Songs from the Hungerland: reflections on Ecomodernism, history, and Nature

Songs from the Hungerland

in response to 21.10.15 The Guardian opinion piece: The Brave New World of Ecomodernism

Legs at Nuuksio

My feet, enjoying a rest at one of the natural parks Finland was able to set aside in the 1900s as a result of more scientific forestry and increasing energy surplus that freed the majority population from having to work the land, no matter what they would have wished to do.

During spring and summer 2014, I spent many nights under the Finnish sky. Early the next morning where the picture above was taken, I was awakened not by an alarm, but by a deep, incessant honk-honk-honk of a whooper swan coming closer. I woke up just in time to see the majestic white bird, still honking like an organ pipe stuck on repeat, pass low over the glass-calm waters of the lake less than hundred meters from where I had set my camp. Unperturbed by my presence, he — or possibly she, since with swans it’s difficult to tell — seemed to hoot his pleasure for the coming of the spring and the thrill of flying so low over the smooth, mirror-like surface.

It was not always this easy for the whooper swans. Despite being widely recognised as one of the symbols of Finland and considered holy in some parts of the country, in 1949 only fifteen pairs were left alive. Swans were hunted, their habitats destroyed and fragmented by human encroachment, and environmental poisons threatened their young. In the South, the species was already extinct. As a kid in the 1980s, I once made quite a trip for nothing after hearing a whooper swan might have been sighted in an island near our summer cottage. Now, I see swans regularly everywhere in Finland. Nearly exactly one kilometre from where I used to live for some years, among the tall reeds framing a tiny Baltic beach, a familiar pair nursed a few “ugly ducklings” every summer. The pair, cygnets in tow, was manifestly unconcerned by the local kids who also frequent the beach. At most, the swan family retreated a bit towards the sea if a human child became too inquisitive.

A honking swan flying low over a placid lake is what I was thinking after a recent commentator writing for The Guardian displayed considerable skills in reading incomprehension by arguing that the goals of the new Ecomodernist movement require humans to move to vast, centrally controlled city states where they will be forcibly kept from birdwatching or other ways to enjoy a connection to the great outdoors.

It is somewhat difficult to argue against a misunderstanding of such magnitude; there seems to be no common ground where even to begin. Suffice to say that the text is simply a crude mirror image of those tedious accusations of eco-fascism levelled against the traditional environmentalism, with one important difference: as far as I’m aware, no ecomodernist has proposed radical culling of the world’s human population. Even so, one would have hoped we’d have advanced beyond such crude caricatures.

Therefore, I won’t be engaging with the caricature directly. Instead will simply produce some reflections on the reasons why I decided to be one of the founding members of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. From the ten chapters below, one may also gain some idea why Ecomodernist ideas have been warmly received in Finland, and why the first official Ecomodernist association in the world has been founded here.

I: A Song of Fire
II: A Song of Ice
III: A Song of Change
IV: A Song of Choice
V: A Song of Silence
VI: A Song of Confusion
VII: A Song of Land
VIII: A Song of Belonging
IX: A Song of Fairness
X: A Song of Dreams

I — A Song of Fire

To me, the key reason why I try to spend as many nights as possible under my lean-to shelter in remote locations is that I wish to enjoy nature undisturbed by human activity. Granted, strictly speaking this is very difficult if not impossible: even the national parks I frequent have, until very recently, played active roles in the global economy. The Nuuksio national park, the location of the encounter above, was created only in 1994. Although its broken terrain had protected it from the worst excesses of human use, a perceptive eye that knows where to look will spot the foundations of a sawmill and stumps left by loggers long gone.

For not long ago, merely surviving Finland’s sub-Arctic climate took its toll on the forests. Recent studies[1] estimate that in the 1800s, inhabitants of Finland might have used from seven to up to ten kilograms of wood per person per day on average. In terms of land area, every man, woman and child required between two and four hectares of forest just for firewood supply. Buildings, too, consumed considerable quantities of large, old-growth trees. Besides domestic use, Finnish lumber was shipped to Europe from the 1700s onwards. Even earlier, pine tar distilled in crude and inefficient tar kilns had been exported across the world. This sludge of aromatic compounds, sold as “Stockholm” tar, kept afloat the great sailing ships that formed the wooden walls and highways of the Empire and brought such wealth — still evident whenever I visit London — to ancestors of the publishers of The Guardian. Between domestic and export uses, forests were cut down to such an extent that Sakari (Zachris) Topelius, the Finnish national poet, despaired as late as in 1875:

“No other country needs forests like Finland, and no other nation abuses the forests like the Finns. A slash-and-burn farmer comes and cuts down the forest for a few good harvests of grain and poor grazing. A farmer’s wife with her children comes to gather fresh boughs for their sheep: without concern she cuts down young saplings to reach their leaves more easily. Then come the firewood choppers, tar makers, charcoal traders, loggers; they cut down everything they can, leaving not even a single tree to seed the ground. No one cares that livestock devours saplings bare, or that millions of young trees are sacrificed to make fences. […] In this manner Finland’s precious forests are kept in poor health and allowed to diminish.”

Topelius was not alone with his warnings. Deforestation had been notable as early as in the late 1600s, even though, or more precisely because, almost everyone in Finland practiced what we would today call “low intensity” agriculture. Most of the paintings depicting Southern or Western Finnish towns and villages in the 1800s show vistas almost denuded of trees. Having to obtain firewood from ten, twenty, or even thirty kilometres from home was simply a part of life for many, just as it is today in places where firewood is still used for everyday fuel.

Raatajat rahanalaiset

“Raatajat rahanalaiset:” Low-intensity slash-and-burn agriculture in practice, in a painting by Eero Järnefelt from 1893. Image from Wikipedia.

The contrast to Finland of today is remarkable. One of my enduring memories is a descent to Kuopio airport one bright summer day more than a decade ago: from horizon to horizon, all one could see was an endless expanse of emerald green highlighting the deep sapphire of the lakes, until mere seconds before the plane touched down in a canyon of spruces, reaching for the skies from immediately beyond the runway perimeter.

II — A Song of Ice

Logged and burned forests were converted to farmland, feeding my ancestors; that is, when the dreaded night frosts or cold summer rains did not kill the crop and expose the population to periodic famines. In 1867, second bad harvest in a row coincided with early onset of sea ice. Grain ships could not reach Finnish ports until ice lifted in May 1868; at the same time first traffic lights were being installed in London, eight percent of all Finns died. In some areas, starvation and attendant diseases took one in five. It took seven years for the population to recover, a record (of sorts) not remotely approached even during the vicious industrialised killing that characterised the first half of the twentieth century.

Naturally, the hungry ate what they could. Elk, whooper swan and other large animals were hunted close to extinction. Forest reindeer was already long gone, and the last Eurasian beaver was shot — perhaps not coincidentally — in 1868. But species diminished from centuries of hunting and destruction of their natural habitats could not provide for the populace. Almost universally in some districts, people took to the pine forests, felling what trees remained. They sought the pettu, or phloem, the somewhat digestible inner layer of pine bark. This was an age-old practice that had provided some calories even during the “good” years: in the early 1800s, more than half of Finns were found to supplement their diets this way regularly. “There’s never going to be a year so good we  won’t eat pettu; never a year so bad we’ll starve,” was the hopeful saying in the Northeast frontier highlands. But this year was different.

Even today, this part of the country is informally called the Hungerland.

alue, jossa syötiin normaalivuosinakin pettua. Perustuu Suomen Talousseuran tiedusteluihin 1800-l alkupuolelta. Korhonen 1987, Kuisma 1997142_1

Hatched: areas of Finland where pettu was a staple food, based on surveys from the early 1800s. From p. 142, Kuisma (1997). Tuli leivän antaa. Suomen ekohistoria. Gummerus, Helsinki.

In such circumstances, no one was much interested in conserving forests or other natural features simply for conservation’s sake alone. Even long afterwards the mere thought was absurd: I well recall the attitudes people my grandparent’s age had towards “tree huggers” who dared to propose that perhaps not all land should be harnessed to agriculture, industrial forestry or mining to the extent physically possible. To these people in a small agro-forestry community in Eastern Finland, where weather is even more severe and whose rolling hills are even more barren than around relatively benign and fertile Nuuksio, to people who had lived the years when everything was rationed and whose own grandparents had lived the Years of Great Hunger, not putting one’s hand to the plow or not pitting the axe against a tree were abominations.

When the government eventually sought to curb agricultural overproduction by introducing subsidies for farmers who left some of their land fallow, taking the money was viewed like a character flaw: something the community might somehow tolerate, provided the perpetrator did not brag about it openly.

III — A Song of Change

Fortunately, attitudes can change. The first inklings of a conservation movement came in guise of “rational” forestry: particularly since forests had value in international trade, they should not be thoughtlessly wasted. Trained foresters ranged the land, dividing the remaining forests to plots that were to be managed like wood farms they were. Anything that was harvested had to be replaced. Deforested areas were to be seeded again. Near the Arctic Circle, growth is slow, and necessity breeds patience: 150-year plans were used as exemplars to follow. The creed of these men — and some women — was enshrined in the almost Biblical opening line of the 1886 Forest Law:

“The forest thou shan’t destroy.”

My grandfather was an ardent believer. Even after his eightieth birthday, he kept on planting trees. But for him, and most others his age, the forest had no value in itself: it was an extension of his farmland, a field of trees no different from field of grain except that it grew far more slowly.

My grandfather was born in the early 1920s to such abject poverty that his parents couldn’t afford to build a chimney in their home. Whenever the house had to be heated, the children would be sent outside until smoke from large stone “oven” could dissipate through open door and window holes. If it was twenty degrees below zero outside, no matter; too bad only some of the eight children could be afforded proper shoes.

In brightly-lit New York and London, jazz was all the rage. Automobiles, moving pictures and radio proliferated, and fashion from the Roaring Twenties looks hip even today. In a little hamlet of about five farms tucked between moraine ridges, the fundamentals of daily life were not that different from the time my grandfather’s ancestors had followed the herds of elk and reindeer, themselves following the retreating glaciers, to this remote corner of the world.

“Savupirtti” — a house without chimney — and its inhabitants in Lieksa, Eastern Finland during the 1930s. Picture from the Collections of the National Board of Antiquities.

Yet before he was fifty, my grandfather had seen how the internal combustion engine took over from the horse and oxen, synthetic fertilisers supplemented manure, and finally electricity made petrol lamps and stationary engines mostly obsolete. (He had also seen in real time, from the hamlet’s first television, how the first humans crossed the void and walked on the Moon. But that’s another story for another time.) These injections of external energy to an ecosystem previously dependent on the ability of photosynthesis to capture the short periods of sunlight interspersed between long months of cold and darkness finally banished the spectre of famine from Finland. From time to time, frost or summer rains would decimate the fields again, as they had since agriculture began. But giant steel icebreakers endowed with power to crack meters-thick sea ice now guarded the ports of Finland from General Winter’s blockade. To the farthest reaches of the Bothnian Bay, sea lanes would now be kept open. Affordable, abundant steel — essentially affordable, abundant energy refined to a physical form — made pettu finally obsolete. Hungerland is today an allusion, not a description.

Make no mistake: These achievements were not due to any inherent qualities of the Finnish people, hardy as they were. Simply, energy was now available where it previously hadn’t been, in quantities only dreamt of before, at prices below the wildest expectations.

“Ice bulletin for seafarers follows. New ice is forming in all areas. Northern Bothnian Bay has forty to forty five centimetres of fast ice… […] Icebreakers Otso and Kontio stand by to assist ships in Bothnian Bay and Urho in the Northern Quark. Sisu, Voima and Fennica assist in Eastern Gulf of Finland.” Probably every Finn recognises these radio announcements, even though they may not always appreciate their significance. Ice bulletin for seafarers is one of the oldest programs broadcast by the Finnish national broadcasting company. From 7th January 1927, it has been served several times every day whenever there is ice on sea lanes. Picture borrowed from World Maritime News.

IV — A Song of Choice

As these energy injections increased the productivity of the human-biological ecosystem, another change took place. A new, more distinctly human ecosystem developed, intermingled with but somewhat separate from the old.

There was now an energy surplus. Fewer and fewer people had to work the fields simply to survive. Furthermore, there were now many other livelihoods available to those whose aspirations for life did not include farming, forestry, or the very limited number of professions ancillary to these two. As more people entered these new professions, the new human-technological ecosystem grew in size and importance. As this ecosystem grew, more niches and opportunities opened within it for humans who did not want to practice agriculture.

This ecosystem was fed with two energy flows. One, ultimately based on photosynthesis of sunlight and limited by land (and sea) area available, produced all the energy required for human consumption. The other, from new energy sources, produced energy for running everything else. To some extent, these two flows were interchangeable: more energy from fossilised hydrocarbons, dammed rivers, and atomic nuclei generally meant less demand for energy from photosynthesis.

In 1993, my family moved to a new house. It was heated with a combination of electric heaters and two fireplaces (three, if you count the wood-fired sauna). Being thrifty and having inherited a small plot of forest — actually an old farm overgrown — my parents used firewood a lot. But let’s consider for a moment what it would have meant if we had used only electric heating. For the environmental best case, let’s assume the electricity would have been generated at Olkiluoto, one of Finland’s nuclear power plants. On average, electricity from the two 1970s reactors at Olkiluoto could furnish space heating, warm water, weekly saunas, cooking, and dishwashing to about one million Finnish homes.[2] Using conservative assumptions for the size of uranium mine required to supply the reactors, the nuclear plant and associated mines and infrastructure claim about 1500 hectares of land at most. Assuming four persons per household on average, supplying each person with plentiful electric heat from atomic fission would demand about 0.000375 hectares of land.

Let me remind you that in the 1800s, merely surviving in Finland might have required the harnessing of up to four hectares of forest per person. Even at warmer latitudes, providing energy for cooking and winter warmth from photosynthesis needed one to two hectares per person.

This is the importance of energy density. This is where E = mc2 cannot be beat.

Besides: In 1993, whenever I felt the cold creeping in, I simply flipped a switch on the heater. Only forty years earlier, had I felt cold, I’d have to stoke the fireplace. If there were no firewood ready, I’d have to run outside to wood shed, collect some split logs, and return. I’ve spent enough time in our 1906 vintage unelectrified cottage to know in my bones what this means in practice. Sawing and splitting logs is certainly nice exercise if done as a hobby on occasion; it’s brutal, back-breaking and dangerous work if it’s the only way to avoid freezing in the depths of Finnish winter, where temperatures of –30°C are not uncommon.


What “running water” means when it’s winter at latitude 63 degrees 12 minutes N. Picture taken at 12:46 two days after winter solstice; iPhone’s camera could not cope very well with the midday dusk. Outside temperature –27°C before wind chill.

V — A Song of Silence

With the rise of the technological ecosystem fed from the second energy flow, the needs and wants that had driven the exploitation of the biological ecosystem diminished. It was no longer necessary or even desirable to hunt everything that moved or compel every square meter of uncooperative land to produce something humans could use. Forest reclaimed fallow field and abandoned yard; elk, whooper swan, brown bear, wolverine and even once-hated wolf returned where they once had been driven to near extinction. Extinct since the 1800s, forest reindeer and beaver were reintroduced. Elk returned in such force that they now have to be culled by hunters, as other apex predators like wolves and bears are still scarce in many parts of the country. I don’t hunt — for me, there is something unsporting in shooting anyone who doesn’t know how to shoot back — but some members of the rapidly expanding Finnish Ecomodernist Society do, among other acquaintances of mine, and I can attest that elk is among both the most ethical and tasty of meats.

Even the wolf is returning after centuries of persecution: last July, a remote camera captured this image of four cubs following their mother in an area where wolves had not lived for a hundred years. The forests are so dense with elk and deer that there have been no reports of wolves attacking livestock. Image: Suomen metsästäjäliitto.

Most importantly, people whose livelihoods were supplied from the surplus of the second energy stream could now afford to say “no” to logging or mining operations. For example, with the exception of what little we use whenever we visit, most of the cottage island my father inherited is now a natural reserve in all but name. Last summer, whooper swans flew tracks around our island, and a backpack-sized great grey owl (Strix Nebulosa) built her nest in one of “our” trees. She kept us from straying too close with alarming whooo-ooo-oos and even occasional mock attacks; we respected and avoided her and her mate, for there was no real need that would have driven us into conflict.

In many ways, my distance from the biological ecosystem is far greater than any of my ancestors. My parents were among the lucky ones: they could afford four or five years of tertiary education, albeit firmly aimed at practical professions. In contrast, the vast energy surplus rich countries currently enjoy has enabled me to spent the last few years after taking my Master’s in reading, writing, and conversing. Hopefully next year I will be awarded a doctorate in an obscure topic of very little practical value to anyone, but of significant intellectual interest to me personally. I have no pressing need to chop firewood, except for exercise, and I even don’t have to sweep my yard for we have none. But the energy surplus I enjoy means I have time to think about the environment, and the distance means that I’m less likely to come into direct conflict with other members of our natural family. Although I do enjoy goods and services whose manufacturing is likely to cause some damage somewhere, at pinch I can at least get my energy surplus without having to damage too many trees.

VI — A Song of Confusion

And this is where I discard the traditional environmentalism and join the Ecomodernists. It is clear that the humanity needs to quit its addiction to fossil fuels, no matter what boon they had been to people my grandfather’s age. To do so, we must develop alternative energy sources. There are essentially three sources that can supply energy in quantities a world of 9 to 11 billion people will require to uplift the remaining pockets of poverty: the sun, the wind, and the atomic nuclei. These may be supplemented by other sources, such as waves, geothermal heat, or biomass. But the question is, what is the energy density and hence the footprint of these alternatives?

Primarily because opposing nuclear energy is so deeply ingrained in their organisational DNA, traditional environmentalists in Finland and elsewhere are in practice advocating for or at least silently condoning the harnessing of the entire planet for human needs and wants. Whether they admit it or not, their visions for low-carbon future would in all likelihood mean that low energy density wind and solar power plants would spread their webs across the globe, while their intermittency would be dealt with by even more extensive use of bioenergy. “Energy revolutions” and “100% renewables” are in fact euphemisms for a radical industrialisation of the remaining wildernesses of this planet.

I’m not against renewable energy: far from it, I even own shares in a wind utility where we purchase our electricity. But I’m concerned about plans where renewable energy is the only option. Before writing me off as another Green- or renewable-hating demagogue, I urge you to take a hard look yourself at the plans traditional environmental organisations are proposing. One of the more respected organisations, WWF, suggests[3] that in 2050 the humanity would be using purely for energy 30% more forest wood than is currently used for all purposes put together. In addition, around 250 million hectares of fertile land would have to be found for energy crop monocultures. To gain a sense of how bold — or insane — these plans are, consider that the food crop using the most land area, wheat, is currently cultivated on some 240 million hectares. No wonder WWF studiously avoids the question: where will all that land be found?

In Finland, the local chapter of WWF has even produced an assessment that concludes sustainable bioenergy use can be increased only by about three million cubic meters per year. No matter: the very same organisation still argues elsewhere for “renewable, domestic energy” (in Finnish discussion, euphemism for massive increase in bioenergy) and is one of the backers of an anti-nuclear energy initiative whose key figures refuse to acknowledge any problems whatsoever with increasing biomass energy use by as much as 40 million cubic meters per year.

Greenpeace, traditionally more hostile towards logging than WWF, spouts boilerplate criticism against the government’s plans to increase biomass extraction by 15 million cubic meters per year, but is perfectly happy to promote its own “Energy revolution” plans that would even by Greenpeace’s own calculations increase biomass use in Finland by about 12 million cubic meters per year. Going five times over the limit is bad, but breaking it only by four times is okay? Green politicians, on the other hand, don’t see any problem with the proposed 15 million cubic meter increases. On the contrary, they have welcomed the news.[4]

All this charade revolves around traditional environmentalism’s opposition to nuclear power. It is clear from any published “alternative” to nuclear power that in Finland at least, the main alternative would be vastly increased biomass use. To keep just one proposed reactor from being built, the Greens would happily burn the amount of biomass WWF considers the limit of sustainable increase — and reduce taxes on fossil natural gas to boot.[5] No word about how to replace the rest of Finland’s energy demand. Similarly, in Germany biomass, fancy name for energy source that predates modern humans, will even in 2020 make up two thirds of the country’s “new” energy consumption.[6]

All this happens because of a fear of radiation doses far smaller than what the average citizen of Earth would gain by moving to Finland.

To be fair, traditional environmentalists are only one of the groups pushing for or condoning increases in bioenergy. Forestry companies and many landowners stand to profit from increased demand for forestry products and from subsidies that are inevitably required to make slow-growing Finnish biomass competitive. But this is the first time ever these have joined forces with organisations most people still associate with the protection of Finland’s forests.

Despite forest industry’s decline — according to our former prime minister, due to iPad — it is still an important part of the Finnish economy, and this dependency is a reason why official Finland (alongside Sweden) is now exerting her utmost effort to lobby against proposed changes in EU’s bioenergy carbon accounting. If these changes come to pass, as science seems to warrant, the myth of bioenergy’s carbon neutrality would finally be busted. Finland’s bioenergy sector is already teetering on the brink of uncompetitiveness: it’s very doubtful whether it would even survive, much less expand, if bioenergy plants have to pay for the pollution they create.

Yet even if they succeed, the plans of the traditional environmentalists would still leave many of the world’s poor almost certainly with only rudimentary access to energy. Low energy density sources simply do not seem to be enough on their own, even according to their most enthusiastic proponents. How else should we explain that even after renewable energy has been growing just as fast as Greenpeace predicted, Greenpeace’s most recent energy scenario would still limit the average African of 2050 to only about a quarter of useful energy now enjoyed by the average Chinese?

Even in the developed world, strict energy savings measures would have to be undertaken. It is probable that we could lead good lives with less energy use than we use today, but make no mistake: it would also mean that there would be many things we couldn’t enjoy any longer. In fact, the required rates of energy efficiency improvement in non-nuclear energy scenarios are so large[7] that it’s hard to see how the very society wouldn’t be affected by this relentless focus on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Alongside bean-counters, we would get watt-counters.

Required new energy generation build rates and sustained efficiency improvements in renewable-only and technology-neutral climate mitigation scenarios. From Loftus et al. (2015).

Required new energy generation build rates and sustained efficiency improvements in renewable-only and technology-neutral climate mitigation scenarios. Comparison to record short-term rates. From our book Climate Gamble, based on research by Loftus et al. (2015).

VII – A Song of Land

And what of agriculture, or the harvesting of the products of photosynthesis for human use? Return to organic agriculture is the mantra of traditional environmentalism. I’m the first to admit the current agricultural industry is broken in many ways, and that more “holistic” and ethical approaches are to be warmly welcomed. With modern knowledge and tools, a lot can probably be done even while reducing the need for external energy injections. But in general, organic agriculture means lower yields per land area. Elementary thermodynamics tells us that this is only to be expected, if the Sun alone is providing energy to the ecosystem.

Lower efficiency is not necessarily bad. If many other forms of life can interleave their lives with agricultural production, less efficient fields are probably a boon. But if the end result is nevertheless monoculture albeit with larger land area requirement, there is a possibility of moving from bad to worse.

Whether a move to organic farming would in fact mean destruction of nature in order to save it remains to be seen. But studies so far indicate that the issue is at the very least not as clear-cut as advocates for organic industry would have us to believe. Furthermore, what qualifies as “organic” is more or less arbitrary anyway: there is no organic elk meat nor organic cloudberries, since obtaining the label would require that their production to be — for a lack of better word — industrialised. The irony is palpable.

Of course, the question is not only about the quantity of energy produced, but perhaps even more about the fairness of its distribution. I believe it is fairly self-evident that we in the West should leave more for the Rest. Within affluent countries, income inequalities — fundamentally, energy flow inequalities — are undermining the very fabric of society and making it difficult to find a common ground necessary for solving the great problems of our age. But if global inequalities are not solved this time either, the plans to move towards less energy dense sources and methods might simply mean that we continue to produce and use roughly similar amounts of energy while industrialising even larger areas of land and sea.

VIII – A Song of Belonging

In theory, perhaps all this re-encroachment of industrialisation to lands already almost liberated from human use could be done in a responsible manner that leaves enough wilderness for both nature and humans to enjoy. In theory, and if everything goes perfectly, relentless focus on efficiency and renewable energy might be enough in itself. In practice, it is also all but certain that supplanting wonderfully energy dense fossil fuels will require the appropriation and re-appropriation of more land for human use, irrespective of what technologies we choose for the task. But as long as traditional environmentalists do not gain simple majorities in elections, in democracies at least it is unlikely that everything will go as smoothly as the optimists hope. Even now it is already apparent that renewable energy plans are beginning to clash with even current, fairly lax environmental protection standards. For just one example, many majestic fells and moraine ridges in Finland will almost certainly be harnessed for the rapidly growing windustrial complex.

Spread of the windustrial complex.

Straitjacket of the windustrial complex. Displayed are only turbine sites and necessary power lines and access roads. From our book Climate Gamble.

Some of this is sadly necessary: we are already late in our attempts to prevent dangerous climate change and we probably cannot afford to say no to any development that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. But some of this encroachment is so unnecessary it hurts to even think about. Every plan where renewable energy is proposed to replace that most dense of all energy sources we have — nuclear fission — is a plan for completely unnecessary industrialisation of nature. To be sure, right now there are still already-developed areas where new wind turbines, for example, will have minimum impact. But the scale of the energy challenge is so vast — currently more than 80% of world’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels, and coal is the fastest growing energy source — that it’s hard to believe these already despoiled areas will get us very far. Sooner or later, the pressure to open up new areas will begin to mount.

This is one of the reasons I’m an ecomodernist. Whenever I enjoy my communion with the wider nature, I wish to do it not as a master, not as a servant, but as a family member. As a family member, I might have my own room or at least an area where I can do my own stuff; but I do not presume to wantonly spread my tools and projects to rooms of other members and then behave as if that’s in their best interest.

To me, as long as we have alternatives that are more dense yet don’t spew carbon to atmosphere, it seems absurd that we could or even should “save the planet” by girding even larger areas of it in a straitjacket of smart grids, generator sites, access roads, energy farms, logging operations and mines to dig up the raw materials required for all this. It makes little difference how many times we call the resulting energy flow “renewable,” if it nevertheless requires us to act as masters of nature bound with wires and fragmented by access roads and energy crop plantations.

Similarly, it seems absurd to believe that dispersing humans from their rooms — so to speak — to all over the house of Creation would somehow help reduce conflicts between humans and other members of family Earth. Cities are great inventions for all but the most hopelessly misanthropic; urbanisation and decline of small-scale farming are the major reasons why there is now room for elk, deer, wolf, bear, wolverine and beaver in Finland’s newly regenerated forests.

Yet it would be absurd to claim I would want to force everyone to cities, and utterly hilarious to claim I’d want anyone to cut off their connection to the great outdoors. What I want to do is to increase options available for the whole Earth family. This, I believe, is another way how ecomodernism subtly differs from traditional environmentalism. In the traditional environmentalism, environment is to be saved by drastic limits on options: even in the more optimistic scenarios, energy use per individual is to be drastically limited. In the most deranged visions, humans would be forced to little more than subsistence agriculture — which, of course, could not possibly support nearly as many people as now are living, and hardly any in pursuits that do not have immediate practical value. For it is precisely the availability of energy surpluses and slack — not having to think everything through the constricting lens of maximum efficiency — that open up options to do something else beyond simply scraping by.

In fact, I would even argue that energy surplus is essential for closer and healthier connection with the outside world. After all, one needs to enjoy an energy surplus to be able to enjoy what nature has to offer. To take just one example, it is energy surplus in form of energy-dense foods and lightweight materials that enables even non-experts to enjoy hikes in the forests even though they cannot afford a pack horse or teams of porters to carry their food and shelter. To be sure, one can survive with the more “old-fashioned” equipment as well: hiking and camping with vintage equipment is a hobby of mine. But thanks to modern equipment, far more people can, in practice, exercise the option to head out to the great outdoors — and return with great experiences instead of memories of cold-soaked misery.

Reed bed

My bed for one April night on a skerry near Helsinki. The bed was warm enough, unfortunately woolen greatcoat wasn’t.

As far as I’m aware, my grandfather never simply wandered around in the forest. He was the epitome of efficiency traditional environmentalists are implicitly preaching. If he had to go out, he had a specific purpose for going out. Almost always, he was either harvesting something or preparing something for harvest. He was the master who visited forests and lakes when he needed something from them, not a family member who visits simply for the pleasure of seeing his relatives. He might have been an enlightened master, as far as masters go, but a master nevertheless.

As a rough rule of thumb, the larger the energy surplus, the more options there are. Energy surplus and availability of slack frees one from having to hunt, gather, or farm, and enables one to be a PhD student, an author, or an environmental activist. Energy access means freedom to choose. If some choose to lead rural lives, by all means let them, provided they do not needlessly harm other members of life’s family; if others choose to pursue other things, they should have the opportunity to do so as long as they are not harming others by their choices. Power to the people, say I.

IX – The Song of Fairness

Obviously, just having a surplus of energy does not automatically translate to more options for everybody. As I already noted, equitable distribution of surpluses is a necessary condition for maximising the options available. Equitable means, among other things, that we leave energy surplus for other family members as well: if we have other options for generating human-usable energy surpluses, we as a rule shouldn’t appropriate what photosynthesis generates.

Although I’m critical about the relentless drive for more and more efficiency, I believe it is also obvious that humanity in general should learn to be more prudent. Critics of our consumption-oriented culture rail constantly against excesses of frivolous consumption and wasteful use of resources. I’m probably not as smart as these people, for I find it is surprisingly difficult to define a priori what exactly constitutes obviously and unquestionably frivolous consumption. Perhaps some parts of “defence” expenditures would qualify? Nevertheless, as I have mentioned, I generally agree with these critics and believe that the inhabitants of rich countries could certainly lead meaningful (possibly even more meaningful) lives with much less material and energy use than is currently the average.

But who gets to decide what is necessary and what isn’t? To me, snowmobile would be frivolous; to a reindeer herder in Lapland, it is a necessity. Furthermore, fifty years ago the snowmobile, alongside environmental protection legislation, would have been considered frivolously unnecessary by many reindeer herder as well. Who is correct: this generation or the earlier one? If earlier, which of the earlier generations? In which particulars were they correct?

The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach is that focus on individual instances of consumption is at best a red herring. What we should be concerned about is not consumption in itself, but the effects of that consumption. I don’t understand why anyone would want to purchase a jet ski; but if using the jet ski didn’t pollute the environment or disturb others, I couldn’t see much reason to oppose anyone from enjoying one. Even in the more realistic scenario where jet skis nevertheless cause some pollution and some inconvenience, I would be perfectly happy to allow jet skis to others, provided the condition of equitability is met. If someone wishes to use his or her energy surplus for jet skiing around instead of doing some other things, who am I to presume to know better what they should do? The key caveat is that this energy surplus needs to be produced and distributed in a manner that is equitable, or at the very least not inequitable, to the entire Earth family.

X — The Song of Dreams

I even believe that demand for energy itself will eventually abate, and that another mantra, unlimited growth is not possible in limited space, will turn out to be an empty truism. It will remain logically true, but may well turn out to be irrelevant: there are already signs that energy and material demand are peaking in rich countries. People simply do not have the time nor inclination to use that much more energy. Who among us would want to shuttle to the Moon every weekend, even if energy required would be cheaply available?

Yet perhaps energy surpluses of the sort we the rich enjoy these days cannot be produced equitably in a world of nine to eleven billion humans. Then so be it: but as long as we’re arbitrarily limiting our options, no one can honestly say whether this is true or not. After all, there is good reason to suspect technology in itself might not limit us in this regard. From an engineering point of view, envisioning a world of ten billion people enjoying rich-world energy access from breeder reactors alone is not difficult. Envisioning the same end result from vast fields of solar panels isn’t that difficult either, although raw material requirements may be formidable and one cringes at the thought of land area such projects with their associated infrastructure can demand. Of course, life is more than engineering, and these utopian daydreams need to be recognised for what they are. The perfect should not be used as an argument against good enough.

But we nevertheless need to dream of a world where energy surpluses are abundant enough so that we can think thoughts other than maximising our efficiency. Besides opening more options for everyone and everything, surplus and slack mean our attitude towards our family of Life can be more relaxed. Incentives for conflict between humans and between other members of our family will be lessened. With proper emphasis on efficiency — efficiency as a servant of Life, not master and tyrant — we can begin to gather our tools and toys from the rooms of other family members inhabiting this grand house. Perhaps, some day in the future, millions more may be able to enjoy the great outdoors the way I’ve been privileged to do.

After the swan had woken me up on the rocky shore of lake Iso-Holma, I boiled some lake water for my morning coffee. Thoroughly rested and refreshed, I struck camp and set towards the civilisation. Forty minutes later, I was sitting in a bus on its morning run, among kids going to school; two hours and two public transport exchanges after the swan, I was at my office in central Helsinki, writing my PhD thesis.

After not so warm night


  1. Kander, A. et al. (2015) Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries. Princeton University Press. Page 56 onwards.  ↩
  2. Vattenfall estimates of average household electricity use in Finland. Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  3. WWF (2011). The Energy Report.  ↩
  4. Kaksilla rattailla ajamista. Blog post at Passiivi-identiteetti (Jani-Petri Martikainen): 29.5.2015. Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  5. Kotimainen energiaratkaisu – Vaihtoehto Fennovoimalle. Green League of Finland, 2014. Page 9.  ↩
  6. D-Biomass. Energy Transition blog, Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  7. Loftus, P. J., Cohen, A. M., Long, J. C. S., & Jenkins, J. D. (2015). A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(1), 93–112. doi:10.1002/wcc.324  ↩

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
This entry was posted in Ecomodernism, Economy and the Environment, Energy, History of technology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Songs from the Hungerland: reflections on Ecomodernism, history, and Nature

  1. This was beautiful. Thank you for taking the time to write it. It’s much better than my somewhat snarky response. Best, Amy

  2. As a public service announcement: The homepage of Finnish Ecomodernists is here:

    And the English translation of our Charter can be read here:

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