, carbon budget, proven working technologies, economics, just blah). A problem can never, ever be solved that way.
    2) They are bashing environmentalism, as if that’s some monolithic organisation with one policy and one strategy, instead of the multitude of individuals and groups that make an effort to improve human lives. My guess is that they do this because they’re speaking to power, as that’s what will bring in the most money, now that climate risk denial is slowly going extinct. The fact that they let climate risk deniers like Ridley and what’s-his-name Osborne cosy up to them, is telling enough.

    Oh, and like professor Eli says, their utopian vision is that of totalitarian urbanism on the Brave New World-level, with the GMO-nuclear version of Soylent Green for the masses, to contrast with their comfortable elite/Alpha super-hygienic high-tech iVory tower.

  18. mt says:

    I liked the talk better than I expected to. Shellenberger is sometimes sloppy with details, and his talk of decoupling via reducing area footprint is a bit facile, but I too am convinced that it will be difficult to attain to a benign outcome without nuclear power, and the reasons do have something to do with energy intensity.

    From an ecological perspective, the main issues he glosses over are 1) the climate change and ocean acidification we have already committed to (so there is no real “saving it”; we have to actively maintain it now) 2) the fact that nature is not fungible and 3) the fact that our current successes are based on an economic model that doesn’t know how to “save” anything for any purposes other than economic.

    I’ve already mentioned the first point hereabouts – it’s really too late for “hands off” of the sort they imply.

    On the second, I’d point out that humans have already allocated the majority of NPP (net primary productivity) to our own uses. Preserving a desert is a good thing, but preserving the richer and more diverse parts of our landscape is another. To do the latter we have to do more than allow second growth on lands we have used up.

    On the third point, it’s simply a fact that our motivational structures are not set up to save anything – we are each running so scared that we have to burn the bits of charcoal we can get our hands on. Being wealthier doesn’t mean we stop exploiting the world – it means we are motivated to exploit ever larger pieces of it. This last is perhaps the greatest issue. Sometimes I suspect that Shellenberger and team simply don’t grapple with economics at all – there’s a sort of glib upper-middle-class middle-school environmentalism that seems all too familiar to me. I talked like this when I was 16.

    Further it’s hardly clear (to me anyway) that (unless we greatly reduce meat consumption, which I think would be a good idea) land used for agriculture can decrease. We must find ways to stay within the planetary boundaries for runoff, and also replace the fossil-fuel-based processes for creating nitrogen fertilizer. These are real challenges for sustainability/

    It’s not entirely clear to me whether the Ecomod Squad really believes their facile presentations or whether they grapple with these issues behind the scenes.

    But it’s arguably unfair to critique a public presentation on what it doesn’t say. I have to admit that I find little to object to in what Shellenberger actually did say.

    In particular, contra my friends Eli and Neven, I believe that urban life is potentially more fulfilling than rural or suburban life, and that people who think otherwise haven’t really experienced living in a well-designed city. I think nature and cities are good partners, and that mechanized agriculture and sprawling suburbs are more part of the problem than part of the solution.

  19. MikeH says:

    I agree with Owen Paterson and Matt Ridley’s assessment of ecomodernism.

  20. Thanks Neven, That’s about it. In my world, it appears to be about ever more stuff and spectacle, ever less connection to reality, cheaper gas, lower taxes, world without end. Ecomodernism, when it’s not phony, seems to give a pass to avoiding an awakening that should have happened three decades ago, excusing it by implying somehow the future will take care of itself.

    Monbiot, in what some might regard as overly frank language:

    The Ecomodernists launching their manifesto today propose solutions that are both ignorant and brutal.

    Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. That is a crucial lesson from history; a lesson that intelligent people in every age keep failing to learn.
    Of course we should make the best possible use of science and technology, and assess our environmental options as empirically as we can. Of course we should embrace what is good and useful and progressive about modernity, however that might be defined. Of course we should challenge and contest the wishful thinking that all too often dominates.

    “In this respect the ecomodernists provide a useful service, provoking us to examine our prejudices. But their generalisations, their ignorance of history, their own unexplored prejudices and an astonishing lack of depth all contribute to a worldview that is, paradoxically, nothing if not old-fashioned.

  21. Willard says:

    > I don’t get that. [Shellenberger (as with Nordhous in another Ted talk) discusses the importance of growing more food on less land without discussing the comparative ratio of calories per unit of land use for raising cattle – whether feedlot beef or grass-fed beef – and growing vegetables.]

    It’s a cowspiracy!

    (I know I should be linking to Peter Singer, but “cowspiracy” is just too good to pass.)

    The Breakthrough Boys are not the only ones who won’t put their arms into that political grinder.

  22. Here’s an article by Nordhaus and Shellenberger called We Will Save the Climate through Cleaner, Disruptive Technologies — Not By Making Fossil Energy Much More Expensive. It seems to cover much of what was in the talk. My basic impression, though, is that the title indicates that they don’t understand the concept of an externality. The idea behind putting a price on carbon is not – specifically – to make fossil fuel energy more expensive, but to include all the costs associated with using it. If you really want a level playing field that would allow alternatives to develop, then it would seem that properly pricing carbon would be crucial. If you don’t, then you’re essentially hoping that the full cost of an alternative can somehow be cheaper than fossil fuels that don’t include all external costs.

  23. @mt says: “I believe that urban life is potentially more fulfilling than rural or suburban life, and that people who think otherwise haven’t really experienced living in a well-designed city.”

    Funny that. I believe that rural life is potentially more fulfilling than urban or suburban life, and that people who think otherwise haven’t really experienced living and being part of village life.

    To be serious; let me say that I was born and brought up in a city then moved out to the country when in my teens. I then moved back to a different city when I went to college and then gradually as we brought up the kids we moved back, via the suburbs, to rural life. Upon retirement I now live close to a village but in deep nature; while my kids all live—because it’s appropriate at their stage of life—in cities.

    I find the idea that one or other sort of lifestyle is uniformly ‘more fulfilling’—with the unsaid suggestion that that’s how we all should live—to be authoritarian and closed-minded. We’ll have reached the end of the road if we all have to live in ‘well-designed’ cities. All that’s required—because the planet demands it—is that we all live as part of a sustainable system.

  24. Sam Taylor says:

    I read that BTI article and, again, it was full of “yes, but”s. The assertion that fracked natural gas is cleaner is by no means a certainty, especially since fugitive emissions are still subject to pretty significant uncertainty. And, again, there was that paper a while ago that showed that the main driver of decreased US carbon emissions was recession, with change in fuel mix playing a lesser role.

    As with all their analyses, it feels to me like they started with the premise that they wanted to be true, and then worked backwards finding data that backed up their position. Riddled with confirmation bias, basically.

  25. mt says:

    I wonder whether what we would now consider an attractive “village life” is scalable to ten billion people, but I’m not arguing against that.

    I do agree with Shellenberger that with this many people we have to strive for density for most. That doesn’t have to mean alienation from nature. Cities can be integrated into nature, as can intensive agriculture.

    But agribusiness is another story. Celebrating agricultural “efficiency” without caveats misses a great deal about the sustainability crisis. Consider the fate of the monarch butterflies, so common just a few years ago. It is agricultural efficiency that is killing them.

  26. > It is agricultural efficiency that is killing them.

    Not only is it killing monarchs, but it completely destroys the Breakthrough Boys argument.

    One does not simply ask that we GMO all the things under the pretense that we need more food when we already have more than enough and that we’re wasting about half of it:

  27. Here’s where I think lies the critical weakness in the manifesto:

    Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation. While advocates differ in the particular mix of technologies they favor, we are aware of no quantified climate mitigation scenario in which technological change is not responsible for the vast majority of emissions cuts.

    I could think of four more plausible kinds of challenges that mitigation could be before breakfast.

    The argument amounts to say that child slavery is fundamentally a technological challenge:

    After all, what if I told you we could develop tiny robots with tiny hands that cost less than a dime per day?

  28. Victor Petri says:

    I would be interested to hear what four more plausible challenges that mitigation could be.

    It was mainly steady technological progress since the Middle Ages that enabled the west to automate food production, increase productivity, release children from agricultural labour and enabled food to be produced cheaper than ever.

  29. mt says:

    I’ll go with “economic”, “cultural”, “political” and “ethical”, as more important challenges than technological, Victor.

    That said, I also think “Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation” is true. It’s just not the whole story or even the main story.

    The problem again is not that Shellenberger has said anything false – it’s that he’s dwelling on the easy part and implicitly claiming that it’s the whole story. As alternative energy advocates often stress, we already have the tech “breakthroughs” we need. We don’t have the will to put them in place against the resistance of the incumbent economic interests that oppose them.

  30. Willard says:

    > It was mainly steady technological progress since the Middle Ages that enabled the west to automate food production, increase productivity, release children from agricultural labour and enabled food to be produced cheaper than ever.

    Yet there are more slaves, more working child, more food waste, and more price gouging than ever.

    Go figure.

    There’s no technological breakthrough in preaching for technological breakthroughs.

  31. Michael 2 says:

    “We didn’t specifically plan to save the whales; it just happened because we no longer needed to kill them? ”

    You will never find an answer to any mystery by saying “we”.

    Some people specifically set out to save whales. Others set out to find something more efficient than whale; they may or may not care about whales, and other set out expressly to kill whales.

    Nature cannot be saved neither can it be destroyed. It is what it is when it is. It can be changed and your mileage probably varies as to what constitutes good changes or bad changes.

  32. Willard says:

    > You will never find an answer to any mystery by saying “we”.

    “I” is even less clear, M2.

  33. Victor Petri says:

    Of course all these topics could be considered helping combatting climate change, stronger economics could bolster the adaptation possibilities of societies e.g., and enable more funding in new, cleaner technologies, political changes could help internalize externalities of fossil fuels and direct markets to cleaner energy solutions, ethical could help reduce our meat consumption. In the end none of these are fundamental, nor are they plausible to really meaningfully mitigate climate change.
    I mean, do you think it is plausible that there is a global political will to tackle global warming enough? Or are you optimistic that the world will change its ethics enough to eat much less meat and waste less in such a way the climate change is really fundamentally tackled?

    I am sure alternative energy advocates stress we already have the tech breakthroughs, but more objective sources are still quite pessimistic about our capabilities.
    And I do think technological breakthroughs will trump any perceived economic interests soon enough (e.g. in solar).

    Reference please?
    According to Unicef that child labour for children aged five to 17 years old has declined by a third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children.

    I don’t believe there are more slaves now than ever either. Persumably an article by Times has made this statement and its widely accepted as being true? Meanwhile the number of slaves estimated, 20 to 36 million, are by no means that much bigger than estimates found on Wikipedia for other eras and regions,
    E.g. 12 million by Nazi Germany alone, or 23 million by Russia in 1861 and the 4 million slaves living in the US in 1860 and 8 or 9 million slaves estimated in India 1841.
    I would like to know if that statement stands up against scrutiny.
    And I would imagine the percentage of ~0.5% of global slaves is smaller than ever.

  34. Willard says:

    > According to Unicef that child labour for children aged five to 17 years old has declined by a third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children.

    That’s the paws trick applied to another topic, VP. I was not to implying that today, yes exacty today, was absolutely unprecedented. My claim was more in line with your “It was mainly steady technological progress since the Middle Ages” kind of things.

    To give readers some kind of scale, 168 millions is still about twice the number of people living in Europe in 1450:


    Since you quote thy Wiki for child labour, contrary to your other disputation, that’s of course the first place I went. Here’s what I found:

    Child labour is still common in many parts of the world. Estimates for child labour vary. It ranges between 250 to 304 million, if children aged 5–17 involved in any economic activity are counted. If light occasional work is excluded, ILO estimates there were 153 million child labourers aged 5–14 worldwide in 2008. This is about 20 million less than ILO estimate for child labourers in 2004. Some 60 percent of the child labour was involved in agricultural activities such as farming, dairy, fisheries and forestry. Another 25 percent of child labourers were in service activities such as retail, hawking goods, restaurants, load and transfer of goods, storage, picking and recycling trash, polishing shoes, domestic help, and other services. The remaining 15 percent laboured in assembly and manufacturing in informal economy, home-based enterprises, factories, mines, packaging salt, operating machinery, and such operations.[59][60][61] Two out of three child workers work alongside their parents, in unpaid family work situations. Some children work as guides for tourists, sometimes combined with bringing in business for shops and restaurants. Child labour predominantly occurs in the rural areas (70%) and informal urban sector (26%).

    Is it because of this paragraph?

    You ought to have quoted it, for the last bit indicates an ecomodernist solution to child labour.


    All that said, do you think it is technology that reduced child labour from 2010 to 2013?

  35. Victor Petri says:

    Well, I won’t put it as bluntly as that technology decreased child labor between 2010 and 2013, but I do think that in a world without technology improvements, child labor would be much more common, as well as that in areas where technology has not permeated fully, child labor is more common as well. And I do think that it is widely accepted that gains in automation and productivity, from as simple as the technological breakthroughs that enabled the use of horses and oxes, to modern day equivalents, helped societies to rely less on child labor as well as create high productivity, high wealth economies that values the development of children more than their labor.

  36. Joshua says:

    VP –

    ==> “And I do think that it is widely accepted that gains in automation and productivity, from as simple as the technological breakthroughs that enabled the use of horses and oxes, to modern day equivalents, helped societies to rely less on child labor as well as create high productivity, high wealth economies that values the development of children more than their labor.”

    How do you disentangle the help from modern technologies from that of modern psychology, where it is viewed that how you treat a child affects their cognitive and psychological development? Or larger-scale societal changes that lead societies to be more egalitarian (in other words, children from the higher echelons were never too likely to be expected to labor in the fields)?

    One of the problems with “Eco-modernism,” it seems to me, is that is using branding to distinguish a set of arguments w/o presenting them in full context.

  37. Joshua says:

    VP –

    Were you the one who wrote that you don’t understand the “beef with Ecomodernism?”

  38. Willard says:

    > I do think that in a world without technology improvements,

    Such world does not exist, VP. At the very least, bashing deep ecologists is not the same thing as bashing Greens in general. Even luddites could be said to be in favor of techology improvement, in a way. Humans are essentially technological animals.

    If you look at the food waste issue, you should see that the bottleneck lies elsewhere than in technological developments. Unless you want to argue that creating new social constructs can be called technological innovation.

  39. Ken Fabian says:

    I find it interesting that, whilst nuclear energy is held up by Ecomodernists as the crucial energy solution, it’s only the opposition to nuclear energy from parts of Environmentalism (it not being any one creed) and not the opposition to the essential climate goals of a low emissions transition that appears to be seen as the most significant impediment. Where a small fringe of vocal anti-nuclear activists is seen as profoundly influential in it’s opposition to the technology, the all the way to the top and mainstream influential opposition to the fundamental goal of forcing a shift away from fossil fuels is somehow inconsequential; like if Environmentalists just butted out the political interests of commerce and industry in opposing climate action would cease and these powerful interests would abandon fossil fuels and fight for the nuclear solution.

    Expecting Environmentalism to be nuclear’s saviour, by finally seeing how warm the nuclear glow is is pure nonsense; nuclear advocacy needs Conservative politics to get serious on climate much more than it needs Environmentalism to love nuclear. Of course, whilst the (genuine) end of climate science denial and obstructionism within mainstream politics may, in previous decades, led inevitably to support for massive nuclear expansion, the remarkable advances in renewables mean that is no longer assured.

    Since when was it up to Environmentalism to lead the way on this? Oh, yeah, when political Conservatism chose to not merely abandon the field on the isssue but to actively seek to frame the issue as the invention of an irrational fringe ideology to justify their heels dug in opposition.

  40. Victor Petri says:

    I am not bashing anyone, nor say that such a world exist, only that technology improvements played a major role in diminishing child labor.
    In terms of food waste, where technology definitely can play a role (e.g. shorten logistical times, lengthening the time that food remains unspoilt), although maybe not a major rule. However, combatting food waste won’t safe us from climate change.

  41. Willard says:

    > I am not bashing anyone

    The Breakthrough boys do.


    > combatting food waste won’t safe us from climate change.

    Neither will technology, VP. We have the technological means to feed the world and yet we don’t.

    Are you denying that food production is an important source of greenhouse gas?

  42. Victor Petri says:

    Everybody is free to focus energy on whomever they think its necessary. Ecomodernism aims to change the environmental movement.

    “Are you denying that food production is an important source of greenhouse gas?”
    No, only that economically, culturally, poltically and ethically, I see no way to plausibly eliminate this source of greenhouse gas totally.
    However, technologically, I do see options to eliminate it, e.g. by GMO that lessens our reliance on fertilizer, artifical meat production
    and CO2 sequestration in agricultural soil

  43. Willard says:

    > that technology improvements played a major role in diminishing child labor.

    I claim the opposite:

    (1) There are more people alive than the sum of people who lived in the past.
    (2) That (1) is mainly due to technological innovation.
    (3) There are more children today than ever, i.e. other eras.
    (4) From (1) and (3) follow that there ought to be more child suffering from child labor than ever.
    (5) Technology is directly linked to more child labor.


    OTOH, one could argue that technology will play a major role in diminishing labor:

    There are some very smart people out there arguing that machines and computers are stealing our jobs. And that when these jobs go away, they won’t be replaced. They think that in the future, there will be fewer and fewer jobs.

    Yet people are working more than ever.

  44. Michael 2 says:

    Willard “We have the technological means to feed the world and yet we don’t.”

    If you feed everyone on Earth today, what will happen? A population explosion. At some point it will be impossible to harvest new energy from the sun to feed them even if you had incredibly efficient direct-to-food transformative processes.

    Perhaps you are saying that technology is not the limiting factor in feeding Earth’s current population, and as to that, I agree. Vast swaths of Siberia will become arable due to global warming and that land can be farmed and most of that food sent to Africa but I doubt adequate incentive exists to make it happen.

    How many readers right here right now grow food for others? I have a little garden that for most of the summer produces nothing, then suddenly it is an avalanche of zucchini squashes and tomatoes and we give most of that away for lack of storage and preservation. We have technology, but neither the time nor determination to use it to preserve it; its easier to give it away and try to time it not to coincide with everyone else doing the same thing with their own zucchini squashes.

  45. Phil says:

    On whaling,
    this claims that US whaling declined because cheaper labour costs drove the industry abroad. This suggests falling supply (rather than falling demand) as does Greenpeace (perhaps not surprisingly). Moral considerations aside, whaling presumably involves large fixed costs (for crew and fuel) and significant capital expenditure (the processing ships) so it perhaps easy to imagine why, without regulation, it persisted in spite of the development of alternative technologies and the ever decreasing catch size.

    So it seems Shellenberger’s analysis is simplistic enough to be disingenuous.

    On the issue of intensive agriculture, a similar consideration needs to be applied as for whaling – Is it sustainable? WWF reports a claim that 33% of intensively farmed agricultural land has been degraded since 1960. I wonder if the ecomodernists have a response to this ?

  46. NevenA says:

    Of course, they have: GMO.

    As one of their bandwagoneers recently said:

    As far as I can make out, Monsanto is probably an environmental net-positive for the world. With insect-resistant corn and cotton, Monsanto has likely done more than the entire organic movement to reduce global insecticide use, and without tradeoff in lost productivity. Even the much demonised roundup ready herbicide tolerant crops have facilitated a huge move towards no-till in North and South America, reducing soil erosion and trapping carbon in the soils. Yet just hinting at anything positive about Monsanto is to breach an utter taboo in green circles.

    Big Pharma, Big Agro, Big Nuclear, technotopia. Maybe Eli has it wrong and their wet dream isn’t a totalitarian Brave New World, but more something like The Matrix.

  47. Phil says:

    With insect-resistant corn and cotton … roundup ready herbicide tolerant crops
    Oh Jesus wept – have these people never heard of selection pressure or MRSA? Weeds and insects may take longer to evolve than bacteria, but evolve they will …

  48. Victor Petri says:

    1) Is simply untrue, It is estimated some 106 billion people have lived.

    4) Viewed differently, A child born today has the smallest chance in history to suffer from child labor.
    5) And yes, the tremendous gains in global population, due to that same technology increased the absolute numbers in comparison with decades ago (Although also those are declining now).

    People are not working more than ever:

  49. Victor Petri says:

    Jesus can weep all he wants, we will keep on feasting on the tree of knowledge. Human technological progress trumps evolutionary mechanisms, they act on a whole different time scale.

  50. Ken Fabian says:

    Victor, what I see is Ecomodernists seeking to discredit Environmentalism and blame it for the broader failure of mainstream politics to address climate change head on, rather than actually addressing those broader failures of mainstream politics or even addressing climate change in any constructive way. It looks insincere to me, like they aren’t genuinely promoting solutions or winning Environmentalists over but intentionally divisive and damaging. They are maintaining perceptions that effective solutions remain elusively out of our reach and that it is principally the fault of the political advocacy of Environmentalists that that is so.

    It’s hard not to see it as one PR element of a broader obstructionist agenda. That it’s been up to Environmentalists to produce the solutions has never been more than a politically convenient confection by those it really is up to to avoid responsibility; ecomodernists do the issues no favours by buying into and maintaining this fiction.

  51. Phil says:

    This might be of interest

  52. Willard says:

    > Is simply untrue, It is estimated some 106 billion people have lived.

    Correct. I was mislead by a presentation. Thanks, VP!

    If we take that number, we might as well state that:

    Life expectancy at birth probably averaged only about 10 years for most of human history. Estimates of average life expectancy in Iron Age France have been put at only 10 or 12 years. Under these conditions, the birth rate would have to be about 80 per 1,000 people just for the species to survive. Today, a high birth rate would be about 45 to 50 per 1,000 population, observed in only a few countries of Africa and in several Middle Eastern countries that have young populations.

    This has an impact on this:

    > Viewed differently, A child born today has the smallest chance in history to suffer from child labor.

    Children from previous eras had the curious tendency to die before joining the workforce.


    I still need to think back about my argument. Back to the drawing board.

  53. Willard says:

    > People are not working more than ever […]

    There are more people alive today than in any other eras, VP. Westernization comes with a work ethic. My (4) should be a slam dunk. The Foxconn workers alone ought to stack enough hours to build many Pyramids per week.

    Also bear in mind that one does not simply take 106 billion people who have lived on the one hand, most of which were born before 1750, and than take a statistic starting at 1875. Here’s what I had in mind:

    Since the 1960s, the consensus among anthropologists, historians, and sociologists has been that early hunter-gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure time than is permitted by capitalist and agrarian societies; For instance, one camp of !Kung Bushmen was estimated to work two-and-a-half days per week, at around 6 hours a day. Aggregated comparisons show that on average the working day was less than five hours.

    Subsequent studies in the 1970s examined the Machiguenga of the Upper Amazon and the Kayapo of northern Brazil. These studies expanded the definition of work beyond purely hunting-gathering activities, but the overall average across the hunter-gatherer societies he studied was still below 4.86, while the maximum was below 8 hours. Popular perception is still aligned with the old academic consensus that hunter-gatherers worked far in excess of modern humans’ forty-hour week.

    With more technological power comes more working responsibilities, at least for some.


    Moreover, to take the Victorian era as a starting point tweaks the dice too much. The beginnings of industrialization were harsh for workers, among them children:

    Many children worked 16 hour days under atrocious conditions, as their elders did. Ineffective parliamentary acts to regulate the work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day had been passed as early as 1802 and 1819. After radical agitation, notably in 1831, when “Short Time Committees” organized largely by Evangelicals began to demand a ten hour day, a royal commission established by the Whig government recommended in 1833 that children aged 11-18 be permitted to work a maximum of twelve hours per day; children 9-11 were allowed to work 8 hour days; and children under 9 were no longer permitted to work at all (children as young as 3 had been put to work previously). This act applied only to the textile industry, where children were put to work at the age of 5, and not to a host of other industries and occupations. Iron and coal mines (where children, again, both boys and girls, began work at age 5, and generally died before they were 25), gas works, shipyards, construction, match factories, nail factories, and the business of chimney sweeping, for example (which Blake would use as an emblem of the destruction of the innocent), where the exploitation of child labor was more extensive, was to be enforced in all of England by a total of four inspectors. After further radical agitation, another act in 1847 limited both adults and children to ten hours of work daily.

    Ecomodernism might not be tailored to market techno-pop among the poor English kids of the 1800s.

  54. Victor Petri says:

    I was responding to working more than ever, which I don’t think is true.

    I am aware of those estimates of how few was worked in hunter gatherers societies, nature documentaries showing other primates come to mind as comparisons. Anyways, not much to envy there, if you have the capabilities, improving lives and holding of death is hard work.

    If you look at modern day equivalent of the harshness of industrialization, I more and more get the feeling that the people that go through this, think of it as an enormous improvement as opposed to the rural village life they leave behind, which we tend to romanticize. Furthermore, the total process of industrialization is done nowadays 4 times faster than in the days of our great-great grandparents. With the risk of sounding terribly pragmatic, this seems to be something we need to go through.

  55. vp,
    But there is a difference between something being necessary and it being sufficient. It might be necessary to do something that we would describe as modernise/industrialise, but that doesn’t mean that what we actually end up doing will be sufficient. Those are simple descriptive words that describe an incredibly complex set of possibilities.

  56. Willard says:

    > I was responding to working more than ever, which I don’t think is true.

    A graph starting at 1875 may not justify such belief, VP.

    If we go back to the pre-industrial work, we have evidence that they had a smaller workweek than us:

    Eight centuries of annual hours

    13th century – Adult male peasant, U.K.: 1620 hours


    14th century – Casual laborer, U.K.: 1440 hours


    Middle ages – English worker: 2309 hours


    1400-1600 – Farmer-miner, adult male, U.K.: 1980 hours


    1840 – Average worker, U.K.: 3105-3588 hours


    1850 – Average worker, U.S.: 3150-3650 hours


    1987 – Average worker, U.S.: 1949 hours


    1988 – Manufacturing workers, U.K.: 1856 hours


    The English workers of the 1800s were the sweatshop workers of their time. The 3600 hours are a bit less than 12 hours shifts, six days a week they have in Bangladesh:

    She had a pair of cutters in her hands, much like eyebrow tweezers, and she was trimming threads from a navy collar. She cleared one collar after another of threads until the big pile, which had been bigger than her, was no more. It took her all morning and she didn’t look up much, did not join any conversation. When it was done, she took a few gulps of water from a scrunched bottle, walked around for a bit, her little hands rubbing her back, and went back to trimming threads — this time, from navy cuffs.

    She did that from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., except for an hourlong lunch break.

    Later, she said, it had been a good day: the electricity didn’t play hooky (which meant the three ceiling fans worked all day) and so it wasn’t oppressively hot, she had fish curry for lunch, and the floor manager didn’t yell at her for humming too loudly.

    It was a very good day, she said again, dancing a little jig.

  57. Michael 2 says:

    Willard writes “With more technological power comes more working responsibilities, at least for some.”

    In the common vernacular and intended to be contemptuous, the word is “greed”. Primitive tribes that persist in being primitive might as well also be Buddhists for they lack greed. Once you’ve got some food in your belly such a person simply stops doing anything until hunger compels putting in more food. That’s about it. If there’s another tribe taking your food you kill them, or they kill you, if parasites haven’t already done the job.

    It is when you, individually and collectively, want *more* that societies start to happen and eventually industrial revolutions and so on. But all that labor produces a heat excess so y’all travel north or south to escape the heat. Southward hasn’t much in the way of natural resources or land, but north, oh my! Neandertals here we come ready or not.

    I have had recommended to me a book, “Guns, Germs and Steel” that explores some of this. I haven’t read it yet but highly simplified versions seem reasonable.

  58. Willard says:

    Here would be a revised version of the argument I made earlier:

    (1) There are more people alive today than in any other eras.
    (2) There are more children alive today than any other eras.
    (3) Both (1) and (2) are mainly due to technological innovation.
    (4) There is more child labor today than in any other eras.
    (5) Technology is directly linked to more child labor.

    Comments welcome.

  59. Pingback: Apocalypse never? | …and Then There's Physics

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