Comrades, beware the absurdity of “Ecomodernism”.

                                                            Ted Trainer

5.7.2016

The belief that technical advance can solve problems of scarcity and environmental impact and enable all people to rise to high “living standards” has been deeply entrenched in western culture for centuries.  It has recently been boldly stated under the heading of  “Ecomodernism” (Asafu-Adjaye, et al., 2015, Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015.) There is a strong tendency within the Left to hold this view and to assume that only the capitalist system prevents the achievement of high-tech affluence for all. On a number of occasions Arena has made a valuable contribution in challenging this assumption, but it has recently been strongly reasserted by Leigh Phillips” book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff,  Zero Books, 2014.

The inclination to this view within Left circles can be traced back a long way, at least to the early 19th century rejection of “Malthusianism”, which now seems to stand for discontent with the idea of there being natural impediments to emancipation or welfare, and to the (over) enthusiastic elaborations on “scientific socialism” by Kautsky and Engels. The core issue Phillips and others currently contest is that there are severe limits to the material “living standards” that are possible for the world’s people to rise to. Phillipsargu4es that growth is essential to enable technology to solve our problems.

However the now large “limits to growth” literature constitutes what I regard as an overwhelmingly powerful argument that because of resource and ecological constraints a just and sustainable world cannot be achieved unless we shift to a zero-growth economy which has greatly reduced GDP per capita. That is, per capita rates of consumption must be reduced to a small fraction of those taken for granted in rich countries today. If this is so many within the Left are confronted with major challenges because it follows that radical and revolutionary change in economic and power structures will not be sufficient.  In addition a much more difficult cultural revolution will have to be achieved and a new “Simpler Way” vision of the good society will have to be accepted. Again, this general world view aligns with the perspective Arena has drawn attention to from time to time.

Surprisingly the extensive literature elaborating on the limits to growth predicament does  not seem to have given much attention to attempting to assess the merits of the tech-fix or Ecomodernist position. Following is an outline of the case that “Tech-fix” optimists in general and Ecomodernists in particular fall far short of having a plausible position. (For the detailed case see TSW: Ecomodernism, and TSW: A critique of Phillips…) Their major works do not even attempt to show that the limits to growth case is mistaken, or that the achievements anticipated by Ecomodernists are possible. Especially important here is the fact that all the available evidence seems to show the extreme implausibility of the central Ecomodernist claim that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource and ecological impacts. (See below.)

In my view the most important issue confronting the Left today is the choice between adhering to the vision of a good post-capitalist society as affluent, industrialised, centralized, globalized, urbanized and ultra-high-tech, or recognising that such a vision is ruled out by the limits to growth and that the goal has to be some kind of Simpler Way. It will be argued below that given the inadequacy of the Ecomodernist case the Left needs to scrap some of its core assumptions regarding the post revolutionary society and transition strategy.

The basic limits situation.

It is important to begin by getting clear about the limits to growth situation. Its core point is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved only because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate, i.e., depleted at unsustainable rates. (See further below.)

But the present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The first problem with Ecomodernism is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be approaching 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the Ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

Because the world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is already around 1.5 times a sustainable rate, the target for the Ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100.

The same impossible numbers are arrived at when the WWF estimates of productive land use per capita are taken. The Australian figure is around 8 ha per person needed to supply four basic “ecological services” (not all services) so if 9.7 billion people were to live as Australian’s live now around 77 billion ha would be needed. But the total available area of productive land on the planet is less than 8 billion ha. That means we are already about ten times over the amount that will be possible for all to have…even ignoring the fact that productive land is being lost at an alarming rate.

There appears to be no Ecomodernist text which even attempts to show that technical advance has any chance of dealing with these astronomical challenges. (I have asked five of the main Ecomodernism authors for relevant studies and evidence, several times, but their replies have not provided any.)

Note that the baseline on which Ecomodernist visions would have to be built is not given by present conditions. As Steffen et al. (2007) and many others stress the resource availability and ecological conditions from which they would have to derive miraculous achievements is already seriously damaged and rapidly deteriorating. Ore grades are falling, good soils are being lost, water is becoming more scarce etc.

Now, what does the evidence indicate about what might be achieved?

Assessing the plausibility of the fundamental decoupling theses.

The core claim on which tech-fix and Ecomodernist faiths are built is that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use and environmental impact at an extremely high rate. This is explicit throughout their literature, and is evident in the above multiples exercise.  Following are extracts from studies which show that the historical and present experience provides no support for the belief that this can be done. At best productivity gains and decoupling achievements to date have been slight, and some of the most important indices have gone backwards. (These are drawn from a list of about thirty instances; see TSW; Decoupling: The issue and evidence.)

Š      Wiedmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity …has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

Š      Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Š      Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure actually fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100. That is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

Š      Schandl et al. (2015)  state that, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity...”

Š      Sandu and Syed (2008) report that the energy efficiency of Australian energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Š      Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Latouche (2014) reports that over 20 years in Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% but materials use actually increased 85%.

Š      Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline for over forty years. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.” 

Š      The productivity trend associated with the centrally important factor, energy, is in serious decline, evident in long term data on ratios for Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI). Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required to do the discovering has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) These are alarmingly deteriorating decoupling rates.

These and many other sources and figures indicate the apparently complete absence of support for the Ecomodernists’ optimism. No studies appear to contradict those above. It was seen that their position implicitly assumes that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. However it appears that all the available evidence flatly contradicts the faith.

The inescapable implications for the general form post-capitalist society must take.

If the foregoing arguments are valid then the most profound and radical implications follow for the nature of the good society that must be worked for, and these confront some of the most firmly held assumptions of the Left.  (For a detailed vision of the required alternative see TSW: The Alternative Society, and on the implications for the Left see, TSW: A Limits to Growth Critique of the Radical Left.) None is more crucial than the fact that a sustainable and just post-capitalist society cannot be an affluent society and it cannot have any economic growth.  In fact it must have an average GDP per capita that is a small fraction of the current rich country average. It is of great importance that the Left should embrace these fundamental principles, abandon its Ecomodernist tendencies, and reconfigure its critique of capitalism and its revolutionary project along the lines of what can be termed “The Simpler Way”.

The only way a high quality of life can be provided for all the world’s people is via mostly small scale and highly self-sufficient communities drawing mostly on local resources. They would have to be basically cooperative and collectivist, involving committees, co-ops, working bees, commons, much public property, and thoroughly participatory town self-government.  This does not have to rule out a (carefully regulated) role for small private farms and firms, although over time communities could decide whether such a sector is desirable.

Highly integrated small communities enable elimination of huge overhead costs. For instance all food “wastes” can be immediately used or recycled to animals, compost heaps and gas digesters, avoiding the need for the fertilizer industry with its soil-damaging effects, and for fleets of ships, aircraft and trucks, warehouses, freeways, and supermarkets and marketing personnel. Town leisure committees can organise better festivals, concerts, talks, adventure tours and local holiday options than the commercial providers provide, thus phasing out most energy-intensive spectacles, travel, tourism and screen watching. (Possibly 90% reductions are derived in TSW: Remaking Settlements.)

But these economic, geographical and political changes would be much less important than the required cultural changes.  Above all there would have to be willing acceptance of simpler lifestyles, much less consumption or concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth, and much more attention to non-material sources of life satisfaction. There would have to be enormous value change from competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness to satisfaction from living cooperatively, communally, and frugally.

There would be huge reductions in international trade and travel as economic globalisation was dismantled. Regional and national economies would have to more or less follow standard socialist principles, being driven by social benefit and not profit or market forces.  They would be steady-state economies, operating on far lower GDP than at present. The main role of the (very small remnant) “state” level agencies would be to organise the provision of the basic inputs the small factories and farms in regions and towns need. The vast reductions in present wasteful production would enable the resources flowing to socially useful R and D and professional training to be markedly increased.

Your (small, home-made, beautiful mud brick) house might cost $10,000, and you might need to work for money only two days a week, while living in a supportive community, a manicured and productive landscape, secure from unemployment, loneliness and worries about mortgages and care in old age. In such a context money and possessions would be of little significance. The richness of life would derive from pubic goods, the community orchards, festivals and concerts, the working bees, the edible landscape, the small farms and firms, the many co-ops, and the supportive and culturally rich social conditions. If you doubt these claims the experience of Eco-villagers (and my own existence as a peasant homesteader living on 8 Watts) show that the quality of life would be vastly improved; this is about liberation.

One of the implications the Left is especially reluctant to confront is that these ways cannot be brought into existence by government. It is therefore a mistake (at this point in time) to try to take state power, whether by force or election.  The Simpler Way can only work, and can only come into existence, via cultural change, that is, as a result of a slow process whereby (enough) people in general come to see the sense of it, and come to value it and determine to build it in their towns and suburbs. Tolstoy and Kropotkin understood this. This revolution cannot be centralised. The orientation therefore needs to be Eco-Anarchist, rather than Eco-Socialist. (For the detail see TSW: The Transition.)

This vision is highly unlikely to be followed, but that is not central here.  The issue is, if the limits are anywhere near as coercive as has been argued, and Ecomodernism is ruled out, is there any other path to a sustainable and just world?

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Alexander, S., (2014), A Critique of Techno-Optimism: Efficiency Without Sufficiency is Lost, Post Carbon Pathways, Working Papers.

Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al., (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April, www.ecomodernism.org

Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenbeger, (2015), Nature Unbound; Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough Institute.

Diederen, A. M., (2009), Metal minerals scarcity: A call for managed austerity and the elements of hope, TNO Defence, Security and Safety, P.O. Box 45, 2280 AA Rijswijk, The Netherlands.

Giljum, S., M. Dittrich, M. Lieber, and S. Lutter, (2014), “Global Patterns of Material Flows and their Socio-Economic and Environmental Implications: A MFA Study on All Countries World-Wide from 1980 to 2009”, Resources, 3, 319-339.

Hattfield-Dodds, S., et al., (2015), “Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling environmental pressures”, Nature, 527, 5 Nov., 49 – 56.

Latouche, S., (2014), Essays on Frugal Abundance; Essay 3. Simplicity Institute Report, 14c. simpicityinstitute.org

Phillips, L., (2014), Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Zero Books, Winchester UK.

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Sandu, S. and A. Syed, (2008), Trends in Energy Intensity in Australian Industry,  Research Report 08.15, December.

Smil, V., (2014), Making the Modern World, Chichester, Wiley.

Steffen, W., W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney and C. Ludwig, (2015), “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration.” The Anthropocene Review, 2, 1 81-98.

TSW: Decoupling; The issue and the evidence. DECOUPLING.htm

TSW: A Limits to Growth Critique of the Radical Left. LEFTCRIT.htm

TSW: The Transition. TRANSITION.htm

TSW: The Simpler Way; The Alternative Society. http://thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

TSW: Remaking Settlements. RemakingSettlements.htm

Weidmann, T. O., H. Shandl, and D. Moran, (2014), “The footprint of using metals; The new metrics of consumption and productivity,” Environ. Econ. Policy Stud.,  DOI 10.1007/s10018-014-0085-y

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