For an in-class exercise, I like asking students: “What’s your utopia?” I tell them that utopias aren’t fashionable these days; “utopian” is generally employed in a derogatory sense, meaning naively optimistic. Some cynics, notably philosopher John Gray, insist that our utopian yearnings invariably lead to disaster.
That conclusion is far too pessimistic. We humans, in spite of our flaws, have achieved real progress, which makes it realistic to hope for more. Whenever you imagine, however fuzzily, a better world, that’s your utopia. Swapping ideas about our utopias can help us find solutions to our problems.
And that brings me to “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” just published by almost a score of self-described “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens.” The authors include Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and several other members of the Breakthrough Institute, a non-profit think tank that reconsiders traditional environmentalism.
The manifesto picks up on the notion–floated by journalist Andrew Revkin and others–of a “good Anthropocene.” “Anthropocene” has become an increasingly popular descriptor of the modern era of massive human transformation of the biosphere. To many greens, “good Anthropocene” is an oxymoron.
The ecomodernists nonetheless insist that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.” The manifesto amplifies the theme of last year’s Breakthrough Institute “Dialogue,” which I attended and reported on here. Here is a key passage of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”:
Agricultural intensification, along with the move away from the use of wood as fuel, means that many parts of the world are now experiencing net reforestation. About 80 percent of New England is today forested, compared with about 50 percent at the end of the 19th century. Over the last 20 years, the amount of land dedicated to production forest worldwide declined by 50 million hectares, an area the size of France. The “forest transition” from net deforestation to net reforestation seems to be as resilient a feature of development as the demographic transition that reduces human birth rates as poverty declines.
Human use of many other resources is similarly peaking. The amount of water needed for the average diet has declined by nearly 25 percent over the last half-century. Nitrogen pollution continues to cause eutrophication and large dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico. While the total amount of nitrogen pollution is rising, the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations.
Indeed, in contradiction to the often-expressed fear of infinite growth colliding with a finite planet, demand for many material goods may be saturating as societies grow wealthier. Meat consumption, for instance, has peaked in many wealthy nations and has shifted away from beef toward protein sources that are less land-intensive.
As demand for material goods is met, developed economies see higher levels of spending directed to materially less-intensive service and knowledge sectors, which account for an increasing share of economic activity. This dynamic may be even more pronounced in today’s developing economies, which may benefit from being late adopters of resource-efficient technologies.
Taken together, these trends mean that the total amount of human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century. By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.
Now that is a utopian vision. The point of manifestos is not to compel agreement but to provoke constructive conversations. In fact, “Good Anthropocene” will be the theme of the next Breakthrough Dialogue, which I’m attending in June, along with my new pal, sociologist Steve Fuller. (Disclosure: Breakthrough Institute is paying my travel expenses, as it did last year. For the record, I’ve bitten the hands of groups far more generous to me–for example, the Templeton Foundation.)
I have two complaints about “Ecomodernist Manifesto.” First, it could have dwelled more on economic inequality, which has been surging in the U.S. How can we ensure that more intense innovation and energy-consumption won’t make the rich richer and leave have-nots further behind? I’d love to see the Breakthrough Institute solicit the views of activist Naomi Klein, whose book This Changes Everything warns that that unbridled capitalism has brought us to the brink of economic and ecological disaster.
A more glaring omission is–you guessed it–war and militarism. The manifesto states: “Violence in all forms has declined significantly and is probably at the lowest per-capita level ever experienced by the human species, the horrors of the twentieth century and present-day terrorism notwithstanding.”
This statement echoes the sanguine theme of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. And like Pinker, “The Ecomodernist Manifesto” skims far too blithely over the threat of modern militarism, particularly as embodied by the U.S. As I keep reminding readers of this blog, U.S. military actions since 9/11 have resulted, directly and indirectly, in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and exacerbated rather than eradicating violent Islamic extremism.
The U.S. spends almost as much on defense as all other nations combined, and it is the world’s dominant weapons innovator, manufacturer and exporter. While browbeating Iran for its alleged nuclear ambitions, the U.S. is embarking on a trillion-dollar overhaul of its nuclear arsenal, and its aggressive development and deployment of drones and cyber-weapons have inspired other nations to pursue these technologies. In a recent post, I urge environmentalists and other activists to devote attention to militarism, for the following reasons:
“First, war exacerbates or perpetuates our other problems, either directly or by draining precious resources away from their solution. War subverts democracy and promotes tyranny and fanaticism; kills and sickens and impoverishes people; ravages nature. War is a keystone problem, the eradication of which would make our other social problems much more tractable.
“Second, war is more readily solvable than many other human afflictions. War is not like a hurricane, earthquake or Ebola plague, a natural disaster foisted on us by forces beyond our control. War is entirely our creation, the product of human choices. War could end tomorrow if a relatively small group of people around the world chose to end it.
“Third, more than any of our other problems, war represents a horrific moral crime. Particularly when carried out by the U.S. and other nations, or by groups that aspire to or claim the legitimacy of states, war makes hypocrites of us and makes a mockery of human progress. We cannot claim to be civilized as long as war or even the threat of war persists.”
I applaud, and share, the optimism of the ecomodernists. I hope they and all people unhappy with our world consider this possibility: the fastest, surest way to create a world in which children and other living things flourish is to end war once and for all. That’s my utopia. What’s yours?