Ramez Naam, ecomodernist

ramez

Ramez Naam

I was introduced to a set of ideas known as “ecomodernism” back in 2009, when I read Stewart Brand’s book, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. Stewart, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, argued that cities are “greener” than the countryside, that low-carbon nuclear power will be need to curb climate change and that genetically-modified crops allow farmers to grow more crops on less land, thus preserving nature.

Ecomodernist ideas have gathered steam since then, driven in large part by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus, the founders of The Breakthrough Institute. Recently, Michael and Ted herded together a group of scientists and economists — including Stewart, David Keith, Mark Lynas and Roger Pielke Jr. — to publish An Ecomodernist Manifesto. They write:

Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts. These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty.

In mid-June, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogues, a conference in Sausalito where many of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto spoke. I’m increasingly persuaded that their arguments make more sense than the low-tech, anti-nuclear, anti-GMO, all “natural,” small-is-beautiful, local-beats-global approach to environmental issues pushed by the most traditional environmentalists. And even those green groups that are market-friendly, technology-friendly and science-friendly hesitate to stand up in favor of nuclear energy or GMOs.

All this is by way of introduction to Ramez Naam, the author of a book called The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. He, too, is an ecomodernist, and a believer that regulated capitalism and technology will help us solve our environmental problems. I wrote about Ramez and his book today in The Guardian, in a story headlined: Ramez Naam: Capitalism is not the enemy of climate.

Here’s how the story begins:

Futurist and author Ramez Naam is an optimist, even when it comes to the problem of climate change, and for good reason.

As a student of world history, Naam has seen how humanity has flourished in the last century. People live longer and suffer less than before. Doom-and-gloom predictions have not just been proven wrong, but spectacularly wrong. Take food: some forecast that the world would starve by the 1970s. While population has doubled since then, the food supply has grown by two-and-half times, and today there are more obese people than malnourished people in the world.

“This is the best of times,” Naam writes in his 2013 nonfiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet. “We live in a period of health, wealth and freedom never seen before.”

Natural resources – notably the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases – may be limited, Naam argues, but ideas and innovation are not.

The story goes on to talk about why, when it comes to climate change, the most important idea is a carbon tax, coupled with investment in energy R&D. You can read the rest of the story here. I’d also encourage you to read the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

My Greenpeace conundrum

climate-change-pol_1203588cGreenpeace USA wants me to renew my annual membership. I’m ambivalent.

A letter signed by Phil Radford, who leads Greenpeace USA, paints a dire picture of the state of the environment:

We all see polluters poisoning our air, water and land; killing innocent wildlife, destroying our forests, pillaging aquatic life, increasing global warming and endangering human health–particularly the health of our children.

This is, alas, mostly true. US air quality is improving, although 40 percent of Americans live in counties that sometimes have unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association. Water quality in most American streams and river is poor, the most recent report from EPA says. The amount of forest land in the US has been more or less stable for about a century, says the USDA’s Forest Service, but just this week, it was revealed that valuable forest land is being destroyed to supply “green” wood for burning in Europe. As for global warming–yes, there’s lots to worry about, and Greenpeace’s activism around the climate issue has been one reason why I’ve supported the organization for years. [click to continue…]

Environmental Defense: living up to its name

Fred Krupp

What a different just a few years can make. Hard as it is to believe, there was a time not long ago when Congress appeared to be on the verge of a bipartisan agreement to regulate global warming pollution.

Republicans John McCain, John Warner, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty all supported efforts to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Gingrich and Pawlenty went so far as to appear in commercials with the Environmental Defense Fund supporting climate regulation. And now?  “It was a mistake, it was stupid, it was wrong,” Pawlenty says.

The radical shift in the political climate means that big NGOs like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club now must fight merely to  preserve the status quo in Congress.

Environmental groups are playing defense rather than offense in Washington, said Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund,  during a panel today on climate policy that opened FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference.

He noted that House Republicans have voted to block funding not just for EPA’s efforts regulate carbon pollution (efforts that are required by a Supreme Court decision) but also for EPA efforts to control, on public health ground, mercury pollution from cement factories.

On climate issues, Fred said: “It’s hard to have a meaningful exchange of viewers, a serious conversation in Washington.”

That’s a big, big problem because, as he noted, every major piece of environmental legislation in the U.S has been enacted with bipartisan support. Fred himself was a leading advocate for the  late 1980s cap-and-trade system–to regulate sulfur dioxide pollution–that was put into place by President George Bush and his EPA chief, Bill Reilly. [click to continue…]

The Impact of No Impact Man

nim-bookHis stunt is over, his book published, his movie released, but Colin Beavan is still living without a TV set, air conditioner or dishwasher, buying seasonal produce and not much else, and making his way around Manhattan by bike. During a year-long experiment in radically “green” living, Beavan, 46, his wife Michelle Conlin (a writer for Business Week) and their baby daughter tried to  limit their impact on the environment: They made no trash (no more take-out food or toys wrapped in plastic), cut way down on their greenhouse gas emissions (no taxis, AC or flights to see family at Thanksgiving), and shopped at the local farmers’ market (no strawberries in December).

Beavan has since written a terrific book about the experience, called No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Plant and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (FSG, $25). Upending conventional wisdom, he found that consuming less stuff made his life a whole lot more fun. As he puts it in the video below:

I saved money, lost weight, gained energy, improved my health, spent more quality time with my family and friends, renewed my relationship with my wife and discovered an overall sense of freedom.

I learned that, yes, sometimes less is more.

This is a  valuable insight even for those of us who can’t or won’t bike in the winter,  stop flying, or get rid of our [click to continue…]