Blog post written by Professor Rick McGahey, Director, Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management, and SCEPA Faculty Fellow

 

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Professor Rick McGahey

A provocative new document on global environmental challenges says that “climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be.” Is this just the latest self-regarding propaganda from international agribusiness and oil companies? No, the statement comes from the new “manifesto” just released on “eco-modernism.” 

The ecomodernists are associated with the Breakthrough Institute, founded by activists associated with the Apollo Alliance and other thinkers who want a more dramatic move to clean energy to spur economic growth while reducing carbon release and environmental damage. Eduardo Porter has a positive piece on the manifesto in the New York Times

The manifesto calls explicitly for more urban development and growth, arguing that is the best way to increase the standard of living for the world’s population. They see the possibility of a greener, better managed way of living in a more urban-centered world. 

The manifesto explicitly rejects what they view as romantic visions of rural living and subsistence agriculture. The authors argue that “The average per-capita use of land today is vastly lower than it was 5,000 years ago, despite the fact that modern people enjoy a far richer diet. Thanks to technological improvements in agriculture, during the half-century starting in the mid-1960s, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person declined by one-half.”

 

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So they want more intensified, productive agriculture and aquaculture, along with nuclear power, desalinization, and other technologies.  I think the manifesto is very hopeful to naive about our ability to manage some of these specific technologies (especially nuclear waste). But I’m drawn to their argument that says smarter and lower carbon technologies can help raise everyone’s standard of living, shifting our economy to less polluting and carbon-intensive services. 

In what seems a deliberate echo of Karl Marx, this manifesto says “The modernization processes that have increasingly liberated humanity from nature are, of course, double-edged, since they have also degraded the natural environment…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.”

Marx of course argued that capitalism was historically necessary to assemble the productive forces of the modern economy on a scale that could vastly expand output and the potential standard of living. In the 1848 Communist Manifesto, Marx said “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.”  But he also argued that the social and economic relations around those productive forces were in conflict, and needed to be overturned and transformed, or the promise of a better life for all through increased economic output would be lost in a series of inevitable economic crises rooted in the legal and property arrangements of capitalism.

The ecomodernists seem to echo that view, arguing that our hugely productive technologies had to be assembled to generate the rising global standard of living. But now new technologies and/or ways to manage the older ones are necessary, and they believe that can be achieved. 

They are much vaguer than Marx on the economic and social relationships surrounding these technologies, either deliberately or because they haven’t fully engaged the question of who profits from destroying the environment. The ecomodernists need a dialogue with thinkers like Naomi Klein, whose 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism and the Climate ties climate destruction directly to economic exploitation.

Perhaps the boldest thing the ecomodernists say is: “…any conflict between climate mitigation and the continuing development process through which billions of people around the world are achieving modern living standards will continue to be resolved resoundingly in favor of the latter. Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be.  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.”

 Agree or not, the manifesto will stir up debate among progressives devoted to stopping and reversing climate change. The explicit embrace of technological solutions to climate change and the endorsement of a higher global standard of living challenges environmentalists who believe reducing economic growth and fostering subsistence and rural modes of living must be part of saving the planet.

 I agree with the ecomodernists that if we pose the battle that way, the climate and the planet will lose. A higher economic standard of living can be compatible with a greener planet. But the ecomodernists need to analyze power and exploitation to understand why we have the technologies and economic arrangements we do. The solution is not reducing economic growth, but the movement needs an analysis of economic and political power to understand why we have the technologies we do, and what it will take to transform them.