Friday, February 20, 2015

The Eco-modernist Challenge (part 2)

As noted in my previous post, I have just started to delve into a provocative literature that is gathered under titles such as 'eco-modernism' or the 'good anthropocene,' and is supported by the Breakthrough Institute, among others. The arguments put forward about Climate Change and the policies that would address it pose a significant challenge, since the eco-modernists present themselves as adversaries of the whole traditional environmentalist 'narrative' that leads to stabilized or sustainable or limited growth, reduced energy consumption, dependence on carbon-free energy sources such as solar, wind, or hydro, and --crucially--opposes nuclear power on other grounds. What are some of the main lines of argument?

  • E-M-ism is techno-optimistic. The symptomatic phrase "lessen worry" in Jesse Ausubel's liminal essay runs directly counter to the tone of urgency that informs movements such as Solutions will be found in technologies such a carbon capture, hydrogen conversion, nuclear power, by a process of 'decarbonization' that is described as 'evolutionary,' that is, operating by its own laws of motion to reduce the carbon content of the energy humans use.
  • E-M-ism is market-friendly. The decarbonization process will allow vast corporate and sovereign interests in coal, oil, and natural gas to run their course over most of this century while other cleaner technologies gradually become more efficient and less expensive. The externalized costs of extreme weather, adaptation to rising sea levels, and other noxious effects attributed to increased carbon levels are to some degree dismissed as scientifically uncertain. More largely, the slogan of 'leave it in the ground,' and the argument put forward by Naomi Klein that carbon reduction is incompatible with multinational corporate capitalism, is set aside by E-M-ists, who align themselves with market mechanisms and consumer choice.
  • Tolerance for carbon levels of 450-500 ppm: Ausubel casually acknowledges that the unforced decarbonization process will bring us to such levels before the conversions and capture he sees in our future will have taken hold. The arguments that such increased carbon levels will in themselves be intolerable are set aside with the nostrum that comparable increases (280 to 360 ppm) have occurred with "no discernible harm." As we reach 400 ppm one wonders whether that dismissal can still hold. Furthermore the frightening prospect that increased global temperatures at some point induce an irreversible feed-back mechanism of further carbon release, greatly accelerating the carbonization of the atmosphere, is not addressed in this leisurely timetable of evolutionary decarbonization. 
  • Rejection of renewables such as solar, wind, and hydro: Ausubel's main argument is one of scale, claiming that the low-density of such technologies would entail impossible quantities of dedicated land-use to replace current levels of fossil-fueled energy. Again, experiments in scale, particularly solar, have multiplied in the past 15 years, and solar capture has improved. Is the density argument still valid? And does it apply to sea-based wind farms, or to decentralized land-based ones, or highly decentralized use of solar panels, which are becoming more feasible?
  • Nuclear power appears as an ultimate solution not just in Ausubel's work but more generally, as in Martin Lewis's influential essay "The Education of an Ecomodernist," which ends with the exhortation to "split atoms, not wood." But the dangers of nuclear, both ecological and geopolitical, need to be addressed, as well as issues of cost, before this conveniently high-density, carbonless solution can be treated as the silver bullet E-M-ists regard it as. (Joe Romm's rebuttal of a NYTimes article rehearsing Ausubel's arguments is a useful brief on this point.)
Is Eco-Modernism a welcome reframing of the Climate Change debate? Inasmuch as it offers gradualist, capital-compatible, and rather sweeping solutions to the problem--and thus a reprieve from the stress and hopelessness that risks to break apart any rational debate--yes, it offers a sustaining counterpoint. But only if its assumptions are as reasonable as its rhetoric. And there I have serious doubts, not just on the science, where I am out of my depth, but on the larger philosophical assumption that we 'good anthropocenes' underrate ourselves. (The collection Love Your Monsters is an interesting point of reference.)

In any case I hope to pursue these questions through this blog--and would invite rebuttal and discussion--and will be looking closely to see how the controversies between eco-modernists and more traditional environmentalists play out in the run-up to Paris 2015.

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