With the start of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris just a few weeks away, where the goal is an international agreement on climate, there has been a quietly growing movement making a stir in the world of environmentalism. It's a non-partisan, technology-based, humanistic approach called eco-modernism and it has the audacity to suggest that the economic growth might be what allows us to save this planet.
It is a framework for action that aligns exactly with the UN's own Sustainable Development Goals for ending global poverty, ensuring access to sustainable energy for all, and taking urgent action to combat climate change. It might just be the only approach that has a realistic shot at achieving these seemingly incompatible goals.
The ecomodernist movement is being driven by a group of scientists, academics, and environmental heavy-hitters who are breaking ranks from the well-established degrowth, anti-capitalist dogma of traditional environmentalism. This past April, they released a seven part document called an Ecomodernist Manifesto, which outlines their optimism that through human innovation and technology, we might manage to have a good or an even great Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is merely a buzzword for the time scale where humans have dramatically altered the planet. Hopefully, future civilizations will be here to argue over whether it's the right word or not, but the ecomodernists think that the coming age can be a good one, as opposed to a burning pit of famine and floods sometimes associated with visions of Future Earth.
This optimism, in contrast to the apocalyptic scenarios that have been trotted out for decades to scare everyone into action- or one could argue, into inaction- is one of the things that sets the ecomodernists apart from the traditional greens. The most glaring difference though is their advocacy of nuclear energy and genetic engineering, technologies guaranteed to elicit a reflexive shudder from those on the far left.
Most of the ecomodernists were anti-GMO and anti-nuclear as well, until they took the time to examine the evidence and do the math. The math of how to feed an extra 2 billion people in the coming decades on existing farmland- an extra 2 billion who will ideally continue the positive trend of leaving poverty behind and requiring more food. Genetic engineering may be our best shot at increasing yields without dramatically increasing land requirements. And the simple calculation that more people will inevitably lead to an increased demand for energy- energy that must be both low carbon and have a small ecological footprint. Currently, nuclear energy is the only technology available that fits that criteria.
With nuclear energy and GMOs, it's common sense to have some hesitation because of visions of fish tomatoes and well, mushroom clouds. Those are just media stories and activist tales though and once you weed through fear-based propaganda and turn toward scientific evidence, they seem less scary and more hopeful.
There are real issues and real trade-offs with everything but practical, intelligent people are capable of looking at the balance of risks associated with these technologies if they are given good information. Because feeding more people on less land is not only possible, it's a critical moral imperative. Clean energy on less land is also possible, and perhaps just as much of a moral imperative. It's how we get there and if we get there in time that is far from certain.
The optimistic yet pragmatic approach is attracting people who, until now, have been unable to find a place in the conversation on climate. A Republican food writer, a liberal mom from the Bible Belt, scientists, farmers, Democrats, and Libertarians - while they can make for strange bedfellows, they are jumping on board and finding their voices in ecomodernism. In other words, it's an environmental approach that makes sense to the big, busy cluster in the middle of the political spectrum who don't identify with the hardcore climate change deniers on the right or the anti-corporate Earth Firsters on the left.
They accept that climate change is happening, even if they're not entirely sure who to trust on it, but they don't see how they're supposed to help beyond recycling or buying a hybrid car. What they don't accept is that the developing world doesn't have the right to economic growth, food security, or electricity.
They also don't believe that the developed world will volunteer to de-develop, at least not in time to make a difference. And they don't believe that any real solutions are possible without the cooperation of the public and private sector.
The majority of those in the middle have ignored climate change, not because they don't care, but because they don't have the time to obsess over something they can't control. They leave it to the policy makers and hope that their government doesn't tax the hell out of them just to put a Band Aid on a broken neck. They could probably come together and support a strategy that made sense. They might even be willing to make sacrifices if they were presented with evidence and logic rather than stale, anti-human ideologies.
Eradicating global poverty, energy for all, and aggressive climate action might seem impossible but with ecomodernism, there exists a framework which can reconcile these UN goals. But it remains to be seen if this small movement of pro-science pragmatists will be loud enough to be heard in Paris.