Ecomodernist Hubris


In week three of the UNSW Environmental Humanities class I'm taking online, we're reading "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." I was vaguely aware of this, but hadn't read it. It's quite a document. Here are my initial reactions.

The manifesto's purpose is to advance the idea that "knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene." The authors say, "we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse." Harmonizing with nature is not a solution, they say. "Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind's dependence upon them."

If we're not going to harmonize with nature, what should we do. The answer seems to be "intensifying." I think a lot will hang on how they define "intensifying," especially in agriculture. Chemical-enhanced monoculture and GMOs are  capitally intensive, but the type of intensification that concentrates control, power, and money is not what's needed. I also hope the type of intensification they're advocating isn't technology. High-rise hydroponic farms might be a better solution than mile-wide cornfields, but new technological solutions to problems that were solved centuries ago are a waste of energy. We don't need to raise meat in laboratories. We need to adjust our meat-eating and raise animals rationally.

The authors make a series of points in the manifesto. On point 1, I tend to disagree that modernity has resulted in a "growing population able to live in many different environments." Sure, population has exploded. But more of us live in cities than ever before. Yes, humans can even survive in space for extended periods of time, but only at extreme expense. Our tech allows us to do many things, but our dependence on it weakens us and reduces our ability to solve our own problems. Humans may be less "able" than they've ever been.

The authors ask an important question: "Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?" But I disagree with their "paradox of technology" answer. Yes, technology has replaced less efficient survival techniques like hunting and gathering. But technology has not actually made humans less dependent on ecosystems. It has merely shifted the ecosystems most of us are depending on to faraway locations where we are less aware of them.

Cheap fossil fuels basically enable the whole system. They come from far away, as do the other resources (copper, phosphate, etc.) we extract using their energy. We manufacture nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas, while manure from CAFOs overruns holding ponds and poisons lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Increasingly, we do our manufacturing far away, where environmental contamination and human inequality are out of sight, out of mind.

There may or may not be evidence of limits to growth, but there is certainly evidence that increasing inequity threatens many, even in the face of overabundant capacity. This is not a new phenomenon. Mike Davis wrote very effectively about this in
Late Victorian Holocausts.

The second point the authors make is that "long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts." An important element of this decoupling is that "environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth." Wait, what? This is a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Or, to be blunter, of comparing the
real with the unreal.

Environmental impacts are real things. Economic growth is not. Economic growth (as we all know but routinely forget) is a measurement that depends on what is valued. At its heart, the economy is simply a reflection of a very large but finite number of individual decisions in the market. Most economists make no claim to understand the dynamics of these decisions; they just add them up.

So saying the economy is growing faster than environmental impacts is only saying that people don't value the right things in the market. The disease is the cure. Yes, if we were all
so happy to be living packed into domed cities eating manufactured food while the environment outside looked like apocalyptic sci-fi, the market would reflect our decision and the economy would continue to outpace the environmental impact. So is the real task of the ecomodernists social engineering to make people happy in domed cities?

Cities, they say, "occupy just one to three percent of the Earth's surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people." This, in their minds, symbolizes the radical decoupling of humanity from the constraints of nature. Really? Where does the food come from? Where does the waste go? Does the electricity appear in the wall outlet by magic? It's almost absurd. Let's make it easy -- when cities can produce even just their own
water, you can tell me how decoupled they are.

The authors claim that "modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy." This is in the section on cities, so I assume modernization refers to urbanization, new iPhones, and less work. It's ironic that, like efficiency experts of the early industrial age, the authors are fascinated by the idea of reducing labor when growing populations are either completely unemployed or reduced to working in meaningless jobs. Thank goodness, they say, that only 2 percent of the population feeds the other 98% in America. We wouldn't want more people to live on the land and grow things!

That's my reaction to the first half of the Manifesto. I'm getting annoyed, and this post is getting long. So I'll take a break and read the rest tomorrow.

Elon Musk: Can Government Challenge Money?

While COP21 was underway in Paris, Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited the Sorbonne and talked to a group of graduate students about taxing carbon. His message was pretty simple, and cut through a lot of the rhetoric and confusion that often surrounds the issue. Basically, Musk said that people do what they're paid to do.

The problem is, right now people are being paid to release carbon into the atmosphere. According to the International Monetary Fund, governments throughout the world subsidize carbon-producing activity to the tune of $5.3 trillion annually. These subsidies come mostly in the form of not having to pay for the damage carbon-producing does to the environment. In economic terms, the environmental damage is an unpriced externality. Musk's point is that by allowing these damages to be ignored, society is lowering the cost of doing business for carbon-producing companies. This gives them an economic advantage -- especially over companies producing less carbon.

Musk's solution to the problem is to tax carbon emission. This would eliminate the subsidy and put high carbon-producing companies on a level economic playing field with low carbon-producing companies. The increased costs experienced by high-carbon producers would be reflected in higher prices, and the market would move toward low-carbon solutions. The high-carbon companies would have an economic incentive to invest in lower-carbon technologies, and consumers would have a compelling reason (lower prices) to buy low-carbon products.

The big question, it seemed to me while listening to the talk and the QA session that followed it, is whether governments still have the power to do it?

Musk was optimistic that "governments respond to popular pressure" and that the young people he was addressing had the power to lead a movement for change. But after a grad student asked him if the answer was for sustainability activists to send more lobbyists to Washington, he said this:

Tesla and Solar City, my companies are very tiny. We're tiny, tiny companies. In order for there to be a big move toward sustainability, the giant companies have to know that that is what the governments are demanding for the future; what the people are demanding for the future...Let me tell you, we definitely can't beat the oil and gas industry on lobbyists. Okay? That would be a losing battle...Exxon makes more profit in a year than the value of the entire solar industry in the Unites States. So if you take every solar company in the United States, it's less than Exxon's profit for one year. There's no way you can win on money. It's impossible (at about 45:00).

I thought that was an honest way to frame the issue. Can government win against money anymore?

Pollution Permits and Monopolies

So I'm reading this op-ed piece in the Guardian by George Monbiot. He's talking about keeping the coal and oil in the ground. Because if it comes out, it will be used. And I'm thinking yeah, that sounds logical, but impossible, given human nature. How are you ever going to get people to leave it in the ground? He talks about a global auction in pollution permits. I'm not sure if the real point of that is making the added expense to corporations a disincentive to using fossil fuels (and an incentive to explore cheaper alternatives), or to build up a slush fund (pun intended) to mitigate the effects when they go ahead and use the fossil fuels anyway.

But as I'm wondering this, an image comes to me. I was cleaning the garage yesterday and on a shelf I found a bag from the local fleet store containing a couple of packages of yellow rope. It's your basic braided synthetic, I remember buying it. And what I particularly remember is that it's made by Koch Industries.

I needed some rope for a job. I went to the store to get some. I noticed that the type I wanted had a little Koch Industries logo sort-of hidden on the back. I'm a little bit politically aware, and I thought, I'd really rather not give my money to the Koch brothers. What other type of rope will work for my job?

It didn't matter. Every variety of rope and twine on the shelves was from Koch Industries. Didn't matter if it was synthetic or natural fiber. Whatever I bought, the Koch brothers were going to get my money.

My point is, so what if big corporations have to buy pollution permits. It's just another tax that they'll either avoid, or offset with tax savings wrung from the nations, states, or cities where they operate. Or, failing that, they'll pass to cost on to their consumers.

As long as we don't do anything to address the overwhelming (and still growing) power of monopolistic multinationals, we're basically just taxing the little people.