A critique of Leigh Phillips’ assertion of the Tech-Fix Ecomodernist faith.

Ted Trainer

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 is that by accelerating modern technologies economic growth can continue and high living standards can be achieved for all, while resource and ecological problems are solved. Recently much attention has been given to Leigh Phillips statement of this position Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts (2015).  Phillips insists that it is only by accelerating consumption and economic growth that the technical advance needed to solve global problems can be enabled. I have written a detailed rejection of ecomodernism and tech-fix faith in general (Trainer, 2016) but the following short discussion deals only with Phillps’ account. 

I found the book to be quite an interesting and well informed read dealing with a wide range of relevant issues -– but also to be utterly mistaken. Like the basic ecomodernist texts, An Ecomodernist Manifesto, (Asafu-Adjaye, J., et al., 2015) and Nature Unbounded (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, 2015) Phillips’ book gives us nothing like a persuasive case for the enormous claims made about what technology can do.  They simply fail to give us good reasons why we should believe that the astounding advances their position requires are likely to be made, and they fail to deal with the weighty evidence that they cannot be achieved (which I will sketch below.)

The world view built into ecomodernism flatly contradicts the now voluminous “Limits to Growth” case that affluent-industrial-consumer-capitalist society is grossly unsustainable, that rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact are far beyond levels that a can be kept up for long or that all the world’s people could share, and that there must be large scale de-growth and radical system change if we are to solve the problems.

Central in the ecomodernist gospel is the claim that the economy can be “decoupled” from nature, from resource demands and ecological impacts. That is, technical advance can enable output and consumption to go on growing, presumably for ever, while resource demands and ecological impacts are reduced way down to tolerable levels.  The previous critiques of Phillips and ecomodernists in general that I have seen (e.g., by Hopkins 2015, Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, 2015 and Smaje, 2015a, 2015b) have not focused on this numerical issue, i.e., on the evidence indicating what the rate of “decoupling” is and might be in future.  A glance at this realm makes ecomodernism, to be polite, extremely implausible.

Lets first get clear about the alarming magnitude of the limits to growth problem we have, because it sets the task the ecomodernists are taking on.

The magnitude of the task.

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.

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 must have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels. No wonder growth and affluence for all has been labeled “the impossibility theorem.”

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 arrears to have taken place. (It is explained below that decoupling has been negligible.)

Leigh Phillips’ claims and arguments.

It should be noted that Phillips is from the radical left and is out to persuade fellow socialists to give up their interest in limits and return to the traditional left’s focus on increasing industrial production and material welfare, i.e., in Marxist language, on “…further development of the forces of production.” (p. 154.)

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He begins by lumping together the things he is opposing. “The anti-consumerist, back to the land, small is beautiful, civilization-hating, progress questioning ideology of degrowth, limits and retreat …”  (p.12.) This “… Counter-Enlightenment credo…degrowth, anti-consumerism, catastrophism, technophobia, localism and small-is-beautiful limits …” … is a “… seething, effervescing misanthropy” (p.12), which “…must be thoroughly excised from our  ranks.”    He makes the unbelievable claim that this general perspective “… dominates in contemporary culture”, it is “…hegemonic not just on the green left but across the across the political spectrum.” (p.12.) If only! In my experience only a tiny minority of people, and certainly none of our “leaders”, understands or is interested in these ideas or movements. On a number of occasions Phillips says something as patently silly as “Anticonsumerism has become a fundamental doctrine of … mainstream thought across the board.”  (p. 87.)

Phillips does not seem to understand that the people he scathes might just might have reasons for their rejection of the affluence and growth path, and that it might make sense to have a look at these.  A very few times it seems that he is going to analyse their arguments, (e.g., of limits to growth) but in these instances he then says little or nothing about the grounds they have for their views before moving on.  His rather frequent and lengthy arguments against his opponents mostly take the form of ridicule, not examining whether there are good reasons for their positions. Most importantly he does not (attempt to) provide a counter-argument against the limits to growth case, and there is no recognition of the magnitude of the task he is assuming can be achieved, e.g., of the “impossibility theorem.”

In other words Phillips is saying there isn’t a problem of limits to growth. “Through rational democratic planning let’s make sure that the innovation arrives so that so that we can move forward without inadvertently overproducing.  And move forward we must if we are to expand human flourishing. So long as we do that, there in principle no limits.” (p. 62.) “... a desire for all of society to advance together ever forward without limit….is not an expression of greed at all, but the noblest of yearnings.” (p.  104-5.) Whatsmore, “A socialist never stops demanding more” 105

It is no surprise therefore that a whole chapter is given to defending consumerism. He gives “…a robust, unapologetic defence of ‘stuff’, of consumerism, from the left.” (p. 88.) “Anti-consumerism should be immediately recognized as an alien and antagonistic ideology to socialists … the distinction between needs and wants is a false one.” (p. 101.) “There will need to be more growth, more progress, more industry… (p. 27.) “The campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left.” (p. 27.)

The reasoning here seems to be that increasing consumerism is a necessary and inextricable element in the “progress” that will deliver the GDP that will enable the technical advance, that will mop up the problems consumerism is causing. “…it is precisely through economic grow that humanity will be able to afford and develop the technologies and infrastructures that will enable us to solve the problems… (p. 67.) The idea was that as countries develop their environmental impact increases but then slows, peaks and falls, so conventional economists reassured us that capitalist development is OK, the mess it causes will subside in time. For some years a version of this screwy logic has gone under the heading of the Kuznets Curve, and various reviews find that it is wrong. Alexander concludes his review, (2014),  “If the EKC hypothesis sounds too good to be true, that is because, on the whole, it is false.”

But growth is not seen by Phillips as just the means required to solve problems; it is of intrinsic and it seems ultimate value. By another piece of inscrutable logic he arrives at the conclusion, “Growth is freedom.” (p. 263.)

The mistaken “uni-dimensional assumption:  “There’s no other path and you must go forward on it or backward.”

A taken-for-granted assumption underlying Phillips view of the universe is one that is very common in conventional thinking about “development”, indeed fundamental in the Western post-enlightenment view of history and progress. lt is 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.  All societies are somewhere on this single path. At the modern end there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. Phillips proceeds as if 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 consuming. Thus he sees localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to the ecomodernist 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.  There can be many paths towards many end points, and we might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to.  In addition we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernisation takes us, and with respect to some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further.  Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; in my opinion my kitchen and many ecovillages are developed enough.

Most importantly, apparently Phillips cannot grasp 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, furniture, 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. Modernity is a whole package we move further towards or retreat from and you must take the bad with the good. 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. Why on earth can’t we design and build societies that embody the good ideas and ways humans have figured out over thousands of years, taking some from high tech arenas and some from hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., that we thrive best in small face-to-face communities)?

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 could avoid the long march through growth and trickle down and quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)  Phillips can’t see this; the only way for the Third World is to follow us up the single dreadful path to consumerism; he says, “We cannot deny them their right to trash.” (p. 104,)

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 enjoyable lives.

Most puzzling is why on earth does Phillips believe that it is not possible to have or develop or select good things if growth is curbed.  He often asserts that if growth is stopped all will be lost and we will end up in chaos. He has no doubt that a steady state economy would guarantee collapse of everything that is desirable. “To call for a steady-state economy, to oppose growth, is to foreclose all the rest of the spectacular deeds that would otherwise lie in humanity’s future.” (p. 260.)  It would condemn “… us all to a hair shirted existence and refusal of further human development due to a romantic, unscientific belief in a static, unchanging balance of nature.” (p. 69.)  “The logical conclusion of degowth is ineluctable; we must remain technologically scientifically medically frozen.” (p. 221.) The logic here is not just wrong; it is borderline insane.

Among the many faults in his unidimensional world view is that it makes the economic factor, the amount of production and consumption going on, the sole determinant of our fate.  He is saying that if we are to move to a better word and a better quality of life for all then there must be more production and consumption.  This fails to see the possibility that the key to a good live for all lies in the realm of values and ideas not stuff to consume. He shows no understanding that if people came to be satisfied with what is good enough with respect to material values and to focus on and derive life satisfaction from other things, most obviously personal development, arts and crafts, learning, community activities, and advancing our understanding of the universe, we could vastly improve everybody’s quality of life, quickly,…while saving the ecosystems of the planet.

            The fundamentally mistaken “decoupling” assumption.

Now to the most damning fault in the whole ecomodernist edifice, the “decoupling” thesis. Phillips acknowledges that ecomodernist dreams could not be achieved unless economic growth could continue while resource demands and ecological impacts fell way down to tolerable levels.  He admits this would have to involve development of many miraculous new technologies which at this point in time are not even imagined. “It will require significant ingenuity to engineer a reverse of the processes we have inadvertently set in motion, likely even involving some way to produce a carbon negative economy for a period…. This will involve developing some technologies and processes that we do not really have yet.  As yet unimagined new materials to replace steel and concrete are only two innovations amongst the hundreds that we will need.  Better battery and energy storage are high on the list as well.” 

He has no idea of the enormity of what he is saying here, nor of the utter implausibility of advances that will decouple materials and energy use from economic growth sufficiently to solve the problems.  The best way to show the recklessness of this essential ecomodernist assertion is to look at the historical and current record for decoupling achievement. (For more detail than is given here see Trainer, 2016.)

The general finding, apparently the universal finding, from various studies is that over recent decades there has been little or no reduction in the rate of increase in materials or energy use as rich world economies have grown. And this is for conventional measures that do not take into account the vast amounts of material, energy and ecological damage being used or taking place in the Third World countries producing the huge quantities of goods imported into rich countries.  Here is some of the plentiful evidence.

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 appears to have declined is misleading. It does not take into account the above mentioned 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 electricity enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because electricity is more easily transported, switched on and off, or shifted 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 that period 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, (again using the measure that underestimates.)

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, puzzlingly, that paper contained the following 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 the country’s 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 dematerialisation 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 constitute an overwhelming case against ecomodernist optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling across entire economies, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. Yet the above evidence suggests that to date there has been virtually no decoupling. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute economy-wide decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale. All this makes complete nonsense of Phillips’ astounding statement, “…there is substantial evidence for decoupling…everywhere you look.” (p. 223.)  It is of course possible to find cases of “relative decoupling” for specific industries or products, but it is not possible to find many cases of “absolute” decoupling (i.e., increasing GDP accompanied by falling input use), and you will find no cases where there has been sufficient absolute decoupling to make ecomodernist fantasies remotely achievable.

When we focus on specific industries, notably food, we find that over recent decades the amount of machinery, transport, chemicals, and energy needed to produce each unit or $1 of food has risen dramatically, i.e., there has been far worse than no decoupling.

Keep in mind the fact that just about all the conditions underlying decoupling performance to date are deteriorating. Ore grades are falling, water is becoming more scarce, cropland is being lost, forests, fish, coral reefs etc. etc. are being lost or becoming less productive.  The task for the ecomodernist will be much more difficult than having to achieve miraculous, unprecedented rises in output per unit of inputs that are as available as they are at present.

            The daunting energy implications.

It will be obvious that if ecomodernist dreams were to be fulfilled far more energy would have to be produced than at present, which Phillips recognises, and that this could only come from fourth generation reactors.  How many?

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, desalination etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be over 400 times as great as at present.

            Leigh, The Simper Way makes far more sense.

The limits to growth case is now overwhelmingly convincing.

Rates of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable and it is implausible in the extreme that  technical advance can solve resource and ecological problems while we all plunge on seeking ever more economic growth and ever rising “living standards”. Our only hope is to move to systems, ways, lifestyles and values that enable us all to live well on far lower

 per capita resource use. “The Simpler Way” details the case that we could easily do this, while actually raising the quality of life of people in the richest countries. The vision is detailed at Trainer 2011, 2016 but some core elements should be briefly summarised here.

Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of national and global economies, putting local resources to meeting local needs, minimising the amount that is imported from the (much reduced) national or global economies. 

A new economy, one that is not driven by profit or market forces and one that has no growth at all, producing much less than the present one, and focusing on needs and rights. It might have many private firms and markets, but there must be (participatory, democratic, open and local) social control over what is developed, what is produced, and how it is distributed

Mostly cooperative and participatory ways, especially town or suburb self-government.  All the people in the small local community must take control of their own collective fate, including and providing for all via working bees, cooperatives, commons, committees and town meetings. 

Some very different values, especially cooperation not competition, more collectivist and less individualistic, and concerned with frugality and self-sufficiency not acquisitiveness and consuming. Thus materially far simpler lifestyles, enjoying non-material sources of life satisfaction, with little or no concern for affluence, possessions and wealth.

Obviously The Simper Way constitutes an enormous cultural transition, which it is not at all likely that we have the wit or the will to face up to.  But what matters here is whether we have to try to achieve it, given that the ecomodernist option is clearly non viable.

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