More responses to ecomodernism’s critics

Happy belated May Day to everyone, leftist and non-leftist alike! Up here above the 60th parallel, yesterday was – to me – the first real spring day of the year. I celebrated by taking my wife’s bike to a ride, as my own bike is still in what’s very likely its first total overhaul for 50 years or so, and ended up admiring a local Iron Age cemetery. Back then, the hill was probably an island, as the Earth’s crust here was still depressed after the press of the last ice age. In the intervening millennia, however, after ice relented, the ground has been rising steadily, and continues to do so. In fact, Finland may escape the worst effects of climate change-induced sea level rise, because at current projections, land rises at about the same speed as the sea level is rising.


Which brings me back to the topic of environmentalism, yet again. I’ve been very busy with my PhD thesis (of which more later), and haven’t had much time to follow discussions about environmental ideologies. Over the weekend, I nevertheless happened to read some very interesting writings about ecomodernism, and these sparked a desire to continue the discourse.

The strawman arguments that refuse to die, part I: ecomodernism as “tech-fix faith”

The latest in the series of writings criticizing ecomodernist thought springs from a noted critic of growth and consumer society, Dr. Ted Trainer. I have immense respect for his writings and have previously used and publicized e.g. his critiques against 100% renewable energy future visions, ironically in order to advance what I think are ecomodernist ideals. Given Dr. Trainer’s background as a proponent of “simpler way,” an anti-growth movement, I had little doubt he would find much to criticize in the thoughts of prominent ecomodernists, and in fact I was waiting to see what he thinks of this emergent environmental movement. I was not disappointed: Dr. Trainer’s critique of Leigh Phillips’s book “Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts” (2015) does not present a break from his previous logic, and provides a good starting point for discussion about certain oft-stated misconceptions of what ecomodernism is.

Dr. Trainer’s critique follows the line of reasoning that has been common to many critiques of ecomodernist thought so far (e.g. Chris Smaje’s writings). In these critiques, ecomodernism is defined as an illusionary “easy way out” from our current environmental and social predicament, founded on a false hope that technological progress and economic growth can solve all the problems while enabling us to continue our consumption culture unabated. In view of many of ecomodernism’s critics, this is all there is to ecomodernist thinking: a heady but ultimately impossible vision of cornucopian utopia, probably promoted by those who simply cannot let go of the impossibility of modern consumer culture. Even as a founding member of Ecomodernist Society of Finland, I too would criticize the movement harshly – if this was indeed a fair description of ecomodernism.

Before I go further, I readily admit that the style and content of many self-styled ecomodernist writings does little to shield ecomodernist thinking from both thoughtful and less thoughtful critique. At this point, ecomodernist thinking is only developing, and as in many previous cases where a new modality of thinking is emerging, the first ones to proclaim the creed are its most strident advocates. Generally, these seek to make a splash, not necessarily to respect those who disagree. Almost inevitably, such a situation means that there is little space for nuance and for respect for those who think differently. I think this is regrettable, but history has shown there is little that can be done to prevent it from happening.

To me, it seems that the main fault of Phillips’s book is precisely this. I must admit that I haven’t read the book itself, but from various reviews like Dr. Trainer’s, it seems that Phillips does the movement no favours in making his case as stringently as he does. As I have previously lamented, similar attitude problem is apparent in other ecomodernist writings, particularly in the somewhat problematic Ecomodernist Manifesto. However, as an outsider to English-language debating culture, I have noted that this seems to be a recurring problem in almost any written debate in English: in practically every field I’ve followed, there seems to be a tendency to write highly polemical works that make their case very simply, discounting the opposing arguments if not ridiculing the opponents directly. Such works are probably easier to sell to those who already hold broadly similar views and are happy to see the opposing viewpoints skewered, but this tradition also seems to polarize the discussion needlessly: witness the vitriol expended between different branches of environmental movement as a result of the emergence of ecomodernism. (I have my own theories as to why English-language authors and works may be particularly susceptible to following the strict pro/contra-logic of debating, but these theories are not pertinent to the discussion here.)

That said, I have to say that in all honesty, I do not recognize my thinking from the stylized definition of ecomodernism above. Neither do I recognize the thinking or the debates that Ecomodernist Society of Finland and its members have been having. First of all, the very reason me and (to my knowledge) every other founding member of Finnish Ecomodernist Society came together and decided to start a new environmental movement was intimately interlinked with pessimism regarding technology and techno-fixes. We were, and are, also genuinely concerned – horrified, more like – about the scale of environmental problems, and the very short time we still have to avert the most dangerous consequences. Among active members of Finnish ecomodernists, there may be one person who is doubtful whether we need some kinds of constraints on consumption, one way or another, and even his views cannot be (as far as I know) in any fairness equated with cornucopianism or unrestrained belief in the benefits of the free market.

The main issue I take with how critics of ecomodernism have been boxing us into their neat “opponent” boxes is how they characterize ecomodernism as a “tech-fix faith.” To me, this simply does not make any sense at all. I’ve written two books and numerous blog posts in two languages, given several talks, and spent twelve days in the COP21 climate negotiations, all with the explicit purpose of trying to warn the public and the decision-makers of the dangerously overoptimistic assumptions baked into most popular climate change mitigation plans. Specifically, I have been criticizing the techno-optimistic claims where the world can stop dangerous climate change while sustaining economic growth even if we simultaneously refuse to use some of the most effective and proven tools for decarbonization that we have. I have written sections about how the current infatuation with renewable energy is extremely reminiscent of the way nuclear energy was treated during the 1950s and early 1960s, and how very similarly the boosters of renewables-only strategy envision a future powered fully and only by their favorite energy source(s), while dismissing any critics as luddites and dinosaurs. I’m even planning a scholarly article on the topic, and hope to get it off the ground after I finish my PhD thesis – which happens to deal with the interplay of material and energy constraints on technological change.

If anything, I’m a techno-pessimist. I do not believe we should stake the future of human civilization solely on largely unproven (on a requisite scale) solutions, and I have serious doubts as to whether technology will develop the way we want it to develop, merely because it would be highly convenient for us if it did. (This is actually a major theme in my PhD thesis.)

This is a common theme among almost every ecomodernist I know of or have heard of. As Matthew Nisbet put it already almost exactly one year ago,

“Who is more of a techno-optimist: Greens who argue that solar, wind, and efficiency are all the technologies we need to address the problem, or ecomodernists who argue that other energy sources are required as part of our arsenal?”

Indeed, it is telling that many critics of ecomodernism have never, to my knowledge, criticized mainstream environmental organizations for their “techno-optimism” or “techno-fix religion” – although Dr. Trainer is a valuable exception in his intellectual consistency. Why is this so, even though impartial review of evidence should find that ecomodernists are actually less techno-optimist? Inevitably, such omissions raise the question: how much of the criticism levied against ecomodernism is related to our goals, and how much of it is because of the tools we’re willing to at least consider? After all, ecomodernists tend to be supportive – although not unconditionally – of nuclear power and genetic engineering, the top two bogeymen of the more established environmental movement.

The second strawman: Ecomodernists, magic-bulletism and technocracy

The question of tools brings me to my second point. Several critics of our movement have argued that we are somehow pushing for a one-size-fits all solutions, centralization, and even forced relocation of people to megacities (!). Relatedly, we are accused of being against small-scale solutions or consumption reduction measures in our addled pursuit of “big” solutions, technological marvels or growth, growth, growth. I cannot but wonder whether such accusations spring more from projection, as the charter of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland – for example – states explicitly:

“The solutions to the problems we now face may take many forms, from societal change and improved regulation to technological advances, and they need to be considered based on their merits and without prior prejudices.” (Charter of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society)

The word order is deliberate: we, the founding members, wished to emphasize social or societal solutions, and relegate technological advances to the last place. However, we acknowledge that the “solutions” – the word unfortunately does not convey quite the same meaning in English as it does in original Finnish – are likely to take many forms. In effect, we are the exact opposite of what we are claimed to be: far from advocating one-size-fits-all solutions or demanding that the world follow our technocratic directives, we acknowledge that the planet is vast, the problems are multifarious, and there is likely to be room for all kinds of partial solutions.

I have stated, numerous times, that I’m extremely happy and intrigued of initiatives like eco-villages, “small is beautiful” and resilience movements, degrowth, small-scale farming, and the like. To the extent that these help us reduce our environmental footprint, or at least increase our well-being while not being too destructive of the environment, I’m an ardent supporter, and as long as I have anything to say about it, so is the broader ecomodernist movement.

However, what seems to separate ecomodernists from many more traditional environmental activists is that we do not believe there is ever going to be “the” solution to our environmental predicament – which should probably be classified as a “condition” rather than a problem, since “problem” implies something we can solve once and for all, whereas “condition” more accurately reflects the position we’re in. We do not believe, for example, that small-scale ecovillages of the sort advocated by Dr. Trainer are going to be the universal be-all-end-all solution, nor that solar power, wind turbines or nuclear power will be the only sources of electricity, nor that growth should be pursued everywhere. Whenever I follow discussion among more traditional environmentalists, I tend to note that there is a strong tendency to focus on some pet idea, and even argue that those who don’t agree are stupid. Witness, for example, how quite a few people commenting at argue that the root of all our problems is population growth, and that everything else is subordinate to it.

(This line of thinking is unfortunate and unproductive escapism, and sometimes borderline – even openly – racist. Human population peak at about 9 to 11 billion sometime this century is for all intents and purposes already baked into system, given that population growth is not driven by fertility but by increased life expectancy, and significant changes to human population would therefore require reducing the life expectancy of billions. In legal terms, the required processes are generally defined as “murder” or “wrongful death.” The population growth doomsayers rarely go into explicit details on how they would achieve desired human population reductions, but perhaps they should: and after being explicit about whose life expectancies they’d be cutting and by what means, I would also welcome discussion as to what is stopping them from starting from cleaning their own stables first, that is, from themselves – be the change you want to see in the world!)

We ecomodernists explicitly reject this kind of magic-bulletism. There will be room for all sorts of solutions and initiatives, and it is highly likely that a solution that works at one context will not work in all contexts. Similarly, if a solution does not work in one context, it does not necessarily follow that it won’t work in any context. To me, this is the key reason to be ecomodernist: I can look at initiatives on a case by case basis, without the prejudices and pressures existing and established environmental movements place on solving the environmental problems using the solutions they have defined to be “good,” sometimes three or four decades ago and often in a very different place from where I’m living. To take just one example, it is an axiom of traditional environmental movement that much of our electricity should be produced by solar panels. But here, north of 60° latitude and absent major breakthroughs in energy storage (which, as an ecomodernist, I’m hoping for but not counting on), such a solution is currently practical for about four months of the year. For another four months, the solution is no solution whatsoever; and in general, installing more solar panels in Finland is actually likely to increase total emissions, as grid electricity can be obtained with less CO2 emissions and environmental damage than what is the average lifecycle emissions for solar PV electricity.

Furthermore, I have always argued and will continue to argue that ecomodernism is very fundamentally a local movement. Our case by case approach cannot function otherwise: I simply do not have the temerity to lecture to people elsewhere how exactly they should go on living and solving the environmental crises they face, albeit I’d be more than happy to offer help and assistance if I can. But local context matters a very great deal indeed, and cookie-cutter solutions are highly unlikely to take root outside from the context where they’ve been baked. Right now, a major issue and a goal for ecomodernism is to nurture more local chapters that could begin to work on environmental issues relevant to them, in ways and using tools and solutions that are relevant to where they live. It remains to be seen whether we can achieve that, or whether ecomodernism is nothing more than a flash in a pan; but given the massive interest for ecomodernist ideas from many corners of the world, I’m hopeful we can bring more and more people to the environmental movement.

And that, to me, is a major reason for supporting ecomodernism. We’ve already demonstrated that we are not competing with existing environmental movements: rather, we are bringing into environmental activism people who so far have felt themselves excluded from it. It is easy to understand why this may be so: in traditional environmental movements, you had to accept the predefined problems, solutions and ideas more or less wholesale, or you risked being excluded from the group. This may even explain why ecomodernism has been so strongly identified with pro-nuclear power and pro-genetic engineering: many of those now finding ecomodernism felt themselves excluded from traditional environmentalism because they dared to question the unyielding opposition to both of these technologies. I, for one, certainly felt myself unwelcome in any traditional organization, even though I shared probably 90% of their thinking and values.

I repeat: we share most of the values with you, our dear critics from the traditional environmental movement. Many, if not most of us, are sympathetic to most things you are doing, even though there are also those who heap scorn on what they see as “wrong” roads to more sustainable future. This faction undeniably exists, just as there exists a faction within traditional environmental movement that sees ecomodernism as the worst kind of heresy and therefore the mortal enemy of environmentalism as they understand it. After all, humans have a tendency to reserve their most virulent hate not towards those who disagree with them on most issues, but to those who agree on most things but not all: perhaps such heretics are seen as a real threat to the in-group in a way total outsiders can never be. This is regrettable, and I’d like to find ways on how to bridge the chasm separating us. After all, there are many sectors where we certainly could cooperate for a better world for us all.

None of this means I wish to stifle any criticism. Criticism helps us improve, and I’ve been very happy to read the thoughtful pieces mentioned in this text. I shall be returning the favor in the future by expressing the reasons why I reject the small-is-beautiful approaches and “ecoprimitivism.” I shall also make some notes why I believe the statement “growth cannot go on” – which Dr. Trainer and others routinely but with little reflection trot out against proposals that do not include drastic decreases in world’s affluence – may be true, but a bold claim at very best; but until that time, thank you for reading, and good weathers and happy life.

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In Memoriam: Sir David JC MacKay FRS, a pioneer of pro-arithmetic energy discussion

Hearing that someone you admire is about to die is, to put it simply, shocking. Hearing this after you have poked the said person with e-mails to ask where’s the foreword he promised is even more so.

This was how I, unfortunately, learned that David JC MacKay was about to leave us far too soon. Back in autumn 2015, me and Rauli had just finished our “COP21 Edition” of Climate Gamble, and in the hectic days when we were preparing to print and hand out 5000 books during the Paris climate negotiations, we got a “great” idea: what if David JC MacKay wrote a foreword to the COP21 edition?

We both admired prof. MacKay greatly. His 2008 book, “Sustainable Energy: Without Hot Air,remains the best overview of the energy/environment problem, its scale, and the potential solutions. It is fair to say that this book, more than any other, was the inspiration for us to try to write a no-nonsense book about nuclear energy and its potential role in the climate fight. I cannot praise enough David’s skill in conveying sometimes quite difficult concepts with quick back of the envelope calculations and lucid phrase; nor can I heap enough praise for his adamant demand to make the book completely freely available over the Internet. These decisions ensured that a relatively unknown professor from Cambridge became probably one of the most influential voices in the global energy/climate/environment discussion. Fortunately, his skills were recognized by the British government, which recruited him as the Chief Scientific Advisor for Department of Energy and Climate Change in 2009 and eventually knighted him in 2016. Notably, he was not a professor of environmental sciences: his own research concerned machine learning and neural networks!

Perhaps the greatest strength of his approach in Without Hot Air was its neutral tone. Professor MacKay presented the facts as he saw them, often derived from fundamental physics. By now, some of the calculations and assumptions in the book are beginning to be a bit dated and one may always take issue with a turn of phrase here and there, but the gist of the message remains solid: while renewable energy and energy efficiency are often great options and should be promoted, relying solely on renewable energy and efficiency is a risky strategy that may leave the Earth’s citizens burning fossil fuels to slake their thirst for reliable energy. As he noted in one of the many talks he gave about the subject, he was not pro-nuclear, but pro-arithmetic. The plan was not important: what was important was that the numbers added up.

Independently, we had come to similar conclusions and began to write a book detailing the “nuclear option.” At the time, we thought that having an endorsement in form of foreword from such a colossus would be undeniably helpful to us – as it indeed was. Little we knew that he had been just diagnosed with stomach cancer, advanced enough so that surgery was no longer an option. I recall thinking he must be busy with other things and mailed him at least four times, each plea a bit more urgent as our printer’s deadline approached. Finally, we received the foreword to our inboxes; in the message, he apologized for the delay as he had just got out of chemotherapy.

Needless to say, we were mortified, and dashed off letters of apology and support. We really should have read his blog, where he discussed the disease and its progress with heartrending openness. Probably for the rest of my life, I will feel bad for not doing my homework and taking precious time from him and his family, even though I’m extremely glad he wrote the foreword – and a good one, too.

One of my great regrets is that I never had the chance to know him personally, particularly as we have some mutual acquaintances and everyone spoke so highly of him – not just as an intellectual, but as a great guy to be around. A particularly nice account of David MacKay and the birth of Without Hot Air has been written by its publisher; my brief e-mail encounters fully support the picture of a man painted there. Unfortunately, I’m no poet and my words cannot do justice to what I feel, so I’ll just say that I thought David to be a very smart, very kind man who cared deeply: and not just that, but a true scientist to heart, following the evidence wherever it may lead.

David JC MacKay, father of two, husband, knight, professor, Fellow of the Royal Society, passed away on 14th April 2016, at 48 years of age. Too soon by far, but one may find some consolation in the thought that life should not be measured in years, but in deeds. At least by this measure, he truly lived. Although David himself may now be beyond hearing, I want to tell to his family, friends and acquaintances that he will be missed by people who never even knew him; and even though we will have trouble living up to the standards he set in his work and in his approach, we’ll try our best.

You can donate in memory of David MacKay to Arthur Rank Hospice Charity, which supports people in Cambridgeshire who are living with a life-limiting illness. To celebrate his memory, I’d also encourage anyone who’s not done so already to read his book, and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t. Let’s form the greatest study circle in history, shall we? – and let’s make sure his ideas and his methods remain in circulation and serve as a basis for even more measured and reasonable discussion about the great problem of the 21st Century.



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Do not conflate environmentalism with technology advocacy: a response to the Ecologist

As ordinary citizens with long interest and concern for environmental issues, we were gratified to see our book, Climate Gamble, being noticed on the pages of the Ecologist (Nuclear lobbyists’ epic COP21 fail. Our next job? Keep their hands off climate funds, Jim Green, 16th Dec 2015). We believe it is high time these issues are mentioned in a magazine that claims to have been “setting the environmentalist agenda since 1970.”

This is because the world is changing and the established environmental agenda is no longer the only game in environmentalist town. We understand this upsets some members of the entrenched environmentalist elite, but feel that we have no choice in the matter. For close to half a century now, the traditional environmentalist movement has been trying to convert the world’s peoples to its vision of “sustainable” future. We are the first to acknowledge it has enjoyed considerable and most welcome successes here and there. But so far, everything that has been tried has failed even to stop the growth of CO2 emissions, let alone drive them down to sustainable levels.

We in the new ecomodernist movement believe this state of affairs will unfortunately continue as long as being an “environmental activist” implicitly means the acceptance of the strictures of this traditional movement. The party line of traditional environmentalism is dominated by Western-centric discourse of apocalypse and redemption, Leftist political thought, and extremely black and white views on specific technologies and of people. Technologies in particular tend to be seen either as wholly good or wholly bad, while strictest censure seems to be reserved not to people who oppose environmental action, but to people who agree with traditional environmentalism on many but not all issues: witness, for example, a related vicious attack calling James Hansen of all people a climate denier — simply because he’s afraid we do not have enough tools to stop dangerous climate change!

We believe that in order to have a chance against climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental problems, the environmental movement needs to break out from its traditional self-righteous, self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating niche. Me and Rauli, the writers of Climate Gamble, both agree with approximately nine tenths of what the traditional environmental movement is preaching: but we also recognise that there are many who, for various reasons, cannot see themselves supporting the creed of traditional environmentalism.

The irony is that many of these people are genuinely concerned about the environment and the future of our planet. There are obviously those who couldn’t care less, and others who benefit from environmental degradation; but among those who view traditional environmentalism with suspicion are also thoughtful and concerned people who can be mobilised for the environmental cause. However, to do so we need to provide them with alternative environmental movements.

In our case, we have been building the new ecomodernist movement to unite those who care deeply about the environmental and social justice but disagree with traditional environmentalist party line on some of the methods used to reach those goals. What Jim Green and the Ecologist got entirely wrong in their article is the idea that our goal is to split or divide the environmental movement. In fact, we have been among the founders of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland precisely because we wish to avoid such a split.

For years now, there has been a budding civil war between environmentalists who have come to question some of the tenets of traditional environmentalism — the unflinching opposition to nuclear power being one example — and the traditional environmental establishment. We, who feel the threat of climate change outweighs the disadvantages of nuclear power, have tried to influence traditional movements with facts and argument. However, we now realise this strategy has been predicated on a fundamental error. Certain cherished stances such as opposition to nuclear power tend to be deeply rooted questions of identity, and many individuals are unlikely to ever change their stance on the matter. There are good arguments against nuclear power, and undoubtedly there will be in the future.

We believe that trying to “split” the traditional environmental movement is futile. What’s worse, it’s counterproductive: at this hour, everyone concerned about the environment or the future of humanity needs to work together. Time spent on internecine attacks is time not spent on fighting the real enemy, the fossil fuel interests. Therefore, we are not even trying to split the environmental movement: we are trying to add to it. By providing a platform for people who care about the environment but for some reason or another do not care about the existing environmental organisations, we mobilise more people for the environmental cause. In a recent Facebook poll, nearly 60 percent of Finnish Ecomodernists (the most rapidly growing environmental movement in Finland, by the way) had never been active in any environmental movement whatsoever. Some of those marched for the environment for the first time in the 29th November Climate March in Helsinki. Is bringing more people to environmental activism really a bad thing?

Only by conflating environmentalism with anti-nuclear activism and uncritical renewable energy boosterism — which unfortunately seems to be fairly common — can one sustain the false belief that we aren’t environmentalists. We care about our common planet just as much and sometimes more than traditional environmentalists: for me, for example, one key reason to promote nuclear as well was the insufficient ambition of traditional environmental movement’s decarbonisation scenarios. Other reasons include concern about huge land areas that would be harnessed for human use in more ambitious renewable energy scenarios (WWF, for example, suggests using more acreage to energy farms alone than the world currently uses for wheat, its most important cereal crop), concerns about sustainability of large-scale biomass use, or worries about the impact of dams or vastly increased mining activity required to supply materials for the spread of the “windustrial complex.” We are deeply alarmed how the traditional environmental movement has become, in effect, an uncritical advocate for a very particular techno-political regime, one with potentially major environmental and social impacts.

In summary, we believe things are not as black and white as the traditional environmentalist establishment seems to want us to believe. We also believe in cooperation and in healthy debate and want to work harder in the future to avoid painting anyone as “enemy” — particularly not those who already agree with us on most things. This is no time for making enemies: there are already plenty enough among those who’d benefit from continued fossil fuel use.

We also believe in evidence-based policy making. As of now, evidence still suggests that even the best achievements of renewable energy, laudable as they are, have come nowhere close to achieving the carbon cuts now needed. In fact, as we make clear in Climate Gamble, the decarbonisation records are still held by countries who decarbonised by accident, with nuclear power.


Best 10-year per capita decarbonisation rates achieved. From CDIAC data.

Furthermore, evidence also suggests that scenarios where world energy demand is to be met with renewables alone make heroic assumptions about reducing total energy demand, while simultaneously assuming even more heroic increases in build rates of new energy generation.


Sustained energy efficiency increase and new energy build rates that are required for 100% RE and technology neutral climate mitigation. Based on Loftus et al. (2015), A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 6(1), 93-112.

Had Jim Green bothered to read our book or check the statistics himself, he would have learned that our assertion he ridicules is perfectly correct. Even the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 nuclear project in Finland turns out to be very fast way of adding low-carbon energy production, when this is compared in any meaningful way to any real-world combination of alternatives. In terms of kilowatt hours of generation added per capita (a comparison that actually downplays what nuclear energy has historically done: a GDP- or PPP-normalised comparison would have been even more relevant), Olkiluoto 3 turns out to be some 50% faster (or better, depending on your viewpoint) than the entire wind power project of Denmark, for example – and well over two times faster than the oft-lauded accomplishments of Germany in both wind and solar combined. Granted, we believe and earnestly hope that these renewable records will be broken in the future, but it is still clear that even badly managed nuclear projects can add substantial chunks of low-carbon energy generation reasonably rapidly. Nuclear is no silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool we shouldn’t dismiss lightly. What’s more, we believe we should work towards solving the problems of nuclear power, not just point them out: for example, developing new reactor types to deal with long-lived waste should be a priority for everyone concerned about nuclear waste.


We are not as arrogant as to claim to know how exactly the world is powered in 2050, 35 years from now. Questions such as these are highly complex and there are no exact answers. We only believe that it is far too early to entirely foreclose some options for the entire planet. We also believe that the desire for some to do so has more to do with all too human tendencies for ex post rationalisation, confirmation bias and groupthink than with genuinely balanced appraisal of alternatives.

If we now oppose nuclear power yet fail to prevent dangerous climate change — a future that seems uncomfortably likely — future generations will continue to ask for as long as humanity survives: might the rising seas have been stopped in time and the deadly heat waves been avoided, or at least mitigated, if only nuclear power hadn’t been opposed so strenuously?

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Environmentalists need to focus on what we can agree with


Finnish Ecomodernists at a Climate March, 29.11.15. Photo by Meri Tuuli Lauranto.

Greetings from Paris! Despite considerable logistical difficulties, we’ve managed to hand out nearly 2000 copies of Climate Gamble to interested people around COP21 climate conference; many thanks to everyone who’ve supported our campaign so far.

As expected, there has been some criticism. Many people sincerely believe nuclear power has unacceptable risks or drawbacks, or that nuclear industry is part of the problem rather than the solution.

This line of reasoning is entirely valid and supported by strong arguments. Nuclear power is far from the problem-free solution it is sometimes portrayed as, and nuclear industry hasn’t been exactly the shining paragon of good corporate citizenship. While there are some bad arguments against nuclear power (CO2 emissions, for example: lifecycle emissions are broadly similar to lifecycle emissions of wind power), there are also good arguments and very smart, sincere people behind the anti-nuclear position.

We obviously disagree with some of the conclusions that are made from the same premises. Our chief disagreement is in whether we need nuclear power or not, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. We believe it may be possible to power the global society with renewables alone, but we are afraid that without nuclear, we are taking more risks in the climate fight than we should take. This is not an isolated opinion: among others, some very influential climate scientists are saying the exact same things. Furthermore, reviews of non-nuclear climate mitigation scenarios find consistently that they are dependent on a large set of hopes and assumptions becoming reality.

While it is far from certain that we can do the job even with nuclear, the amount of lucky breaks humanity needs is almost certainly smaller if we allow ourselves to use all the options. If we fail to mitigate climate change while denouncing nuclear power, our descendants – if there are any – will forever wonder whether the crisis might have been averted or at least its worst impacts mitigated if nuclear energy had not been opposed so strenuously. We think we owe it to future generations human and nonhuman to at least keep an open mind regarding potential solutions to one of humanity’s greatest challenges so far.

But even more important, in my opinion, is that we allow those who are concerned about our common home to join forces. It seems highly improbable much progress will be made if those concerned about the environment or social justice devote one hand to fighting those who agree with the broad goals, but disagree over some specifics of the strategy. This is one of the key reasons why I’m involved in the fledgling Ecomodernist movement: I want to help provide a platform for those who have felt excluded from traditional environmental activism, because they happen to be in some disagreement with some of the values and premises of the traditional environmentalism.

This year’s Climate March was advertised with the words “if we want to change everything, we need everybody.” There is much truth in these words. If the label “environmental activist,” for example, is reserved for only those who subscribe to the tenets of the traditional movement, it is painfully clear we will fail. In the timeframe we have available at least (less than 35 years), there are simply no prospects whatsoever for “converting” the required majority of world’s population to accept a set of values and premises that are highly Western-centric, Leftist, and make some very strong assumptions about particular technologies for example.

Instead of hoping a mass conversion and adoption of traditional environmental values hook, line and sinker, I believe environmental activists need to reach out to those who’ve been excluded so far. This year, the Ecomodernist movement brought about dozen people to march for climate in Helsinki. Only a dozen, because we organised our participation on a very short notice; but dozens more indicated they would like to participate in the future. With one or two exceptions, not one of them had ever demonstrated for the environment: most hadn’t ever been in a demonstration of any kind.

Perhaps you believe the environmental movement can do without these people. Perhaps you even believe it should do without. If you think so, I think you are wrong. In the aftermath, there were obviously some who questioned why we carried banners supporting low-carbon energy – nuclear power. But the wisest comment came from a self-described opponent of nuclear power: this is a time when we should concentrate on what we have in common, rather than focusing on what separates us.

I heartily agree. These words, among others, have already influenced my thinking. In the past, I’ve been highly critical of traditional environmentalists and sometimes attacked them rather viciously for being “dumb” in their opposition to nuclear power, or in their support for highly destructive practices such as widespread bioenergy use just because it’s nominally “renewable.” I apologise for being such a jerk and try to rein it in, preferably stopping it entirely. We really do need to focus on what we have in common: our concern for our common home and those whose home it is.

It is true, as several critics have pointed out, that many “new” environmentalists have been highly aggressive towards existing environmentalism and environmentalists. I’ve been one of those aggressive people, after all. I think this needs to stop, if we want to change things rather than flaunt ourselves to the small circle of like-minded people. There is no joy nor hope in trying to convert traditional environmentalists to wholeheartedly support nuclear power, for example: the goal is just as futile as the goal of converting the majority of the world to the values of traditional environmentalism. For the most part, all such efforts will achieve is a pat in the back from those who already agree.

Instead of scoring points among the already converted, I think ecomodernism and future environmental movements, which I believe will emerge, should focus on those who care but haven’t been able to work within existing platforms to channel their energy towards the overall goal: of building a better world for everyone.

An aside about heresies

Nevertheless, I think it is instructive to try to think why there have been so vicious infighting between people who call themselves environmentalists. In Monty Python’s fantastic Life of Brian, there is a brilliant scene where hapless Brian mistakes the activists of anti-Roman People’s Front of Judea for the activists of Judean People’s Front. As explained by Reg, the leader of the People’s Front,

The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.

The scene is hilarious because it is firmly based in reality. We humans seem to have a tendency to reserve most scorn not for those who disagree with us in everything, but for those with who we have more in common. The one who disagrees with us in everything is simply an implacable, inhuman enemy, not worth a dialogue. He must only be destroyed; once every enemy is destroyed, a Final Victory will occur for those who share the True Faith.

But the one who agrees with many things yet disagrees on some points is worse: he is a heretic, or a traitor. Heretics may be reconverted to the True Faith and their souls saved; traitors have a reserved seat in Hell.

As you may have guessed already, much of this dichotomy may stem from the Western cultural tradition that is heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions. These religions have clearly defined “us” against “them” and very black and white visions of “good” versus “evil.” (Thanks to the thoughtful student of Hindu environmental activism for pointing this out to me. If someone ever again says there’s no benefit from studying different cultures, I’m going to be quite angry.)

It just may be that such deep, unconscious, culturally embedded frameworks of heretics and traitors may explain some reasons why many environmental activists in the West at least have lately been bashing each other. I, too, shared this worldview: the traditional environmentalists are so much like me in almost every respect that I have hoped to convert them to the One True Faith of atomic powered future. In effect, I’ve been trying to persuade what I see as heretics in order to save their souls. Likewise, many have tried to convert me to renouncing the Atomic Devil.

And when these efforts fail as they usually do, we’re billed as traitors and enemies to the movement, to be excommunicated from the presence of the faithful. To many, it seems to be hard to accept one may be very much for environmental and social justice while still supporting nuclear power. To others, not supporting nuclear power at this juncture seems the very epitome of stupidity or worse. Witness, for example, the regularly surfacing insinuations that those who disagree must be in the pay of some nefarious organisations. It is probably far easier to believe the disagreement stems from selfish motives than to face the fact that there may be persons who agree with you on most but not all things.

That said, there are also legitimate corporate lobbyists interspersed among both “new” and “traditional” environmentalism. There really are people employed by the nuclear industry PR departments, for example. Likewise, the traditional environmental movement works closely – in my opinion, somewhat too closely – with renewable energy industries and their lobbying groups, taking their claims a bit too uncritically. In accordance with the rest of this article, I think we need to be in speaking terms with these lobbyists as well: based on my experience, most of them are decent people who want to do good. But we must not let them define what we want to do. Personally, I believe one reason to support the inclusion of nuclear power within climate change efforts is to keep the renewable industry on their toes: if we exclude potential competition, we increase the risk that these very large and powerful industries may capture the climate mitigation movement entirely. There are a lot of good people in the renewable industries; but they are still companies, still obliged to make a profit, with all the potential consequences this brings in our current form of economic system.

(The same text is published at the web site of our book, Climate Gamble.)

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The gamble gamblers won’t take

Anti-nuclear activists say we should bet the fate of the planet on the assumption their energy scenarios are correct and everyone else is wrong. But when pressed in private, even they do not believe themselves.

This is the realisation I had after listening to Robert Stone, director of documentary Pandora’s Promise, debate an anti-nuclear activist at the screening of Promise in Paris during the COP21 climate negotiations. In the debate, Stone deftly argued that future generations will not forgive us if we do not try everything we can to avert dangerous climate change. Particularly if we fail, our children will curse us if there is any doubt we could have averted the horrors by trying just one more thing. In response, the anti-nuclear activist from WISE, an organisation adamantly opposed to giving nuclear power any role anywhere, argued that renewables could do everything — provided we are very careful about how much we use energy. In the energy scenarios he preferred, world energy use stays at current levels, even as the world population grows to nine or ten billion and the poor aspire to higher standards of living.

No matter that aside from anti-nuclear activists and reports commissioned by them, not one credible scientific assessment believes the world energy use is even going to stagnate, let alone fall. As Robert Stone pointed out, in every other scenario the world energy use will grow as we get closer to 2050. The “WISE” activist nevertheless argued that we should not use all the means at our disposal, finally pleading that we need emission reductions in the next five to ten years and that can only be delivered from energy efficiency and renewables.

After the audience had departed, I remained with few others to hand out free copies of our book, Climate Gamble. It was then when I overheard a remarkable conversation: Robert Stone asked the departing activist to make a simple bet. In ten years, would the world energy consumption rise or fall from current levels?

The activist refused with the following words: “It will rise, though it should fall.”

This was, I reiterate, a stunning admission. The activist had just spent nearly an hour arguing that there is no need to use all the low-carbon energy options we have, because we can reach our goals if only we lower our energy consumption enough. Furthermore, the next five to ten years are when the important things need to happen.

Yet when pressed in private, the activist flatly refused to believe himself the only hope he was giving to humanity at large. He directly admitted the future he wants isn’t going to happen, yet he still opposes any alternatives.

I’ve heard similar duplicity before in this matter, as have many others. Robert Stone in fact cited the disparity between public and private statements as a reason why a previously anti-nuclear filmmaker would make a strongly pro-nuclear documentary. His previous project had been a documentary about the history of the environmental movement in North America. During filming, he had spoken to nearly every person of importance in the movement. These were the people who are publicly optimistic about the progress of renewable energy and flat out refuse to consider any need for nuclear power even as climate pledge after pledge fails to produce meaningful results. Yet without exception, Stone said, in private conversations they believed the humanity is doomed. Many have chosen not to have children.

There were some optimists, though. A minority believed there was hope, even if it might require us to thread a very careful path through the future. These people had seen what nuclear energy could do.

I well recall my own Damascus moment in this matter. After doing the math myself, it became apparent the lofty promises of renewable-only supporters were at best a gamble with extraordinary low odds and stupendously high stakes. Despair resulted; I seriously considered quitting the civilisation and moving to a lakeside cabin to practice fishing. Finally, I began to take a serious look at nuclear energy and realised the very same gamblers have been distorting, omitting and simply refusing very important facts about it. These gamblers are the heirs of the successful environmental movement of the 1980s, a movement where opposition to nuclear power is an unquestionable axiom. As someone with graduate studies in organisation science, I perfectly understand how these values continue to influence and distort decision-making today.

But if the end result is that even the outspoken activists do not believe what they are saying would ever happen, I’d say any person seriously concerned about the environment should take a very hard look at their beliefs and ask the simple question: are there any alternative strategies that give us more options, more hope?

I ask the readers: when in a debate about the energy/climate question, please ask the anti-nuclear side the same question. Does he or she believe the world energy use is going to fall in ten years? If not, how he/she then can believe what s/he is proposing?


EDIT: On a suggestion from a friend, I’d like to make perfectly, abundantly, 100% crystal clear the outcome of my own analysis of this matter: we definitely need at least almost every option we currently have. This means we must use renewables, we must practice energy conservation, and we must continue using and developing nuclear energy. We very likely are going to need carbon capture and storage (CCS) and probably we should also look into geoengineering, for insurance at least.

I’ve stated numerous times in writing that I actually think renewables will and should be in the first line against climate change. But nuclear is such an important source of low-carbon energy that when we can build it, we should. I’m not for nuclear power; I’m against climate change, for the environment, and pro-humanity. Not to use all the options is an irresponsible gamble with the future of the planet at stake. Not even to consider some of the options is even worse.

Finally, I believe the activist from WISE is wrong: we have more than five to ten years to make a difference. Furthermore, if that’s all we have, the goose is cooked and so is everything else. The meme “we need only those options that we can build in five to ten years” seems to find support mostly because it conveniently allows one to discount nuclear power entirely, no matter that in just slightly longer timespans it can make a huge difference. This is illustrated by France, for example, which went from 20% to 80% low carbon electricity in 11 years. Contrast to Germany, which seeks to achieve the same goal by 2050. That’s 60 years after France.

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Finnish Ecomodernists marching for climate solutions


Helsinki Climate March, 29th Nov 2015. Photo (c) Meela Leino. One Ecomodernist banner is visible on the right; another one was attacked, unfortunately.


Ecomodernists on the move. “Lisää ydinvoimaa” = “More nuclear power.” Photo (c) Meri-Tuuli Lauranto

Last Sunday, members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society participated in the worldwide Climate March in Helsinki. This was probably the first time ecomodernists took part in a demonstration, and as such, a historical moment.

The ecomodernist message is clear: we need all the options at our disposal to stave off the climate crisis. This means, among other things, support for all low-carbon forms of energy, including nuclear power. With the future of our one habitable planet at risk, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Even though renewable energy is showing great promise, it and energy efficiency alone may not be enough. At minimum, we need an insurance policy, a “plan B,” in case the great promises now made of renewables do not pan out.

After all, we’ve heard great promises before. In the 1950s discussions, nuclear energy was treated very much in the same way renewable energy is touted today. Unlimited nuclear energy was supposed to solve almost every world problem imaginable, from providing cheap power to desalinising seawater and making the deserts bloom (!). As late as in the 1970s, serious analysts suggested that by 2000, there would be little need for any other energy source than nuclear.

Then, reality intervened. Things rarely go as smoothly as the ardent promoters of new technologies hope for. Unexpected and ignored problems crop up. To the dismay of those who make their predictions by placing a ruler on the exponential phase of an S-curve, growth slows down and eventually stops. It is all but certain this will happen with renewables as well: the sixty four billion trillion dollar question is when this will happen.

Possibly it will happen only after the world economy has been decarbonised to the extent required. But possibly it will happen much earlier. The signs are ominous: new renewable energy installations are already slowing down in countries with the largest amount of wind and solar power already installed. This is bad news. For in these countries, “new” renewables account for no more than a fraction of total energy demand. Decarbonisation goals are still far away, and the required growth is slowing down, not accelerating.

In the Climate March, ecomodernists asked a question: For the love of our planet, what if the vocal proponents of 100% renewable energy are wrong? If they are wrong only in timing of renewable revolution, the results could still be very bad. If they are wrong in both timing and extent of the revolution, the outcome could well be catastrophic.

What if the IPCC median forecasts of world energy use and renewable potential are closer to the truth?

Plenty of good discussion followed afterwards, particularly on the Facebook page of the event. Even many who disagreed whether we need nuclear energy agreed that the climate problem is so vast we now need to work together and focus on what we have in common: the desire to retain a living, vibrant world for future generations human and nonhuman. It is easy to agree with the sentiment: after all, we’re not opposing any low-carbon energy form nor advocating against other climate change solutions.

Yet as expected, this question ruffled some feathers. Ecomodernists were challenged and one of our banners forced down; hence, it isn’t visible in the group photo. This was to be expected. But we cannot, we should not, and we will not be prevented from asking the question.

Far too much is at risk.

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Press release: Thousands of Climate Gamble books to be handed out in Paris

If you’re in Paris for the COP21, come find us (or drop us a line) and get your free copy of Climate Gamble, special COP21 edition!

Climate Gamble

About five thousand free copies of Climate Gamble will be handed out to negotiators and activists gathering in Paris for the COP21 climate negotiations. The authors behind this independent book phenomenon on climate gamble and its solutions, Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen, collected funds for this unprecedented print run through non-profit crowdfunding campaign. The essential facts are as follows:

  1. The book lays out the scale of climate challenge, as understood by most recent scientific studies, and the scope of solutions proposed to mitigate the dangers. Through IPCC and other studies, the book shows that mitigation plans that rely on renewable energy and energy efficiency alone are highly unlikely to succeed in time: we now need all the options, including nuclear power.
  2. The book also shows how the global anti-nuclear movement has consistently twisted and misrepresented the facts and even resorted to fabricated statistics as it continues its 1980-era battle against nuclear energy…

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