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What the Ecomodernist Manifesto Says to Nuclear Energy Advocates

EcomodernistTimed for Earth day, The Breakthrough Institute released what it’s calling the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a tract that deserves attention because of the quality of its creators and because it suggests a way forward – or perhaps I should say out of – the impasse between environmentalists and policy makers in crafting ways to protect the environment while maximizing the potential of people worldwide to prosper. It’s a blueprint to guide environmentalists away from seeing people as environmental destroyers – which, of course, turns off the folks they’re trying to appeal to – to partners.

The folks who signed on to this include Pandora’s Promise director Robert Stone and two participants in his pro-nuclear energy documentary, Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas, the latter of whom earned considerable admiration from me for his openness and curiosity toward nuclear energy despite considerable suspicion about it. Of course, it also includes the co-founders the Breakthrough Institute, Michael Shellenburger and Ted Nordhaus. The Breakthrough Institute has always looked at energy policy through an environmental lens but has not until now wrapped together the interests of environmentalists and energy policy makers as it does in the manifesto.

The authors takes as their premise that progress has caused people to “decouple” from nature, as agricultural technology has changed largely rural populations into urban ones. But the technological advances required to do this has presented its own problems:
The modernization processes that have increasingly liberated humanity from nature are, of course, double-edged, since they have also degraded the natural environment. Fossil fuels, mechanization and manufacturing, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, electrification and modern transportation and communication technologies, have made larger human populations and greater consumption possible in the first place. Had technologies not improved since the Dark Ages, no doubt the human population would not have grown much either.
Potential solutions:
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.
You could say that’s the nub of it for nuclear energy advocates and some of the argument plays into what one may call the “moral” argument for nuclear energy.
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 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 other words, people must have access to energy to advance. But if the goal is to facilitate this advancement without further ecological damage, then nuclear energy has a unique role to play. It produces a lot of energy in a relatively tiny footprint.
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. If the history of energy transitions is any guide, however, that transition will take time.
That “radical decoupling of humans from nature” has a grad-school ring to it – it’s more idealistic than realistic - but the authors mean by it less of a reliance on natural resources and more on technology to advance human progress while allowing animal and plant life more latitude to reassert themselves in land cleared of humans.

There’s a lot more to this than I’ve described here. Some of it strikes me as a bit – overthought – and perhaps it is better at description than prescription. But in all, this is an exceptionally intelligent and practical survey of the environmental/energy nexus. That nuclear energy informs its view of how restoring nature while advocating human progress seems exactly right. Read the whole thing and tell us what you think. It’s not long and it’s bracingly optimistic – just right for Earth Day.
I found Robert Bryce’s opinion on the manifesto interesting, because he turns it into a club to beat the the Divest Harvard crowd (which wants their college to divest from fossil fuels).
The absolutists are anti-energy. In a Divest Harvard video posted on YouTube, the group stated that its goal is to “stigmatize the fossil fuel industry.” The absolutists try to do that all the time. Just last week, the Sierra Club announced the expansion of its “beyond coal” campaign. The group’s backers — who include former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — have pledged some $60 million in funding for the effort, which aims to shutter half of U.S. coal plants by 2017.
Even I’m reluctant to call anti-nuclear energy types anti-energy; Bryce’s formulation is pretty absolutist in itself.

Here’s what he says about the manifesto:
While the absolutists want one of America’s most prestigious universities to sell some of its investments — with the only goal being to stigmatize the world’s biggest and single most important business [coal, that is] — the ecomodernists are arguing not only that greater global energy consumption is inevitable, but that it’s good, that more energy use will allow more people in the developing world to live fuller, freer lives.
The manifesto does not argue for unfettered growth nor does it discount climate change. It favors nuclear energy and solar power as solutions for these reasons. It’s fair to say that the Harvard Divests crowd haven’t thought things out that far. Their protest represents a largely symbolic way to do something about climate change – much as the college students of my time protested against investments into South African Krugerrands.

But you could say that Bryce has zeroed in on his interest – the free market – as we have on ours – nuclear energy. So there’s that. That’s why you should read it yourself – from your own perspective.


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