California has been at the forefront of the modern environmental movement that, in its most iconic form, we associate with hippies and alternative lifestyles. In the following decades, Silicon Valley - the mecca of tech-companies and engine of technological innovation and progress – also became another widely known Californian export.
It is thus fitting that the Californian think tank The Breakthrough Institute held its annual Dialogue in Sausalito, CA, - close to Berkeley and Mountain View - bringing together scientists, journalists, activists, and entrepreneurs from across the world to discuss how to overcome societal and technological hurdles for a brighter future for humankind and nature.
The honoring of the late David MacKay, British physicist and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, whose seminal “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” emphasizes the importance of energy policy discussions informed by physical facts and quantitative analysis, started and set the tone for the Dialogue.
In this vein, the University of Oxford's Max Roser kicked off the program, presenting his visualizations that demonstrate the enormous progress humanity has made over the past decades in greatly increasing the well-being of the average human being. The following graph makes the case for this decline in absolute poverty, and Max Roser’s web publication “Our World in Data” provides a host of other fascinating visualizations on the state and trajectory of humanity.
This presentation then also framed a central question pervading the Dialogue: Why is it that, in a time where humanity has achieved unprecedented progress, often enabled by technological advances, do Western publics and discourses often have such a pessimistic vision of the future and the role of progress and technology? Figure 2 illustrates this discrepancy, showing the lowest confidence in an improving world in some of the richest countries.
Tackling this question, Yale’s Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project provided experimental and survey data demonstrating that, rather than processing evidence rationally, we seek to keep our beliefs in line with our political and sociocultural identity.
Hence, 'Silicon Valley types’ will often focus on solutions enabled by humans’ ingenuity to innovate, whereas many environmentalists tend to focus on decreasing demand and changing behaviors, because each’s preferred modes of problem-solving correlates systematically with other beliefs of how the world is and how it ought to be (and, crucially, how to close that gap between is and ought).
Both are partial truths making it so important that the environmental discourse -- often dominated by traditional environmentalists -- is also enriched by ecomodernists emphasizing the role of technology and innovation in solving environmental challenges.
Three insights from the ecomodernist perspective
To illustrate some important insights from the ecomodernist perspective on questions of sustainability, the following reflection focuses on three central themes rather than providing a detailed chronological account of all sessions constituting the Dialogue.
I) For climate justice, clean energy should be abundant and cheap
Many energy scenarios assume that energy demand in the developing world will grow comparatively slowly, at a rate at which modern lifestyles will remain unachievable for large parts of the world population.
One reason for this is “carbon conditionality”, the constraint that Western funding, or loans for energy projects, are often only given for low-carbon energy projects. This conditionality is certainly well-intentioned, given that climate change will hit the poorest the hardest and that per-capita emissions on Western levels across the world would certainly wreak havoc to our climate. Similarly, given the view of many Western countries that nuclear energy is too risky a technology to deploy, nuclear projects are also often not supported.
However, Samir Saran of the Indian Observer Research Foundation stressed the enormous hypocrisy of Western publics that, albeit unable and/or unwilling to decarbonize at home, opposed (and often deny loans) for both fossil and nuclear power in developing countries. As he put it, the Western world has decided on keeping the poor (energy) poor as a climate mitigation strategy. Whether one fully shares this view or not, the difficulty of even affluent democracies to decarbonize illustrates the need for additional innovation to decarbonize while increasing energy supply to tackle the twin challenges of energy poverty and climate change.
II) The counterintuitive and dangerous neglect of innovation
While we live in a world of rapid technological change, innovation in the sustainability realm is often surprisingly neglected. For the case of energy, this underinvestment into innovation is well-documented and subject of increased policy attention (also see our recent post, in greater detail here).
However, this neglect is also present in other crucial sustainability areas. As Professor Cassmann of the University of Nebraska explained, farmlands’ share of total land area has been increasing at the fastest rate since 2002, fueled – inter alia – by low productivity growth due to slow innovation (“[t]he tyranny of linear rates of yield gain”).
To answer a session’s question - “Is Peak Farmland in sight?” - in the affirmative, the further digitalizing agriculture to better collect data (sensing) and build better models to inform precise and targeted responses to increase agricultural productivity was advanced as a key strategy. In short, in a world of finite space and increasing population density neglecting innovation risks making a Malthusian world - where population pressures induce unmanageable scarcities - a reality.
III) Density is critical because it makes decoupling possible
A related recurring theme was density as the enabler for decoupling human civilization from nature to reduce biodiversity and habitat loss. For agriculture, energy, and space for human settlements, the denser forms of producing / providing those enable to reduce interference into nature and regrowing wilderness. This logic leads to seemingly counterintuitive results.
For example, the tremendous land use requirements of renewable energy – already fundamentally changing public and private lands in the US and other countries – leads many conservationists to prefer nuclear energy given its much lower land requirements. The theme of density as an enabler of sustainability was also echoed for palm oil plantations in Indonesia and cattle farming in Brazil, where process innovations allowed avoiding additional deforestation.
Of course, just as classical environmentalism, ecomodernism does not come without its blindspots or underemphasized solutions.
For example, while downplayed in the session on Peak Farmland, reducing meat consumption is – especially when successful in those parts of the world where meat-consumption increases strongest – another effective strategy given the enormous environmental footprint of raising livestock.
Similarly, while the intermittency and lacking energy density make current-day renewables unable to power modern industrialized economies by themselves (leading many ecomodernists to focus on nuclear power as the solution), innovations dramatically improving renewable energy technologies’ weaknesses are also conceivable. For example, tidal power, while still intermittent, is highly predictable. And airborne wind power could provide a much denser and less intermittent form of renewable energy. Thus, even when opposing nuclear power, the ecomodernist foci -- abundance of clean energy, a focus of innovation and the importance of density -- are still useful when reflecting on energy priorities.
As Ted Nordhaus, Executive Director and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, stressed in his closing remarks, the answers provided are always partial and critique is essential for further development of ecomodernist thought and action. As many participants stressed, however, the hopeful message -- accompanied by supportive evidence and innovative strategies to tackle sustainability problems -- is what makes this Dialogue so valuable for its many returning participants. In a time where the climate and many other sustainability discussions are characterized by the discrepancy of high global ambition with insufficient national implementation, a vision focused on expanding our capability to tackle scarcity and pollution problems with new and improved technologies appears as a vital part of the solution.