Apr 09 2018

Ecomodernism and Science-Based Environmentalism

I have always considered myself an environmentalist, but never found common cause with the environmentalist movement. The problem was (and remains) that so much of the environmentalist movement seems to be at odds with science.

Not always, of course. When the science agrees with a pro-environmentalist position, like the consensus on human-caused global warming, then environmentalists happily cite the science and link arm-in-arm with scientists. However, when the science does not align with the environmentalist position, such as with farming practices, GMOs, and nuclear energy, they just as happily take an anti-scientific position. Then scientists are in the pocket of big industry, the science cannot be trusted, and they cherry pick only the science they like.

So I like to think of myself as a science-based environmentalist. Even if you set aside the moral dimension and take a purely selfish point of view (I don’t, but even if you do), who wants to live on a planet that is all concrete and farmland? I love nature and wildlife, and I think most people do. Nature makes people happy.

No one wants to live on a polluted planet either. Pollution lowers quality of life and causes substantial health problems and cost.

Further, a pro-environmentalist position is a pro-economic position. The more efficient we are at doing stuff, the more outputs we get for fewer inputs, the less negative consequences there are to our industry, and the less we rely on limited resources, the better off we are economically. How much something costs is a good overall indicator for how efficient it is, and if you count all of the cost (including often externalized costs) then overall the options that are best for the environment are also likely to be the cheapest.

A note on externalized costs: This means that you are making some product or service artificially cheap by hiding some of the true cost, by putting that cost onto someone else. This could be onto future generations by using up limited resources or causing pollution someone else will have to clean up. But as a civilization we should consider the total cost of our industry, the cost to everyone, everywhere, and over time.

Therefore it only makes sense that we use the best science available to run our civilization in the most efficient and sustainable way, with the smallest negative impact on our environment. This to me is a no-brainer, and I think everyone essentially agrees with this in the abstract. Ideology and tribalism, however, often get in the way.


On this week’s episode of the SGU I interviewed Mark Lynas. Mark is a journalist and environmentalist who I mostly knew as someone who went from an anti-GMO position to a pro-GMO position. The interview was very interesting, and clarified some issues for me. What Mark clarified is that he actually went from a traditional environmentalist position (of the Greenpeace variety) to what he calls an ecomodernist position, and changing his stance on GMOs was only part of that.

I was not really aware of ecomodernism as a term, and if you want to know everything about it here is The Ecomodernist Manifesto (which Mark helped write) that defined it.

Ecomodernism is science-based environmentalism, but stated as a specific philosophical narrative. It is a specific narrative that is in deliberate opposition to the Greenpeace environmentalist narrative (the one that Mark used to have before the scales fell from his eyes).

The dominant environmentalist narrative is simultaneously regressive and post-modernist. They generally think that science and technology – all modern things, in fact – are generally bad. We should strive for a return to our natural state, one in which we had a small footprint on the Earth, where we farmed naturally (which has been codified as “organically”). Modern technology, by contrast, is all about poisoning nature with artificial chemicals, and is promoted by evil capitalists who are only interested in feeding their personal greed by exploiting people and raping the Earth. In this narrative science is just a tool of oppression, with no privileged relationship with the truth.

This is not a caricature. Read anything by Vandana Shiva if you want some blatant examples.

In this view either you have to have the delusion that you can feed the current human population and run our civilization with organic farming, wind, and solar energy. Or, you have to harbor the belief (which you may or may not want to state openly) that your ultimate goal for the world includes a drastic reduction in the human population, even if that comes about through massive starvation.

Mark was converted from this post-modernist view when he decided to really delve into the science of global warming, because he was making a career as a science communicator and correctly felt he should actually understand the science. In doing so, however, he ultimately realized that science was not the enemy and that scientists actually follow a valid method of verification that results in reliable knowledge. He further realized that he could not take a pro-science position on the climate and an anti-science position on GMOs.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto is what you get, in my opinion, when you combine a recognition of the importance of the environment and sustainability with a generally scientific and skeptical (critical thinking) outlook.

The first part of the manifesto is a brief overview of the arc of human civilization as it pertains to the environment. Essentially, technologically primitive human societies had a far larger environmental footprint per capita than modern societies. Their overall footprint was low because they were only able to sustain very small populations. Technology has allowed us to get more for less.

Many of the negative impacts we have had on nature are actually past their peaks, especially in developed countries. We are past peak pollution, and peak deforestation. We are actually seeing net reforestation in many areas.

The fact is – we can have it all. We can sustain our current population, even with projected growth (which should stabilize and even decline by the end of the century if trends continue). We can have high quality of life, all the energy we need, and enough food so that no one starves. The answer is science and technology, if we use them wisely.

This means prioritizing sustainability, accounting for all externalized costs, and thinking globally. We are already developing the technology of the future – solar is getting more and more efficient every year, we could have a safe nuclear infrastructure if political barriers were removed, and we may one day develop fusion technology.

Farming efficiency also continues to improve, and GMOs are an important part of this.

Contrary to the environmentalist narrative, technology has given us a consistently relatively smaller footprint on the earth. It makes no sense to go backward (even if you intend to kill off most of the human population).

But there are trade-offs. We are using about half of the land on earth that is not covered in ice. Runoff from fertilizers are a problem. Releasing CO2 into the atmosphere is a problem. These are fixable problems, however. We just need to prioritize them appropriately. Going backwards will not do that.

We also have to consider the human condition. Modern technology and society has also reduced violence, increased social justice, and improved the quality of life. Technology has given people, especially traditionally oppressed populations, like women, more life choices. In many ways the environmentalist vision of Vandana Shiva and her ilk is socially regressive. She would have women be slaves to traditional roles of working the land with primitive technology for bare subsistence (while she flies around the world getting 40k per lecture and staying in nice hotels).

Mark’s goal is to replace the standard environmentalist narrative, which is anti-science and regressive, with the ecomodernist narrative, which is pro-science and would maximize social justice, quality of life, and be good for the environment.

After reading the manifesto I guess I am also an ecomodernist, which includes being a science-based environmentalist.

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