I am a pragmatic environmentalist and an Ecomodernist and in celebration of the fourth anniversary of An Ecomodernist Manifesto I have prepared this post to present an Ecomodernist-based approach to fighting climate change while simultaneously protecting our shared global ecosystem.
Let’s start with the obvious, but apparently necessary, declaration: I believe that climate change is both real and a significant threat to the long-term ecological health of our planet. That being said, I think we need to take a long and careful look about how we have approached the fight against climate change and how we should be carrying out the fight in the future. My concern is that we have made some poor choices, to date, in the fight and if we are not careful we risk being led down a path that could have consequences almost as bad as if we simply listened to those who deny climate change is real.
I write this blog post as someone who has spent almost three decades evaluating policy options to fight climate change from both an ecological and humanist perspective. As a humanist I see the need to reduce human suffering by pulling as many humans as possible out of poverty and giving them the resources to live good and fulfilling lives. This means making more energy available for more people since quality of life is strongly correlated with easy access to energy. From an Ecological perspective, I see a planet where the mass of humanity has inexorably squeezed out nature. I see a need to turn back that tide. As humans we need to reduce our global ecological impact. We need to restore nature not just for human use but because nature has a legitimate right to thrive absent human intervention. We need to make more space for nature and give it a chance to exist outside direct human influence.
Returning to the issue of climate change; we currently live in a world where climate policies appear to be more-and-more dictated by high-school students, political operatives and unaccountable international NGOs rather than the scientists and policy experts who have spent decades studying these problems. In that context, I can state that I have never been more afraid. I’m afraid because it is becoming increasingly clear that the idea that we should proceed using defensible and rational policy has effectively become passé. We have let ourselves be convinced that any action is better than our current path and in doing so are embarking on policies that could pose a significant threat to the long-term ecological health of our planet.
Now I know this last paragraph sounds harsh, but the truth of the matter is that the climate change debate is becoming one of harsh language, overblown rhetoric and a lot of really bad science. Political activists and unaccountable NGOs are pushing their political agendas under the guise of “fighting climate change” and the result has the potential to derail the real fight against climate change. Consider the “Green New Deal” (GRD). It represents a tremendous aspirational document and yet somehow its supporters simultaneously argue that the GRD requires that the all work be done by unions. The reality is that renewable energy projects do not produce fewer megawatts per hour if they are constructed by non-unionized labour. Placing these kinds of irrelevant restrictions in the way represents the sort of thing that takes away from achieving our goals.
In addition to activists adding unnecessary requirements to projects, others are demanding unrealistic and overly expensive approaches or approaches like expanding our use of biofuels even as we have come to recognize that biofuels often make climate change worse. When policy decisions are driven by students, political operatives and activist NGOs (often staffed by individuals with no real understanding of the underlying science that forms the basis of our current society) the results can be changes that can have massive negative consequences.
To understand what I mean by well-meaning activists look at the proposals of the 100% wind, water and sunlight team at the Solutions Project. Their idea of a solution to our climate challenges is to industrialize our fragile marine foreshores with low-efficiency wave and tidal facilities while massively increasing the amount of space dedicated to harvesting low-density energy sources (i.e. wind farms and solar facilities). Marine foreshores represent significant and highly-restricted ecological niches and filling them with disruptive human technologies represents an unnecessary burden on those niches.
It is hard to talk about bad approaches to energy policy without discussing the German experience with Energiewende. It has shown that you can spend almost $500 Billion and still see almost no decrease in carbon emissions if you make the wrong choices.
We need to stop listening to dreamers who don’t understand physics or ecology. The people who demand we depend solely on low-density, diffuse power sources or revert to low-tech, high-input agricultural practices are wrong. Instead let’s look at how an Ecomodernist approaches the problem.
An Ecomodernist Take
The core of the Ecomodernist approach is to decouple human development from environmental impacts. How do they suggest humanity do that? By increasing urbanization; intensifying agriculture; expanding the use of renewable power within the context of our urban environments; and supplementing low energy-density renewables with higher energy-density renewables like geothermal and nuclear power.
Serious environmental scholars understand that the best way to preserve nature is to enhance urbanization. Urbanization means putting more people into cities where they require fewer ecological inputs, per capita, to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling existence. In urban communities we can reduce per-capita energy costs through mass transit, shorter travel distances for supplies and shared heating/cooling in energy-efficient, high-density housing. The more spread out your community, the less likely that centralized services like sewer, water and gas are possible and the more expensive the cost to maintain the services. More people in cities means fewer people in suburbs and more space for nature and non-human species.
Similarly, our aim shouldn’t be to “go back to nature” to grow our food, rather we should intensify our agriculture while limiting our farming footprint. There is simply not enough land for humans to return to subsistence agriculture. While the 100 Mile Diet sounds intuitively like it should be better for the environment, that is far from the truth. We need to grow our food where it grows most efficiently and in doing so we can use less space leaving more space for ecosystems to thrive outside of direct human influence.
Marine aquaculture is a critical consideration on this topic. Our heavy reliance on the natural bounty of the oceans is quickly depleting their ecological diversity. We need to eliminate open-ocean and drift-net fishing. If we must fish then we should rely on terminal fisheries rather than indiscriminate fisheries and we need to use everything that we take. The ecologically criminal practice of discarding bycatch simply has to stop. Moreover, we need to create more marine nature reserves where marine species can re-build marine biodiversity. This means setting aside large expanses of oceans where we simply don’t fish or otherwise exploit the oceans while identifying smaller areas where we can take advantage of the bounty of the sea through aquaculture.
Part of the de-coupling involves changing the way we generate energy. We need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and move toward electricity-based transportation and home-heating technologies. We also need to re-think how we look at renewable energy technologies.
Our current approach to wind technology has to be re-considered. Wind turbines can be differentiated by comparing the axis of orientation into two types: Horizontal Axis Wind Turbines (HAWT) and Vertical Axis Wind Turbines (VAWT). To date almost all our wind energy has been generated using HAWTs but we need to consider the advantages of VAWTs. While VAWTs tend to be smaller and individually less efficient than HAWTs, as described at Phys.org
While a single VAWT is not as energy-producing as an individual HAWT, the wind flow synergies created in a closely-spaced array of VAWTs can potentially generate up to 10 times more power per unit of land area than an array of widely-spaced HAWTs.
Moreover, because they are smaller in size VAWTs can be placed in locations where HAWTs cannot, like the medians of highways. Anyone who has walked near a roadway knows how much wind is generated by a large truck driving by. Now imagine hundreds of small VAWTs harvesting that otherwise wasted energy and pumping it back into the grid. Tests are being done around the world, and the results have been very promising. Our urban environments create massive wind corridors and VAWTs can take advantage of those conditions to generate energy.
As for solar energy, we need to re-think how we generate that as well. Our current approach of stripping huge swathes of nature to install solar panels has to be re-thought. We need to make more policy decision like the California rooftop solar mandate and ensure that new buildings don’t just use energy but generate energy. This doesn’t just mean solar panels on the roofs but fully integrating photovoltaics into our building designs. If we do decide to develop stand-alone solar power facilities, we should do so in combination with agricultural uses.
We shouldn’t stop with making our buildings energy producers; we also need to incorporate ideas like the the Vancouver Green Building plan that reduces the amount of energy need to keep a building warm in winter and cool in summer.
Now the topic where Ecomodernists always get attacked is the recognition that de-coupling human development from environmental impacts means incorporating our most effective low-carbon energy technology: nuclear power. Opponents of nuclear claim it is too expensive, will encourage nuclear weapons development and has waste issues. We all know that the reason nuclear has been so expensive is that traditionally nuclear plants were designed and built as one-off projects. Well, the Koreans and Chinese have demonstrated that by simplifying and standardizing nuclear design we can avoid most of the cost challenges in building nuclear reactors. As for nuclear proliferation, if Canada wanted the bomb we would already have it. As for China, the US, India, the UK, France and Russia? they already have the bomb. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure a new nuclear plant in Alberta won’t be the deciding factor as to whether Canada decides to become a nuclear weapons state. Finally, the waste argument is simply a red herring. Nuclear energy produces much less waste than solar or wind facilities (per MWh produced) and as for the spent uranium, the Generation IV reactors will be turning that “waste” into the next generation’s electricity.
To conclude let me take a couple lines directly from the Manifesto:
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…..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.