A seminal paper jointly authored by a dozen international scientists and academics and released in April has created a ripple in the conservation community. It is a lengthy essay but what An Ecomodernist Manifesto says is that accelerated technological progress combined with socio-economic change will ‘decouple’ human economic pursuit from its impact on the environment. Translation: that sometime in the near future the relentless pursuit of prosperity will stop having a negative impact on the environment. How? The authors—who are predictably mostly from the west and belong to its institutions—put that down to technological innovation and human ingenuity. This is a predictable but naively optimistic vision of the future and one that defies logic and the prevailing evidence.
Decoupling is a Fantasy Slogan
The self-styled ‘eco-pragmatists’ who authored the ‘manifesto’ say that intensifying (yes, intensifying) 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 its environmental impacts.
That is like insisting you can bake a bigger cake than planned for your party to which more people are expected than anticipated, but you will still be using less flour. No matter how hi-tech the oven or how clever the nano-technology ingredients, a bigger cake that is edible and satisfies the consumption needs of everyone at the party (some of whom might be hungry), will need more flour. Period.
It comes down to simple arithmetic. 16% of the world’s population consumes 80% of the world’s resources1 and yet we have already crossed four of the nine planetary boundaries2. They are: the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean. Just to put that in perspective: at a time when less than 1.7 billion people on the planet are living in relative prosperity and consuming more of everything, we have already started to see weather patterns change, wildlife decimate and unparalleled levels of global pollution3. Now imagine what would happen if the remaining 84% also started to consume like this privileged and ravenous minority? No technological wizardry can compensate for the damage that relentless and rising consumption will wreck on the resource base and the commons.
But the idea rooted in the modern western liberal narrative that free markets and technological advancements, coupled with individual freedoms and the singular pursuit of wealth should be left unfettered to allow for the human condition to realise its full potential, and thereby overcome all our challenges, is a lie. In many ways the ‘manifesto’ is not modern at all. It is anti-progress. It is a repeat of the classic twentieth century approach that links technology and wealth creation to solving every challenge facing humanity—including those of its own creation. The authors believe in the same mantra: that a planetary ecological crisis can be solved by a new form of technology called “green” and this in turn will create more prosperity leading to a new modernity called eco-modern. But this is in denial of many truths. Let me explain.
Population and Consumption – Three Americas anyone?
The world’s population is expected to peak at 9-10 billion in the next thirty five years and the populations of China and India have barely discovered the ‘joys’ of modern life through our current economic model of relentless consumption to sustain growth. If we have not reached the tipping point yet then we will soon. The simple truth is that 5-6 billion people in Asia alone should not and must not aspire to lifestyles taken for granted in the West. To suggest they can is highly irresponsible.
A World Bank report for example predicts the demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% in the next two decades. The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, two-thirds of the world population will live in water “stress” conditions. Global energy consumption has grown by more than 50% since 1990. At this rate of resource consumption we will need the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to sustain our unchecked needs and desires. Can such a world support a population of 9-10 billion people? If the eco-modernists are to be believed, then yes. They have put their faith in technology—the very same technology that is stripping the planet of its natural wealth at a rate faster than a cookie monster can munch a box out of its contents.
Now try to imagine a world with three Americas. Three giant economic powerhouses, with citizens who buy, sell and consume, all in pursuit of their versions of the American Dream. By 2050 Asia will account for 53% of the world’s GDP, up from 32% in 20144. This will require enormous amounts of resources and the impending impacts are already here for all to prepared to stop being in denial. China for example has already used more cement in the last three years than the US did in the entire 20th Century. How much more cement will it use when it overtakes the US to become the world’s biggest economy in the next two decades? And what when India and the continent of Africa does the same? At our current economic growth rates, the world economy will be roughly 16 times bigger by 2100 than it is today5. This prospect excites many people—those in business most of all. Where will all of the stuff come from to maintain the levels of consumption that is the engine of growth? What will be the impact on the planet?
The example of energy and cars
Take energy, for example. If the Chinese and Indians were to use as much energy per capita as the Americans do, their total power consumption would be 14 times as great as that of the United States. Even if Asians were to restrict themselves to lower European levels of energy usage they would still consume eight to nine times as much power as America does today. No matter what we do the world cannot expect to see its energy usage grow by such an extent especially as we will remain dependent on fossil fuels. These conventional forms of power generation will continue to crowd out renewable energy in the developing world and sadly they will produce carbon in such volumes that our planet will be condemned to unmanageable stress. There is a tech solution—it is called nuclear—but it is unlikely to make a global impact given current market failures, costs, safety fears and public opinion in most countries.
Or take cars. Estimates suggest that if China, India and other developing countries reach western levels of car ownership, there could be 3 billion cars in the world, four times the current total, within four decades. Where will the fuel come from and what about their environmental impact? The hydrogen fuel car is a long way away and battery run Teslas simply shift pollution/externalities elsewhere, a form of burden shifting and at best will be toys for the ‘eco-rich’. It is not a solution to public mobility challenges in the most populated parts of the world. Five billion Asians driving like Americans is not only a very bad idea, it would be catastrophic. The whole idea that they too can have it because technology will come to the rescue is a lie.
Technology is not the panacea
But this line of argument should not be misconstrued as one that is against technology. I am a bio-chemical engineer by training and spent the early years of my professional career working on ultra-pure water systems. I simply also know that the power of technology is not always benign. It can be misused and misdirected and has its limits. The ‘fixes’ the world needs to rebalance progress with ecological protection will be found not in technology alone but in our ability to organise economic activity around technological and resource limits. This however is not sexy as it requires an honest appraisal of much that we take for granted and off course challenging vested interests. For one we have to recognise that our current economic model is built around an intrinsically flawed principle. The flaw is that it thrives on externalised costs and under-priced resources to foster old-fashioned trickle down economic growth. It also means the discounted price tag you see on your shirt when you pick it up from the mall does not just ‘discount’ the original retail price that was on the label before, but also the price that was not paid when its production used the water, air and the many other ‘services’ that nature provides us with and which are not as abundant as you might think. And this is not to mention the externalities associated with exploited labour in the developing countries such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
The arguments often used to promote the near ideological faith in technological innovations as a panacea even for ecological challenges are often based on an almost a quasi-religious belief that it has an inherent and built in ability to solve all global challenges. In reality, technological progress has, in many instances, exacerbated it. Trees were once cut using hand-tools and axes until World War II. It provided employment to millions and yet allowed enough time for forests to recover. Lumberjacks can now cut them down anything between a hundred and a thousand times faster and the logs are flown out by helicopters—and this is called “enhanced productivity”.
Decoupling Facts from Fiction : We can’t have it all
So why do we get to hear this increasingly tired narrative about decoupling human development and its impact on the environment repeatedly? The answer is simple. It brooks no argument and allows the West to expand its neo-colonial economic model and at the same time maintain its ‘superior’ intellectual authority over the rest of the world based on finding “smart” solutions. There is no place for the technology-doubting Luddites here especially those not from the west. Nor is there any tolerance for alternative economic models. It allows for the denial of a very inconvenient truth: that the party is over. Late comers to the age of consumption (viz. the Indians, Chinese and Africans) simply cannot indulge in the kind of consumption that the West has enjoyed and current day elites in the rest of the world want to ape. That kind of prosperity is based on a resource extraction binge the world can no longer afford. That is the truth but the eco-modernists dare not say: “sorry, you others cannot have it.” So they seek refuge in fantasies.
Eco-modernists must recognise a simple fact – that simply calling for the decoupling of human activity from environmental impact will not in itself drive technological change to find solutions. One can only hope that they do not also simply believe that the developers of technology are committed to finding these solutions, because they are driven by some altruistic motives or a higher calling. That is not how the world of technology and investments works. It will need a whole new way of organizing ourselves around the reality of a resource constrained world. And that requires a new socio-economic and political narrative about sustainability, individual rights, freedoms and the role of the state, much of which will fly in the face of current day western led narratives about capitalism, free markets and democracy. Given this, the developing world must lead the discourse on this new narrative as there are no magical tech answers to the environmental and sustainability challenges.
A new economic model must therefore account for three major adjustments: First, it must accept limits to growth in a resource constraint world and thus ensure that resources are priced to reflect their true cost. Second, the economy needs to be subservient to maintaining the vitality of the resource base, and not the other way around, as it is now. Third, an effective economy for the 21st century must weigh collective welfare over individual rights. But how do we get there?
Asia must lead the search: Can it?
Starting with Asia would be a good first step. After all, more people live here than anywhere else on the planet and their consumption habits will be the ones that shape the twenty-first century. Unfortunately politicians, economists and investors remain in denial, using the crutch of technology, free markets and finance to spin messages about innovation and hope. We all need hope but hope is not a plan.
Asian governments must reject the blinkered views of those who urge them to embrace policies to promote relentless consumption to balance the global economy. They need to recognize they are more than just “growth” factories. That is not to suggest that people must remain in poverty. Nor is it an argument against economic development. Rather it is a call for constrained consumption funnelled in a way that does not increase the demands on our resource base; degrade our environment; and put at risk the livelihood and health of millions. If Asia is to make the management of resources and their impact on the environment the defining purpose of its governance, it will need strong states. Only public institutions can deliver development, ensure collective welfare, reverse environmental degradation and prevent resource depletion. These objectives cannot be left to the whims of the market or to the fate of technology. To achieve prosperity for the vast majority of its population, Asia must find alternative ways of promoting human and economic development. It must prioritize incentives that reward “more is less” activities and put the management of resources at the centre of all policy-making.
The crucial first step in this direction is a carbon and resource tax that provides incentive for companies to use fewer materials and less energy in their products. Next is the end of fossil fuel subsidies. Once retail prices of food, clothes and cars begin to reflect true costs of resources, consumers will start to change their consumption habits and this will mark the start of a new industrial revolution—one that, unlike the previous one, does not underprice resources or externalise its costs. But for that to occur nations and their policymakers must wake up from the fantasy that technology will somehow provide answers to the dangers thrown up in the new Anthropocene age (the geological period when humans have started to have significant impact on the environment). We need to recognise the limits of technology and take a good hard look at our consumption habits. The eco-modernist manifesto needs a progressive revamp.
4 The Economist Intelligence Unit
5 Dieter Helm, Author of Natural Capital: valuing our planet, speaking at Chatham House, UK