Back to the future

Last week I succumbed to a bad habit of mine that I’ve been trying to put behind me – leaving snarky comments on ecomodernist websites. I won’t dwell too much here on the ins and outs of the issues, or on ecomodernism itself – hell, there’s a whole page of this site devoted to that, even if it’s not very up-to-date. In this post, I’d just like to extract a few kernels from the issue that are relevant to my next cycle of posts. But first let me venture a working definition of the creed for anyone who’s lived thus far in blessed innocence of it: ecomodernism typically combines overenthusiasm for a handful of technologies as putative solutions to contemporary problems (typically nuclear power and GM crops), underenthusiasm for any social orders other than capitalist modernity, a fetishisation of both humanity and nature as surpassing splendours each in their separate spheres, questionable evidence-selection to support the preceding points, and high disdain for those who take a different view.

The question I want to address in this post is why I get so easily riled whenever I encounter professions of this faith. Well, I guess I got off to a bad start: my first experience of it was a brush with the absurdly apoplectic Graham Strouts, and then the only marginally slicker Mike Shellenberger. I’d acknowledge that there are less strident voices within the movement who genuinely think it represents humanity’s best remaining shot at escaping the dangers encircling us. And since all the remaining shots available to us seem pretty long ones to me, if the ecomodernists could only concede the likely length of those odds I wouldn’t so much begrudge them their schemes. But – other than being the unfortunate possessor of a bilious personality, perhaps the likeliest explanation for my ire – I’d submit three general reasons as to why ecomodernism gets under my skin.

The first is that I think it suffers from an intellectual phoniness. Not deliberately in most cases, I’m sure. But it reminds me of my time in academia. It reminds me of the kind of student, competent but coasting, who produces an overconfident seminar paper. It’s not that they haven’t done the reading and marshalled some evidence – though not quite as much as they think. It’s not that they haven’t put it together into some kind of logical framework that they genuinely think best fits the data – though not quite as neatly as they suppose. It’s that they haven’t fully inhabited the task. They’ve looked the world in the face, flinched, and written a Powerpoint presentation with a set of facts and bullet points instead. It reminds me, also, of the kind of academic colleague who’s charming and persuasive, who has a good story to tell, who hangs out with the right crowd, who churns out a large quantity of mediocre work which won’t endure but which serves their near-term purposes pretty well. It contrasts with the people who pursue the path of scholarship – meticulous, self-critical and questing after truths, rather than just a tale to tell. I think everyone who does intellectual work should aspire to work of the latter sort, and worry that their actual work doesn’t measure up, worry that it succumbs to the worldly temptations of the former, of being a merely ‘successful’ intellectual. I don’t think ecomodernism worries about this nearly enough to be convincing.

And when it comes to telling stories, ecomodernism has a great one to tell. People really want to hear and believe in it – which means it’s rife with the potential for mischief-making. Essentially, it tells us that there’s nothing wrong with the way that we in the ‘developed’ countries now live – all that’s needed is for us to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation (which can be achieved relatively easily with some technological fixes) and for us to ensure that global resources are better shared among all the people of the world. And along the way it delivers a pleasingly counterintuitive message: some of the things environmentalists have traditionally told us were bad – like nuclear power, GM crops, pesticides, and the expropriation of peasantries – are actually pretty good, and some of the things they’ve traditionally told us were good – like organic farming and photovoltaic or wind energy – are generally pretty bad. It’s not hard to see why this story is so appealing to many people of goodwill living in the overdeveloped countries. All the more reason for its proponents to be sure of the line that they’re spinning and to welcome dissenting voices if they aspire to be scholars rather than spiritual preceptors.

And yet this is so often not the case. I’d better restrict myself to just one small example from one of the articles that triggered my ire recently, Emma Marris’s Can we love nature and let it go?, which involves so much tendentious reasoning in among the odd telling point that I’ll be chasing my tail for page upon page if I fully engage with her arguments. The article makes the familiar pitch for decoupling human consumption from resource drawdown. In Marris’s words, “we must reduce our per-capita and cumulative human footprint”, an appealing goal because “it does not pit the planet’s poor people against its endangered species” and it involves “no grand sacrifices”. And, Marris says, decoupling has already begun: “It took around 25 percent less “material input” to produce a unit of GDP in 2002 as compared with 1980.”

Not much to object to there in principle. No facts I’d seek to dispute. The problem is the ecomodernist story Marris builds around it, because I see a wholly different one lurking in her text – I’ll briefly try to draw it out, with the caveat that I’m doing it in a back-of-the-envelope way to illustrate a point. I’m not offering polished scholarship.

So, taking Marris’s relative decoupling point (she doesn’t distinguish between relative and absolute decoupling), it’s true that there’s been some improved efficiency in resource use. World Bank data, for example, show that between 1980 and 2000 (roughly the timeframe chosen by Marris to exemplify this point) global carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy used declined by about 5%. They did then climb back up so that by 2015 they exactly matched those of 1980, which kind of makes me wonder if Marris’s timeframe was deliberately cherry-picked, but let’s leave that aside. The more significant point is that from 1980 to 2000 actual emissions increased by 27%, and actual gross world product increased by 300%. If we extend the timeframe from 1980 to 2013 (the last year figures are available from the World Bank dataset) then actual emissions increased by 84% and gross world product by 589%.

I’ve played with these figures to construe various future scenarios, but I ran out of time and enthusiasm to put them into any kind of presentable numerical framework. However, I think I’m on firm ground in saying that if we want to achieve some modicum of global equity by 2050 while giving ourselves a shot at keeping climate change under 2oC by following the kind of ecomodernist ‘decoupling’ and ‘no grand sacrifice’ scenario presented by Marris then we’ll probably have to find at least another world’s worth of economic activity in the next thirty years, adding another $80 trillion at a minimum to the existing gross world product of $80 trillion, and we’ll have to do that while decreasing carbon dioxide emissions year on year from now on at a little more than the rate we’ve been increasing them ever since 1980. In other words, Marris’s figures for relative decoupling between 1980 and 2002 don’t even begin to capture the magnitude of that task. Now, I acknowledge that her article is primarily about sparing land for nature rather than climate change as such (though it’s doubtful how much ‘nature’ will survive a rapidly warming world). And, sure, we can project the emergence of trend-breaking new technologies (nuclear power being an ecomodernist favourite, of course). But I’m not seeing evidence that takes these decoupling conjectures out of the realm of wishful thinking. Frankly, it amazes me that someone can invoke data suggesting a modicum of relative decoupling as any kind of harbinger of an adequately reduced cumulative human footprint in a world of ‘no grand sacrifices’ without conceding any plausibility to bleaker visions. This is the phoniness of which I speak. And there’s a lot of it about – philosopher Julian Baggini was at it only last week in this Guardian article.

So let me state as clearly as I can the implications of the story I see written in the margins of the ecomodernist decoupling tale: it will be impossible to avert dangerous global climate change unless the current association between greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth is reversed immediately, an event whose likelihood is not suggested by any current evidence. If the solution to global poverty is sought through economic growth in the absence of fast absolute decoupling, then emissions will greatly increase, hastening the onset of dangerous climate change and threatening any anti-poverty gains.

So it seems to me we face a situation in which both absolute greenhouse gas emissions and major global disparities in wealth need to be reduced rapidly, and the familiar tools for achieving this of technological innovation and economic growth simply aren’t up to the task. In these circumstances, I think we need at the very least to start considering some radically different ways of being – including the possibility of people in the richer countries living and farming more like people in the poorer countries. It’s no longer a question of trying “to squeeze more out of less” as Marris puts it – something that in any case we’ve signally failed to do (at best, we’ve squeezed even more out of more). I think it’s now a question of trying “to do different with different”. In fact, ‘doing different with different’ should always be a question – the ecomodernist notion that capitalist modernity is some kind of summit of human achievement (Anthony Warner: “By pretty much any measure you can think of, the golden age is now”) is an ethnocentric fancy. And this is the second reason why ecomodernism makes me angry – its complete ideological closure to doing different with different, which results from a crude and unexamined commitment to the ideology of the modern: for ‘progress’, against ‘romanticism’. Frankly, it annoys me that people trying to articulate agrarian populist approaches to intractable problems of poverty and environmental degradation have to waste so much time engaged in rearguard defences around these points – “No, I don’t think that peasants are all happy in their simple poverty, that we should ‘go back’ to living a simple, preindustrial life” and so on and so on. Worse, under the star of ecomodernism this debate quickly turns into an argument for biotechnology as intrinsically pro-poor – Bt cotton, glyphosate etc. as saviours of the poor. There’s a whole other side to that argument, but it’s a place I’m reluctant to go for fear of contributing to the unedifying spectacle of rich westerners arguing with other rich westerners about which of them is the true champion of the poor. We need to get over ourselves here, and debate how to overcome the scourge of poverty with openness. Moral high country blocks the view.

The third reason for my anger is the David v Goliath nature of the battle. I don’t know anything about the funding of the ecomodernist firmament, but it’s a slick old business, with its thinktanks, TED talks, manifestos and briefings telling politicians, business leaders and the general public pretty much what they want to hear. Contrast that with the mere handful of academics, grassroots groups and lone wolf bloggers like me putting the case for agrarian populism and it feels like a losing battle.

A couple of years ago my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, got a modicum of wider notice and briefly drew me into a minor flurry of online debate, including a comment I left on Ben Heard’s website in response to his statement that the ecomodernists were open to challenging debate. I linked to a couple of my articles in which that debate was joined – to which Heard responded “At a smidge under 5,000 and 5,500 words respectively, I fear you may be writing to yourself rather than an audience. Looks like some interesting discussion therein and if you seriously expect people to read it please, re-cut them with a whole lot more discipline in the writing.”

I only discovered this comment recently. At one level, the hypocrisy of it kind of amused me – my critique was pretty much the same length as the Manifesto, which Mr Heard happily read. Nobody is obliged to read anything, but I’m not sure you can conscionably call for a debate and then duck out of it by retrospectively imposing editorial conditions on your interlocutors. But ultimately, yes, I guess I am pretty much writing to myself, and though I feel honoured to have acquired a small online readership, no doubt my loquaciousness and lack of editorial professionalism limits my reach. Most of the time, that doesn’t bother me. I’ve long been fully resigned to the fact that my words and deeds count for nothing in the world (OK, I’m lying: let me say instead that I’ve recently become partially resigned to it…) I now just want to do the best thinking and writing I can within the limits of my capacities and circumstances. But then I get to thinking that ecomodernism is making the world just that little bit worse, making the solutions to its problems just that little bit more intractable, entrenching those habits of thought and deed which in the end will have to be disinterred and reconfigured that much more laboriously. And that makes me think that I ought to sharpen up my act, follow Mr Heard’s advice and try to make myself as slick as an ecomodernist. Perhaps I should form my own institute – the Breakdown Institute? Well, if anyone wants to give me a steer on this, I’m all ears. And if nobody responds, then I’ll readily embrace the truth of Mr Heard’s words and follow my heart – which I think is to write as I please, for myself, for trying to understand the world as I see it, trying as best I can to be a scholar and not a phony, and (let me admonish myself) focusing on an effort to do good work for its own sake rather than wasting time practicing the arts of rhetorical war in the battle over ecomodernism…

…which is just as well, because next up is my ‘History of the world in ten and a half blog posts’ – an essay considerably longer than the ones that so exasperated the ever-so-busy Mr Heard. Well, I’m pretty sure that ecomodernism lacks persuasive answers to our problems, so I think I need to look elsewhere, at my own pace. And the place to start looking is human history, in case it can turn up anything more promising. I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got.

Marris argues that the good thing about her decoupling approach is that it doesn’t rely on “a sudden and unprecedented improvement in our moral character”. An interesting point – did the proliferation of our contemporary environmental problems stem from a sudden and unprecedented degeneration in that character? I don’t think so. So maybe that suggests we might be able to learn some useful things for the future by looking at the past – which is not, of course, a very ecomodernist sort of thing to say. It ought to be.

23 thoughts on “Back to the future

  1. “I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future.”
    And yet…if ecomodernist heaven does not await us, and very-low-energy-everyday-life does, maybe that is why some people state that history has no reason to stop moving in a cyclical fashion, just to please those presently alive.

  2. I’ll readily admit that past history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got.

    Why on earth would you agree that past history is a poor guide to the future? Virtually every form of social organization, every level of energy use and every manner of serving our hierarchy of physical, emotional and intellectual needs, have presented themselves at one time or another in human history. Everything we need to know about the future is evident in our past.

    There are only a few examples from history that are patently impossible to sustain for an extended stretch of time into the future. One of them is the way we have managed things for last two hundred years or so. Eco-modernism admits the limits and depredations of the modern culmination of our capitalist global market economy, but somehow it proposes that it is easy to just say “out with the bad, keep the good” as a summary plan for escaping the limits and mitigating the depredations, as if our modern economy weren’t a complex system in which every activity causes feedback loops involving everything else, good and bad.

    From what I have seen of eco-modernist prescriptions, they slide into the same kind of fantastical thinking that animates stories of the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, the idea of something for nothing. Eco-modernism is simply a childish attempt to avoid being grownups, adults who must confront the fact that we have really screwed things up, have over-extended just about everything we do, and must abandon all hope of maintaining our high energy overshoot forever. It’s no good throwing a tantrum, just buckle down and get to work preparing for the consequences to come.

    I don’t think we will get to pick and choose from historical examples of sustainable societies, too much chaos will be raining down on us to do much else but muddle through, but when plausible examples appear out of the murk, it will be of some advantage to recognize them as viable ways forward. A little bit of advance consideration will help us to determine what kind of system is plausible and what is not. It may even help us avoid some dead ends as we prepare.

    I look forward to your review of the “history of the world in ten and a half blog posts” as an essential part of our advance consideration of realistic scenarios for the future. You may want to stop your review prior to the industrial revolution.

  3. Agree totally on ecomodernism. I also far too often get engaged in arguing with their nonsensical propositions. Just wrote this post on “vertical farming” which is just one of many strains of this disease.
    http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2017/08/vertical-farms-no-lighthouses-for.html

    A recent doctoral thesis, Drivers of Climate Change? Political and Economic Explanations of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, by Ole Martin Lægreid at the University of Gothernburg shows a robust connection between ecoomic growth, measured by GDP, and emissions of greenhouse gases. The results furthermore suggest that the effect of economic growth on emissions is essentially unaffected by the extent of civil society participation, democracy, corruption, and institutional concentration of political power.

    Another recent research http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040162516308022 demonstrate that for 57 surveyed resources there is no evidence of dematerialisation of the economy.

    People really want those fairy tales and promises that someone or something will “fix the problem”.

    Looking forward to your coming posts.

  4. Thanks for these reflections, Chris.

    Many moons ago, I did my Permaculture Design Certificate in Ireland with Graham Strouts, who was just transitioning into the rabid attack dog you describe. It was fascinating to watch that process: espousing the virtues of small-scale charcoal making during the day, and assuring everyone that nuclear would solve all our woes in the evening. I stopped engaging on his blog when he would either refuse to publish any substantive disagreements with his own train of thought (frustrating when you’ve spent time assembling evidence), or he’d sling completely baseless ad hominems at me. Apparently everyone interested in environmentalism is privileged and on a trust fund (the complete opposite of my background, I assure you). It does indeed show the weakness of their wider narrative.

    I recently got into a minor exchange with Breakthrough folks about this idea of Peak Stuff, and how they portray it in a similarly dubious slant. Hoping to write something on that once this PhD is in hand, akin to what you’ve done here on decoupling. The Breakdown Institute is a fantastic thought, of course, and the lack of anything similar is why I’m pulled towards Dark Mountain.

    As you ask for feedback. I find the posts here informative and of a completely readable length. (Perhaps unlike JMG, for example, who I find – with all due respect to a powerful thinker – ends up padding out arguments unnecessarily.)

  5. Such sadness. If you could get down to 140 characters you could tweet for Donald. [I’m not serious]

    I do want to take a poke at one thought and ask for some clarification on another.

    Now, I acknowledge that her article is primarily about sparing land for nature rather than climate change as such (though it’s doubtful how much ‘nature’ will survive a rapidly warming world).
    And my quibble is that Nature will survive warming… the more precise question we might ask is if WE will survive warming. Others frequently disparage our current behaviors as destroying the planet. Same difficulty – the planet cares not. We may well be doomed, but then the consequence would be that dinosaurs would need to move over and allow us a seat on the bench to watch Nature call up our replacement. And within this distinction between who and what is doomed by runaway human foible I see a seed in Julian Baggini’s Guardian article. So from what I understand of the argument you’re making, how is Julian’s idea of changing the goal such a loser? I particularly like the library analogy. Yes, it doesn’t put the whole ship right. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. [yep, trite – and still not setting the ship right… but better than self loathing to me]

    • Acquiescence to the collapse of our modern civilization is not the same as self-loathing. Many of those, like myself, who foresee a nasty end to our modernity don’t dislike civilized living. After all, as an upper-middle-class white male, it’s given me a pretty good ride my entire life, 69 very nice years so far.

      I still marvel at things like international jet travel and the world wide web and wish we could have them forever, though not at the cost required by the civilization that underpins them. I can see why people dearly hope that things like those could stick around for a while.

      But while Baggini’s take on wealth (Real wealth is created not just by exploiting more resources and increasing society’s cash pot but by exploiting the same or fewer resources better.) has merit, there is a real limit to how much better we can exploit resources. Library books can only travel so far after being lent out and ride-sharing will not necessarily reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled. I will be more willing to entertain the idea of decoupling wealth from resources when I see resource use declining rapidly in conjunction with a rapidly declining poverty rate. So far, there is not much to see in that regard.

      So even though I cannot deny the comfort and entertainment value of civilized living, I just don’t see how our juggernaut of increasing energy use, resource throughput and increasing population is going to end gracefully. There are just too many people making too many demands on the resources of the earth.

      And I see very little indication that people like those in the US and China are clamoring for a massive reduction in their earthly demands or that the folks in developing countries have stopped hankering after their share of the civilization pie.

      Expanding civilization has long required and will continue to require exponential increases in the use of the resources needed for modern life, and everything exponential is subject to Stein’s Law, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. The important question this blog can help answer is, “What do we do then?”

  6. Thanks as ever for an interesting set of responses.

    Michael, Joe – I’m glad you’re speaking up for the value of a historical approach. I guess what I’d say is that it’s easy to see various recurrent patterns in history retrospectively, but not so easy to infer prospectively exactly how those patterns will play out in the future. And perhaps the way we metaphorize the direction of history says as much about ourselves and our times as any ‘actual’ patterning. So for example it seems to me fairly clear that in the early 21st century we’re seeing the rise of ideologies that look a lot like the fascisms of the early 20th century, and for much the same reasons. But they’re not exactly the same, and they won’t have exactly the same consequences in the world. So can we say that history moves cyclically? I’m not sure. To some extent I think it’s in the eye of the beholder. Likewise with the whole issue of a small farm future – in some respects I’d guess a small farm future if it happened might look like some of the small farm pasts we know about, because of structural similarities. But in other ways it could be very different. To me, the stability of these historical patterns is an open question. I agree with Joe that we won’t get to pick and choose the society of the future – people never do get to pick and choose, even in the absence of chaos. All I can offer in response is my conviction that it’s better to survey the options and work as best we can for the better ones we discern than not to do so.

    Gunnar – thanks for that, do keep the references flowing, all grist to my mill! The self-confidence of the ecomodernists in a dematerialised or absolute-decoupled future despite the absence of any substantial evidence for it does seem rather extraordinary. I enjoyed reading your review of Lusk’s book, which looks like it takes the logical next step in the ecomodernist onslaught – people who oppose new biotechnologies are unethical… Here’s the obfuscatory moral high ground which I mentioned above…

    Tom – wow, that must have been a fascinating PDC! Funny how so many of the ecomodernists have switched from more traditionalist environmental positions and seem to exhibit the usual zealotry of the convert. Few of them, however, exhibit the levels of bad faith that Strouts has, to which you allude. I’d be interested to see your exchanges with the BTI on peak stuff. And thanks for your feedback on the blog and on other possible ways of engagement. It’s something I’ll ponder.

    Clem – I’ve noticed over the years that you have an uncanny knack of putting your finger on the exact phrases of mine that, as I write them, cause me to think ‘Hmm, well it’s not quite as simple as that’, of which my ‘how much of nature will survive global warming’ comment is one. Or to put it another way, you’re quite right that ‘nature’ will indeed survive global warming without any problems at all, though the same can’t be said for various particular parts of it, including quite possibly Homo sapiens. I think I’d best leave further analysis of that point for another time, except to say that there seems to me a contradiction within ecomodernist thinking (and Marris’s article) on the matter of ‘nature’, since it argues (1) there is no teleology or equilibrium state of nature allowing us to say what it ‘ought’ to look like in the absence of human intervention (2) organic farming is to be deprecated because it has lower yields than conventional farming and therefore takes up more space that could otherwise be left wild. Aside from any other objections to point (2), if point (1) is accepted then it shouldn’t remotely matter how much space organic farming occupies so long as it does the job people want of it. The fact that the ecomodernists routinely invoke (2) suggests to me either that they do have an implicit theory of how nature ‘ought’ to look, or they have an a priori commitment to conventional high-tech agriculture which is exogenous to their model of nature. I think both of those inferences are probably true. On your ‘self-loathing’ point, I’m with Joe and this touches on something I object to in ecomodernist writings. No doubt there’s an element of self-loathing or misanthropy in certain strands of radical environmentalism, but it just isn’t true that an (ecomodernist) commitment to high-tech, ‘modernist’ solutions to environmental problems is the only ‘people positive’ form of environmentalism. To me, cultural critique and an acknowledgement of humanity’s likely future difficulties is not self-loathing – it’s much more people-positive than the ecomodernist line that fetishizes humans’ achievements and their ability to solve all their problems. To draw an analogy with human relationships, which of these statements is more positive and loving: (1) “We’re flawed people and things aren’t always going to go smoothly, but let’s talk honestly with each other about the bad as well as the good and try to work things out as best we can” (2) “We’re incredible people, we can achieve whatever we want, whatever obstacles we face in life we’ll overcome them together, things are just going to get better and better”? For me, there’s just a bit too much of #2, a bit too much Silicon Valley can-do phoniness, in ecomodernism. And on Baggini’s article – yes, I agree with you on the library point and I agree that it would count for something if we could just liberate ourselves a little from the present Hayekian dystopia and admit that publicly funded libraries are a good idea. But the bit of his article I dispute is this: “the argument about whether indefinite growth is environmentally sustainable is bogus….Real wealth is created not just by exploiting more resources and increasing society’s cash pot but by exploiting the same or fewer resources better.” I wholly disagree with the first sentence in that quotation, and on the second sentence – well, we simply aren’t exploiting the same or fewer resources better, and while I agree that there are ways of creating real wealth other than increasing society’s cash pot, those ways will remain largely unavailable to us unless we fundamentally rethink the way that we operate. My issue with ecomodernism is that it tells us we don’t have to.

    • Another reference, which actually demonstrate an recoupling (very respected research also publicised by UNEP):
      “The global results show a massive increase in materials extraction from 22 billion tonnes (Bt) in 1970 to 70 Bt in 2010, and an acceleration in material extraction since 2000. This acceleration has occurred at a time when global population growth has slowed and global economic growth has stalled. The global surge in material extraction has been driven by growing wealth and consumption and accelerating trade. A material footprint perspective shows that demand for materials has grown even in the wealthiest parts of the world. Low-income countries have benefited least from growing global resource availability and have continued to deliver primary materials to high-income countries while experiencing few improvements in their domestic material living standards. Material efficiency, the amount of primary materials required per unit of economic activity, has declined since around 2000 because of a shift of global production from very material-efficient economies to less-efficient ones.”
      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jiec.12626/abstract

      • I guess we’ll just have to wait until the entire world is a modern “material-efficient” economy before any decoupling can begin in earnest.

        Some folks might argue that a lot of the recent boom in material extraction has to do with the infrastructure build-out in China and other rapidly industrializing economies and that their needs will diminish once they are fully developed. But the material requirements for maintenance of infrastructure will keep increasing due to the expansion of total infrastructure volume and its continuing age-related deterioration.

        The US is a prime example of pent-up demand for materials due to deferred maintenance on aging infrastructure. If the US truly decoupled its economy from resource flow, everything would fall apart. Not even reinforced concrete lasts forever.

        • Joe, I think that is an interesting observation which seems to apply also for when, at that time, a young person (me) bought a farm in which he invest enormous amount of labour and erect buildings, drain field, build roads. Some of these give a nice reward, but ultimately when the young boy become an old man he can’t even maintain the farm as it is (not there yet, but soon I fear), all energy is used to keep what is already there in shape. No more expansion just slow decline. I think this is also a reflection of our civilizations fate, underlined by demographic changes.

          • As I get older, I have more money to hire substitutes for my own maintenance labor (though I still apply plenty of my own). I also make it a practice to repair and refurbish such that each capital asset will require the absolute minimum of maintenance (e.g. aluminum roofing, aluminum gates, the best quality field fencing and posts).

            Nothing substitutes for plenty of hands available, particularly for planting, harvesting, weeding, and processing of food crops. Many of the older folks in my neighborhood have separate living quarters on their property with which to tempt a young worker into a trade of farm work for rent. The older one gets, the more labor becomes an asset and excess stuff becomes a maintenance chore.

            This is illustrative of an important aspect of capital assets; if maintenance is all done by hand and maintenance time subtracts from the time available for growing food and other necessities of life, then too many capital assets are a burden. One wants the smallest living structure possible and the least number of farm structures necessary and all of those assets must also be built to last as long as possible with the minimum maintenance possible.

            I was talking to a Czech slate miner and fabricator recently and was impressed by the fact that by using copper wire to attach the slate to a roof structure, a slate roof would last indefinitely, with only the wooden underpinnings needing to be changed out every two to three hundred years (the slate being removed and reattached).

            The historical effort spent in making structures durable attests to the recognition that labor spent in maintenance is a big drain on everyone. And with a discount rate near zero, maintenance labor avoided in a hundred years has the same value as labor utilized in today’s construction project. Pre-modern people planned ahead.

            In our return to agrarian peasantry, the resources with the highest value are land and labor, so everything else must be reduced to the bare minimum to reduce maintenance overhead. This is a lesson that we will soon need to re-learn.

            It’s only with the huge number of energy slaves available to us now that we can be cavalier about asset life and asset maintenance cost, especially since we expect everything to be replaced with new and better within a few decades at most. How profligate we have become that we don’t require that structures have functional lives measured in centuries or millennia.

          • I suppose those limitations also go some way to explaining the prevalence of predatory warfare in pre-industrial societies as another way of solving the capital-labour conundrum. Not that rising energy availability seems to have put a stop to it…

  7. I can see why those three aspects of ecomodernism irritate you, Chris. But I wonder if part of the reason the ecomodernists get under your skin is a recognition that there is a kernel of truth in their position (with an associated fear that perhaps, at some level, they’re right and the current system might be able to go on indefinitely)? The particular ‘solutions’ they offer may be absurdly blinkered but I see no reason to believe that human invention and mankind’s understanding of the nature of the world are anywhere near their limits. As to where they might take us …

    “history is a poor guide to the future. Unfortunately it’s the only one we’ve got”

    We do also have intuition, imagination and inspiration, along with various methods of divination. All of them, of course, can be highly misleading if they’re used carelessly – but then so can history (much of which is, in any case, only accessible through those other routes).

  8. There are also theoretical reasons to refute the eco-modernist babble. GDP is made up of labour, capital and raw materials. Those are also the categories of production costs reflected in prices. If we improve efficiency in the production of a something, any something, by using less raw materials, prices will go down if markets are working according to text books. This means that for the same unit of production its contribution to GDP will also diminish. GDP can only grow if MORE resources are squandered. This applies also to services, so the idea that we can grow the economy and use less resources by shifting to services is also flawed. We can grow the economy and use less resources only if we INCREASE labour and reduce use of raw materials, but that is exactly the opposite of the eco-modernist solutions.

    Personally, I don’t care much about the nominal size of the economy and we would probably be better off by reducing both labour and raw material use. But I do believe that growth is hard-wired in capitalism, that s zero growth capitalism will collapse.

  9. Vera – I’m inclined to agree with you but I’m a bit torn on this point. The ecomodernist position gets a lot of airplay because they’re good at self-promotion and their message is what people want to hear, so I think there’s a case for pushing back, particularly on the wilder untruths. But I agree it’s better to develop a different story

    Gunnar – thanks, very interesting info. Somebody pointed out to me that the ecomodernists are actually quite careful to avoid talking about ‘economic growth’, probably because of the weaknesses in it that you’ve identified…so they tend to talk instead about ‘squeezing more out of less’, which is less controversial…even though it’s not actually happening.

    Malcolm – am I angry because I’m challenged by the kernel of truth in ecomodernism? Well, maybe – I find that anger does sometimes arise in me from unresolved tensions within. But it also arises when someone tries to tell me that what’s black is white because of unresolved tensions of their own. I don’t dispute that there’s a kernel of truth, or potential truth, in aspects of ecomodernist thought. But what’s more to the point is the kernel of untruth in it, which I tried to highlight above. I’d agree that human invention & understanding of nature isn’t near its theoretical limits, but the problem is that it’s taken us and is still taking us dangerously close to exogenous limits that are bearing down on its future potential – the ecomodernists are willing to bet heavily on the next round of that race, but I personally don’t like the look of the odds. What I would be willing to bet heavily on is that the current system CAN’T go on indefinitely (one of the few certain lessons of history is surely that no system ever goes on indefinitely)…but I agree that it may be able to go on for a very long time yet, continuing to benefit the few at the expense of the many and deferring the various reckonings that await so that they assume ever more catastrophic proportions. If ecomodernist thinking is at the controls, that scenario seems to me more likely, which is why I want to oppose it. On intuition, imagination etc., maybe so – I’d argue that these too are fundamentally historical, but I’m not sure it’s an argument I greatly want to pursue.

    Joe – interesting points on build out & maintenance of infrastructure costs. Have you come across any quantitative data on this? I searched for some a couple of years ago but didn’t come up with anything much.

  10. Only just seen this. Well, I find your grumpiness on this topic entirely understandable – indeed I find your second-order grumpiness (grumpy that you have been provoked into grumpiness) equally understandable.

    if you seriously expect people to read it please, re-cut them with a whole lot more discipline in the writing

    My goodness, the sheer condescension there – not an argument at all, but an implicit claim that the only thing that matters is – to use the word you so aptly chose – slickness, and that reading anything longer than a tweet is an imposition.

    (I maintain my opinion that a lot of this is sheer smartypants contrarianism. Having a longstanding interest in the mechanics of rhetoric, I’m willing to admit that there is a probably a parallel universe in which I am myself a Smartypants Contrarian. It seems such fun for such a small intellectual investment …).

    • Thanks Martin – glad it wasn’t only me that felt the condescension. But I agree there’s always that nagging doubt – oh my god, am I like that too? It would be good if the ecomodernists would acknowledge that their visions may not work… By the same token, I guess I need to acknowledge that they might…but that’s where the political-cultural critique kicks in. The questions that we have to answer in contemporary society are not merely technical-environmental ones but also distributional, cultural and, ultimately, spiritual ones…and for me the failure of the ecomodernists to acknowledge that is a fatal flaw…

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