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