Math Is Not on the Ecomodernists' Side

A Response from Jeremy Williams, cofounder of Make Wealth History


There’s a lot to like in [the Manifesto’s] vision. They rightly point out how far we’ve come, and how many of the fears of previous generations of environmentalists have not panned out in the doom and gloomed predicted – the population bomb among them. Technology, urbanization and the peaking of population growth offer a far more optimistic possibility.

There are lots of hopeful statements here, but many dubious ones too. The assertion that “the use of many material resource inputs such as nitrogen, timber, and land are beginning to peak” sounds premature, given how many people remain in poverty. So do the generalizations about how liberal values are becoming globally universal. The dismissal of any concept of planetary boundaries seems rather hasty. The fact that they are largely negative about renewable energy is also a problem, and puts them out of step with the trend towards decentralized power.

The ecomodernist vision also leans very heavily on one idea: decoupling. Decoupling is the disconnecting of human activity and economic growth from environmental impact, carbon emissions and resource use. They argue that there are existing trends to build upon, and that “decoupling human well-being from the destruction of nature requires the conscious acceleration of emergent decoupling processes.”

Like James Wallman’s ideas about postmaterialism, for example, that demand for goods may be peaking in developed countries. That may be true, or it may not be – it’s pretty early to call. There aren’t many examples of absolute decoupling and good news stories like Britain’s recent drop in carbon emissions are pretty rare.

It is possible to decouple economic growth and environmental impact. The key factor, and the main reason why I remain convinced by the need for postgrowth solutions, is time. It is theoretically possible to create infinite economic growth. It’s the urgency of climate change that complicates matters. Can it be done fast enough? That’s the real question, and the maths is not on the ecomodernists’ side.

Read the full response here.