Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ecomodernism and Degrowth: Part II Future Scenarios

In my last post I introduced readers to both the Ecomodernist and Degrowth movements. Both movements look to provide a roadmap to get humanity off its current ecological/climate change path and on to one that is more sustainable. The Ecomodernists see a world where we seek continued economic and social growth conducted in a manner intended to de-couple human activities from environmental destruction while the Degrowthers seek to stop economic growth and return to a harmonious co-existence with nature (ref). As I discussed in my previous post, based on my reading of the literature, the critical difference between the two movements is their vision of humanity. To my best understanding, the Ecomodernists view the world from a more libertarian lens [author's note: it has been pointed out that I am wrong in this in that Ecomodernism is completely compatible with social democratic government]. Their plan acknowledges that humans are the products of our evolutionary and genetic heritage and that changing human nature is not going to happen soon. Thus their approach allows for this by encouraging green-growth and de-coupling that growth from the environment through improvements in technologies. Degrowthers view a future through a more socialist lens and believe that we can grow to be better than our evolutionary and genetic heritage. As any reader of my blog knows, I am a pragmatist and as such I do not believe that we can ignore the lessons of history and those lessons are clear. Every society that has attempted to implement a socialist worldview has failed in that quest. In every case, the reason has been that egalitarianism ignores the fact that once an embryo starts undergoing cell division we start becoming less equal, and by the time our genetics combine with our varied upbringings all ideas of egalitarianism go out the window. Most importantly, parents have a genetic predisposition to aid kin first, community or social grouping second and strangers last. Given a choice between kin and stranger humans will almost always choose kin.

An Ecomodernist Tomorrow
Form my reading I understand that in a future Ecomodernist world, life would be very similar to life in the cities today. Humans would live more densely packed than is the current norm but would otherwise have lives very similar to those lived in a modern New York, Tokyo or Boston. There would be universities, high-tech hospitals, manufacturing and modern services. Power would be supplied by some combination of solar, geothermal, wind and run-of-the-river hydro and supplemented, when necessary, by a major expansion of nuclear energy. The biggest change would be the reduction/elimination of the suburbs. Suburban lifestyles, with large yards and large distances between houses would no longer be feasible. Instead the areas currently dedicated to suburbia would be allocated to greenhouses and food production. Resource extraction would continue but in a less destructive manner. An Ecomodernist world would still need rare earth metals, steel and aluminum, but the footprint for these facilities would be limited. By densifying our cities the energy needed to transport food and household supplies would be reduced on a per capita basis. Providing services like sewer and potable water would be simplified by reducing the number of miles of underground pipe resulting in lower per capita costs for supply and maintenance. On a personal level, an individual willing to work harder than their neighbor would still be able to excel and pass on the fruits of their hard work and excellence to their progeny. Outside of the human footprint nature would be allowed to re-establish itself in areas previously dedicated to human resource exploitation or human habitation.
The implementation of this future scenario would require the expenditure of tremendous amounts of political and financial capital and could only be accomplished following a number of major technological advances, including cheaper, more plentiful nuclear energy (thorium reactors etc..). Major investments would also be needed to improve renewable energy technologies. Suburban and rural land-owners would need to be compensated for loss of access to their lands and many outdoor wilderness activities would need to be curtailed as we decoupled the human from the non-humans parts of the planet. Huge costs would be incurred in building cities as the only way to make this vision work would be to invest in infrastructure in some of the world’s poorest countries. Moreover, those investments would necessarily be covered primarily by the richer countries. Call it climate reparations or what you will but a huge transfer of wealth would be necessary from the wealthier societies to the less wealthy societies. In the absence of such transfers the Ecomodernist scenario would fail. Investments in cities in North America and Europe, absent similar investments in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, would only result in the creation of an unsustainable two-tiered world and the continued degradation of our shared ecological and environmental heritage. Of interest to me, I have yet to read a critique of the Manifesto which considers the tremendous outlay of capital necessary to bring the lesser-developed world up to a standard where they could be part of an Ecomodernist world-view.
In summary, looking at the Ecomodernist future there are some holes in the application of the philosophy big enough to drive a supertanker through the biggest being: who will pay for what? and can we really de-couple to allow for growth without increased environmental degradation? That being said, in my mind this path represents the best future alternative because it does not call for us to completely overhaul our human nature. It provides outlets for human ingenuity and allows for a future where people can lead healthy, happy, productive lives on a healthy and ecologically productive planet.
A Degrowth Tomorrow
As I pointed out in my last post, I am not fully familiar with all the ins and outs of the Degrowth movement and I have solicited suggested readings. The most promising suggestion was Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet” which I will seek out to further educate myself. Otherwise an article in Adbusters (ref) seems to be the most cited suggestion. I have also read A Degrowth Response to An Ecomodernist Manifesto (ref), An Ecomodernist Mishmash (ref) and Life in a ‘Degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it (ref). All these articles share a similar view that we can simplify our lives by returning to an existence that is more in tune with nature. Most describe scenarios where central governments are virtually eliminated and the majority of decision-making is moved to the community level. This world-view is consistent with the worldview I described in an earlier post (Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: "Moving Back to the Land" and the 100 Mile Diet). As I wrote at that time the idea of moving to a neo-Walden and experiencing a Thoreau-like existence is not new and was discussed by one of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto: Martin Lewis in his 1992 book “Green Delusions”. In the book Dr. Lewis wrote about the new “Arcadians”. The term was used to describe environmentalists who wanted to go back to a simpler time and live off the land. The members of the “back to the land” movement who desire to live off the land (ref) have long been recognized as a subset of the greater environmental community. For those of us from British Columbia their adherents are well known on the Gulf Islands, especially Saltspring and Lasqueti. There even exists a  nongovernmental organization, The Simplicity Institute, dedicated to this cause. The Simplicity Institute literature (ref): suggests we move to small cooperatives where we would live in “small, ecologically designed houses, using locally grown timber and eventually tiled from local clay, and all built from earth.” They suggest we would all live lives as “jacks-of-all-trades most of the time” and live a simpler way of life:
“The Simpler Way of life is very productive at the level of the home economy, involving gardening, preserving, repairing, fixing, looking after animals, making furniture, toys, chicken pens and gadgets, keeping bikes going, recycling, cutting fire wood, maintaining pumps and machinery, and engaging in hobbies, arts and crafts.”
All this sounds so delightfully pastoral and beautiful. The problem is that with the exception of the “maintaining bikes” the life described is that of a sustenance farmer from the Middle Ages. For the non-history buffs out there sustenance farmers in the Middle Ages lived lives that were solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short (H/T Thomas Hobbes).
The reason our society flourishes the way it does is because of the benefits of specialization and mechanization. An agrarian town is fine until your bicycle frame breaks and cannot be fixed, the last tractor breaks an axle and the farmers are forced to farm by hand. It is unclear to me how an agrarian village is going to pay to train and equip a thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon or to be less extreme, how about a hospital with a functioning emergency room? Without the benefits of high tech who is going to build the defibrillator and who is going to insert the rod into your child’s leg when they fall off the fence and get a compound fracture? Who is going to manufacture the insulin so the type I diabetic baby doesn’t go into insulin shock and die? Who will make and distribute the vaccines when the last of the vaccinated generation dies and the measles, and whooping cough return with a vengeance? Our lives of relative safety, security and health are built upon specialized skills that can only be developed and maintained in a society with a sufficient number of taxpayers to support a service economy. Water treatment plants and sewage treatment facilities don’t build themselves and infrastructure like our water and sewer systems cannot be maintained with the free labour of a handful of “jack-of-all-trades”?
Okay I readily accept that the Simplicity Institute represents the far end of the spectrum and that advocates of Degrowth seek simply to move a much more organic and mindful existence. The problem is that given our current planetary population density any move to return to a sustenance economy, while maintaining a viable and healthy environment, does not seem possible. Consider the following extract:
The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security, with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat), is 0.5 of a hectare per person. This does not allow for any land degradation such as soil erosion, and it assumes adequate water supplies. Very few populous countries have more than an average of 0.25 of a hectare. It is realistic to suppose that the absolute minimum of arable land to support one person is a mere 0.07 of a hectare–and this assumes a largely vegetarian diet, no land degradation or water shortages, virtually no post-harvest waste, and farmers who know precisely when and how to plant, fertilize, irrigate, etc.. In India, the amount of arable land is already down to 0.2 of a hectare; in Philippines, 0.13; in Vietnam, 0.10; in Bangladesh, 0.09; in China, 0.08; and in Egypt, 0.05. By 2025 the amount is expected to fall to: India, 0.12 of a hectare; Philippines, 0.08; China, 0.06; Vietnam, 0.05; Bangladesh, 0.05; and Egypt, 0.03 (ref).
So under the Degrowth economy most of Southeast Asia and over half the world’s population live in countries where sustenance agriculture would not be possible due to population constraints. In the extract they suggest that a person can live off 0.5 hectares, using the most optimistic numbers I could find (ref) a person would need 0.44 acres to survive growing an absolute minimum number of calories to survive and assuming no famines, crop losses, insects etc.. . As of the year 2000, the US Northeast had a population of 49.6 million people who live with a population density of 359.6 people/km2 (ref). This translates to 0.69 acres per person. So under a radical Degrowth scenario there would barely be enough land to support the population of the US Eastern Seaboard with a minimal vegetarian diet. Without modern sewage treatment and water supplies the population would indeed undergo massive Degrowth as diseases and weather slowly eliminated the majority of the population. You see, under the 0.44 acre scenario, the only power would be supplied by solar panels. Solar panels will certainly supply a house in South Carolina with reliable power in summer, but the same cannot be said about those same panels in a northern winter. Consider the “Snowpocalypse of 2015” and think about how those solar panels would provide power in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record, while buried under two meters of snow?
As for nature, once you discounted the areas where humans cannot farm (bogs, lakes etc..) there would not be an unallocated acre on the Eastern Seaboard. There would be no room for growing crops for profit and more importantly there would be no room for nature of any sort. I don’t see that existence as being in harmony with nature as much as being utterly antithetical to nature.
I hate to keep harping on the topic, but the reason we live so well in this era is that we have the excess financial capacity to train, equip and pay specialists to build and run our hospitals and water treatment facilities. We pay electricians and electricity companies to ensure consistent access to power, even in the worst weather. Even in the most simple of the simplicity scenarios the citizens had access to bicycles and solar panels. Bicycles and solar panels do not grow on trees. They are manufactured in facilities that require raw materials, power and workers. In order to maintain a reasonable quality of life we would need to keep many of those facilities open and the only way to do that is to produce an excess of resources elsewhere to pay the specialists so that they too, might be able to feed and clothe their families. I do not understand where those specialists will come from in a Degrowth society.


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  2. Very good! I sent your previous post to a couple of widely read economists. If they like it it should increase your traffic.

    When I started my blog I intended it to be a forum where I wrote comments to be read by my family, so it's a bit eclectic, and jumps from this to that subject. And I can't write 1/3 as good (I think it's because I write in two languages about two-three hours a day).

    Anyway, here's a tidbit with some links to items you may find of interest:


  3. I agree with your conclusions in this post and want to add an observation.

    I picked up on two statements that will cause are currently under the radar for the general public but are discussed all the time by advocates in your introduction and description of Ecomodernist Tomorrow: “changing human nature is not going to happen soon” and “Suburban lifestyles, with large yards and large distances between houses would no longer be feasible”. While I agree with much of the ecomodernist approach I think it goes a bit too far in its expectations of human nature change while of course, as you point out, the Degrowth approach fails in that regard almost completely.

    In particular, I have done a fair bit of traveling to date across the US and Canada and in recent years have observed something that I have never seen addressed. Keeping in my mind that there are folks who despise sprawl and suburbs, I have come to the conclusion that there is some driver to human nature that makes more people than I had imagined want large yards and privacy far beyond what I consider to be suburbs. In the middle of what appears to be nowhere there always are homes that have to have been built where space to do what the owners want and privacy was a primary driver. When the time comes that lifestyle is inhibited or outlawed, I am sure there will be loud protests precisely because changing that trait in human nature is not going to happen easily or quickly.

  4. Roger,

    Privacy is easily maintained in high density environments, provided the building standards are high enough.

    I live in a suburb. All my near neighbours can see into my yard, and sometimes even my house. I certainly get to hear them easily enough.

    In a high-rise block, with concrete floors above and below, and properly spaced so each apartment does not share a common wall (being in corners, with lifts between, or voids) one cannot see nor hear a neighbour. Other high rises need not be close, and looking in can be avoided by judicious angling or special glass.

    Only when in the centre of cities like Manhattan where each building is cheek by jowl does high rise mean near neighbours. That's more a function of stinginess than anything else. Like overly packed suburbs, in fact (usually called slums)., it is a result of packing people in too close.

    It is possible to build beautiful apartment buildings which face inwards, around central gardens, and with external decks for fresh air. Although usually only done these days with hotels, it is not a technical challenge.

    And nothing makes apartments need to be small. There are plenty of people who live in 3,000 and 4,000 square foot apartments.

    Just because people don't usually live in luxury in apartments doesn't mean that needs to be the norm. We can, and should, start moving to cities, but in the same standard and size house that we adopt in the suburbs, not shoeboxes.