The Extreme Implausibility of Ecomodernism.
Abstract: “Ecomodernism” is a recently coined term for that central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture previously well-described as “Tech-fix faith”. The largely taken for granted assumption has been that by accelerating modern technologies high living standards can be achieved for all, while resolving resource and ecological problems. The following argument is that ecomodernism falls far short of having a substantial, persuasive or convincing case in its support. It stands as a contradiction of the now voluminous “limits to growth” literature, but it does not attempt to offer a case against the limits thesis. Elements in the limits case will be referred to below but the main line of argument will be to do with the reasons why achievement of the reductions and “decouplings” assumed by ecomodernism is extremely implausible. The conservative social and political implications are noted before briefly arguing that the solution to global problems must be sought via The Simpler Way.
What is ecomodernism?.
The 32 page Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), by 18 authors, is a clear and emphatic restatement of the common belief that technical advance within the existing social structure can or will solve global problems, and there is therefore no need for radical change in directions, systems, values or lifestyles. Thus the fundamental commitment to ever more affluent “living standards”, capital intensive systems, technical sophistication and constantly rising levels of consumption and GDP is sound, and indeed necessary as it is the only way to enable the future technical advance that it is believed will solve global problems. This will enable human demands to be met while resource and ecological impacts on nature are reduced, thus making it possible to set more of nature aside to thrive. Modern agriculture for instance will producer more from less land, enabling more to be returned to nature and freeing Third World people from backbreaking work while moving into urban living. Thus the fundamental assumption frequently asserted is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from the environment.
These kinds of visions would obviously require vastly increased quantities of energy but renewable sources are judged not to be capable of providing these, so it is no surprise to find late in the document that it is being assumed that nuclear reactors are going to do the job, nor that the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute champions the Manifesto.
Unfortunately the Manifesto is little more than a claim. It provides almost no supporting case apart from giving some examples where technical advance has improved human welfare at reduced resource or ecological impact. It does not deal with the many reasons for thinking that technical advance cannot do what the ecomodernists are assuming it can do. Above all it does not provide grounds for thinking that that resource demand and ecological damage can be sufficiently decoupled from economic growth. When one of the authors was asked for the supporting case reference was made to the 106 page document Nature Unbounded by Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, (2015.) However this document too is essentially a statement of claims and faith and can hardly be said to present a case that those claims can be realized.
The following discussion is mainly intended to show how implausible and unsubstantiated the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are, and that they are contrary to existing evidence. Most if not all critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (2015), e.g., by Hopkins (2015), Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, (2015) and Smaje, (2015a, 2015b), have been impressionistic and “philosophical”. In contrast, the following analysis focuses on numerical considerations which establish the enormity of the ecomodernist claims. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, and ecological impacts are attended to it becomes clear that the task for technical advance set by the ecomodernists is implausible in the extreme.
The basic limits to growth thesis.
The “limits to growth” thesis 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 because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate.
But the unsustainable 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 most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth. The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be.
The magnitude of the task.
It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. This is the issue which the ecomodernists fail to deal with and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the apparent limits can be overcome.
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 around 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.
However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact. The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate. (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that 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. In other words, by 2050 technical advance will have to have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels.
The consideration of required multiples shows the inadequacy of the earlier pronouncements and expectations of the well-known tech-fix optimist Amory Lovins who enthused about the possibility of “Factor Four” or better reductions in materials and energy uses per unit of GDP. (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999).If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by such technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed. For instance if use and impact rates per unit of GDP were cut by one-third, but 3% p.a. growth in total output continued, then in about 17 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.
This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required. There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this. At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling has taken place.
Note also the importance here of the Leibig “law of the minimum.” It does not matter how spectacular various technical gains can be if there remains one crucial area where they can’t be made on the required scale. Plants for instance might have available all the nutrients they need except for one required in minute quantities but if it is not available there will be little or no growth. High-tech systems often depend heavily on tiny quantities of “mineral vitamins”, notably rare earths which are extremely scarce.
The typically faulty national accounting.
An easily overlooked factor is that in general measures and indices of rich world resource and ecological performance greatly misrepresent and underestimate the seriousness of the situation, because they do not include the large volumes of energy, materials and ecological impact embodied in imported goods. Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the goods they consume from Third World plantations and factories. The implications for resource depletion and ecological impact have only recently begun to be studied. (Weidmann, et al., 2014, 2015, Lenzen, et al., 2012, Wiebe, et al,
2012, Dittrich, et al., 2014, Schütz, et al., 2004.)
An example is given by the conventional measure of CO2 emissions. Australia’s 550 MtCO2e/y equates to a per capita rate of around 25 t/y, which is about the highest in the world. But this does not include the emissions in Third World countries generated by the production of goods imported into Australia. For Australia and for the UK this amount is actually about as great as the emissions within the country. (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.)
In addition Australia’s “prosperity” is largely achieved by exporting coal, oil and gas and these contain about three times as much carbon as all the energy used within Australia. It could be argued therefore that the country’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem more or less corresponds to five times the official and usually quoted 25 t/pp/y. The IPCC estimates that by 2050 global emissions must be cut to about 0.3 t/pp/y. (IPCC, 2014.) This is around one-three hundredth of the amount Australia is now responsible for. Again the centrality of the above magnitude point is evident; how aware are tech-fix optimists of the need for reductions of such proportions?
Assessing the validity of the general “tech-fix” thesis.
Firstly attention will be given to some overall numerical considerations which show the extreme implausibility of the general tech-fix claim, such as the gulf between current “decoupling” achievements and the far higher levels that ecomodernism would require. But that does not take into account the fact that it is going to take increasing effort just to maintain current achievements, for instance as ore grades deteriorate. This what the limits to growth analysis makes clear. The added significance of this will be discussed later via brief examination of some domains such as energy scarcity, declining ore grades, and deteriorating ecological conditions.
How impressive have the overall gains been?
It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate. As a generalisation this belief is quite challengeable. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960.” This has been partly due to greater use of accessories since then. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise selected isolated spectacular technical advances and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport. Huebner’s historical study (2005) found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining. He says that for the US the peak was actually in 1916.
Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”
The historical record suggests that at best productivity gains have been modest. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods. Thus the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed. Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015) say that the efficiency of materials use has been improving at c. 1.5% p.a., but they give no evidence for this and other sources indicate that the figure is too high. Weidmann 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.”
The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the above issue of failure to include energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004, Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)
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.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. 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.
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 fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which 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.
A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.) However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … 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...”
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of 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.
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. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).
These sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming 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. But even if the 1.5% p.a. rate Hattfield-Dodds et al. say has been the recent achievement for materials use could be maintained the reduction would only be around a factor of 1.7, and various sources noted above say that their assumed rate is incorrect. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale.
The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.
Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.) Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.
Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.
The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. 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 has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)
The changing components of GDP.
Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes moving electrons around. A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, and these have significantly contributed to GDP figures. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.
When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered very different impressions can be gained. For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%, and land area used increased 40%. This aligns with the above evidence on steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy. It is therefore desirable to avoid analysing productivity, the “energy intensity” of an economy, and decoupling achievements in relation to the GDP measure.
Factors limiting the benefits from a technical advance.
There are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first. Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.
“Technical potential” refers to what could be achieved if the technology could be fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.
“Economic (or ecological) potential”. This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much. For instance some The Worldwide Fund for Nature quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but they say that the ecologically tolerable potential is only 8 EJ/y.
What are the net gains? Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value. For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing. There are also knock-on effects. The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertlilzer, seeds and irrigation, and created social costs to do with the disruption of peasant communities.
Š What is socially/politically possible? There are limits set by what people will accept. It would be technically possible for many more people in any city to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.
Š The Jeavons or “rebound” effect. There is a strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved, or something else.
Thus it is important to recognise that initial claims usually refer to “technical potential”, but significantly lower savings etc. are likely in the real world.
Now add the worsening limits.
The discussion so far has only dealt with decoupling achievements to date, but the difficulties involved in those achievements are in general likely to have been much less severe than those ahead, as there is continued deterioration in ore grades, forests, soils, chemical pollution, water supplies etc. It is important now to consider briefly some of these domains, to see how they will make the task for the ecomodernist increasingly difficult.
Before looking at some specific areas the general “low hanging fruit” effect should be mentioned. When effort is put into dealing with problems, recycling, conserving, increasing efficiency etc. the early achievements might be spectacular but as the easiest options are used up progress typically becomes more difficult and slow. This is so even when there are no problems of dwindling resource availability.
The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Topp (2008) reports that the productivity for Australian mining has declined 24% between 2000 and 2007. While reserve estimates can be misleading as they only state quantities miners have found to date, and they often increase over time, there is considerable concern about the depletion rate.
Dierderen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left of cheap and abundant access to metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and minerals input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. He expects copper, nickel, molybdenum and cobalt to peak before 2035. Deideren’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” (p. 23.) “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.” Such as… “cheap mass-produced consumer electronics like mobile phones, flat screen TVs and personal computers, for lack of various scarce metals (amongst others indium and tantalum). Also, large-scale conversion towards more sustainable forms of energy production, energy conversion and energy storage would be slowed down by a lack of sufficient platinum-group metals, rare-earth metals and scarce metals like gallium. This includes large-scale application of high-efficiency solar cells and fuel cells and large-scale electrification of land-based transport.” Deideren points out that Gallium, Germanium, Indium and Tellurium are crucial for renewable technologies but are by-products currently available in low quantity from the mining of other minerals. If the latter peak so will the availability of the former.
Scarcities in one domain often have knock-on and negative feedback effects in others. Diederan says, “The most striking (and perhaps ironic) consequence of a shortage of metal elements is its disastrous effect on global mining and primary production of fossil fuels and minerals: these activities require huge amounts of main and ancillary equipment and consumables (e.g. barium for barite based drilling mud)”. (p. 9.)
The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs.
Š The quantity of rock that has to be dug up increases. For ores at half the initial grade the quantity doubles, and so does the energy needed to dig, transport and crush it.
Š Poorer ores require finer grinding and more chemical reagents to release mineral components, meaning greater energy demand and waste treatment.
Š Meanwhile the easiest deposits to access are being depleted so it takes more energy to find, get to, and work the newer ones. They tend to be further away, deeper, and smaller.
Š Processing rich ores can be chemically quite different to processing poor ores. Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth's crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides. To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today.
Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the multiples issue. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production. For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals, the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?
The ecomodernist cannot hope to deal with the minerals problem without assuming very large scale adoption of nuclear energy, which they are willing to do.
Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, an amount of carbon release that must not be exceeded if the 2 degree target is to be met. They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below this the amount of CO2e that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. By 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if the present emission rate is kept up the budget would have been used up by 2033. Given the seriousness of the possible consequences many regard a 67% chance as being too low and a 2 degree rise as too high. (Anderson and Bows, 2008, and Hansen, 2008.) For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes.
Few would say there is any possibility of eliminating emissions by 2033. Many emissions come from sources that would be difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electric production of steel and aluminium. Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation. Thus power station Carbon Capture and Storage technology cannot solve the problem.
Even the IPCC’s most optimistic emissions reduction scenario, RCP 2.6, could be achieved only if as yet non-existent technology will be able to take 1 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year through the last few decades of this century. (IPCC, 2014.)
Ecomodernists mostly regard the climate problem as solvable by the intensive adoption of nuclear energy. However even the most rapid build conceivable could not achieve the Meinschausen et al. target.
About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernist strongly advocates increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature. This is an area where knock-on effects are significant. Urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists. Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages (See on Simpler Way settlements below).
The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” This statement overlooks the vast areas needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, 200% of the Earth’s surface, not 1- 3%. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not “decouple humanity from nature”.
Biological resources and impacts.
Perhaps the most worrying limits being encountered are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and environmental systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen et al., (2015) state much the same situation. A brief reference to a number of impacts is appropriate here to again indicate the magnitude of present problems and their rate of growth.
Species are being driven to extinction at such an increasing rate that it is claimed the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers or mass of big animals has declined dramatically. “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” (Carrington, 2014.) The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half what it was about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)
Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.
Humans are releasing about as much nitrogen via artificial production, especially for agriculture, as nature releases. This has been identified as one of the nine most serious threats to the biosphere by the Planetary Boundaries Project. (Rockstrom and Raeworth, 2014.)
The increasing toxicity of the environment.
Large volumes of artificially produced chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them. This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans and killing marine life.
Serious water shortages are impacting in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, such as salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in these rivers might be cut to half the present amount, as the greenhouse problem impacts.
Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the global fish catch is likely to go down from here on. The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago. Ecomodernists assume that aquaculture will solve the fish supply problem. It is not clear what they think the farmed fish will be fed on.
Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of many ocean animals, including the krill which are at the base of major ocean food chains. This effect plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals. The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)
Food, land, agriculture.
Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries. If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has a number of negative effects on food production.
Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010) both report the rate of food producing land loss at 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a. For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to incoming sand from the expanding deserts. If the estimates by Burn and Vidal are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions. It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, energy-intensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.)
On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores better is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize what a fundamental challenge is set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.) They are able to almost completely avoid food packaging, advertising and transport costs, to recycle all nutrients to local soils, benefit from overlaps and multiple functions (e.g., geese weed orchards, ducks eat snails, kitchen scraps feed poultry…) Possibly most importantly, local food production systems maximize the provision of livelihoods and are fundamental elements in resilient and sustainable communities.
Again a daunting challenge is set for the ecomodernist. Presumably the far higher yields from far less land will involve energy intensive high-rise greenhouses, water desalinisation, aquaculture, near 100% phosphorus and other nutrient recycling, elimination of nitrogen run-off, restoration of soil carbon levels, synthetic meat, and extensive global transport and packaging systems. Again numerical analyses aimed at showing what the energy, materials and dollar budgets would be, or that the goals can be met, are not offered. In addition a glance at the tech fix vision for future food supply reveals the many knock on effects that would multiply problems in many other areas, most obviously energy, infrastructure and water provision and the associated demand for materials.
A glance at the energy implications for beef production should again establish the magnitude point. To produce one kg of beef take can take 20,000 litres of water, and it can take 4 kWh to desalinize 1 liter of water. Again it is evident that there would have to be very large scale commitment to nuclear energy.
Summarising the biological resource situation.
The environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place. Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Present flows are grossly unsustainable but the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by eight by 2100.
The energy implications.
In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalinisation of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures. The “no-limits-to-growth” scenario for Australia 2050 put forward by Hattfield-Dodds et al. concludes that present energy use would have to multiply by 2.7, more than most if not all other projections, and their scenarios do not take into account the energy needed to deal with any of the knock-on effects discussed above. (And their conclusion is based on a highly implausible rate of decoupling materials use from GDP growth, i.e., up to 4.5% p.a.)
If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalinisation etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain. The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.
Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.
This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by present conditions. As Steffen et al. (2015) stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse. It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration. Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.
The implications for centralisation, control and power.
The ecomodernist vision would have to involve vast, technically sophisticated, expert-run, bureaucratized and centralized global systems, most obviously for the control of the nuclear sector, e.g., to prevent access to weapons grade material. Both corporate and governmental agencies would have to be very large in scale, and relations between the corporate sector and top levels of government would set problems to do with openness, public accountability, democratic control, and corruption. Most production would be from a relatively few gigantic and automated mines, factories, feed lots, mega-greenhouses and plantations compressed into the relatively few best sites. How this would provide jobs and livelihoods to perhaps 6 billion Third world poor would need to be explained. The provision of large amounts of capital would probably become much more centralised and problematic than it has been in the GFC era.
A “development” model focused on these massive, centralized, expert-dependent and capital intensive systems is not obviously going to improve the already severe problem of global inequality. Mega corporations will run the automated vertical farms and desal plants, assisted by governments who in the past have had no difficulty legislating to clear the locals out of the way, as when Third World governments enable GDP-raising palm oil plantations, logging, big dams and aquaculture. Thus Smaje regards ecomodernism as a new enclosure movement.
Morgan (2012) and Korrowicz (2012) provide disturbing accounts of the fragility and lack of resilience of highly integrated and complex systems. Tainter, (1988), draws attention to the way increasing system complexity leads towards negative synergisms and breakdown. For instance where two roads cross in a village no infrastructure might be needed but in a city multi-million dollar flyovers can be required. As Rome’s road system grew the effort needed just to maintain them grew towards taking up all road building capacity. Among the chief virtues of the small and local path are its robustness, redundancy and resilience, the capacity for simple repairs to simple systems, as well as its capacity to provide livelihoods to large numbers of people.
Above all the ecomodernist vision stands for the rejection of any suggestion that the economy needs altering, let alone scrapping, or that rampant-consumer culture needs to be replaced. The problems are defined as purely technical. If minerals are becoming scare the solution is not to reduce use of them but to increase production of them. Thus there is no need to think about giving up consumerism, economic growth, the market system or the capitalist system. Radical thought and action need not be considered. Smaje describes it as “neoliberalism with a green veneer.” These messages are as consoling to the present working class and the precariat as they are to the capitalist class.
The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.
Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future. At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation. Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”
This world-view fails to grasp several things. The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path. Another is that we might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to. A third is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us, and on some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further. Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs. Many ecovillages are developed enough.
Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”. Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way might quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)
In his critique of Phillips (2014) Smaje (2015b) sees the Faustian bargain here, the readiness to suffer, indeed embrace, the relentless discontent, struggle, disruption and insecurity that modernism involves, without realizing that we might opt to take the benefits of modernism while dumping the disadvantages and designing ways of life that provide security, stability, a relaxed pace and a high quality of life for all.
A radically alternative vision; The Simpler Way.
Until the last decade or so there was no alternative to the dominant implicit ecomodernist world view, but now significant challenges have emerged, most evidently in the overlapping Eco-village, Degrowth, Transition Towns and localism movements. The fundamental beginning point for these is acceptance of the “limits to growth” case that levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact are extremely unsustainable and that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions. The core Simpler Way vision claim is that these reductions can be made while significantly improving the quality of life, even in the richest countries, but not without radical change in systems and lifestyles. Following is a brief indication of some of the main elements in this vision. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)
The basic settlement form is the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local resources and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield. State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Extensive use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms, especially earth building, hand tool craft production, Permaculture, community gardening and commons. Leisure committees would maintain leisure rich communities, and other committees would manage orchards, woodlots, agricultural research, and the welfare of disabled, teenage, aged and other groups. Local economies would dramatically reduce the need for vehicles and transport, enabling conversion of many roads to community food production.
These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory procedures, including town meetings and referenda. Citizens are the only ones who can understand local conditions, problems and needs, and they would have to work out the best policies for the town and to own the decisions arrived at. Centralised states could not govern them at all effectively, especially given the much diminished resources that will be available to states. More importantly the town would not meet its own needs well unless its citizens had a strong sense of empowerment and control and responsibility for their own affairs.
Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, given the recognition that individual welfare would depend heavily on how well the town was functioning. It would not be likely to thrive unless there was an atmosphere of inclusion and care, solidarity and responsibility.
An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions (Economy B) whereby the town developed its capacity to make sure that what needs doing is done, within the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for the market sector.
There would be many free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Small public banks with elected boards would hold savings and arrange loans for maintenance or restructuring. Some people might pay all their tax by extra contributions to the community working bees. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. It can be argued that the quality of life would be higher than it is for most people in rich countries today. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in ecovillages and Transition Towns.
Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would enable the amount spent on socially useful R and to be significantly increased.
A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.
It is obvious that the Simpler Way vision could not be realised unless there was enormous “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Fortunately there is now increasing recognition that pursuing ever greater material wealth and GDP is not a promising path to greater human welfare. In a zero-growth settlement there could be no concern with the accumulation of wealth; all would have to be content with stable and secure circumstances, to enjoy non-material life satisfactions, and to be aware that their “welfare” depended not on their individual monetary wealth but on public wealth, i.e., on their town’s infrastructures, systems, edible landscapes, free concerts, working bees, committees, leisure resources, solidarity and morale.
Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.
At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be achieved, but that is not central here; the issue is whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense.
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