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Could Consuming More Energy Help Humans Save Nature?

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Even before I arrived at the annual "Dialogue" of the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, California, think tank that challenges mainstream environmental positions, I was arguing about it.

"Ecopragmatists" contend that higher energy consumption may help us "decouple" from, or reduce our impact on, the environment. Photo: Breakthrough Institute.

When I explained some of the institute's positions to two green friends, they were aghast that I would hobnob with a group that favors nuclear power, natural gas, genetically-modified food—and, more generally, the notion that environmentalism is or should be compatible with rapid economic growth.

My friends agree with ethicist Clive Hamilton that the Institute's "ecopragmatist" policies (other common descriptors are ecomodernist, neogreen and techno-utopian) "will lead us to disaster." Hamilton argues in Scientific American that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, founders of the Breakthrough Institute, "do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them."

Like environmental journalists Andrew Revkin and Keith Kloor, who are friends, I admire the work of Shellenberger and Nordhaus. We share (I think) several basic assumptions, which for me are emotional as well as intellectual. First, optimism about the future is reasonable, given how much progress humans have already achieved in the realms of medicine, human rights, prosperity and even the environment. Second, optimism, even wishful thinking, are more conducive to achieving further progress than alarmism and despair. Third, we can solve our problems by being more open-minded and creative--and scrutinizing all our assumptions.

Take, for example, the provocative agenda of the 2014 Dialogue, which was held in Sausalito, California, June 22-24, and was titled "High-energy Planet." (See also the institute's recent report "Our High-Energy Planet.") Here is how the Dialogue brochure introduces the agenda:

For the past 40 years, rising energy production and consumption have been widely viewed as inherently destructive of nature. A steady stream of government, United Nations, and environmental proposals have identified lowered energy consumption as the highest goal of climate and environmental policy. But during that same period, global per capita energy consumption has risen by 30 percent. And over the next century, global energy consumption is anticipated to double, triple, or more. The reality of our high-energy planet demands that we rethink environmental protection. The question for Breakthrough Dialogue 2014 is, 'How might a high-energy planet save nature?'

Universal energy is a fundamental requisite of development. The transformation of natural energy assets into usable energy services allows not just for household lighting and electricity, but also modern infrastructures and societies. Affordable energy is used to power tractors, create fertilizers, and power irrigation pumps, all of which improve agricultural yields and raise income. Cheap and reliable grid electricity allows factory owners to increase output and hire more workers. Electricity allows hospitals to refrigerate lifesaving vaccines and power medical equipment. It liberates children and women from manual labor and provides light, heat, and ventilation for the schools that educate the workforce.

A world with cheaper and cleaner energy could be a world where humans tread more lightly, leaving more space for other species while reducing pollution. Cheap, clean energy could power advanced water treatment plants that remove phosphorus from livestock effluents, returning clean water to rivers and recycling phosphorous as a fertilizer. Desalination could spare aquifers, rivers, and lakes, while rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems. Materials recycling and incineration could make landfills a thing of the past. And vertical agriculture could spare more land for nonhumans.

There is no guarantee that a high-energy planet will be a better place for nature. While land used for agriculture has grown only modestly, frontier agriculture continues to devastate old-growth rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil. Coal continues to be the fastest-growing fuel, and the carbon intensity of the global economy has been increasing in recent years. And while consumption of some key resource inputs such as wood and non-agricultural water appear to have peaked, demand for others is still growing rapidly.

Ultimately, what will determine whether our high-energy planet is better or worse for nature will be the ways in which our technologies, our economies, our values, and our politics evolve. What are the ways that we might shape the trajectory of the current transition and what are the ways that we won’t? What does an ecomodernist politics look like that is simultaneously realistic and aspirational about the future of the planet?

Agricultural innovations have boosted the productivity of farmland over the last 50 years, sparing enormous swathes of land, according to a 2012 analysis by Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and co-authors. Other energy-consuming innovations could help further reduce humanity's impact on nature, according to Ausubel. This image was downloaded from http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/scientists-see-promise-for-people-and-nature-in-peak-farmland/.

Breakthrough speakers did not all find the concept of a sustainable, high-energy planet plausible. Far from it. The vision of a prosperous, green, "high-energy planet" was supported by some speakers, notably environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University, who received the 2014 "Breakthrough Paradigm Award."

Ausubel emphasized that energy-consuming advances such as tractors and synthetic fertilizers already enable humans to produce food far more efficiently, using less land and water. Ausubel asserted that our technologies are allowing us to "decouple" from nature--that is, to meet our needs with much less impact on the environment. Environmental researcher Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado argued, moreover, that large increases in energy consumption are required to eradicate the poverty that still afflicts a large proportion of humanity.

But key tenets of the high-energy proposal were criticized by other speakers. Energy analyst Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis questioned whether nuclear energy will ever be as economically viable as proponents hope. Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity feared that by the time humans achieve their green, high-energy utopia, much of the planet's biodiversity will have already been wiped out.

I saw these disagreements as productive. The conference fulfilled its goal of "achieving disagreement," defined as "overcoming misunderstandings to get at genuine disagreements."

I have one suggestion for the Breakthrough Institute: I hope it considers how militarism can exacerbate our environmental problems, and, conversely, how reducing militarism can benefit environmentalism and other social causes. Perhaps a topic for a future Dialogue?

DISCLOSURE: The Breakthrough Institute paid my expenses for attending the 2014 Dialogue. If you think I can be bought, you should know that I have been nasty to groups far more generous to me—for example, the Templeton Foundation.

FURTHER READING (AND VIEWING):

See the following posts on this blog:

"Killing Environmentalism to Save It: Two Greens Call for ‘Postenvironmentalism’";

"Why Bill McKibben’s global-warming fear-mongering isn’t helpful";

"James Hansen Speaks Out, Gets Busted, and Now Sues to Stop Global Warming";

"Does Sandy mean we should have fewer nukes, or more?";

"If Natural Gas Is Less Noxious Than Coal, Don’t We Have to Frack?";

"Why you should embrace optimism".

See also my 2008 chat with Shellenberger on Bloggingheads.tv.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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