My View: Is Eco-Modernism The Future of 21st Century Environmentalism?

Aerial view of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear
Aerial view of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant

One of my first political memories comes from the late 1970s, marching against PG&E’s decision to build the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. Really, who could blame anyone for being a bit skeptical – it was PG&E, they put the thing near an active earthquake fault, and they built it backwards.

During the 1970s, environmentalists across the country were opposing nuclear power, but now some increasingly see it as a potential saving grace, allowing the production of significant power without the introduction of additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases into the atmosphere.

Indeed, a group of center-left thinkers who unveiled “Eco-Modernism: A Manifesto,” are burning more than one sacred cow to the ground.

As one observer put it: “This is an environmentalism that is hopeful, confident, pro-human, and pro-technology.  It is more open-ended about the future, skeptical of Malthusian doomsday claims and attitudes, and scornful of the dogmatism that hobbles the ‘mainstream’ environmental establishment today. It is also realistic about the energy needs of the developing world, and not buying the energy romanticism of the climate campaign that the world’s energy needs can be met with sunbeams, wishful thinking, and unicorn flop sweat. “

Unlike perhaps the contemporary environmentalist, they take a more hopeful view of world, noting that life expectancy over the past two centuries has increased from 30 to 70 years, with progress in reducing the impact of infectious diseases, more resiliency to weather and natural disasters, and a reduction of violence to its lowest levels per capita ever experienced.

However, “At the same time, human flourishing has taken a serious toll on natural, nonhuman environments and wildlife.” They write, “Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves? “

Their answer is that technology plays a huge role in reducing humanity’s dependence on nature.

They argue against the Malthusian doctrine, that population increases faster than the food supply, noting, “Despite frequent assertions starting in the 1970s of fundamental ‘limits to growth,’ there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future.”

However, there are still serious long-term environmental threats to human well-being. These include “anthropogenic climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. While these risks are difficult to quantify, the evidence is clear today that they could cause significant risk of catastrophic impacts on societies and ecosystems. Even gradual, non-catastrophic outcomes associated with these threats are likely to result in significant human and economic costs as well as rising ecological losses.”

Against the Malthusian doctrine they argue, “The growth rate of the human population has already peaked. Today’s population growth rate is one percent per year, down from its high point of 2.1 percent in the 1970s. “

They continue: “Fertility rates in countries containing more than half of the global population are now below replacement level. Population growth today is primarily driven by longer life spans and lower infant mortality, not by rising fertility rates. Given current trends, it is very possible that the size of the human population will peak this century and then start to decline. “

They argue, “Humanity’s goal should be to use resources more productively. For example, increasing agricultural yields can reduce the conversion of forests and grasslands to farms. Humans should seek to liberate the environment from the economy.”

They see, “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.”

One of their core arguments is, “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.”

While solar has potential, they argue, “High-efficiency solar cells produced from earth-abundant materials are an exception and have the potential to provide many tens of terawatts on a few percent of the Earth’s surface. Present-day solar technologies will require substantial innovation to meet this standard and the development of cheap energy storage technologies that are capable of dealing with highly variable energy generation at large scales.”

Instead, they argue that nuclear fission “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. However, a variety of social, economic, and institutional challenges make deployment of present-day nuclear technologies at scales necessary to achieve significant climate mitigation unlikely. A new generation of nuclear technologies that are safer and cheaper will likely be necessary for nuclear energy to meet its full potential as a critical climate mitigation technology.”

They conclude, “In the long run, next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature.”

The question is whether enough people can change their thinking to go with a new path – a middle path that at least has the potential to solve some dilemmas.

First of all, the environmental scene has long been dominated by people that might be characterized as anti-modernists. This is potentially a way forward that, instead of discarding technology and technological advances, embraces them. As such, they will not ultimately have to deal with the more pragmatic critics who see the environmental movement as a threat to “progress.”

Second, it is a humanist point of view. The environmental movement has at times had to struggle with some of the extreme consequences of a Malthusian world view. At the same time, current strategies, as the New York Times article pointed out, pits environment against development. This approach would allow the two endeavors to be fused, united, and allows the developing world to develop, not as a culprit in the environmental struggle, but as the antidote.

Progress in this view is not the enemy of humanity, it is its strength. Progress and a higher standard of living means people can move into denser cities, allowing more land to cultivated. Progress means a reduction in the fertility rate and therefore a slowdown in population growth. Progress ultimately means fewer battles over scarce resources, less violence, less disease, and less hunger.

These are realists, as well, arguing that we cannot do this with the current low-impact energy initiatives. Instead, they see a world powered by “zero-carbon energy sources” that are “power dense.” That means new technologies in solar, but also embracing nuclear fission.

Can the 1970s environmentalists embrace such a movement? Can they throw off their adherence to the Malthusian beliefs on population growth?

At the same time, if the environmental movement can take a middle path, at least in core numbers, does that mean that industry can embrace a viewpoint that climate change is anthropocentrically driven?

For me, I have viewed the green technology wave as a potential savior for the planet, while not throwing off years of economic progress. Eco-modernism may be a more concrete way to approach this dilemma. The question is, can the core of the environmental movement embrace a new way forward?  Can we and should we embrace nuclear power?  That will be long debated.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

Related posts

10 thoughts on “My View: Is Eco-Modernism The Future of 21st Century Environmentalism?”

  1. Tia Will

    Can the 1970s environmentalists embrace such a movement? Can they throw off their adherence to the Malthusian beliefs on population growth?”

    I see many references to Malthus and the obvious failure of the most dire predictions to materialize. I usually see this from someone who does not see value in population control or who takes a religious or ideologic stance against it. What I do not see is much from the”1970’s environmentalists or much adherence to Malthusian beliefs” that are frequently referenced thus making me think that this is a straw man argument being used against one very useful means of lessening need, which would be to lessen the over all human population as just one part of a comprehensive approach to ensuring a healthy environment on beyond the “foreseeable future”.

    Can someone show me some recent advancement of Malthusian beliefs by any prominent thinker today to bolster your argument that this remains a major factor in the debate.



  2. Frankly

    Count me in.  I am a Eco-Modernist.

    not buying the energy romanticism of the climate campaign that the world’s energy needs can be met with sunbeams, wishful thinking, and unicorn flop sweat.

    Love it.  It is absolutely true.

    Can someone show me some recent advancement of Malthusian beliefs by any prominent thinker today to bolster your argument that this remains a major factor in the debate.

    Are you kidding here?   His theories are the basis for much of the hard-left and environmental extremist demanded approach… to choke off access, production and supply so that fewer natural resources are consumed.  These folks are what I would call negative supply-siders.  As it relates to their environmental concerns, the impact to humanity is given short shrift because the cause is so righteous.  They tell themselves they are elite low-carbon-footprint people, or like Al Gore, they are preachers to the cause and above reproach for their pollutin’ ways.

    And then there are those anti-capitalists and anti-industrialists that are just along for the global warming bandwagon ride to push their socialist, Marxist and communist agenda.  These are the people that should be ratted out and swatted back.  Those true environmentalists that live the life that they preach are deserving of a seat at the table to design a better future. But if they don’t embrace technology and nuclear power advancement, they lose credibility and should be introduced to the group of collectivists as being much too extreme with ideas that are bad for the future.


    1. Alan Miller

      Yeah, the commie shades are pretty clear.  The otherway trend is for people to move into the country and telecommute because they can, straining roads and infrastructure.  How do you tell people they can’t do that without a totalitarian government?

      1. Tia Will


        How do you tell people they can’t do that without a totalitarian government?”

        This one is easy and I can answer it for you.People do not need totalitarianism to force others to adopt their favored lifestyle. If you have enough money, you can manage to buy up enough farming land and forest where hunting is safe,and waterfront property and turn it into housing developments and then tell the fisherman that they can no long fish off the yacht docks that used to exist for fishing boats and fishermen and that the folks who relied on game in part to feed their families that they can no longer hunt because of the proximity to the developments, and keep up this squeeze until you have completely destroyed a way of life ( namely the one I was born into). No totalitarian government needed. Just a bunch of folks who value their means of making money over an entire lifestyle. I know that there are some here that fear totalitarian government more than anything else. But I am here to tell you that the destruction of a way of life can be accomplished quite effectively by simple greed, no totalitarianism needed.

    2. Tia Will


      Are you kidding here? ” I am not kidding in the least. I hear you making this claim over and over again, and even claiming that I am part of your little fictitious local cabal. I still have to see any evidence to support this, and you, as usual, did not provide any evidence, just your claim along with the usual distortions about how someone on the left must think. And why is it that you think that only absolute purists should “have a seat at the table” ?  No room for incrementalists or those who can see the pros and cons of each approach at your table ?

  3. debra

    Then Fukishima disaster should give us all pause when considering large scale nuclear power production.  The technology is not advanced enough to provide 100% safety, yet.

    The push for the nuclear solution is almost certainly bound up in profits.

    Many technologies are thwarted in growth because of greed  or put another way, lack of significant profit for the companies that produce the technology.

    Wind and solar combinations along with personal conservation and personal individual choices in product and food consumption can sway the tide of overconsumption of energy. We are spoiled here in the West .

    The  population debate  seems to not consider the woman’s choice, nor does it consider the freedom of women to make the choice to have children.  During Malthus’s era women were little more than chattel in society. Freedom for women across the globe along with education can challenge his theories of population outgrowing food production.  We are living in a time when personal choice on a global scale can make huge differences in the way we protect our environment . It can’t be done by governments or corporations alone. The people have to decide what is important and relevant and act accordingly, globally.

    As Ghandi said…”be the change you want to see in the world. “


    CAVEAT EMPTOR!!!: Naïve: Hansen(NASA)-Somerville(SIO) -…-APS.ORG-EPRI.ORG-NEI.ORG-NRC.GOV-DOE.GOV as A/THE claimed “panacea” for mitigation of CO2- exacerbated/driven global-warming climate-change [R. Rollnick, The European(weekly), week ending 1/14/93-front-page/flip-side;         E. Savage and E. Nippies, Journal of Welding (1963-67); William B. Pearson, renowned Canadian metallurgist, University of Waterloo President-multi-decade dire warnings of generic super alloy overageing-embrittlement catastrophic-failures in nuclear power-plants]. Siegel[AIP Shock-Physics Meetings: Chicago(2011); Seattle(2013); …] carbides solid-state “physics”/ “chemistry” FIRST-EVER EXPERIMENTAL  NANO-“physics”/ “chemistry”[1968->Physica Status Solidi (a)11,45(1972); and EARLY NANO-“physics”/”chemistry” THEORY(after: Kubo(1962)-Matsubara(1960s-1970s)-Fulde (1960s); [reference: Sugano[“Microcluster-Physics”, Springer (1982)]] Siegel [(1970-1973)—> Statphys-13, Technion, Haifa, Israel(1977)-C. Kuper editor, published in Annals Israel Academy of Sciences, volume 2(1978); International Conference on Lattice-Dynamics, Paris (1977)-M. Balkanski editor, published by Flammarion (1978); International Conference on Magnetic Alloys and Oxides(“ICMAO”), Technion, Haifa, Israel (1977)-A. Hirsh and G. Barnea editors, published in Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials (JMMM) (1978); Semiconductors and Insulators 5: 39,47,62 (1979)=THREE-contiguous-papers!!!; Scripta Metallurgica 13, 913(1979)-with Takeo Matsubara!!!], following: (Alvin)Weinberg (ORNL/ANS)- (Sidney)Siegel(ORNL/ANS)-Loretto-Hargraves-Savage-Westwood-Seitz-Overhauser-… FIRST EXPERIMENTAL DISCOVERY of giant-magnetoresistance(G-GMR)[Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials(JMMM) 7,312 (1978); Google: “Ana Mayo If LEAKS ‘Could’ KILL” find The Village Voice, page 38, (August 21,1978); at search therein for “giant-magneto-resistance”, then seek first-page 312!!!] identifIED/IES GENERIC ENDEMIC EXTANT domination of old/new (so mis-called)“superalloys”: nuclear-reactors/spent-fuel-casks/refineries/jet/ missile/rocket-engines/hospital-autoclaves/ … in austenitic/FCC Fe-based (stain”less”-steels) and Ni-based (so mis-called) “super”-alloys (182/82; hastelloy-X, 600, 304/304L-stainless-steels, ANY/ALL-other: hastalloys, udimets, renes,…,690(San Onofre PWRs(“SONGS”) Mitsubishi failed (2013) new steam-generators!!!-leading to complete-“SONGS”-shutdown!!!) GENERIC ENDEMIC EXTANT detrimental (synonyms!!!): THERMAL: (THE!!!)Wigner’s-disease(WD; physics-term) [Journal of Applied-Physics 17,857(1946)]/Ostwald-ripening (chemistry-term)/spinodal-decomposition (statistical-mechanics/physics-term)/THERMAL-leading-to- MECHANICAL (TLTM)-IN-stability (nuclear-engineering term)/OVERageing-EMBRITTLEMENT(metallurgy-term)/ “sensitization”(marketing/sales-term; DECIDEDLY NOT sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya”(aka “STUCK-DREK”(auf Deutsch/Yiddish)). Carbides solid-state chemistry/statistical-mechanics/physics domination of ESPECIALLY OLD/AGED/even new: nuclear-reactors/spent-fuel-casks(example: GE/Westinghouse/DOE Hanford)/ refineries/jet/missile/rocket-engines is austenitic/ FCC Ni/Fe-based (so miscalled) “super”alloys(182/82; hastelloy-X,600,304/304L(low-carbon to mitigate Wigner’s-disease(WD)-stainless-steels, …, 690 (“SONGS”)!!!) GENERIC ENDEMIC EXTANT detrimental Wigner’s-disease(WD): Mayo[Google:<“Ana Mayo If Leaks Could Kill”>;find: The Village Voice, page 38(August 21, 1978); Siegel[Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials(JMMM)7,312(1978)=at search on “Giant-Magnoto-resistance”] <<<“Fert” [Physical Review Letters(1988)]-“Gruenberg”[Physical Review Letters (1989)] 2007-Nobel/Wolf/Japan-prizes: [1988(“Fert”) – 1978 (Siegel)] = 10-years = 1 decade precedence!!!] necessitating U.S.-NRC inspections on 40+25=65 Westinghouse PWRs(12/2006); KEPCO(~12 PWRs & BWRs FORCED-outages for 3-years(~2001 – 2004); TEPCO(~17 PWRs & BWRs FORCED-outages for 3-years(~2001 – 2004)]-Lai[Metallurgical Transactions of the AIME, 9A ,827(1978)=Figure 2.y-axis!!!]-Sabol-Stickler[Physica Status Solidi 35, 11(1969); @ Westinghouse!!!]-Ashpahani[International Conference on Hydrogen in Metals, Paris(1977);…]-Russell[Progress in Materials Science 28, 3–4, 229(1984)]- Pollard [last Union of Concerned-Scientists report(9/1995)]-Lofaro [BNL/DOE/NRC Reports; 19th Light-Water Reactor Safety-Conference(1992); summarized in Failure-Analysis (1993)]-Pringle[“Nuclear-Power: FROM Physics TO POLITICS, Macmillan(1979)]-Hoffman [<>], what DOE/NRC MISlabels as “butt-welds” “stress-corrosion cracking” endpoint’s ROOT-CAUSE ULTIMATE-ORIGIN is WD overageing-embrittlement caused brittle-fracture cracking from early/ongoing AEC/DOE-n”u”tional-la”v”atories GRU(?) sabotage!!! Given the choice between global-warming versus nuclear-reactor power-plant “incidents”/ “accidents” WAITING-TO-HAPPEN(example: Davis-Besse(PWR-OH.) , Oconee(PWI-SC,),…,TMI, Chernobyl,… [< Fugun, Tsuruga, Hamaoka, Onagawa, Tokai, Obama(Japan) KEPCO(~12 PWRs & BWRs forced-outages for some 3-years: ~2002-2004, TEPCO(~17 PWRs & BWRs forced-outages for some 3-years: ~2002-2004), Monju/Clinch-River LMFBR(December 12 1996); PREDICTED by Siegel in 1973-1977 abstract of Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic Materials 7, 312 (1978); online: ) liquid-metal fast breeder-reactor (LMFBR)…Fukashima-Daichi, the choice between tootsies getting wet with rising-oceans seawater VERSUS nuclear-“incidents”/”accidents” WAITING-TO-HAPPEN!!! Can/WILL…[-Myhrvold- Windows-8 horror!!!] “new” nuclear-reactor power-plants be better??? Time will tell!!! THEIR “PROOF” IS IN THEIR PUDDING/AND YOUR/OUR WALLETS!!!” Until then “TRUST BUT VERIFY!!!”; “CAVEAT EMPTOR!!!”!!!.

    (619) 501-1200

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for