Ecomodernism – a fresh approach to thinking about the environment

Blog post by Meredith Angwin

Calling Names

When looking at the fate of energy and mankind and the climate, what is a thinking person to think? Most of the information in the popular press seems to be more name-calling than thinking.

Increasing carbon dioxide will cause the death of our planet.

Attempting to cut carbon dioxide emissions will cause the death of Western Civilization.

People who fight renewables are NIMBYs.

Some people are Deniers.

Other people are Alarmists.

Pejorative terms fly about, and mere facts can get lost in the shuffle.

Getting an idea

Luckily, people are beginning to think about these issues, without all the rhetoric.  It’s hard to get a grip, though.  For example, an excellent recent article in the New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen is Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?  He writes that, in the face of climate change, many “conservation” organizations ignore immediate threats to immediate habitats, or even ignore the extinction of species when habitats disappear… unless the situation is connected to global warming. Birds in the here-and-now seem to be of little interest, compared to climate change.

Franzen argues for a conservation ethic that mirrors St. Francis of Assisi’s love of the birds and animals of here-and-now. He feels this is inevitably in opposition to concern with climate change.  He doesn’t have an overarching plan for the big picture, but he does want us to value the habitat and diversity we have.  (The word “nuclear” does not even appear in his article, as even a possibility for decreasing the rate of carbon dioxide growth in the atmosphere.)

My own view from Vermont is less important than the view from The New Yorker.  Still, I have watched wind turbines be built on ridges, sometimes destroying rare high-country wetlands. I have listened to the rhetoric of “We must do this to save the planet.”  To me, it sounded a little like one of the failed doctrines of the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

I wrote a blog post about this: Farmers, City Folks and Renewable Energy (at ANS Nuclear Cafe). In this post, I wrote that if we could not “get” all the energy we needed from wind and sun, we would have to “take” this energy by turning the world into our energy farm.  I expressed my gratitude for every thermal power plant that meant that we didn’t need every bit of energy from every river and stream.  I was grateful for every waterfall that doesn’t have to host a hydro plant. The misty damp earth next to a small

Painted Trillium.

Painted Trillium.

waterfall can grow trillium, not concrete infrastructure. In this post, I talked about my early membership in the Sierra Club, back when the club fought for creating wilderness areas, not for creating ridge-top wind farms.

Franzen and I had good ideas, but neither article was really a plan.

Ecomodernism: More of a plan!

I am delighted to say that there is now the beginning of a plan, just in time for Earth Day! consists of an international group of conservationists, whose mission statement includes the words: both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable.  They aren’t just whistling in the dark, here, either.  Their plan is outlined in a thirty-page Ecomodernist Manifesto, which you can download from their web site or the link above.

eco manifesto2

But what sleight-of-hand allows ecomodernists to claim that human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are compatible?  Well, it is no sleight of hand.  The secret is density.  Many of the “destroy the village to save it” type ecologists envision a future of low energy consumption and dispersed dwellings in an imagined rural utopia.  In fact, this would be an ecological disaster of the first magnitude, as humans used every inch of the world’s surface to take energy and food from the environment. There would be no room for ecological vibrancy.

Luckily, humans are not going toward this rural future.  Worldwide, people are moving to cities. As the Ecomodernist Manifesto explains, this is a good thing.  The average city dweller takes up very little space, compared to someone in exurbia or on a farm. In a city, per person, land use and concrete use and gasoline use is far less. A city can be surrounded by greenbelts.  Farms would use every acre of that greenbelt. A city is people-dense.

An EcoModernist Manifesto envisions a future in which efficient low-carbon energy use and dense human settlements leave more of the planet for the growth of complex natural ecologies.  The energy use is crucial, and it must be low-carbon.  They look toward more efficient solar usage, and energy-dense nuclear power.

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. – An Ecomodernist Manifesto

My local nuclear plant took delivery on three semis worth of fuel every eighteen months.  A local coal plant of about the same size took delivery of 40 100-ton carloads of coal, every single day. The coal plant required huge mines, huge transportation infrastructure, and huge clean-up facilities to scrub the stack of nitrogen, sulfur, mercury and particulates. And I don’t want to talk about the ash ponds and slurry ponds, okay? Even for a small coal plant, these ponds are huge.  In contrast, the storage for spent fuel for the nuclear plant is a concrete pad of about the same size as a convenience store.

Ecomodernism: Thinking Outside the Box

Ecomodernism, indeed, is thinking outside-the-box. It’s thinking “density.”

By encouraging densely settled cities, the earth can support a large human population and ecologically diverse rural areas.  This runs in contrast to the in-the-box thinking of ‘destroy-to-save’ ecologists, who imagine a future of spread-out homesteads, each burning wood to keep warm. (Though somehow these homesteads still have transport to get themselves to central schools and hospitals, and those buildings are well equipped with energy.)

eco manifesto

By encouraging low-carbon energy such as advanced solar and nuclear, we can have a vibrant human culture as well as an ecologically diverse planet.

My description here is an overly simplified summary of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.  I encourage you to read the entire short document.  For Earth Day, we have to think outside the box.  The 70s slogan “back to the land!” will not work for the future of humans or animals on this planet.  We need dense settlements and dense energy.

The Manifesto is only a beginning.  It is a new way of looking at the world.  It shows a direction that can work.  With thought and love for the planet, we can have an Earth worth sharing with our children and our grandchildren.

Happy Earth Day!

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