Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger and their Breakthrough Institute (TBI) have long been environmental provocateurs, from their 2004 article The Death of Environmentalism, to their attacks on energy efficiency. They have become the darlings of certain politicians and organizations that are trying to slow or stop action on climate change because they challenge cherished beliefs and there's often something to their arguments. (I happen to agree with them about the rebound effect, for example.) They are useful people to quote when you want to say that "the science isn't settled." Perhaps the most difficult thing for environmentalists to accept is their sunny techno-optimism, that technology (particularly nuclear) will allow us all a bright warm green prosperous future. They take it to a whole new level with their recently released Ecomodernist Manifesto, in which they welcome our new Anthropocene climate in the Age of Humans:
As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.
Some will see this period as a “shame on us” moment. Others will deride this effort as a hubristic overstatement of human powers. Some will argue for the importance of living smaller and leaving no scars. Others will revel in human dominion as a normal and natural part of our journey as a species.
Forget limits to growth, conservation, cutting back. The Ecomodernists tell us we should be “Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world.” Like Gwyneth Paltrow, they want a “conscious uncoupling,” making us less dependent on our ecosystems. In the ecomodernist world, we will get our energy from nuclear (fission, thorium cycle, fusion) our water via desalination and our fish via aquaculture. “Nature unused is nature spared.”
They admit that we need a new generation of safer nuclear reactors and new technologies that don’t exist, but in the meantime, we can build new dams and clean coal plants. Because we need lots of power: “Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy.”
So far, the critical response to the manifesto has been muted. Perhaps that's because there's nothing really new in it. Stewart Brand and others have been preaching the nuclear gospel for years. Perhaps it's a response to the co-opting of the term “ecomodernist” that has been around the green building design world for a decade. Perhaps the idea of "a great Anthropocene" is so outlandish and absurd that they are being written off as the new CEI. Perhaps it's because eco-optimism is actually a fairly robust strain in the environmental movement. As Alex Steffen wrote years ago:
In its simplest form, bright green environmentalism is a belief that sustainable innovation is the best path to lasting prosperity, and that any vision of sustainability which does not offer prosperity and well-being will not succeed.
The roadblock to climate mitigation has never been technological. Nor has it been economic. It has been political. The ecomoderns’ claim that we must wait for new technologies to make serious mitigation possible is not merely untrue, it is irresponsible.
Our carbon crisis comes from coal and cars. (Photo: Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, larger version here)
The fact is, we know that bright green solutions exist to our biggest problems, coal and cars. Solar is cheaper than coal now, yet governments pass laws to make it harder for people to install solar to protect the established coal-fired utilities. Cars are the biggest single source of carbon dioxide, yet we continue to subsidize road infrastructure and fossil fuel production while fighting rail projects and even bicycle lanes. We continue to build low-density suburbs instead of walkable communities. California is running out of water, but we refuse to give up almonds or cheap strawberries.
We don’t need Thorium cycle reactors and billion-dollar desalinization plants. We need rational thinking, less propaganda and the political will to make tough decisions. Then everybody can have a bright green future with the tools we already have. But it's so much easier to dream instead about shiny new tools that might come down the road some day.
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