WEDNESDAY, JUNE 7, 2017
Charles Dawkins, Professor Emeritus, Sustainability Science, Kundop University
TOPICS: FOR A GOOD ANTHROPOCENE, NOW, FROM THE WIRES, WHY WAIT?
TUCSON (A-P) — [Eric Lee note: As I admit, I could be wrong about everything. Finally someone who knows more than I do has offered to educate me. My gratitude is exceeded only by my willingness to share, so do read attentively.]
If you have existential concerns about humanity's future, just look at the past. It will be more of the same, which is to say more and better. It's called evolution. The nineteen scientists, scholars and academics who wrote An Ecomodernist Manifesto know enough to have an opinion, and uncounted more of our best educated and brightest agree with them. Listen to them even if you don't have time to read all their books. They wish us all to have a good Anthropocene because we can, so don't listen to nay-saying eco-fascists. The majority of scientists, scholars and academics know more than the 99.9% and are smarter, or at least less delusional, than any Anthropocene non-enthusiast (e.g. Ted Kaczynski) you can name.
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. To the degree to which there are fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant.
Human civilization can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion. With proper management, humans are at no risk of lacking sufficient agricultural land for food. Given plentiful land and unlimited energy, substitutes for other material inputs to human well-being can easily be found if those inputs become scarce or expensive.
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. 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.
For the first time in human history, over half the global population lives in cities. By 2050, 70 percent are expected to dwell in cities, a number that could rise to 80 percent or more by the century’s end. Cities are characterized by both dense populations and low fertility rates.
Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts. As human lives have been liberated from hard agricultural labor, enormous human resources have been freed up for other endeavors. Cities, as people know them today, could not exist without radical changes in farming. In contrast, modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy.
The average per-capita use of land today is vastly lower than it was 5,000 years ago, despite the fact that modern people enjoy a far richer diet. Thanks to technological improvements in agriculture, during the half-century starting in the mid-1960s, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed for the average person declined by one-half.
Agricultural intensification, along with the move away from the use of wood as fuel, has allowed many parts of the world to experience net reforestation. About 80 percent of New England is today forested, compared with about 50 percent at the end of the 19th century. Over the past 20 years, the amount of land dedicated to production forest worldwide declined by 50 million hectares, an area the size of France. The amount of water needed for the average diet has declined by nearly 25 percent over the past half-century. Nitrogen pollution continues to cause eutrophication and large dead zones in places like the Gulf of Mexico. While the total amount of nitrogen pollution is rising, the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations. “ Taken together, these trends mean that the total human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century. By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.
Consider that a population of no more than one or two million North Americans hunted most of the continent’s large mammals into extinction in the late Pleistocene, while burning and clearing forests across the continent in the process. Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution. The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs supported much lower living standards with much higher per-capita impacts on the environment. Absent a massive human die-off, any large-scale attempt at recoupling human societies to nature would result in an unmitigated ecological and human disaster.
Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food hunt mammal species to local extirpation. Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature. Conversely, modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.
Decoupling human well-being from the destruction of nature requires the conscious acceleration of emergent decoupling processes. In some cases, the objective is the development of technological substitutes. Reducing deforestation and indoor air pollution requires the substitution of wood and charcoal with modern energy. In other cases, 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.
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.
Plentiful access to modern energy is an essential prerequisite for human development and for decoupling development from nature. The availability of inexpensive energy allows poor people around the world to stop using forests for fuel. It allows humans to grow more food on less land, thanks to energy-heavy inputs such as fertilizer and tractors. Energy allows humans to recycle waste water and desalinate sea water in order to spare rivers and aquifers. It allows humans to cheaply recycle metal and plastic rather than to mine and refine these minerals. Looking forward, modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warming.
In developing countries, rising energy consumption is tightly correlated with rising incomes and improving living standards. Although the use of many other material resource inputs such as nitrogen, timber, and land are beginning to peak, the centrality of energy in human development and its many uses as a substitute for material and human resources suggest that energy consumption will continue to rise through much if not all of the 21st century.
For that reason, any conflict between climate mitigation and the continuing development process through which billions of people around the world are achieving modern living standards will continue to be resolved resoundingly in favor of the latter. Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world's people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. For millions living without light and forced to burn dung to cook their food, electricity and modern fuels, no matter the source, offer a pathway to a better life, even as they also bring new environmental challenges. Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation. 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.
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. During the transition, other energy technologies can provide important social and environmental benefits. Hydroelectric dams, for example, may be a cheap source of low-carbon power for poor nations even though their land and water footprint is relatively large. Fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage can likewise provide substantial environmental benefits over current fossil or biomass energies.
The ethical and pragmatic path toward a just and sustainable global energy economy requires that human beings transition as rapidly as possible to energy sources that are cheap, clean, dense, and abundant. Such a path will require sustained public support for the development and deployment of clean energy technologies, both within nations and between them, through international collaboration and competition, and within a broader framework for global modernization and development.
Modernization has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labor, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance. Greater resource productivity associated with modern socio-technological systems has allowed human societies to meet human needs with fewer resource inputs and less impact on the environment. More-productive economies are wealthier economies, capable of better meeting human needs while committing more of their economic surplus to non-economic amenities, including better human health, greater human freedom and opportunity, arts, culture, and the conservation of nature.
Modernizing processes are far from complete, even in advanced developed economies. Material consumption has only just begun to peak in the wealthiest societies. Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts will require a sustained commitment to technological progress and the continuing evolution of social, economic, and political institutions alongside those changes. Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards. And international collaboration on technological innovation and technology transfer is essential in the areas of agriculture and energy.
Except for the first paragraph, all the above quoted from the Ecomodernist Manifesto. You can believe what you want to believe and who to believe. So why believe stupid shit from a know-nothing who just doesn't get it when you can believe what Anthropocene enthusiasts, the 99+% of those living in industrial society, deeply believe. It is my hope that this article might contribute to an improvement in the quality and tenor of the dialogue about how to protect the environment in the 21st century. Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by extremists like Lee, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance. Unlike some extremists, I value the liberal principles of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism in themselves, even as I affirm them as keys to achieving a great Anthropocene. I hope that any misguided and misinformed readers wake up and endeavor to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet. Read the Ecomoderist Manifesto and seek ecologically informed sources.