Ecomodernism, Technology, and Path Dependency

A Response from Tom Miller, documentary filmmaker whose new film is Our Place on Earth

The Ecomodernist Manifesto has sparked a lot of debate lately.  Many liken them to "techno-optimists"  those who believe technology and the market will be our saviors. A different reading might interpret that ecomodernists are calling for 1) a realistic acceptance of our human dependency on technology and its impact on the natural environment and 2) to work together and find pragmatic long-term approaches that utilize technology in ways that alleviate stress on the environment.  

Putting aside the debate on any of the above approaches, let's look at Our Place on Earth's experience in the field with two of these technologies as they relate to climate change. On the small Caribbean island of Barbuda aquaponics are being studied as a viable food source due to the impacts of declining ocean fish populations and the high costs of importing food. In this context, aquaponics produces fish for human consumption and the recycled water is used to grow vegetables, thus reducing the community's dependence on declining natural fish stocks and imported food.

In Bequia, desalination provides drinking water during disasters. And while expensive, the desalination facility also reduces the local impact of drought  a major issue across the Caribbean. Both technologies have the potential to allow local residents to remain in their small island communities and without which, forced migration may be a more likely alternative.  

However, like many technologies that at first glance seem like "miracle cures," desalination and aquaponics have their downsides and can lead to maladaptation and path dependency. (Path dependency here refers to decisions that limit future climate adaptation options by locking investments into options that are not easily adjusted to changes in future conditions.) Aquaponics is extremely energy-intensive, and without substantial investment in alternative energies like solar, communities may be stuck using fossil fuels to power their facilities. The gains in producing local food may be negated by the increased energy expenditures and the health risks associated with burning fossil fuels. The decision to move to aquaponics may in fact replace one path dependency with another  shifting from importing food to importing fuel. Like aquaponics, the same is true in the case of desalination.

And herein lies the difficulty of balancing present and future needs with available technologies.  Increased droughts due to the effects of climate change will prove the desalination plant on Bequia very useful to the local community. But the universal application of these technologies may not always reduce human demands on the environment. Counter to the context in Bequia, the desalination plant at Wonthaggi, Victoria, Australia, and the corresponding Sugarloaf Pipeline water transportation project are concerning examples of path dependency. In addition to reducing incentives for behavior change by reducing water consumption, the desalination plant is estimated to triple the annual operation emissions of Melbourne's water supply and sewage treatment. (In 2008, Melbourne water emitted 284,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, and it is estimated that upon completion, the plant's annual emissions will rise to over 900,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.) 

Understanding the implications of technological solutions requires an understanding of potential tradeoffs and path dependencies. Further, it requires a recognition that not all technologies provide the same benefits at all scales and locations  not all technologies are universally beneficial. Decision-making in the absence of this type of localized information runs the risk of solving one problem by creating another.   

The ecomodernist viewpoint may appear at first glance both naive in its reliance on technology and dismissive of the role of politics in creating effective change. However, they appear to be calling for the collaborative exploration of new ideas and long-term plans for a future that recognizes both our human dependence on technology, and the costs of that dependence on our natural environment. We hope that this exploration recognizes there is no technological silver bullet and all implementation requires adapting technology to local needs and contexts.

Read the full response and learn more about the film here.