A New Environmental Politics

A Response from Iddo Wernick, research associate at the Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University. He is also a Breakthrough Senior Fellow (2015). 

America, and the world, are ripe for a new, balanced way to consider how government manages natural resources and oversees environmental quality. A political philosophy not laden with the orthodoxies of the past, one that has the ability to embrace hope about the future and is not resigned to bleak prospects.

‘An Ecomodernist Manifesto’ forms another brick in the foundation of a revised environmental politics. Once again, the people at the Breakthrough Institute have done an excellent job of synthesizing intellectual strains, ostensibly disparate, to form a new policy approach to natural resources and environmental quality. 

Finding the solution that represents the “golden mean” in all cases may remain elusive, the Manifesto frames the questions essential to thinking about future resource use and environmental quality in a fresh way. On balance, the evidence brought to support the arguments in the Manifesto injects less dogma into the discussion, not more. This is vital in a political environment where misinformation of all kinds continue to hijack the debate.

A few comments, some on tone, some on content:

·       The Manifesto endorses the notion that humans should “stabilize the climate.” Can humans do that? Can we stabilize the climate? The climate is a system shaped by a range of natural and human processes. Humans can inject less greenhouse gas into the atmosphere by making energy systems emit less carbon. We can influence that but we cannot control it. Why concede the point that humans influence climate so directly, implying that each gram of CO2 emitted by human activity influences the global temperature to rise in lockstep fashion, independent of other factors? Moreover, would there not be value in shifting the discussion from "preventing climate change" to the functionally identical "shifting to a low- or no-carbon energy system." This would shift the debate to solutions and away from nefarious oil company executives and cute polar bears. 

·       In making the argument that greater density is always favorable to greater resource efficiency, I would distinguish between the density of production and the density of human settlement (consumption). The approach to concentrating humans as we concentrate livestock and fast-growing trees seems to rely on a man/woman-as-economic-animal argument. He or she is also a political animal, and as such he or she may resist being placed in conditions of ever greater density for the purposes of some greater social goal like economic efficiency or even environmental quality. Must government policies always favor city folk and promote denser agglomerations of human settlements? To me, a less economic view of humans is part of the rejection of misanthropy that is inherent in ecomodernism.

·       It seems that calls emanate from many quarters today celebrating the accomplishments of modernity. The rejection of “the good ole days” as sentimental claptrap, comes from both left and right. Market libertarians revel in how human well-being, measured in economic and demographic terms, continues to improve. At the same time, liberals search for evidence of the triumph of enlightenment values, trying to find examples showing that the quality of human life has improved over the last centuries in their wake. The Manifesto seems to embrace all of these propositions indicating that humans are better off today in ways that go beyond their material well-being. Is this essential? Does accepting the argument that resources are sufficient to meet future human material needs mean that one accepts that human fulfillment also improves as a result of material progress? Must the Manifesto tie itself to a position that relies more on social science than humanism in defining what human well-being is. For example, while Pinker may make a self-consistent argument, do his conclusions not hide a bevy of hidden social science assumptions? The data he uses show what can be measured. What cannot be measured about the human condition remains conjecture. Might people experience violence today vicariously, like they experience everything else? Is it true that the human anxiety that stems from violence has lessened so much today around the world? Is accepting this notion requisite for our cause? Might it not alienate potential adherents?

·       One of the many nice things about the Manifesto is its reliance on factual trends rather than anecdote. I appreciate the use of the many data-rich arguments showing the "decoupling" of environmental harm from societal resource use. The arguments made presume that greater efficiency in resource extraction will always benefit the natural environment. A qualification must be inserted, that greater efficiency must not be concomitant with the degradation of underlying natural systems. Explicit mention must be made of the fact that it is ultimately information that allows for greater efficiency. Using fewer resources by using them smarter is ultimately the best path to protecting the underlying natural systems as well.

·       The Manifesto seems little concerned with the Jevons's Paradox, the notion that greater efficiency, in production or in end use, serves to increase, rather than decrease, demand. Alternatively, the phenomenon is referred to as the rebound effect. The challenge remains for those that champion technology to improve efficiency (and thus benefit the future environment) to confront this problem. The drive for greater efficiency does restrain the environmental footprint of the system.  However, when examining the dynamics, it appears that the environmental footprint grows as markets do, just slower. Still needed is evidence that greater efficiency will actual shrink the environmental footprint in aggregate.

·       How can the ecomodernist approach move into the mainstream? How does the assertions made in the Manifesto align with the current political party platforms in the United States? Abroad? What federal policy recommendations do these arguments suggest? What constituencies or demographics do these ideas resonate with? What strategies allow for this approach gain market share in the psyche of the average voter? 

The Manifesto speaks to me because it fundamentally rejects the nihilism and defeatism so prevalent today in the West, and instead embraces an attitude of hope for the future and belief in human capacity. I offer these comments as a partisan who is himself coming to grips with the issues mentioned above. The Manifesto marks an important step in creating a space to discuss these questions with a focus on finding solutions rather than emphasizing the severity of problems.