78. Ecomodernism?

Occasionally on this website I’ve criticized the way commentators and activists talk about climate change in relation to other environmental issues – the other issues are too often sidelined. I’ve also been dissatisfied with discussion of how to handle climate change itself. A little while ago, I heard on the radio some ideas that have me organizing my thinking on this issue much more than before. The radio interview was with Jonathan Symons, who works at Macquarie University in Australia (interviewed on Late Night Live, also in Australia).

The interview discussed his new book about “Ecomodernism,” a controversial (but not skeptical) response to climate change. Ecomodernists are in favor of technological innovation supported by the state, high-density living, and most controversially of all, nuclear power. I just finished reading Symons’ book – EcomodernismTechnology, Politics and the Climate Crisis (2019, Polity). It’s an excellent book. The book is about ecomodernism, and is not an unqualified defence of it. Symons himself might be said to be a partial ecomodernist, endorsing some aspects of the movement and criticizing others. I, too, find myself now a partial ecomodernist, but my departures are different from those of Symons.

I will probably write a fair bit about this in various places, now that I’ve started to work out what I think. Here I’ll begin a sketch of my views, contrasting them both to ecomodernism, unvarnished, and to Symons’ variant of the view.

First, what about the photo? It’s a Flamboyant Cuttlefish, Metasepia pfefferi. As far as I know, it has no connection at all to ecomodernism, but this is one of the animals I hoped to see, and eventually saw, in Lembeh Strait, Indonesia earlier this year. These are flamboyant animals even by cuttlefish standards. This one was pretty small, perhaps 3 centimeters long or so, though they can get a little bigger (about twice that size). They are probably toxic to some extent, though it’s not clear yet whether they are dangerous in the way that blue-ringed octopuses are dangerous. (Perhaps this gives them some relationship to ecomodernism.)

Ecomodernists claim that solving the climate problem is largely a matter of technological innovation. This seems right. Specifically, it appears that what is most needed is a new high-density energy storage medium – a synthetic fuel, or something more like a battery – generated by means of renewable energy sources. We may need several of these; we need at least something to serve in power stations that produce “dispatchable” electric power (independent of sun and wind conditions), and something to serve as a jet fuel.

Some commentators (including Al Gore) say that we already have all the technologies we need to solve the climate problem. How does this square with what I say above? We presently have all the needed technologies if people in wealthy countries are prepared to live entirely differently from how they do now, and if people in rapidly developing countries are prepared to forego ever living in this way. Neither prospect seems likely. The idea that it is only “politics” that prevents immediate wholesale adoption of renewable energy also seems unlikely when the same reluctance is seen across vastly different political systems.

I am moderately optimistic about the climate change problem, though, because I am optimistic about our prospects for inventing and deploying the necessary technologies. I say this not because I have special expertise in chemistry or physics, but because of a sense of what is likely given the history of science, and also for another reason. The solution could, in a sense, be quite an inefficient one. It could be inefficient because the energy source used to create the needed fuel will probably be solar and wind, and those resources might be diffuse, but are essentially unlimited. There is no need to worry about getting a lot of the storage medium per unit of sun or wind, as long as we get a lot of the storage medium itself at reasonable cost.

This connects to a second major point. A theme emphasized by Symons, and also (a little less) by the ecomodernists themselves, is the need for large scale state support of this technological project. Nation-states are the only entities that are large enough and able to act on the relevant time-scale; they can invest large sums of money in pursuit of medium-term and long-term gains, including non-monetary gains. If anything, on this point I out-modernize the ecomodernists, and perhaps also Symons. To me it seems clear that the investment in new energy storage media should be truly massive.

The obvious comparisons are to the Apollo and Manhattan projects undertaken by the US in the last century, especially to Apollo. According to a report to US Congress from 2009, these projects, in their peak years, absorbed about 0.4% of US GDP. (That was, at peak, 1% of Federal outlay for the Manhattan and 2.2% for the Apollo – sources and quotes are below.) In 2018 dollars, that 0.4% of US GDP would be about 76 billion dollars per year. That sounds like a size that makes things politically difficult, but I think it is not so difficult – or at least, not compared to every other option. My reasons for saying this take me to point 3.

I used US figures above, but I don’t see this as a project that the US would dominate or direct in any sense. The figures were used to illustrate scale, and the US is one country of many. Does that mean I envisage a huge international enterprise directed at this problem, perhaps coordinated by the UN? No, and this marks my biggest disagreement with Symons.

The last part of Symons’ book is about the role of international coordination, and an ambitious ideal that he refers to as “global social democracy.” Symons sees this ideal as something that differentiates him from other ecomodernists. He gives much emphasis to global justice, and efforts towards trans-national democratic decision-making. Symons and I may disagree about the enduring value of the nation-state in principle, but the point I have in mind here is more practical. I think the way out of our current problem is one with a limited role for international cooperation, not because I am against it, but because I have little faith in it, in present circumstances, and I also see it as unnecessary.

The technological advance I envisage above can align the interests of very different countries. We need it to be economically sensible for countries like India and China to switch to the new approach – renewable sources plus new forms of storage – without having to be cajoled and lectured to by other countries.

The most rapidly growing economies in the developing world are now responsible for a large and rising amount of total carbon emissions. China is first of all countries in total emissions, with the US second and India third. Rich countries still play an outsized role, but countries getting rich are playing an ever-larger one. Western societies’ Green movements, as Symons describes, are generally committed to a future of low-impact, locally based, simpler forms of living. That is how they think the problem must be handled. I doubt that this is politically achievable even in countries where Green ideologies get the most traction, places where progressives can wistfully envision moving beyond a life of high-impact bustle. It surely has even less chance in countries with newly expanding middle classes who are just starting to live in high-impact, luxurious ways.

The optimistic picture I have in mind is one where massive state investment by some country leads to the required technology, and it rapidly becomes rational for others to use it as well. There’s no reason why the country making the breakthrough should be the US, and present conditions in the US make it seem somewhat unlikely. But those earlier US projects show how the rather special kind of accounting in play can work. Part of the accounting involves national prestige, something that is irrelevant to the private sector but politically powerful in democracies. Whether or not Apollo itself was worthwhile, it shows what is politically possible at this scale.

Above is the cover of Symons’ book. When he was interviewed on the radio show where I first came across these ideas, the interviewer (Philip Adams) often had a tone of deep disageement with his guest. This, as far as I could tell, was entirely due to the most controversial part of ecomodernism, one that tends to overshadow everything else: advocacy of nuclear power.

I depart from ecomodernism on this point as well. Whether or not it would be sensible in principle, it seems fruitless to pursue large-scale expansion of nuclear power as part of the solution. The political opposition to it is so intense, and so likely to cause polarization and breakdown of discussion, that I would take it off the table for those practical reasons. Nuclear power has exactly the same downside as elaborate international cooperation: it is not feasible in the medium term. Just as “global social democracy” is unhelpfully utopian, nuclear power is unhelpfully polarizing. (Here I refer to fission reactors, not fusion technology, which may one day come good.)

Ecomodernists seem sometimes to relish the controversy around their advocacy of nuclear energy (here I do not include Symons). This seems to be related to a more general image problem. Reading work coming out of the movement, I often find myself forming a mental image of energetic slender men in Star Trek jumpsuits. I think the ideas around ecomodernism would be gaining more traction if they did not come with this image in tow, and the tone of their advocacy of nuclear power is part of that problem.

Temperamentally and aesthetically, I quite like the more familiar Green image of a simpler, lower-tech life. But climate change has become a problem for the short and medium term. It’s nonsense to talk as if the “world will end in 2030,” as some do, but this is no longer an issue to kick down the road. The form of ecomodernism I am starting to sketch here (and will continue to fill in) is designed to be practical in the short and medium term. These are ideas that can be naturally used and made vivid by centrist political parties – parties in worldwide retreat right now. These ideas give centrist progressivism a message other than the politically doomed one of self-denial and restraint. In addition to this practical side, there’s a background element in the ecomodernist worldview that I do endorse, in contrast to much mainstream Green thinking. Humans are transforming the Earth now, and before us, life of different kinds was transforming the planet for countless millennia. Attempting to opt out of the project of active transformation of the planet as far as possible is coherent, I agree, but that mindset should not enjoy any allure of “naturalness.” It makes more sense to accept that we will be directing a lot of change on the Earth, and attempt to do it well.

I have used up my Metasepia photos, but it is good to finish with a picture. Yesterday my octopus collaborator David Scheel sent me an email with the photo below. He’d seen my previous post on the mysterious Melibe. David took this photo in Alaska. In the middle is a wonderful Aeolid nudibranch, Hermissenda crassicornis, and around it are many individuals of Melibe leonina, the lion’s mane Melibe – “with hoods extended, suspension feeding in the water column. They cling to the tops of eel grass when doing this.  These lion’s mane nudis are very common some years in Prince William Sound.”



1. The most prominent organization associated with ecomodernism is the Breakthrough Institute. Their “ecomodernist manifesto” is here. One of the most vocal figures associated with the movement right now is Michael Shellenberger. He co-founded Breakthrough with Ted Nordhaus but seems to work mostly now with a different group, founded by him. Shellenberger wrote a good recent essay in Forbes about the relation between climate change and other environmental problems. Judging from his twitter feed, he is among the most relentless advocates of nuclear energy, and positively hostile to Green groups that oppose nuclear power. He also speaks out against overly apocalyptic views of the situation. That material is intriguing, though with a drought-fueled early-season bushfire burning 6 miles from where I type this, one of several sending huge clouds of stifling smoke down into children’s lungs in Sydney, I wonder if he overstating this case.

2. A passage from that report to US Congress about high-cost US programs of the 20th century.

In 2008 dollars, the cumulative cost of the Manhattan project over 5 fiscal years was approximately $22 billion; of the Apollo program over 14 fiscal years, approximately $98 billion; of post-oil shock energy R&D efforts over 35 fiscal years, $118 billion. A measure of the nation’s commitments to the programs is their relative shares of the federal outlays during the years of peak funding: for the Manhattan program, the peak year funding was 1% of federal outlays; for the Apollo program, 2.2%; and for energy technology R&D programs, 0.5%. Another measure of the commitment is their relative shares of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) during the peak years of funding: for the Manhattan project and the Apollo program, the peak year funding reached 0.4% of GDP, and for the energy technology R&D programs, 0.1%.

Above I mentioned just the Apollo and Manhattan projects; the report also discusses energy-related R&D measures after the “oil shock” of the 1970s. In some ways that is more directly relevant to the present situation, though the project is less well-known and I think the political climate at present makes the Apollo project the most comparable.

3. My figures on the CO2 emissions of different countries come from the Union of Concerned Scientists website.

4. Why do I think that solving the energy storage problem is so pivotal? What about droughts and other problems involving fresh water? What about agricultural impacts on climate? What about inundation of coastal areas due to processes already underway? In the case of water, I do think energy is still central, as sea water plus electricity yields drinking water. Desalination with renewable energy is surely a large part of the way forward. The other issues I’ll discuss another time.

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