Humanity faces two fundamental challenges this century. The first is to lift billions of people out of poverty and give them the opportunity to live healthy and dignified lives. The second is to ensure that this development does not destabilize the climatic and ecological systems that have enabled the rise of humans and other life on Earth. The problem is that these two goals are increasingly at odds.
Reconciling the twin imperatives of conservation and development is not easy. ‘Sustainable development’ is a catchphrase that neatly defines what the world must ultimately achieve, but nobody knows precisely what it looks like at full scale. Later this year, governments will finalize a set of sustainable development goals to guide international aid, and in December global leaders will gather to discuss the latest climate agreement at a summit in Paris. Any deal will be burdened by inevitable compromises that allow space for polluting development as the world seeks better and cheaper solutions.
The latest attempt to create a framework for thinking about this dilemma comes from 18 environmental activists and academics, who published an ‘Ecomodernist Manifesto’ last week. The essay paints a hopeful picture of technological progress while placing importance on the kind of intensive development that has characterized humanity’s rise so far. Only by concentrating our impact within the urban, industrial and agricultural context can we achieve a “good Anthropocene,” or age of human influence, the authors argue.