Section Five - Ecomodernism
A story about artificial meat and missions to Mars (9 minutes)
In the previous three sections we talked about the negative impact that technology has on the environment. Pollution, global warming, resource depletion. We talked about materials and energy use. We also stated that technology is evolving rapidly, so the problems are only getting worse. Or, on the other hand, that might also mean that technology is not only the problem, but also the solution?
That is the topic of this section.
Ecomodernism, a definition
Ecomodernism is an environmental philosophy which argues that humans should protect nature and improve human well-being by developing technologies that decouple human development from environmental impacts. It supports state action centred on technology development. It argues that intensification of human activities can reduce harmful human impacts on the natural world.
This is a very attractive concept. We can do what we want! We can keep on eating meat, going on holidays, driving big cars, shop till we drop. No worries, technology will save us all.
A perfect example of ecomodernism is synthetic or artificial meat.
"It's meat, but no animals were harmed in the making of this burger."
Watch this 3 minute video (which is already 5 years old):
Quick questions: Would you eat synthetic meat? Would you eat meat from a panda? Or a mammoth? A sabre-toothed tiger? A human? Yourself?
Some examples of other ecomodernistic technologies are:
- Precision agriculture;
- Microbial fertilisers;
- Genetically modified foods (for their reduced usage of herbicides and pesticides);
- Desalination and waste recycling;
- Urbanisation (giving land back to nature!);
- Replacing carbon-intensive (coal, oil, gas) and low power-density energy sources (e.g. firewood in low-income countries, which leads to deforestation) with high power-density sources that have lower environmental impacts (e.g. nuclear power plants, sun, wind, renewables).
Many people believe that we are facing times of plenty. All we need is better technology to unlock abundance.
- We can produce millions of burgers from one stem cell from one cow;
- Ninety minutes of sunlight is sufficient for the earth's energy needs for a whole year;
- Asteroids are full of resources, we only need to find a way to mine them.
We have included a number of other examples in the additional materials.
There is a lot of criticism of ecomodernists. Some believe that ecomodernism distracts from the importance of restructuring the economy. Grow less. Attach less importance to the GDP. Be more balanced. The 'doughnut economy model' is a good example (see additional materials).
Others believe that shifting responsibility to technology prevents people from changing their behaviour. The system must change, yes, but people must also change themselves. Maybe people have to change before the system changes.
In addition, it is often said that the importance of ethics, politics and humanity have been insufficiently thought through in ecomodernism. That certainly comes to the foreground when we consider another form of ecomodernism, namely geoengineering.
Climate engineering or climate intervention, commonly referred to as geoengineering, is the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the earth's climate system, usually with the aim of mitigating the adverse effects of global warming. The most prominent subcategories of climate engineering are solar radiation management and carbon dioxide removal. Solar radiation management refers to offsetting the warming effect of greenhouse gasses by reflecting more solar radiation (sunlight) back into space. Carbon dioxide removal refers to removing carbon dioxide gas (CO2) from the atmosphere and sequestering it for long periods of time.
In this video, it is explained (2 minutes):
There are several problems with the concept of geoengineering. We don't know exactly what the effects will be. Maybe we'll make it worse. Maybe something will happen that no one expected. In addition, geoengineering can be an excuse not to do anything about current problems, such as CO2 emissions. This is the same reason why a lot of people think exploring missions to Mars is a bad idea.
Wanting to go to Mars is giving up on Earth.
In the additional materials we have a lot more information about geoengineering.
Take aways from section five:
- Better technologies can solve problems with the environment;
- However, the effects of these technologies is still very unclear;
- So a lot of people think that changing our behaviour is still the best bet.
Some final words on crash course nine
And remember: why try and fly to Mars if there are problems to solve here!