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.

The Long Tail of the 19th Century

Vaclav Smil
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Vaclav Smil likes technology, but he’s reasonable. In this volume, Smil argues that in spite of the focus usually being on culture and politics, the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” He observes that although we think we’re living in an age of rapid technological transformation (or even “
disruptive innovation”), many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization ha[ve] not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Ray Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.

reiterates his belief that the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) As usual, Smil leaves the other shoe hanging in midair: what happens when the fossil fuel resources that make this cheap nitrogen so abundant begin to dry up?

Interestingly, Smil prefers the words “technical innovation” or “technique” to “technology.” Toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.

The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were:

  • that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous,
  • the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances,
  • the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction,
  • the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and
  • the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)

While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating technical changes by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback loops between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does acknowledge the world beyond science. “Edison’s key insight,” he says, was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41). Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex (and profitable) project.

Smil also calls attention to the fact that “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement (43). Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, the court’s decision wasn’t to support Tesla, but was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co.’s suit against the U.S. government for using its patents” (251). Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was exemplified by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.

Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but he clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit (but how many of these were really Tesla's?). The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil reiterates his argument for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914” (301). In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is based on techniques whose origins can be traced to Smil’s Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes -- and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.