Monday, February 16, 2015

Chillin' with Eco-Modernism

I worry about Climate Change. A lot. So when I came across a paper titled "Some Ways to Lessen Worries about Climate Change," it caught my eye. The author, Jesse Ausubel, a research director at Rockefeller University, was a college classmate (I barely knew him), but that wasn't the point. His essay, dating from 2000, debunks much of what is now taken as baseline truth in climate science, and presents a point of view that has ramified and developed over the last 2 decades, and has acquired an inspiring movement identity: eco-modernism.

Though the first essay I saw is now 15 years old, Ausubel has hardly recanted, but steadily intensified his polemic. And he has company. The Breakthrough Institute, founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, gathers a large team of writers and researchers under its umbrella, and its flagship journal offers an array of literate, carefully argued essays. Last year the Institute gave Ausubel its Paradigm Award for his many years contesting the "classical environmental narrative."

The eco-modernist narrative contains many chapters but at its heart is relentless, unapologetic techno-positivism. Its proponents advance the idea of the 'good anthropocene': on the one hand pointing out that homo sapiens has been an eco-degrader of immense scale since human hunters first extinguished many of the large mammal species they pursued. On the other, more sophisticated science in our age can lead in restoring nature and its wilds, containing the imprint of humans on the earth, and developing more sustainable technologies, not the traditional pre-modern ones but radically new and potent ones, beginning with 'clean,' high-density nuclear power.

What are some implications of eco-modernism for the Climate Change movement? I will defer a closer analysis to a second post, but the essential term is 'de-carbonization,' understood as a natural evolutionary tendency in human practice, driven by market efficiencies. From wood to coal to oil, now to methane (or natural gas), and eventually to what Ausubel calls the "nuclear millenium," we anthropocenes will find our way, without further prompting, from carbon-based to uranium- and hydrogen-based energy production. Meanwhile, concentration of fossil-based electrical production in mega-plants--eco-modernism picks no fights with existing extraction industries, and presumes that coal and oil will run their course--will facilitate carbon capture--an essential ingredient in the 'no worries' logic the movement exudes. We may--no, we will get to 450 or even 500 Carbon ppm before this new age of clean nuclear energy dawns, but ... no worries.

Still somehow as I immerse myself in the often quite brilliant literature of this clan of scientists, I find myself worrying all the more. In my next post I'll try to say more specifically what it is that worries me about the seductions of eco-modernism.

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