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The Brave New World of Ecomodernism

Posted on 20 October 2015 by Guest Author

Josh Halpern blogs and tweets as Eli Rabett

Recently the Guardian has featured a back and forth about Ecomodernism. Ecomodernism holds that not only are humans driving the future of our world, but through technology can decouple our future from natural ecosystems. In this process the world would turn into urban enclaves surrounded by mechanically farmed agricultural lands and islands reserved for nature. It is a vision of naive young urban professionals. 

George Monbiot touched on some of the practical problems of Ecomodernism and this paper published a response from the proponents. In the words of Mark Lynas, one of the authors of their manifesto, the British launch of Ecomodernism turned into “a screw up of epic proportions” used by Owen Patterson to bash environmentalists of all stripes. To date, the discussion about Ecomodernism has been based on considerations of practicality, but there are hidden depths which lead me to oppose this program on all levels.

When I was a young, being civilized by my teachers, there were two dystopian models of instruction used to warn against the future: George Orwell’s 1984, and and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. 1984 is a dark vision of perpetual war and oppression with obvious roots in Stalinism and Nazi Germany, a war just fought and a cold war starting, both with the potential of destroying the world. Marxists, particularly Stalin and Mao discovered industrial marxism and their many attempts to control nature produced only disasters. Their heavy handed attempts to create technology produced contaminated industrial wastelands. 

Brave New World is an exercise in Paradise Engineering and the best illustration we have to the darker implications of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Ecomodernism revives the faith in technology of the late 19th and early 20th century, an optimism that found expression in our growing ability to shape the world coupled with hubris and belief that nature has nothing necessary to offer us.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto sees progress as a decoupling humanity from nature using technology as in Huxley’s vision. While one can quibble for or against the specific technologies that the Ecomodernists favor, one should first seriously consider the implications for the organization of society which make the Brave New World a model for how an Ecomodernist society must be organized to function.

Ecomodernism postulates movement of population to large cities, industrialization of agriculture and the isolation of areas for nature. There is no room for enjoyment of hunting and fishing, botanizing and birdwatching. There is no understanding of the ecological services that nature offers us and without which we could not survive. No backyards to grill in and mow, but all must move into the megopolis. No place for wild pollinators. It is not that we do not know where that vision leads, and we even have examples today of nations that are essentially single cities such as Singapore moving in that direction.

Huxley’s brave new world was based on genetically engineered social classes with the Alphas at the top and the Deltas and Epsilons at the bottom collecting the garbage and providing other services. Today’s city states and those of the Ecomodernists require vast numbers of Deltas and Epsilons to support the Alphas. They are ancient Greek city states with a small number of citizens benefiting from the labor of a large number of contract workers many on temporary visas. If you are an alpha, it is a good deal, if not, maybe not so much.

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Comments 51 to 68 out of 68:

  1. scaddenp writes:  Take a city of 100,000 and you might have schools/uni, hospital, court/police, and a collection of industries and services. All the things needed to service 100,000 people. Now you want to spread the actual people for those over a very big area - an area big enough for 100,000.

    The social response to transportation polution is to live near what you do to provide for yourself.  If this is farming and gardening, walk to your fields.  If this is working at a factory building computers, walk or bike to your facility.  In the case of oncology treatment, this is not something you need on a regular basis, therefore justifying the extra transportation.  

    Our transportation patterns have been created by the options of cheap fuel and no charge for pollution.  It does not have to be that way.  If we charged an escalating carbon tax to eventually wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, we would self select solutions that include the small village/farm and cities scaled enough to produce specialty products.  Conservation and regeneration of environmental resilience need to be the growth sectors of the economy.  However, the products that encourage more carbon burning, say cars and airliners, need to be a contracting part of the economy. The Internet provides an alternative to transportation for staying in touch with your culture.  Although, with an economy more sensitized to environmental impact, the human adaptiveness (I will claim this as human nature) will create many more diverse solution than the current dominant culture.  

    Eli 

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  2. Michael Sweet, you might want to read Bill Mollison's book Introduction to Permaculture and Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements.

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  3. #51 Eli — Thanks! I was about to make just that comment about the Carbon Tax.

    The same principal can manage other sustainability matters, like our carnivorous proclivities, love of Cuban cigars & Honduran coffee, and so forth. (Note that the first “e.g.” is a far bigger issue than the latter two.)

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  4. Eli, most household need 2 workplaces within working distance and schools as well. This is far easier with dense cities. I agree with idea of carbon tax. I think the result would be more compact cities, with multiple hubs to reduce transportation costs.

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  5. villabolo - I scanned Bill Mollison's book but I could not find support for your claims. While self-sufficient communities are mentioned, no labor cost is estimated for such an enterprise. Elsewhere, he talking largely about a gardening philosphy and suggesting no more time spent that what is personally considered recreation - a far cry from needs of self-sufficiency. He also notes that productivity per hour of labour is high but output much lower than commercial orchard say. 

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  6. scaddenp @54, and eli @51,  I also agree on the carbon price (leaving open whether it is implimented by a Carbon Tax of emissions trading), and also agree with scaddenp that it would push towards denser cities.  I hope those denser cities are designed as urban villages, where a high density housing block is incorporated within the same building complex with schools, shops and light industry so that for a high proportion of those resident, there employment will be in the same building complex and hence in easy walking distance.  This has the added advantage of repeated social contacts within the housing complex, building up a sense of community and thereby restricting crime.  I would further hope the urban planners and/or developers have the good sense to surround such urban villages with small greenbelts.  A purely concrete jungle is a thoroughly depressing prospect.

    Although I call such developments urban villages, to be practical they would need the population of small towns (around 2-3 thousand people) rather than that of a village (100-1000 people).

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  7. Tom, fortunately this seems to be a trend, even in China. Not hard to find some interesting examples. Friends who lived in Helsinki for a few years commented on how well their living arrangements worked - 3-4 storey apartment blocks surrounded by garden/wood arranged around retail/school hub.

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  8. scaddenp

    I only put "analysis" in quotes because it was a link.  I'm not qualified to comment on your calculations!

    Regarding ammonia, you should explore further.  It was used by a Belgian bus company for their buses during the Second World War when the Germans confiscated their petrol.  It was tested by the US as a fuel for a helicopter and a small transport aircraft.  Its protagonists reckon it can be used in jet airliners.  It is not as efficient as fossil fuel; aircraft range and payload are reduced, but at least it works.  The most important point is that, if you have a renewable source of electricity (hydro, solar, wind), you can manufacture ammonia without carbon emissions.  What I don't know is how feasible this is on a large scale.

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  9. The Belgium bus ammonia was FF derived however. While it can be done from carbon-free power sources, you have the expensive process of splitting water for the hydrogen. Possibly a way to keep us flying but not as efficient as electric for vehicles. I believe NH3 is more efficient in a jet engine than in an IC engine but I struggled to find good numbers on that. I could only find one example of commercial ammonia plant (Vermork) using FF-free process and it ceased in 1971.

    It looks it could keep you flying but at a high price.

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  10. Well, it's a case of using ammonia and paying a high price to keep flying or using fossil fuel and paying a low price in the short term and a far higher price in the long term!

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  11. Ammonia is just one potential synthetic fuel. Pretty much any synfuel generated from renewable energy can be carbon neutral, whether ammonia, kerosene, methanol, etc. As long as the carbon (if any) in the synfuel comes from atmospheric, plant, or (much easier from an energy/availability standpoint) ocean water sources, it's just cycling around and not adding additional carbon to the biosphere. 

    There is ongoing US Navy research on generating synthetic jet fuel from seawater - they estimate costs of $3 to $6 per gallon, powered by carrier nuclear plants. This would greatly extend possible time at sea, as jjet fuel represents a limiting consumable for long carrier missions. 

    There are multiple possibilities for cars - improved batteries, fuel cells, etc. - but IMO long term aircraft will depend on synfuels simply due to the required energy density. 

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  12. "IMO long term aircraft will depend on synfuels simply due to the required energy density"

    I tend to agree with that. Especially as the trend is toward larger aircrafts carrying more people, i.e. tighter weight constraints in the engineering and design. Furthermore, synfuels similar to kerosene/diesel are easier to obtain than those similar to gasoline.

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  13. scaddenp wrote at 05:55 AM on 23 October, 2015
    Eli, most household need 2 workplaces within working distance and schools as well. This is far easier with dense cities. I agree with idea of carbon tax. I think the result would be more compact cities, with multiple hubs to reduce transportation costs.

    I will question the need to have two working spouses for every household.  Yes, in our current urban environment where we provide for almost all our needs with money and we are sold to desire so much, 2 full time working spouses has become common.  However, imagine support for reducing your need for resources where our desire for stuff is tempered, such that our work for money is reduced.  If we had sufficient support for public transportation, urban and rural such that we could let go of our car would be an example of reducing income needs.  Also, owning simple net zero house or condominiums that are comfortable and durable is another reduction of need.  With a stable population, we can build durable shelters that could be used for multiple generations.  We must challenge the myth that we must continually grow the economy where all our needs are delivered by other paid people.  With less demand for money, we can have more time self directing our energy into ways of reducing our need for resources.  Sewing, gardening, carpentry are examples of things we can do for ourselves to reduce our need for money.  We need a contracting economy.  Theoretically, if we all worked half time for half the income, we would have more time to spend of activities that reduce our need for money.  This may not be less work.  However, it would allow a reduction of half the size of the economy and still achieve full employment.  As I said earlier.  There is no one way for all of us.  Stability is in diversity.  Some can work full time or even overtime for limited periods with extended periods of self directed work to achieve your needs directly and bonding with your family and community.  This reduced need for money translates to reduced time use for commuting and the need to burn fossil fuels for transportation.  We need to see this model to find a path for transitioning from our current high carbon lifestyle.  

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  14. #63 Eli — Thanks, again. An excellent case can be made for a future in which only one person in a nuclear family need travel away from home premises for work. (In my nuclear family, that worker has been the wife & mother, as well as yours truly, husband & father… altho this had more to do with vagaries of the economy and employment market than any idealism on our part.) More specifically, “There is no one way for all of us. Stability is in diversity.” Right on target.

    One can readily picture multi-generational families in one “Dwelling Unit” and even situations in which “Dwelling Unit” needs serious redefinition.

    My wife & I have lived in Latin America, where it is common practice for single young adults to live with their parents until marriage. (Engagements tend to be unconsionably long.) And the Old Testament dictum, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Genesis 2:24 suggests it might have been difficult, back when that verse was written, for a man to be up to cleaving unto his wife with his (or her) parents in oh-so-close proximity. But it is quite practicable, if the Dwelling Unit is appropriate. For a number of years, we had not only my wife’s widowed mother living with us, but also the widowed mother of her first husband (who once said, “Poor David! Only one wife but two mothers-in-law!”).

    People are amazingly inventive and adaptable, especially when it comes to getting thru adversity and taking advantage of opportunity.

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  15. #61 KR

    The essential message is that, whether it's ammonia or some other synthetic fuel, it is possible to manufacture and burn a fuel for aircraft that does not entail any carbon emissions.  So why aren't we?

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  16. Digby Scorgie - Short answer(s): money and infrastructure. Right now fossil fuels are cheaper and there is a supply and distribution network for them. Change won't happen on a large scale until there are economic reasons for it. 

    Case in point: Swift Fuels has developed alternative aviation gas, not to mention jet fuels, that are derived from either plant or fossil fuel feedstocks. The reason this is actually going to market is that general aviation fuel consists of 100LL, that is 'low-lead', as the 50-60 year old piston engine designs on use by GA require leaded fuel. That's an ecological nasty, and there's considerable pressure to phase the really small 100LL market out entirely - but the GA fleet will need _something_ to fly with, so Swift Fuels has an economic opportunity. 

    I suspect that carbon taxes and to some extent regulations that increase the cost of fossil fuels commensurate with their actual costs to the environment and health would rapidly drive a change-over to renewable synfuels for all aviation and for much of the transportation market. But until it's economically advantageous to do so, it's going to be difficult to reduce transportation use of fossil fuels. 

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  17. #66 KR

    My question was partly rhetorical (!), but you're right, it comes down to money and infrastructure.  Something like a carbon tax has to make fossil fuel expensive enough to result in its phase-out.  However, I can't help thinking this is like dividing by zero: for fossil-fuel production to tend to zero, the tax has to tend to infinity.  A sure-fire way of achieving decarbonization is to require fossil-fuel producers to cut their production by a mandated amount every year for a mandated period.  But I can't see that happening.

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  18. Any rational discussion of what will happen in the future nneds to take into account how industrialized civilization actually operates. Technological systems irreversibly use limited natural material resources to provide the goods and services society has become so dependent on. These systems also produce irrevocable wastes, including those that have contributed to irreversible rapid climate disruption and ocean acidification and warming. These technolgical systems age despite the use of natural resources for maintenance. Their operation is an unsustainable process. But most of society will find hard to survive as many of the services, including the contibution to food production and supply of potable water, decline rapidly in the decades ahead.

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