A new idea is gaining ground, under the term ‘Ecomodernism’, which celebrates that economic growth and technology can go hand in hand with green living
But that is changing, and a new idea is gaining ground, under the term “Ecomodernism”. The key idea behind Ecomodernism is that the more technology human beings adopt, the more they can decouple from dependence on the natural environment and live lives that are prosperous but green. The great Green Blob that dominates the public and NGO sector, whose reactionary tendencies I referred to when I left office as Environment Secretary last year, still refuses to recognise this.
Something remarkable is happening to the human race. Today’s seven billion people have both more food and more nature reserves than the five billion of 30 years ago. We in developed countries are using less land, less fertiliser and less water to produce more food. We are using less iron and less wood to build more buildings. We are using less oil and less gas to achieve each increment of economic growth. We are using fewer trees for paper and copper for wires, to communicate with.
The Green Blob said non-renewable resources, like oil, copper and phosphorus, were going to run out, whereas in fact they grew more abundant and cheaper. It said hunger was going to get worse, whereas in fact it has vastly improved, except in countries like North Korea. It said population growth was going to explode, whereas in fact it slowed down. It said economic growth was incompatible with nature conservation, whereas in fact the countries with the most growth have the healthiest wildlife. It said genetically modified crops would hurt biodiversity, whereas in fact they have led to a dramatic fall in insecticide use. It said climate change would have created havoc by now, whereas in fact the Sahel has grown steadily greener.
The rich parts of the world, like Europe and North America, are now teeming with far richer wildlife populations than for many centuries, to the point where it is becoming a problem in cities – foxes in London, turkeys in Boston, bears in Philadelphia. Outside the developing world, forests are increasing in extent and diversity all the time. Britain now has more woodland than in the days of Chaucer; I set a target to reach the levels of the Domesday Book by 2060. Whales, penguins and seals have boomed back from near extinction in the polar regions to relative abundance.
What makes this possible is the fact that people don’t need so much wildlife or so much land to support themselves. They have coal so they don’t cut down forests; they have oil so they don’t kill whales and penguins; they have gas so use fertiliser to quintuple the yields of corn and need less land to feed each family; they have chickens so they don’t kill wild geese. That’s decoupling and it is the real answer to nature conservation.
The reason poor countries have the worst environmental problems is that they have not yet made these transitions. They are still relying on renewable, natural resources such as wood and bushmeat to support their lifestyles. They are still coupled to the natural environment.
Some of my green friends have urged me to tone down the rhetoric about the Green Blob. And it is true that many local conservationists do a fantastic job getting their hands dirty and helping the environment. But their suit-wearing bosses don’t. I feel it is necessary to keep drawing attention to the fact that a coalition of environmental pressure groups, with budgets running into the billions worldwide, and with unique access to the corridors of power and far more influence in — say — Brussels than large corporations have, are not just badly mistaken in their analysis, but often act like bullies in the way they threaten and cajole politicians and civil servants.
And this is why I think Ecomodernism is such a critically important and positive influence on environmentalism. It works on both the local scale and on a large scale. Rather than focus in a defensive way on stopping bad things happening, Ecomodernism encourages good things to happen. The best way to grow food is in polytunnels so you minimise the land and water you need, rather than on huge organic farms with low yields. The best way to generate electricity is a nuclear power plant so you minimise the land you need, rather than in a vast subsidised wind farm chopping up birds and producing little energy.
Many people find the relentless pessimism of the environmental movement dispiriting. All they ever teach is a counsel of despair. Good news is downplayed. It does not matter how many birds of prey – ospreys, sea eagles, buzzards, goshawks, peregrines – recover in number and expand their range, as all these have done in recent years in Britain, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds still obsesses about hen harriers, because they are rare in England – though even they are thriving in Scotland and Wales.
Ecomodernism lets you escape this negativity and celebrate the measures we can take to improve the world’s wildlife if we have enough money and we can spare enough space from servicing human needs. On September 24 I will be hosting a debate about Ecomodernism with three of its inventors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute of California, and Mark Lynas of Cornell University, Alliance for Science, together with Matt Ridley who has been making very similar arguments for years. They are from all parts of the political spectrum, but they agree on this new, positive vision of how to improve the planet.