The Magical Thinking of Ecomodernism

Ecomodernists claim material growth can continue indefinitely without environmental damage. Degrowth advocate Jason Hickel says their arguments ignore both evidence and logic.

Dr. Jason Hickel, who teaches at the University of London, is author of The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its SolutionsThese articles, which originally appeared on his website, are reposted with his permission.


by Jason Hickel, April 4, 2018

I recently wrote an article for Fast Company explaining why “green growth” is not a thing.  I looked at three high-profile studies showing that even aggressive taxes and rapid improvements in technological efficiency will not be enough to cut global resource use as long as we keep growing the world economy. Right now we are consuming about 85 billion tons of material stuff per year, exceeding the sustainable threshold by 70%.  According to the UN, our resource use will rise to at least 132 billion tons per year by 2050, and possibly as high as 180 billion tons.

It is on this basis that scientists have concluded that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate resource use is not possible.  But the ecomodernists at the Breakthrough Institute aren’t convinced. Linus Blomqvist wrote a blog post responding to my article, arguing that focusing on aggregate material flows is “misleading,” and that in reality absolute decoupling “is still a very real possibility.” The stakes are high. After all, decoupling is the central objective of ecomodernism. No decoupling, no ecomodernism.

Blomqvist seems to agree that absolute decoupling of GDP from aggregate material use is not possible; or at least he doesn’t dispute the point. But we needn’t worry about this fact, he says; it doesn’t matter if we keep using more and more resources each year, because aggregate material use is not a meaningful proxy for environmental impact. Industrial and construction materials, for instance, “account for a pretty small portion of environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions or land use,” and while biomass use keeps growing, land use has peaked (at least for now).

But this is cherrypicking indicators. Industrial and construction materials may contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions and land use, but anyone who has ever seen (or lived next to) an open-pit mine will know that they are ecological disaster zones in all sorts of other ways. Plus, Blomqvist’s claim about emissions and land just isn’t true (and he provides no evidence for it): the production of cement, iron and steel alone contributes 10% of anthropogenic CO2, and the use of the end products is clearly linked to fossil fuel consumption.

As for biomass: let’s not pretend that land use is all that matters here. Our current method for extracting higher yields from land involves aggressive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which have already pushed us well over the planetary boundaries for biogeochemical flows. And those same chemicals are causing insect populations – including pollinators – to collapse, and bird populations along with them. Indeed, the inputs involved in industrial agriculture are a major driver of biodiversity loss, regardless of whether or not more land is being used. And they drive soil depletion too, which in turn drives carbon emissions from the land.

This is the thing about ecology, you see: everything is connected. The biomass bone is connected to the biogeochemical bone is connected to the insect bone. And that’s why aggregate material flows are in fact an important indicator of what’s happening to our planet.  Sure, some material use has more dramatic impact than others. But no material use is impact-free. You can’t keep increasing aggregate material extraction and consumption indefinitely without increasing environmental impact right along with it. To believe that doubling or tripling our existing aggregate resource draw isn’t going to cause problems is magical thinking.

Blomqvist’s next move is similar to the first. He says that while absolute decoupling of aggregate resource use may not be possible (and sadly even relative decoupling of emissions has come to a halt), there are some happy isolated cases where it does seem to be happening. Water extraction has peaked in the US, for example. And several pollutants (like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide) have peaked or declined globally. Blomqvist says this counts as “significant progress.”

If this is the best the ecomodernists have to offer, I despair. First of all, you can’t look at nations (and particularly rich nations like the US) in isolation, because they have outsourced much of their environmental impact abroad. If you count all the water extraction involved in producing and shipping the imports that the US consumes, American water use is going up, not down. As for sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide – yes, there have been gains, and we should celebrate them. But pollutants like these constitute one of the few examples where the much-misunderstood Environmental Kuznets Curve actually works. Ecologists have pointed out for years that the EKC doesn’t hold for most other impacts. So as a defense for endless growth, I’m afraid Blomqvist’s example just won’t do.

I agree with Blomqvist that we should strive to accelerate resource efficiency. Of course we should! We need all the efficiency gains we can get. But unfortunately it’s not going to be enough, in and of itself – and we need to face up to this fact. Tellingly, Blomqvist doesn’t engage with my claim about the rebound effect, nor about the physical limits to efficiency gains (the paper I cite by Ward et al concludes that “permanent decoupling is impossible for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits”). We can’t just ignore these realities.

If absolute decoupling isn’t a thing, then ultimately we’re going to have to scale down global economic activity. Blomqvist doesn’t actually explain why he dislikes this conclusion so much. All he says is that degrowth “seems far-fetched.” I have no idea what he means by this. But could it really be more far-fetched than achieving what is physically impossible? Perhaps Blomqvist – or anyone at the Breakthrough Institute – could explain why they think that rich, high-consuming nations (like the US, for instance) need to keep growing their GDP (forever?), when we know that additional growth is not generating any better social outcomes.  Given how powerful the scale effect of growth is when it comes to driving ecological breakdown, it just doesn’t make sense to take it off the table.


by Jason Hickel,  May 15, 2018

I recently wrote a post criticizing ecomodernism as “magical thinking.” [see above] 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 cherry-picking 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%.”

He says that he draws this conclusion from FAO data. But unfortunately the FAO’s data don’t in fact jibe 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. This is not 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.

Plus, Blomqvist’s favoured approach of cherry-picking “good news” stories doesn’t respect the basic principle of ecology – namely, that everything is connected. It’s true that 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 imperative of growth must not be questioned. It is the sacred cow.

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 discard 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.


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4 Responses to The Magical Thinking of Ecomodernism

  1. Rory Short May 17, 2018 at 8:19 am #

    Nature functions through cycles at every level from the micro to the macro. Until we accept the reality that we are part of nature and behave accordingly, keeping an eye on our own long term survival interests, we will not cease damaging our environment.

  2. Henry Collins May 17, 2018 at 11:48 am #

    Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  3. David Walters May 18, 2018 at 11:47 am #

    i think what is left out of these replies on ecomodernism is the lack of understanding by either writer Dr. Jason Hickel and Linus Blomqvist of different agricultural paradigms. I should state outright that I reject arguments against Ecomondernism because the favor development, especially in the energy sector, where by the school Dr. Kickel comes from wants to down-gear and return, by implication, to a ‘simpler’ and no doubt poorer past.

    The problem with Ecomonderinism is that they are devoid of class analysis and tend to level all economic growth as “good”. A serious Marxist analysis would say that the expansion of the productive forces (simply put growth that enhances the wealth and well being of our species) is what we are actually shooting for and that means “more” not “less” things…so we have to be quite wise in our approach to *how* growth is sustained now if it should be or not. So you can call me if you will, a socialist modernist in the *best* traditions of Marxism.

    Back to the question…where Ecomodernist philsophy is wrong, and I think Dr. Kickel is correct here, is that factory farming in the Economist world view is “good” because it produces and continues to produce using modern, often factory and high tech methods combined with a vast array of chemical inputs, not to mention energy inputs, to produce food. But Dr. Kickel puts forward nothign as alternative except a kind of “this is bad, lets stop doing” sort response.

    –End Part I–

  4. David Walters May 18, 2018 at 11:52 am #

    Part II.

    Actual modern agriculture (the GMO debate notwithstanding) is exactly less productive than the modern factory methods. As noted soil fertility has collapsed leaving farms generally totally dependent on ever more expensive, often fossil fuel based, chemical inputs like fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. Nature had done the R&D on how to balance this all out for thousands of years without any of these inputs.

    Using restorative, eco, mob-grazing, cover cropping agricultural and no tilling of the land, we can *easily* feed the existing population of the world and sequester all the atmospheric carbon in the ground and restore the soil to what it once was. This requires planning, high tech inputs and education. Where such forms of agriculture are practice more output per acre is readily noticeable and is cheaper for the farmer.

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