No doubt the 2016 election will subject voters to much of the same rhetoric about climate change we’ve already heard over the last two decades. One side will accuse Republicans of being deniers who are beholden to corporate special interests while destroying the planet. The other side will accuse Democrats of trying to gain more government control over private industry while destroying the economy. And voters will largely tune out as the debate seems stale and stalemated; polls show little movement in public opinion on this issue over the last several years.
But is there a third way on climate change, an updated approach with a modern agenda seeking to ease global environmental woes irrespective of cause or blame? That’s the purpose of a nascent environmental movement called “eco-modernism.” Mostly comprised of scientists, university professors and environmental activists, eco-modernists believes that unleashing technology instead of constricting human consumption is a better pathway to saving the Earth.
Unlike traditional greens who think we should be subservient to nature, eco-modernists contend that “humans are special, giving us as a species special rights and responsibilities…We don’t see humans as innately destructive or doomed and are enthusiastic about the human potential for innovation and problem-solving.” They advocate a growth-based plan that seeks universal prosperity instead of shared misery. Last summer, they hosted a conference referred to as the “anti-Davos” to discuss how technology and human development can better protect natural resources and improve economies worldwide.
Now you’d expect this kind of approach from a right-leaning, pro-business environmental group. But what gives eco-modernists even more credibility (and chutzpah) is they are heavy-duty greens, including many former activists who became dismayed with the inertia and dogma of the present-day environmental movement. These are folks who grew up as tree-huggers and anti-nuke protestors and, more recently, GMO test crop vandals.
One of its principals is Michael Shellenberger, the co-founder of The Breakthrough Institute and a lifelong environmentalist who parted ways with the movement ten years ago. “I was frustrated at their narrow-mindedness and refusal to rethink anything,” says Shellenberger, a Berkley, California resident. “It was a regulation-based agenda rather than a technology-based agenda.” According to Shellenberger, the only way to save natural resources and lift millions out of poverty and despair is to strike a better balance between free markets and government.
Last spring, the group released its own agenda - An Eco-Modernist Manifesto - based on a theory called decoupling, where people depend less on natural systems for commodities like energy and food and rely more on modern-day technologies.
This includes the use of alternatives that are mostly anathema to the left, such as nuclear power, fracking and genetically modified crops. They warn about the limitations of natural energy sources like wind and solar power. On food production, they support the direct opposite of what we hear from the elitist food movement here in the U.S. by promoting high-yield agriculture via synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, irrigation and new seed varieties. They even question the efficacy of organic farming.
Among its adherents is British journalist/author Mark Lynas, a former Greenpeace activist who once destroyed genetically modified test crops in Europe to protest GMOs; Lynas converted to a pro-GMO advocate after realizing he couldn’t continue to have a pro-science position on global warming but hold an anti-science position on GMOs. He travels the world to promote biotech solutions in developing nations, particularly in Africa and Asia, and sees firsthand how this technology profits indigent farmers, reduces pesticide use and boosts yields (for this, he has been excoriated by many liberal foodies).
In fact, eco-modernists have been met with fierce resistance by many of their former brethren on the left. The group’s launch party in the U.K. last month was spoiled by Greenpeace leaders and other activists who oppose their pro-growth agenda.
But it’s not just the environmental policies in the U.S. and U.K. that need an overhaul; Shellenberger says nearly every country and NGO has their environmental agenda wrong. “We need to overthrow those agendas - from the EU to the UN to Africa and Asia – and change the policies in order to change the outcomes.” He says most policies have very little to do with the environment; they are more of a “romantic, idealized reaction to modern life” (this is particularly true of the American food movement). “If you think modernity is mostly to blame for pollution, visit Africa where people still burn wood and dung as an energy source,” Shellenberger said based on a monthlong visit to the continent last year.
During a presidential election year, the eco-modernists have a prime opportunity to advance their agenda on a national level. Is it possible for candidates to actually move beyond the question of who’s to blame for climate change and make this about sound environmental and economic progress instead? “Yes,” says Shellenberger. “Democrats basically have the same plan and Republicans have no plan.” Eco-modernism could start a fresh conversation about environmental issues that concern voters and manage to transcend ideology. Candidates should take notice.
Kelly is a food writer and contributing author to the Genetic Literacy Project.