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.