Eco-modernists, please stop spacing out

From a permacircular perspective, what matters most is this: We need to find a way for every inhabitant of the earth — whose numbers are, for the moment at least, still growing — to have access to the same level of well-being and self-realization. And we have to do it while remaining constantly within the limits of the biosphere. This implies, among other things, that as world population grows (and sorry, but yes, how fast and by how much it grows does matter) resource use, technological progress and frugality have to be combined in order to honor the right of every single human being — as well as the beings of all other living species — to have access to an equitable share of world wealth.

Demographics matters. I want to be clear on why. It is not — I repeat: not — because the poorer masses of humans on the planet would, if they grew too fast and started to emigrate en masse to the richer parts of the world, jeopardize the wealthy minority’s well-being (while serving as labor in order to keep wealth production going). This might well be the case, and I suspect it is, in fact. But that’s not at all why demographics matters — or, rather, ought to matter. Demographics matters because we have a collective moral responsibility towards each other as living species within the wonderful web of life. Population growth matters because every human being has a right, by the fact of being born, to an equal share of the planet’s limited resources and material wealth possibilities. (He or she has other rights as well, but I’ll focus on material resources and wealth here.) This implies that any increase in world population crates the moral duty, for humanity as a whole, to redistribute the world’s resources and wealth equitably — which, let’s not delude ourselves, pretty much means equally. With every increase in the planet’s human population (to say nothing of its nonhuman one), every human being’s rightful share of global resources and wealth decreases. Such a lower individual percentage of total wealth and resources will translate into a decreased amount of rightful individual well-being unless (a) the same level of well-being as before can keep being produced via unchanged per-capita material wealth, through the improvement of technology and the discovery of new exploitable resources, or (b) people adapt their view of life so as to experience the same level of well-being with fewer per-capita material resources and less per-capita material wealth.

This is all mere arithmetic. It involves no ideology whatsoever. Call it anti-humanism, or worse, eco-fascism, and you demonstrate blatantly that you don’t understand elementary-school maths. The relevant question is: Which of (a) or (b) will we choose, and what will be the implications? The whole stakes of perma-circularity lie in this most crucial of all questions.

Let’s rephrase. As world population increases (in net terms, that is, the number of births exceeding the number of deaths), wherever it increases on the planet, the rightful, morally justified share of resources and wealth of every human being automatically decreases, at least as long as nothing else has changed. The most horrific response is to simply not care. It’s what humanity — especially the wealthy minority of humanity — does right now: Let’s let these new souls be born into the world and then fend for themselves using the near-zero effective (as opposed to rightful) share of resources and wealth they have actual access to. This will mostly mean lives of misery, illness, and despair. Every new American or Swiss baby starts out its life with a material resource and wealth entitlement that’s obscenely — truly obscenely — larger than that of an Indian or Sudanese newborn. Today’s geopolitical organization of resource extractiveness (mining and drilling in particular) benefits the world’s already disproportionately entitled minority, which includes the economic and political elites in some of the less wealthy parts of the world.

The geopolitical status quo, in connection with how demographics and resources interact, is the fruit of ignorance and cynical despair parading as “realism”. Those who opt for either (a) or (b) reject this callous, even brutal, majority attitude. They all claim that deep changes are in order if we are to honor the equitable entitlement of every human being to the planet’s resources and wealth — but they translate that claim into very different views of what will make humanity’s future viable and sustainable.

Response (a) banks on humanity’s technological ingenuity and on the alleged ability of capitalism, entrepreneurship, markets and trade to churn out one techno-fix after the other — all in the name of environmentally regenerative economic growth that will make it possible for every human inhabitant of the earth to access the level of material (and, supposedly, psychological and spiritual) well-being accessible today to the wealthy minority. This approach has become known as eco-modernism, and the circular growth economy is part of it. It is an undoubtedly progressive and compassionate but, in my view, nevertheless deeply flawed approach. Basically, from an eco-modernist perspective, the only way to maintain an equitable entitlement to material wealth for every human being on earth while protecting the biosphere from human extractiveness is to artificialize as integrally as possible the so-called anthroposphere, that is, the realm of human activities, an disconnect . In a recent document entitled An Ecomodernist Manifesto (available online here), six major figures of the eco-modernist movement have formulated their futuristic stance in the following stark terms:

“Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being. … Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.”

What’s being aired here is one more version of the fantasy of absolute decoupling between GDP growth and environmental deterioration. It’s the founding myth of any so-called “cornucopian” perspective: (i) Enormous material abundance is necessary if economic growth is going to go hand in hand with the alleviation of poverty (Note: At some point in this blog we’ll need to ask ourselves why that is, exactly); (ii) such material abundance is feasible in the form of annual GDP growth through the combination of technological marvels and new resources (so that, supposedly, we can generate not only a lot of gross energy, but more importantly a huge amount of net energy, even as scientists are suggesting that energy returns on energy invested are falling faster and faster); and (iii) this techno-fix-driven growth of GDP can be carried out not only without impacting too negatively on the biosphere (which would be relative decoupling) but actually regenerating nature in the process… All the while realizing the amazing feat of “alleviating global poverty” — which, in the minds of eco-modernists, cannot (lest you turn into a dangerous anti-humanist) mean anything else than making it possible for every human being on the planet to reach the level of material fulfillment of an upper-middle-class New Yorker or Chicagoan.

But come to think of it, why bother with only the earth’s all too limited resources? Eco-modernism has a built-in space drive — and I mean that literally. Oil, uranium, and land for high-alcohol-fuel-generating plantations running too low too feed 10 billion humans’ desires for, and alleged entitlement to, the equivalent of a lush LA suburban existence? No problem. There’s always meteorites and other planets. Here’s what planet scientist John S. Lewis of the University of Arizona, one of the foremost authorities on outer-space resource mining techniques, in his book Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets, and Planets (Basic Books, 1997), promised all US citizens and, by extension, all human beings more than thirty years ago already:

“The current budget debates in Washington take place under the assumption of limited resources. The spirit of the time seems to be that things are pretty bad and will certainly get worse. Liberals tell us we are running out of natural resources and cannot use the ones we have because energy production, mining, and industry pollute. Conservatives tell us that we are running out of money and can revive the economy only by slashing funding for research and education and lowering environmental standards. The message of this book will not sit well with either camp.

The truth is that the resources available to us are, for all practical purposes, infinite. Building on what we know of the solar system, and using presently available or readily foreseeable technologies, we can relieve Earth of its energy problem, make astronomical amounts of raw materials available, and raise the living standard of people worldwide. We only need to life up our eyes and look at the wealth of energy and materials that surrounds us in space.”

Lewis has written a lot on this topic, and so have some other eco-modernists such as Robert Zubrin, who has long been calling for the advent of a “space-faring civilization”. This is what I will call the spacing-out of eco-modernism. It’s not a happenstance; rather, it’s completely built into the movement’s DNA. Eco-modernists are designed to “space out” because they harbor a deeply ingrained but absurd faith that, issues of long-term decline in net energy notwithstanding and regardless of modern societies’ history of  brutality, inequality and unfairness even as they were getting constantly richer, yet another round of more raw materials and better technologies (this time, spaceships and massive outer-space mining and extraction machinery) will usher in an age of equitable abundance. My question is, What is it about us modern humans that’s now suddenly become so different that what hasn’t been feasible over several centuries of capitalist institution-building, colonialism, economic growth and technological advance will now suddenly become feasible once we start mining the Moon, sending manned missions to “terraform” Mars, and drilling on big flying stones in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter?

Give me a break. Eco-modernists, please stop spacing out. Please change your focus on what a “circular economy” means. The perma-circular perspective has a lot to teach you. Among other things, its anchoring in permaculture as a worldview leads to a new round of questioning of what “modern” means.

Remember Vaclav Smil’s call to “redefine the very notion of modern societies”? That doesn’t just mean redefining our technologies from terrestrial to interplanetary; it doesn’t just mean mining asteriods the way we’re already (over)mining the earth; it doesn’t mean promising that growth will remain eternal, but from now on with a bit of recycling and reuse of materials. It means more than that. Perma-circularity chooses to stay grounded — literally — on earth and to seek ways of solving the population-resource-wealth equation differently.

To become truly (perma-)circular, we need to investigate why modern humans have degraded the biosphere and annihilated whole civilizations through colonialism and exploitation, even as these modern humans were using their newfound technological rationality in hopes of realizing universal prosperity (as they understood it, in a very ethnocentric manner) through economic growth and a logic of “more”. Instead of colonizing outer space in search of new raw materials to exploit, we need — to borrow the words of the French economist Serge Latouche — “decolonize our imaginaries”: We need to recover ancient ways of fitting into the biosphere, and actualize them to fit our modern needs for rationality, universality, and equality.

First and foremost, in order to avoid spacing out, the wealthiest minority of humankind (the roughly 15% of us who use up nearly 80% of the biosphere’s services) has a moral duty: that of designing and implementing lifestyles that are genuinely sustainable, that is, lifestyles we could realistically offer up as universally feasible for every human being on the planet — rather than high-tech, space-faring lifestyles within a circular growth economy that are only “sustainable” for us as a minority as long as the majority of humans (as well as all nonhuman living species) are kept in appalling material conditions for our narrow, short-term benefit.

That’s what perma-circularity is ultimately about. It’s a deeply political approach based — just like eco-modernism — on the elementary, non-ideological arithmetic of planetary finiteness but offering — contrary to eco-modernism — a reasoned, earth-bound path to shared frugality and solidarity. It will be a joyful path if we accept to question one of the most drab assumptions of our civilization — namely, that elitist economic growth and its spaced-out techno-fixes can (contrary to all modern historical evidence) by themselves solve the challenge of universal equality and solidarity on a finite planet.


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4 thoughts on “Eco-modernists, please stop spacing out

  1. Christian, you have laid this out in an insightful way, I arrived at similar conclusions some time ago and over the last decade have committed myself in a progressively larger way to creating an affordable solution to encourage a transition from the linear economy we live in to the circular one you cite.

    The Project is called CubeSpawn, and is a first step in tackling one facet of the Circular Economy (I call it the “closed loop” economy “Circular” is a friendlier term) Distributed Manufacturing.:

    If the means to make goods is cheap and easy to spread, accessible to individuals and small communities, and further, is based on local power systems, recycled materials, plus removes a substantial portion of the demand for excess shipping and long distance power distribution. it makes a contribution to abundance, decentralization, resilience, wealth equality and pollution in one resource.

    Seems well worth attempting 😉

    Here is a 1 minute video about my version of the idea,

    The Website (needs work)

    3d models (this IS intended to be open source)

  2. With respect, I think you protest too much. The notion of artificially providing completely equal access is every bit as utopian as the technocracy. Both decouple from human history, aka evolution. My interpretation of Ecomodernism is along the lines of Stuart Kaufmann’s “order for free”. By rearranging human populations, certain variables such as fertility are affected. It doesn’t require new technology. Rather, it depends on exposing people to a different perspective. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I appreciate reading a variety of ideas aimed at creating a better world.

    • Thanks for commenting. It’s true that equal rights and the idea of attributing the same rights to access resources to every human being are, in some sense, “artificial” — or, rather, socially constructed and politically implemented. It doesn’t, however, vindicate all the brutalities or inequities some humans condone in the name of “evolution”. This is clearly where we part ways. Evolution is the favorite resource invoked by people who wish to vindicate injustice. In your comment, it’s far from clear who would be “rearranging human populations” or “exposing people” to whatever “different perspective” you believe would re-order society in the right way. I much prefer — and stand by — the artifice (i.e., the socially constructed character) of equal rights, solidarity, and moderation in resource consumption in the name of everyone’s right to consume the equally.

      • I certainly agree with you on these “of equal rights, solidarity, and moderation in resource consumption”. Understanding why we behave as we do requires some understanding of our evolution. My career in social services has taught me that imposing an ethic on people isn’t very effective, Advocacy fails to understand a system holistically. So I see developing “equal rights, solidarity” as a process of the evolution of human culture . As far as “moderation in resource consumption”, I agree with the Ecomodernist idea that the best way to allow nature to heal itself is to disconnect human reliance on nature.

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