Saturday, April 18, 2015

My Thoughts on the "Ecomodernist Manifesto"

I don't really dispute the basic gist of this, but I feel that there is little this piece has to offer except evoke the ire of environmentalists. As provocative as this purports to be, I don't think even most strident environmentalists will disagree much with specific points about how much progress humanity has made as much as with the tone (and some solutions). I don't ascribe to a short-term Malthusian view of society (even with unabated climate change), but I still find the outlook too optimistic. 

"Urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination are all processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment, allowing more room for non-human species. Suburbanization, low-yield farming, and many forms of renewable energy production, in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature."

Well, these are certainly to a great extent. But none of these are without significant tradeoffs. I'm not going to quibble too much with the point about urbanization, but even as an anti-NIMBY, I realize that there are still plenty of local problems with high density (local pollution, congestion, space) that may not always offset efficiency benefits. Agricultural intensification has led to greater short-term land use efficiency but also soil degradation (although there is more low/no-till farming now), higher chemical use, greater localized impacts (which they do mention), and generally more waste. While I certainly appreciate the benefits of modern agriculture and don't think we should be moving towards pesticide-free organic farming, as with urban density the choice is not always clear-cut where to draw the line. Aquaculture has its benefits but is not without significant costs to nearby local communities, and is not necessarily preferable to well-managed wild fishing. Of course, we need fish farming if we are to have any seafood in our diets, but the risks are still important to consider.

Nuclear is can be relatively land friendly, but it is more polluting than non-combustion renewables. Even without fanatical opposition, nuclear power is an expensive solution. France has successfully transformed its electricity grid, but there is little reason to think that even a full embrace of nuclear will lead to a global dominance in the energy mix.  The authors really don't like biomass, but I it can be a of the energy mix as it is quite clear that sustainable forestry is quite feasible (plus we can get a small amount from current waste). Wind is dismissed by many of the authors in other writings due to its land footprint, bird deaths, and intermittency. At reasonably low (and growing) levels of penetration, wind is quite competitive with any power generation source, and offshore wind can approach a 50% average capacity factor. The ground footprint of wind is quite small and unlike nuclear, it can be put directly in the middle of productive agricultural land. Nuclear power itself is not without its generation problems as it is very possible for there to be significant overproduction at night due to the difficulties (and more importantly the economics) of fast-ramping electricity supply. The manifesto implies that nuclear fusion will play a significant role in the future of energy, but there is little reason to believe that fusion will be found physically practical within the next century, if ever.

Desalination will always be highly energy intensive (although it will become better) and should not be employed unless there is no other economical choice (including severe drought surcharges). There are plenty of options (including wastewater reuse) that should be employed before desalination. It might make sense to employ desalination. in an extreme coastal desert (like Israel and Australia), but it is rather questionable to imply that environmentalists are destroying the planet by fighting large-scale projects in places like California. 

Generally, I think this is was too technologically optimistic and too dismissive of markets. This is the only mention of prices:"The long arc of human transformation of natural environments through technologies began well before there existed anything resembling a market or a price signal." I'm not an economic historian, but I believe that the very first instance of trade among individuals involved something "resembling a price signal." Markets are a big reason the environment is at its current state, for better and worse. Technology can certainly help use resources more efficiently, but it will not be the sole or even likely the primary driver of conservation. We need real price signals as well as activist pressure in some cases to help prevent deforestation, slow resource consumption, prevent groundwater overdraft, mitigate climate change, and more. Nuclear energy will not be economically viable in a free market dismissive of externalities, and CCS will have no future without a strong carbon tax. The authors state that "technological process is not inevitable," but they never really consider possible solutions to environmental problems if technology alone is not sufficient. 

It is also not enough to say that decoupling economic growth from environmental impact is critical without explicitly mentioning that targeting gains in GDP makes this near impossible. We need to move as a society away from materialism or environmental devastation will get much, much worse. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, everyone will have the opportunity to live in the comfort of a modern city, but it will not be sustainable if western (and not just American) materialism is the norm. And unfortunately it looks like China is emulating some of the worst of our habits. 

I think that the authors tread too closely to the environmental perspective of Bjorn Lomborg. If you subscribe to ecomodernism as it is described in the manifesto, then it seems your only major policy priorities are greatly increased R&D funding and reducing hurdles to nuclear and coal-gas fuel switching. The rest is just hoping for a breakthrough that will transform the energy sector forever. I a big believe in technological progress and human ingenuity, and I am sure that we will make great strides in the coming generation with respect to health, efficiency, safety, and comfort. But we cannot progress optimally as a society without making tough policy trade-offs on problems that have no easy answer.  

For example, should we be building more coal plants as fast as possible to expand access to electricity in Africa and India now, realizing that the short term potential gains to indoor health, sanitation, and health will be immense? Or should we put off economic development to a degree, realizing that it is becoming more and more likely that a much cleaner combination of natural gas (fossil and renewable) and renewable power may be more economic in the not-too-distant future? And how aggressively should nuclear be pursued in countries that don't have the expertise or even the government stability of already-skittish first-world countries, realizing that despite immense benefits, the more marginal the area of implementation, the more fat-tailed the risk? I have no idea and I doubt the very best models can come close to answering these questions. Ecomodernists rightly criticize environmentalists for ignoring tradeoffs, but they are loathe to admit that their preferred solutions are not guaranteed to work either.

So basically, technology is likely to be a great boon to human progress, but the costs and specifically the environmental impact of future technology is greatly unknown, and will be immensely dependent on the direction the world goes in politically, economically, and culturally. We need to view technology as a tool, not a savior as is argued by "ecomodernists" nor an enemy as seen by some environmentalists. We will not always agree on the best path forward, but both sides should strive to make life better for humanity in a way that will leave room for future generations and preserve the beauty of nature.

No comments:

Post a Comment