A couple of years ago I was called in to deliver a unit called Sustainable Development: Concepts and Applications for the Master of Sustainability at the University of Adelaide. Being late notice (the semester had already commenced) I took some necessary liberties with preparing content that suited me. I asked myself: “If this is the core unit of a sustainability Masters, what do I believe these students absolutely must think about?”.
Population. Trade Reform. Land Reform. Urbanisation. Biodiversity Preservation. Energy. Water. My conviction was that speaking to all these issues intelligently and with evidence, in the context of a ‘10 billion humans’ world, was a prerequisite to presuming to work in sustainability in the 21st Century.
I loved it. Near as I could tell, the students did too. Some of the tutorial presentations were simply outstanding and the international nature of the student body was an asset to everyone’s learning.
Though I could not have named it at the time, I delivered a semester of Ecomodernism, as captured in a staggering manifesto published last week. The manifesto is a tour-de-force of thought leadership at a crucial juncture for humanity. For this sustainability professional it presents a meaningful framework within which to act and I gladly endorse it.
I have been on a long journey in sustainability, one that began in 2002 with David Suzuki and Holly Dressel’s Good News for a Change. This book at once broke my heart and ignited my spirit, and it was quickly followed by the work of Hawken, Lovins and Lovins (Natural Capitalism), Romm (Cool Companies), Dunphy et al (The Corporate Challenge of the 21st Century) and more, as I consumed everything I could get my hands on that would help me understand this topic.
I managed to convince Monash University to accept me for Masters in Corporate Environmental and Sustainability Management. I proved them right, delivering High Distinction average across the eleven units. It was intellectual bliss for sustainability’s biggest fanboy; books, readings and case studies galore.
To make matters better, sustainability was exploding in prevalence and popularity. Books were being published, products were hitting supermarket shelves, and BP were rebranding from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum (with a logo that looked suspiciously like a sun). It seemed like anything might be possible. In the following years, corporate and governmental sustainability reporting went through the roof, new roles were formed in government and private sectors, and it began to seem that sustainability was in your face everywhere you turned.
We were going to make the world leaner, cleaner and better. Hey, why pretend… I thought we were going to save it, literally.
You know how that story ends. We didn’t save it. Check most environmental metrics over the last decade and you will see that is true. Did sustainability, the corporate cousin of environmentalism, fail to deliver?
Frankly, the journey of sustainability to me is a bit like so many rock bands. They explode onto the scene with an amazing, but raw debut. Their accomplished follow-up precedes a safer third outing. By album number four they are at the Grammy’s, cosy with the execs, panned by the critics, loved by the masses and seriously lacking in relevance. They have become that worst of all things: safe.
From a revolutionary and exciting new paradigm, sustainability has become business as usual. A victim of its own success, it has fulfilled its rhetoric of the 90’s and 00’s that it is “good business”. That’s what I was reading in Suzuki, Hawken, Lovins(s), Romm, Dunphy and then Gilding: sustainability is good business. It sure is, and good business grows. When business grows “sustainably”, it leaves less mark per unit product, and shifts more products. The bottom line is growth and the impacts, good and bad that come with it. There is not one corporation that would dare call themselves “sustainable”, yet there are many that are more sustainable per unit output than they used to be.
By and large, this movement delivered on the promise of better governance, better operations, better outcomes, and greater profits. But something was going wrong. It reached the point where the leading companies in a sustainability index were nearly indistinguishable from the S&P 500. They had become, by and large, one and the same.
In perhaps the ultimate act of cynicism, British American Tobacco were publishing reports on their corporate social responsibility. The same case studies of materials and energy efficiency from DuPont and Interface Carpets were being trotted out again, and again, and again. BP’s renewables division remained a bit player next to their extraordinary efforts to exploit fossil fuels. They finally dropped the pretence, owning up to their ongoing efforts for exploitation of fossil fuels. Greenhouse emissions did not just grow, the growth accelerated. The overall rate of species loss on land, in air and ocean remained horrendous. Yet “sustainability” had seemingly never been bigger. Is this what we meant? Is this what sustainability practitioners intended? The wish for sustainability to become business as usual seemed to have come true, but not in the way we wanted.
For me, a dissonance developed between what sustainability was meant to be about, and what was unfolding in reality. This was amplified as I left the intellectual playground of University and started trying to get things done in climate and energy. As I have previously outlined, the gap I discovered between the climate problem I understood and the solutions I had been sold was insurmountable. This was a slow road to professional disillusionment, bordering on depression.
Within the discipline the conflict played out as a contest between Reformism versus Transformation. The advocates of Transformative Sustainability cast Reformism as the light-green option of coaxing better outcomes from a broken system, and by association accepting a lousy final outcome. Transformation was cast as the antidote; a radical reinvention of the system itself.
By reducing the challenge to this dichotomy we were getting it all wrong. Sustainability proved itself a construct of the privileged rich by presuming that we were failing by not achieving “transformative change”. A more rigorous discipline would have seen that transformative change was already happening on the grandest scale imaginable for vast numbers of people around the world. It had names like economic development, poverty reduction, education, disease eradication, the Long Peace, the New Peace, the Rights Revolution, agricultural productivity, urbanisation, information technology and medical science. This was, in sum, the momentum of human civilisation.
These transformations had already happened to the forebears of the wealthy. Only today, the transformations were happening in as little as one generation instead of perhaps two or three or four. With the rich massively outnumbered by the poor, this should have been universally embraced. It wasn’t.
We instead sought transformation of the transformation, when most of the world were just getting started on the first bit! We might call it Transformation Squared. Who did we think we were kidding? Our job was never to create transformative change. It was to steer the extraordinary transformative change that was under way. We screwed up our job because we never really understood it. Parts of the civilisation would benefit from reform. Parts of it required transformation. But civilisation itself was a juggernaut, never within our control.
Sustainability was part of the system and that was okay. Atmospheric CO2 was always going to rise, species diversity was always going to suffer, and some people were always going to lose as most people won. Had sustainability had done its job better, we could have had lower greenhouse gas, greater species diversity and greater global justice than we do now, with a brighter outlook to the future. Fortunately there is still time. But we don’t need to transform the world. We need to transform our discipline.
Sustainability can still be so much more than the safe, corporately co-opted discipline it is now, but only with a dramatic reinvention. This reinvention will demand that we accept the wisdom of needing to give considerable ground in the near term in the name of more profoundly influencing the final outcome. The momentum of the juggernaut is immense. Anything that stands in the way will be either co-opted, coddled or crushed.
What if, instead of presuming to standing in the way of progress by demanding transformation squared, we surrounded this juggernaut in the firm but forgiving embrace of a much stronger discipline? What if instead of the arrogance of presuming to halt progress or send it on a sharp detour, we had the wisdom to realise we could redirect it a very long way over time, a little at a time?
This can be done, but it needs a new breed of sustainability professional for a new paradigm. We need sustainability as a developmental “theory of everything”.
That is why I was so completely blown away by the quality of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. It has, in a manner I can scarcely fault, encapsulated the wholeness of our humanity and our relationship with natural systems in a framework that could actually deliver on the promise of a “Good Anthropocene”.
Some potentially desirable outcomes for our world simply will not be achieved. But some pretty astounding ones could be, provided we have the fortitude to distinguish between the former and the latter and focus on the latter. To do this, sustainability professionals in the 21st Century need to be better informed and better rounded than ever before. They need to re-value and incorporate, or in many cases learn for the first time, knowledge from disciplines sustainability only dabbled in (and then, often only to criticise). Things like economics, property rights, finance and credit, energy, agronomic science… the key mechanisms that make a modern society function.
It should be clear that we will be ineffectual in nudging the juggernaut if we refuse to acknowledge and understand how it even works. If we don’t understand from how and where civilisation sprang, we have no right to tell it where to go next. Here, Ecomodernism towers head and shoulders above environmentalism and sustainability. It understands our complexity and refuses to shirk it. It understands our history and refuses to deny it. It sees a vastly better future and challenges us to achieve it by putting our hands on the wheel, instead of shouting from the back seat.
Sustainability practitioners need to love humanity again, and I use the word “love” advisedly. Lots of environmentalists/sustainability professionals fall out of love with humanity. When as a sustainability practitioner you have fallen in love with humanity again as a species, as well as all the other ones you care about, it provides a powerful change in perspective. Suddenly every human soul is an exciting possibility, not a frightening threat. Our science, culture, and the other advents of our civilisation provide genuine consolation for some of the losses we incur along the journey because they are, truly, wondrous.
We must open our eyes to the possibilities of restoration and return. The future of our planet’s biodiversity cannot be the same as its past. Yet it can be radically different from our current state if we want it to be. It can be denser, richer and more supportive. Ecomodernists acknowledge this. They embrace the responsibility and the potential for wonderful outcomes.
We must welcome and embrace science and its child, technology, without bias. It is out major tool. With our wits, wiles and intellects we can find the pressure points on the juggernaut. But it is unquestionably technology that will let us activate them most powerfully to redirect the momentum of civilisation and bring us to a safer, softer landing as we reach the peak of our population and plan for what is to follow. The Manifesto treats this as a basic starting point, and it is the more powerful for it.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto is excellent. I congratulate the authors and commend it to my readers.
Criticism of the Manifesto has also emerged and I will take this opportunity to address some of it.
Joe Romm of Climate Progress makes this assertion:
“…this 31-page tome is a waste of time because it doesn’t tell you what the authors think should be our goal with climate action. They offer no temperature target, no CO2 concentration target, not even a broad one.”
I contend that Romm has, in a most elegant way, illustrated some of the important values of the Manifesto and the weaknesses of the environmentalist perspective.
I flatter myself that I am as climate-concerned as the next person and a great deal more so than most. If pressed, I support targets in the 1.5⁰ /350 ppm range, while acknowledging that I still cannot say with certainty that that will be the right thing.
If there are three individuals who have been influential in my relatively deep-cuts position on greenhouse gas emissions, they are Barry Brook (my friend and thesis supervisor), Mark Lynas (journalist, author, environmentalist and professional acquaintance) and James Hansen (if you don’t know him, look him up). Two of these three people are part of the authoring team of the manifesto. It is intellectually shallow of Romm to write-off the balance of the manifesto because he does not see numbers he wants to see. It is positively reprehensible for him to frame this in a way that actively discourages others from reading this work.
He seems to contend that we must occupy this juncture in human history, with all its complexity, and insist on a framework centred on numbers for temperature and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. That is a beautiful illustration of the rich-world arrogance that has come to characterise so much environmentalism.
The Manifesto says “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”.
I have previously made the same point, albeit with less elegance, stating that in the fight between dirty energy and no energy, dirty energy wins every time.
This was driven home to me at a global Women in Nuclear conference. A member of the South African delegation queried my approach saying “You compare nuclear with coal. But we have to go and speak with people who have no electricity at all. Should we be telling them coal is bad?”.
As much as climate change concerns me, and it concerns me deeply, it is not the only thing wrong with this world. For too many people it is justifiably not the most urgent thing wrong, either. Much of what is wrong has energy as a key part of the resolution, so we need to gear up to provide massive amounts of clean energy. We have to accept that if we fail, dirty energy beats no energy, hands-down.
Had the Manifesto specified on these climate metrics it would, in my opinion, be de-valued. These are not the only metrics that matter. What should infant mortality be in 2100? How many people can go without electricity in 2100? What should our forest cover be in 2100? How many species can we lose by 2100? The Manifesto offers no targets for these metrics and nor should it. What is abundantly clear in the manifesto is that plentiful zero-carbon energy is a core requirement. Simple, true and empowering.
Beyond this, I find the critique by Romm vacuous in the extreme. I still love the book Cool Companies, and I wish Romm had stuck with what he is good at.
From another corner, Jesse Jenkins and Robert Wilson criticise the Manifesto for its (non)treatment of wind energy, stating:
“The omission of wind energy from this first attempt to create a modern environmental movement is thus an unfortunate and un-pragmatic decision. It makes it difficult for us to embrace what is otherwise a compelling document. We imagine we are not alone.
Anyone attempting to build an inclusive new brand of environmentalism would do well to embrace a wider, and more well-reasoned, set of modern energy technologies. Until they do, we cannot endorse the Ecomodernist Manifesto”.
I’ll begin with the end by saying that I agree with the substance of the criticism, but not the assigned significance.
As a South Australian interested in decarbonisation, I have come to know a little about wind energy. We have among the highest per-capita penetrations of wind in the world. Next month will see the publication of my paper (co-authored with Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw) Beyond Wind: Furthering Clean Energy in South Australia. The research for this paper has demanded an in-depth look at the influx of wind power in my state since 2003.
In summary, wind power has driven a notable reduction in carbon emissions at no meaningful penalty to reliability. The price has been good compared to other new energy investments (not compared to incumbent, depreciated, unabated fossil fuels). The environmental impact has been negligible. These points are broadly in agreement with the case put forward by Jenkins and Wilson. As the title of the paper suggests, we need to understand how to go beyond wind in the decarbonisation challenge since (again in agreement with Jenkins and Wilson), there will be a serious economic upper-limit to the penetration that can be achieved.
So why does the Manifesto give wind short shrift? It writes:
“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.”
I agree. These are the ideal characteristics of energy supply for the best possible Anthropocene. I also suggest that a day will come where no one will want to build more wind turbines. For example, if a cheap, fuel-recycling fast-reactor reaches market (and I think that’s closer than do some of my contemporaries) well, that’s the death knell for wind. Frankly wind provides no comparative advantages and serious comparative disadvantages.
Yet, the same technology would also be the death knell for light-water nuclear reactors… is that what we want?
As a priority, no. We want them all to replace fossil fuels as a priority, not each other. Well-designed policy, not opinions on technology, should enable economic resolution of the pathway to achieving a complete clean-energy transition. The folly of replacing one zero-carbon energy source with another has been illustrated by the Energiewende. For the transition to take place we have many important decades where we need all clean energy hands on deck and it’s very hard to argue against wind in that setting.
So, on a century timescale I’m pretty sure I agree with the Manifesto. However the non-treatment of wind seems a weakness worth addressing.
I don’t think the Manifesto is wrong per se; I think this section is comparatively less sophisticated and worthy of review. I don’t agree with Jenkins and Wilson that it is grounds for rejection of an amazing document, and some elements of their critique bother me equally as much as their identified weakness in the Manifesto. These authors offered this view:
“One study in PNAS concluded that “a network of land-based 2.5-megawatt (MW) turbines restricted to non-forested, ice-free, non-urban areas operating at as little as 20% of their rated capacity could supply >40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity, >5 times total global use of energy in all forms.” That estimate excludes offshore wind potential entirely.
While we cannot vouch for that particular study’s methodology, it is worth noting that even if the authors are off by an order of magnitude, wind power can clearly scale to become a significant component of a modern energy mix”
I’m not used to these authors (excellent analysts, both) batting around such figures in an uncritical way in the name of making a point; it’s out of character. I suspect they have given the authors of the Manifesto far too-little credit as to how they arrived at their position.
The “pragmatic” issue, raised by Jenkins and Wilson, that nuclear development has “cooled” in several nations also seems uncharacteristically selective. In the regions of greatest forecast energy growth it is very well-positioned. Australia is moving strongly against the suggested cooling trend, though this was not mentioned.
I think Jenkins and Wilson are correct in their criticism. I also think they may be seriously underestimating the reasoning of their contemporaries.
Whatever the case, this will be interesting to watch. Bringing the debate to this position is a wonderful step forward.