I recently wrote a post criticizing ecomodernism as “magical thinking”. I argued that it ignores key scientific studies on the unviability of absolute decoupling in order to advance an ecologically reckless insistence on growth. Not surprisingly, ecomodernists were not particularly happy about this. Linus Blomqvist of the Breakthrough Institute posted a rebuttal. It’s worth reading, because it gives a useful indication of the arguments that ecomodernists fall back on when challenged, and presents an opportunity to stress-test them. This is an important process.
And the results are revealing.
Blomqvist does not dispute the fact that absolute decoupling of material use from GDP is impossible on a global scale. He simply chooses to ignore this fact in favor of pointing to specific dimensions of resource use that he says are more hopeful. Here he relies on a single example: that “land use by agriculture… has been in slight decline since the mid-1990s, even as consumption of crops and meat has increased by 60%.” This is good news, he says, because it shows that absolute decoupling is possible after all.
Blomqvist says that he draws this conclusion from FAO data. But unfortunately the FAO’s data don’t in fact jive with his story. Since 1990 total land use (for cropland and grazing) has grown from 4.79 billion hectares to 4.87 billion hectares. True, during the first decade of the 21st century agricultural land use held basically steady, but it’s been rising again since 2010, having increased by 50 million hectares – roughly the size of Spain. So this is not in fact an example of absolute decoupling, and it is frankly irresponsible for Blomqvist to invoke it as such. Relative decoupling, yes. But that’s not good enough.
Even if land use did represent a story of absolute decoupling, we can't so easily claim, as Blomqvist does, that decoupling of this one impact means we can achieve decoupling across all key impacts. Indeed, isolating “good news” stories risks violating the basic principle of ecology – namely, that everything is connected.
Land use is a good case in point. We have been able to increase agricultural yields by pumping the land full of industrial chemicals. But at what cost? We are dramatically overshooting the planetary boundaries for phosphorous loading and nitrogen loading, with all sorts of devastating consequences: (a) insect populations are collapsing, including pollinators, and birds are going down with them; (b) coastal waters are scarred by enormous “dead zones” from chemical runoff, which have quadrupled in size since 1950; (c) soil depletion has reached crisis levels, with scientists warning that on our present trajectory topsoils will only support another 60 years of harvests; and (d) dying soils are emitting immense plumes of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing substantially to global warming.
These are not minor problems. They are existential threats, widely recognized as such by the scientific community. But Blomqvist dismisses this evidence as “vague appeals to ecological connectedness”. Because, as we’re beginning to learn, in Ecomodernist Land evidence doesn’t really matter very much if it gets in the way of growth.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Blomqvist agrees that the objective should be to reduce agricultural land use. He agrees that this is ecologically important. But he thinks that the best way to do this is to continue to intensify our extraction from the land so that we can keep growing the industrial agricultural sector – exponentially, forever. Because whatever else, the mantra of growth must not be questioned. It is the sacred shibboleth.
There’s a much easier and more sensible way to reduce agricultural land use: waste less food, and distribute food more fairly. We already produce enough food for 10 billion people, but a disproportionate amount of the world’s food ends up flowing to rich countries, where much of it ends up as waste. In the US and Europe, consumers bin up to half the food they purchase. The UN finds that cutting global food waste by only a quarter and redirecting it to where it is needed most would eradicate global hunger in a single stroke. (For citations see The Divide, where I develop this argument more fully).
This would allow us to simultaneously improve human well-being, making people healthier and happier and more food-secure, while at the same time reducing land use as well as reducing chemical loading. But it would also mean that the industrial agricultural sector would shrink. It would de-grow. Is Blomqvist against this idea? Against eliminating food waste and redistributing food more fairly? I’d love to hear his answer. Because really this is what it all comes down to. Indeed, this is precisely the purpose of de-growth: to scale down ecologically destructive output that is not necessary for human well-being.
Now, to Blomqvist’s next point. He writes “There is substantial reason to doubt that reducing GDP growth in the developed world will have the environmental benefit that Hickel seemingly believes it must, given that it is in developed countries that the promising decoupling trends have emerged.” This is a favorite line of the ecomodernists. The argument, when you state it plainly, is that growth is the solution to ecological collapse. We need more growth – more production and more consumption, exponentially, forever – so that we can become technologically advanced enough to decouple growth from environmental impact.
The circular reasoning here is truly astounding. Remember, in my last post I challenged Blomqvist to explain why he thinks that endless exponential growth in rich nations is a desirable objective, given that it does nothing to improve social indicators or human well-being. His answer, bizarrely, is that it is ecologically necessary.
Now, if there was even a shred of evidence that absolute decoupling was possible across all key impacts, and at sufficiently rapid rates to reverse ecological collapse, we might have a conversation. But there is not. Here again, Blomqvist’s position is reckless and unscientific. There’s just no other way to put it.
Blomqvist suggests that rich nations need to continue growing, not because it improves human lives, but because it is the only way to achieve decoupling. This is a remarkable turn of logic. What’s happened here is that decoupling itself has become the goal. The ecomodernists, having failed to offer compelling reasons for why growth is socially necessary, have turned their sticking point into their sole raison d’etre. It’s like saying that we need to chop down more trees each year on an exponential curve, not because we need the wood, but simply so that we can learn how to chop down trees more efficiently.
But this is where things get really odd. Blomqvist says “There is substantial reason to doubt that reducing GDP growth in the developed world will have environmental benefit.” Really? Is this really the ecomodernist argument? Is Blomqvist seriously proposing that there would be zero ecological benefits if rich nations consumed less? The suggestion boggles the mind. If GDP is tightly coupled to material use, and material use is tightly coupled to ecological impact, then if GDP goes down then ecological impact goes down. If rich nations were to consume fewer SUVs, fewer McMansions, fewer single-use plastics, fewer commercial flights, and less beef – as de-growth proposals suggest – their GDP would go down. Blomqvist offers not a shred of evidence that this would somehow magically not reduce ecological impact.
And then of course there is the strawman. Blomqvist accuses me of wanting to de-grow developing countries – “a problematic political and ethical proposition, given how much these countries would benefit from higher incomes, better infrastructure, more employment”. But I have never once called for de-growth in developing countries, so this is a non-argument. It is not poor people who are the problem when it comes to ecological collapse. It is rich people. People in low-income nations consume only 2 tonnes of material stuff per person per year – way under the planetary boundary (7 tonnes). People in rich nations, by contrast, consume a staggering 28 tonnes per person per year.
So Blomqvist is concerned about poverty in developing countries. Good – me too. And that’s precisely why we should care about overconsumption in rich countries. After all, we know that the ecological impact of the latter is disproportionately inflicted on the developing world. Developing countries are responsible for only 30% of historical greenhouse gas emissions, and yet bear 82% of the costs of climate-change (nearly $571 billion in 2010), and suffer 98% of climate-change related deaths (400,000 in 2010). Even the World Bank is now warning that climate change is on track to cause mass famine and human displacement across the South, this century, sending global hunger and poverty rates up (once again, full citations are available in The Divide).
Here’s the real “problematic political and ethical proposition”: to assume that it’s okay for rich nations to continue growing needlessly while knowing that this is actively destroying the lives of poor people across the South. If we want to be serious about eradicating poverty in poor nations, de-growth in rich nations is going to have to be part of the equation.