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The Technofix Is In

An Ecomodernist Manifesto fails to acknowledge the political forces at work in the battle over climate change, and so fails to chart a way forward

The world’s best scientists are warning that the world is warming inexorably, the oceans are becoming acidic and have turned into a “plastic soup,” and we are in the middle of the kind of mass extinction event not seen on the planet in millions of years. But don’t worry — a new breed of environmentalists has just released a manifesto declaring that, with a little faith in technology, humanity can move into a “great” new century of prosperity and universal human dignity on a thriving planet. How can this be?

NuclearPhoto by Mike, on Flickr The manifesto’s faith in technological breakthroughs means it substitutes a kind of Californian positivity for the hard reality of climate politics.

For some years the California-based Breakthrough Institute has been vigorously promoting what it claims to be a new “post-environmentalism,” one highly critical of the mainstream environment movement and no longer wedded to the verities of the past.

In a much-discussed 2004 article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” the Institute’s founders, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, argued that mainstream greens had become too professionalised and insular. Caught up in Beltway politics, Big Green failed to recognize that the American political landscape had shifted well to the right. Their messages no longer cut through, and environmentalism needed a bold new vision to inspire citizens.

So far so good. But the bold new vision turned out not to be one calling for a far-reaching shake-up, but the opposite — collaborating with the same conservatives that Shellenberger and Nordhaus said had been winning the battle.

The institute maintains a determinedly optimistic view of the world, although the bright facade frequently veils a rancor directed against other environmentalists. This rancor perhaps explains some of its baffling policy stances.

The institute frequently attacks renewable energy and energy efficiency, at times with a highly tendentious use of data. For an organization concerned about spiraling greenhouse gas emissions, it’s hard to work out why the group is so dismissive, except as a way of differentiating itself from mainstream environmentalism. Conversely, it vigorously promotes nuclear power, also deploying data and arguments in a misleading way.

Nuclear power has become an obsession for the institute, a kind of signifier by which players in the environmental debate are allocated to the “good guys” box or the “bad guys” box. In a perfect example of mimesis, the dogmatic stance of some anti-nuclear campaigners is reflected back by these pro-nuclear campaigners.

Describing themselves as “ecomodernists,” those gathered around The Breakthrough Institute are not anti-science; they are after all ecomodernists. But in order to maintain their belief in a bright new future, they must find ways to temper or reinterpret the increasingly dire warnings from the world’s scientists. The preferred strategy is to scan the world for good news stories and from them create an alternative perceptual reality. (The recently launched “Bright Spots” is a similar approach.)

And this has led them to their most audacious declaration to date: the publication, last week, of what they are calling An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a self-consciously provocative attempt to make sense of what some scientists are calling “the Anthropocene,” or the Age of Humans. In the end, however, the manifesto’s faith in technological breakthroughs means it substitutes a kind of Californian positivity for the hard reality of climate politics. As a roadmap out of our ecological and social predicaments it leads us nowhere.

But before I go any further, first some background to understand how we got here.  

Anthropocene: good or bad?

When Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term “the Anthropocene” in the year 2000, he was expressing his frustration at the inability of his fellow scientists to see that human activity has changed the Earth System, not just on its surface, but in fundamental ways. We have become so powerful, he argued, that we now rival the great forces of nature, to the point where we have disturbed the functioning of the planet as a whole.

In saying that Earth had passed out of the Holocene epoch and into the Anthropocene, Crutzen mostly expressed anxiety about the effect of carbon emissions and the unfolding catastrophe of climate change. It was global warming above all that he identified as the central process driving Earth into a new and dangerous epoch.

Yet as the scientific debate about the Anthropocene unfolded, some associated with The Breakthrough Institute began to reframe it in an unexpected way. If we live on an Earth dominated by humans, they reasoned, why not embrace our role as “the God species”? If humans have become the dominant force, why not extend our domination and turn it to the good rather than pull back?

The ecomoderns believe that human beings are not destructive creatures — and certainly not sinful ones as some greens imply — but creative, ingenious and basically well-meaning. If it is our destiny to inherit Earth, then the arrival of the Anthropocene is the fulfilment of that destiny.

One scientist close to The Breakthrough Institute, landscape ecologist Erle Ellis, began to do what no one had anticipated. He started to put the word “good” next to the word “Anthropocene.” He wrote of humanity’s transition to a higher level of planetary significance as “an amazing opportunity” and of how “we will be proud of the planet we create in the Anthropocene.”

For many, this was a jaw-dropping reframing of Anthropocene science. But for conservative environmentalists, like the influential Andrew Revkin at The New York Times, the “good Anthropocene” neatly reversed the dispiriting message of a collapsing Earth system, and so it had immediate appeal. (You can find more of Revkin’s thoughts on the Anthropocene here and here.) 

There are facts and there are interpretations put on facts, and sometimes the most robust facts cannot penetrate the defensive walls of the determined optimist. Voltaire satirized Leibniz’s belief “that good ultimately will prevail in the world” in Candide (published in 1759 and subtitled l’Optimisme). But neither the harshest facts nor the sharpest satire can dissuade those determined to declare, “Well, I’m an optimist.”

In the hands of the ecomodernists, optimism isn’t used as a torch to light the way forward, but rather as a cudgel with which to beat intellectual opponents into submission — because, especially in the United States, to be less than optimistic is to be, in a way, un-American. The ecomodernists have been trying to achieve a monopoly on optimism as a way of winning the debate about how to balance human interests with the needs of wild nature. In the end, it doesn’t work, as the relentless optimism in their manifesto comes across as detached and dreamy, and blind to the hard truths of political combat.

A new manifesto

Many were aghast that people claiming to be environmentalists could so misread the science of climate change as to append “good” to “Anthropocene.”  How can a happy future be conjured from the devastation that will be visited on millions of people by global warming, much of which is already locked in to the climate system?

Undeterred, and as if emboldened by the dismay, The Breakthrough Institute has now gone one better. An Ecomodernist Manifesto, signed by 18 “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” associated with the institute, is not satisfied with proclaiming that we can look forward to a good Anthropocene. The manifesto declares that we are entering a great Anthropocene.

What force can turn a gloomy prognosis into a golden future? The answer, of course, is technology. The manifesto’s authors are convinced that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”

For those who believe we must embrace low-emissions technology (i.e. all of us who recognize the reality of anthropogenic climate change) the manifesto is oddly selective, dismissing many large-scale renewable energy technologies (especially wind power and biomass), and taking a skeptical view of solar energy’s potential.

And so the manifesto returns to the ecomoderns’ peculiar obsession: only nuclear power can give us climate stabilization. But, the authors concede, the nuclear industry is flat on its face in most places, so we must wait for the next generation of nuclear fission (or even fusion!) plants, before which opposition will surely melt away. In the meantime, we will need to build more hydroelectric dams and construct “fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage” technology.

Here the ability to set aside science is on full display. The manifesto does not say how long we will need to wait for the next generation of nuclear plants, or how much of the global carbon budget will be used up while we cool our heels. Perhaps it might take 20 years for the first plants to be built, and 40 before they are making a large dent in global emissions. By then the planet will be, in Christine Lagard’s arresting phrase, “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled,” and there will be no way to rescue the situation.

If we must wait a long time for the solution, the standby of carbon capture and storage is almost as speculative. Even “clean coal’s” boosters accept that the technology will not be cutting global emissions significantly for two or three decades.

Those who signed the manifesto must “know” all this, so their stance can only be described as a form of denial or at least evasion, one that selectively permits certain facts through the optimo-filter while blocking or downplaying others.

Politics gone missing

The ecomoderns’ techno-fetishism is possible only because they don’t think about politics. It is true that thinking about the politics of climate change is depressing. For those who “embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future,” the easiest path is to ignore the messy world of politics and focus one’s gaze on humankind’s amazing technological achievements.

And so in the manifesto, which tells a story of how we got here and where we should go, there is no mention of the forces, national and international, that have given us rising carbon dioxide concentrations, acidifying oceans and all the rest. We look in vain to find reference to the proven power of corporations and lobbyists to stop environmental laws, or to the total victory of money politics in the United States, now entrenched after Citizens United. Exxon and organized denialism do not appear even between the lines.

For the ecomoderns, the story of the past and the story of the future revolve around one thing: “Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge.” It’s an entire historiography in which the human relationship to the natural world depends essentially on human ingenuity and entrepreneurship. It is not kings, presidents, proletarians or generals who make history — but rather scientists, inventors and engineers, and it is they who will save us.

It’s a Silicon Valley view of the world, one of heroic inventors like Steve Jobs, who disrupt the old and bring in the new to improve our lives. This position is a defense of the status quo and is the same one argued by those who have resisted all climate protection legislation that would disrupt the structure of power, not least in the coal lobby’s appeal to the pipe dream of “clean coal.”

If you believe that solving the climate change problem “is fundamentally a technological challenge,” then we are in this mess not because of the power of the fossil fuel lobby, not because of the influence of the campaign of denial, not because of money politics, not because persuading consumers to accept a price on carbon seems too hard, and not because getting international cooperation has been fraught. No, we are in this mess because technology has not evolved quickly enough to avoid it.

Yet no one involved in the climate change debate can be unaware that the technologies to sharply reduce global emissions have been available for a long time. Nor can they be unaware that for at least 15 years every study of the economics of transforming the energy economies of nations like the United States shows that the cost to GDP would extremely small. An exhaustive assessment in the latest IPCC report has been summarized like this:

Ambitious climate protection would cost only 0.06 percentage points of growth each year. This means that instead of a growth rate of about 2 percent per year, we would see a growth rate of 1.94 percent per year. Thus economic growth would merely continue at a slightly slower pace.

The roadblock to climate mitigation has never been technological. Nor has it been economic. It has been political. The ecomoderns’ claim that we must wait for new technologies to make serious mitigation possible is not merely untrue, it is irresponsible.

The technofix is in

An Ecomodernist Manifesto does not offer a new way out of the climate morass, but only a warmed-over version of the old-fashioned American technofix. Politics has gone AWOL in it. The only place politics intrudes is where the manifesto bewails social and institutional obstacles to the further spread of nuclear power. So it is the greens who bring politics to the climate debate! This is not an accidental slip, for The Breakthrough Institute gives the impression of being motivated less by the vision of a great future on a human-regulated Earth than by animosity towards other environmentalists.

Predictably, the manifesto has been greeted with enthusiasm by various purveyors of climate science denial, like the National Review, the Fraser Institute and, in Australia, the Murdoch media’s chief promoter of climate denial and denigrator of renewables (the Australian’s Graham Lloyd.)

We cannot be held responsible for the supporters our ideas attract. Yet in pursuit of its bold new vision, The Breakthrough Institute has allied itself with some unsavory characters, like the American Enterprise Institute which has been active in promoting climate science denial and has been partly funded by Exxon and the Koch Brothers. Is this the “post-partisan politics” foreshadowed by “The Death of Environmentalism”? If so, it’s a tarnished vision and reflects The Breakthrough Institute’s self-defeating policy of cozying up to environmentalism’s natural enemies and alienating its most stalwart friends.

Disagreement within the broad coalition that is the environment movement is not only inevitable, but desirable, and that includes disputing the pros and cons of nuclear power. But one thing we all ought to agree on is the basic science of climate change, and any reasonable reading rules out a rosy view of what the Anthropocene holds in store for us. 

Clive Hamilton
Clive Hamilton is the author of Earthmasters: The dawn of the age of climate engineering (Yale University Press) and Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change (Earthscan), among other books. He is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra.

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There are some excellent rejoinders here that I have taken note of and will think hard about next time I write on ecomodernism. So thanks to all.

By Clive Hamilton on Thu, July 02, 2015 at 4:23 pm

An interesting commentary. Drawing attention to the political variables in the equation is useful, but downplaying and/or failing to fully understand the technology variables is a fatal flaw in Hamilton’s analysis here.

Resorting to name-calling and belittling of “techno-optimism” simply highlights Hamilton’s lack of understanding of the full implications of exponential technological progress. Take warning whenever someone plays the “science fiction” card in this discourse: it is invariably done only by people who do not understand where technology is headed over the course of this century. How, for example, does Hamilton expect the global economy and the human condition will change when by 2050 computers more powerful than our smartphones are the size of sand grains and cost a fraction of a penny?

This is not to say politics are unimportant. They certainly are. But the ignorant dismissal of “techno-optimism” as “science fiction” does little to serve the interests of environmental restoration. The technologies that will be available to aid decoupling and ecological remediation later this century will be as astonishing and near-magical from our current perspective as smartphones would have been to observers in the 1970s.

By No Body on Tue, April 28, 2015 at 6:59 pm

«Accumulating evidence suggests we are approaching a new take-off point of
exponential growth in technological advancement, similar in pace and scale to
the great acceleration of industrial enterprise after the Second World War and the
Internet revolution in the 1990s. Rapid innovation in robotics, nanotechnologies,
biotechnology, and digital technologies promises a “second machine age” that will
enable “abundance for all.”20 However, so far, major breakthroughs, while making
technologies cheaper and more accessible (and contributing to wealthier and
longer lives), have resulted in rebound effects whereby gains in efficiency have been
counteracted by rising resource use and environmental damage.»

By José Sousa on Sat, April 25, 2015 at 6:07 am

Thanks for a great read Clive – it’s prompted me to think about the role of strategic optimism.

Ironically though, I think you’ve neglected the politics of energy research.

First thing to note: your claim that the climate challenge “has never been technological” is directly contradicted by the latest IPCC assessment report. The IPCC reviews available literature and finds that development of “new technologies is crucial for the ability to realistically implement stringent carbon policies”;  that technology policy is “complementary” to the role of “policies aimed directly at reducing current GHG emissions” (15.6.1); and that support for energy research is most effective if it is predictable and increases steadily (15.6.3). However, public energy-related research and development (RD&D) expenditures among IEA member-states today account for only about 5% of total government R&D, compared to 11% observed in 1980 (even in absolute terms, expenditure has been declining since 2009) (IPCC, 2014, 7.12.4).

Studies showing how cheaply mitigation could be achieved are themselves ignoring politics – they describe a fantasy world in which ideal economic policy is implemented. One of these fantasy policies is an increased rate of investment in research, development and deployment of low-emissions technologies. Ross Garnaut, for example, proposed an annual $100bn global “Low Emissions Technology Commitment.” So it’s true that we could mitigate cheaply - but only through serious reform of technology policy.

This is a space where the global environmental movement – with its focus on divestment, and project-by-project protest etc – has been missing. Environmentalists have tended to view calls for research as an excuse for inaction; and they are correct that advocates of research are often disingenuous. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a serious need to think about how to accelerate the rate of technological progress.* While Breakthrough has done wonderful work in this space in the US context, I don’t think they’ve made global governance of innovation a priority.

So yes, I agree that climate politics is depressing. But an activist strategy that ignores the technological challenge is every bit as naïve as the manifesto’s studied optimism.


*I have a first stab at thinking through these issues in a forthcoming article:
Brook, B.W., Edney, K., Hillerbrand, R., Karlsson, R. & Symons, J. (2015) Energy research within the UNFCCC: A proposal to guard against ongoing climate-deadlock. Climate Policy, doi: 10.1080/14693062.2015.1037820

By Jonathan Symons on Fri, April 24, 2015 at 6:29 pm

By José Sousa on Fri, April 24, 2015 at 1:13 am

“a good Anthropocene.”, is what I call the end of the Unintended Anthropocene. Years from now the Geologist will mark this as starting in 1964 with the test ban treaty. After which the isotope radiological legacy, started in 1945, heads downhill.

In A great paper by Ruddiman, I’m surprised they didn’t mention the nutrient dispersal of the Megafauna.
William Ruddiman, et al;(April 3, 2015) in Science.
Scientific American

If we replicate the Ecologic Services of the extinct megafauna, since 7 billion of us & 1.5 billion cattle proxies, makes us the new Megafauna, then we could build back Soil Carbon with massive increases of Net Primary Production. An ecology not seen for 12,900 years.
An Ecology not limited by Phosphorous, Sodium & lost Soil-C.

Ten thousand years BP, the rise of Agriculture is AGW’s start date, human-affected soils around the globe, dubbed the “archaeosphere,”, first expounded on by geologist Vladimir Vernadsky, (coined the term “Biosphere”),.

The declining radiological signatures along with our new efforts to restore the biosphere by increasing NPP, drawing down CO2 into soil carbon, would be the “stratigraphically & environmentally optimal” formal designation for an
Ending of The Unintended Anthropocene.

The new “Intended Anthropocene” should not be characterizes as Geo-Engineering, But as Reverse-Agricultural-GeoEngineering, or Geo-Therapy, Putting Carbon back into the soils.

Google; “The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia”
& “Are Nutrient Limitations a Consquence of the Pleistocene Megafauna Extinctions?”

I like the description of thr Australian Megafauna researcher;
“An anachronistic landscape shaped by ghost plants”,
Yes, an argument can be made for AGW starting with the domestication of dogs some 35K BP, (according to dog DNA), for human hunting disrupting pedogenesis and nutrient spreading by the Megafauna.

CO2 must become a fungible commodity. Like oil. Oil cost more here or cost less there but the world oil price is controlled by a market. Adding the Externalized cost of oil, fossil carbons, to this market is what is needed. CO2 is that mechanism.

Cap & Trade worked for NOX & SOX, no public outcry, no financial pain, the best solutions guided by the proverbial “invisible hand” sweeping away acid rain.
Conventional policy is closing the Ozone Hole.

The invisible hand of CO2e needs to be made manifest by policy, the same for NPK, nutrients in the wrong place have social/ecological cost, in the right places high values. Carbon in the right place tremendous soil values. These now mostly “Externalized Values” for society, hydrology, ecology, soils etc. must be placed on the balance sheet.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars”, But in our policy.
A Hansen Fee & Dividend, back to the people, will power said invisible hands.

For a complete review of the current science & industry applications of Biochar please see my 2014 Soil Science Society of America Biochar presentation. How thermal conversion technologies can integrate and optimize the recycling of valuable nutrients while providing energy and building soil carbon, I believe it brings together both sides of climate beliefs.
A reconciling of both Gods’ and mans’ controlling hands.

Agricultural Geo - Engineering; Past, Present & Future
Across scientific disciplines carbons are finding new utility to solve our most vexing problems

SSSA 2014 Presentation;
“Agricultural Geo-Engineering; Past, Present & Future”.

By erich j. knight on Thu, April 23, 2015 at 5:12 pm

1.  The actual 18=person manifesto is at:

2.  I disagree with the manifesto because this statement from p 23 is misinformed (although they do protect themselves by only using the word “doubt”):
  “Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so. the scale of land use and other environmental impacts necessary to power the world on biofuels or many other renewables are such that we doubt they provide a sound pathway to a zero-carbon low-footprint future”

3.  Here the important word “so” refers to the previous sentence, which I endorse.
    “Transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing
human economy.”
  4.  I endorse this last because renewables, especially if you include biomass, can do what is required.  Not only the needed terawatts of power, but also gigatonnes of carbon negativity to get us back to 350 ppm CO2 - or less.

  5.  This sentence, using the word “only” and not including the word “doubt” is similarly misinformed: 
    “Nuclear fission today represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy.”

  6.  The arguments against renewables are also used to support a call for solar geoengineering.  Not the main subject of this article, but important to Prof. Hamilton and many reading this.

  7.  I was impressed by, and recommend others look at, the views of Andrew Revkin at the new cites provided by Prof. Hamilton.  I generally support both Revkin and Hamilton and thank both for being deeply involved in these issues.

By Ronal W Larson on Thu, April 23, 2015 at 2:33 pm

In a recent peer-reviewed paper, I analyzed the arguments of Clive Hamilton and other intellectuals sharing his views, comparing their arguments for climate action to those of the Ecomodernists.

Based on that analysis, I think Hamilton’s critique in this essay reflects two widely repeated mischaracterizations of the Ecomodernist thesis. These are the following:

1. Ecomodernists are neoliberal, techno-optimists.

There is a tendency like Hamilton does to equate Ecomodernist thinking to a blind belief in the market and technology to drive social change, a “Silicon Valley” mindset as Hamilton argues.

But Ecomodernists in fact are strongly critical of the belief that carbon pricing, venture capital, and other market based instruments can drive social change or innovation.

Instead, they argue the need for big government in the form of strategic planning and spending on research, development, and deployment.

Rather than Silicon Valley thinking, Ecomodernists are espousing Tennessee Valley Authority thinking. They advocate big government funded clean energy projects that have the ability to modernize whole regions of the world, lifting millions out of poverty, and reducing society’s environmental footprint in the process.

Techo-optimism is also a relative term, subjective in its application.

Who is more of a techno-optimist: Greens who argue that solar, wind, and efficiency are all the technologies we need to address the problem, or Ecomodernists who argue that other energy sources are required as part of our arsenal?

2. Ecomodernists don’t acknowledge the reality of climate change politics.

In this case, Hamilton faults Ecomodernists for not devoting a substantial portion of their Manifesto to the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and “deniers” to block action.

But rather than ignore politics, Ecomodernists have a different theory of politics than Hamilton.

For Ecomodernists, social change starts through critical self-reflection and challenging of our assumptions. Rather than insisting that everyone sign on to the same outlook and strategies, they argue for engaging with a diversity of viewpoints and seeking the best ideas available.

Second, they believe that by widening the options available to policymakers and publics; and by investing in technologies that reduce the costs of action, opposition will soften and the debate over uncertainty subside.

History suggests that policymakers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if options are available that allow them to meet their social development goals, than for any sacred, moral, or ideological reasons.

Politics, argue Ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons. Politics is not about getting everyone to share the same belief, or vanquishing from politics those who disagree.

By Matthew Nisbet on Thu, April 23, 2015 at 1:10 pm

This description of the ecomodernists calls to mind a rather amusing quote I once came across:
“There are fascists [or, ecomodernists] pretending to be humanitarians like cannibals on a health kick, eating only vegetarians.” —roger mcgough

These Vichy-enviros like Nordhaus and Shellenberger who trumpet the nuclear techno-fix mantra can’t even seem to do simple arithmetic, let alone be capable of grasping the more intricate concepts involved in policy, politics, and complex economic systems.  We simply don’t have the time or money, and induce too many lost-opportunity costs with nuclear for any rational person to accept nuclear as a climate “solution.”

By Dave Kraft, NEIS on Thu, April 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Fair point Andy. I hope the reference problem is now fixed with the added links.
On systems inertia: transport, energy and settlement systems can only be shifted onto a new path by disrupting political inertia.

By Clive Hamilton on Wed, April 22, 2015 at 3:43 pm

It would be nice if Clive - rather than simply self-reference his cherry-picked critique of my view on pursuit of a Good Anthropocene - would include a link to what I actually said (or at least to the clarifying conversation he and I had via Nathanael Johnson of Grist. The Good, the Bad and the Anthropocene (Age of Us) via @dotearth

As far as his assertion goes that climate change is a politics/power problem, not a technology/science problem, this creates a false dichotomy. Inertia is hardly only generated by powerful entrenched companies. It is also generated by entrenched SYSTEMS (transport, energy, settlement). One factoid: 80 percent of the buildings that will exist in NYC in 2050 exist today. Politics won’t change that.

By Andy Revkin on Wed, April 22, 2015 at 5:35 am

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