A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling. (Reblogged)

In the following post, Nicholas Thompson performs a very good examination of the much-publicized study that sought to “prove” commitment to nuclear power slows down CO2 emission reductions. Well, turns out the paper suffers from a basic math error – among other problems. Correcting the error turns the conclusions upside down and shows countries with active nuclear policy achieve on average better emission reductions, but I have a suspicion these corrections will not be reported as widely as the original paper. Nevertheless, here goes:

A few months ago I read a paper, “Nuclear energy and path dependence in Europe’s ‘Energy union’: coherence or continued divergence?” and after reading it,…

Source: A Response to Lawrence, Sovacool, and Stirling.

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Justifying liberalism and socialism without God (a commentary to Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens”)

There’s no need to invoke a belief in supernatural deity in order to believe that all humans are equally important and should be treated with as much equality as possible. In fact, striving for equitable treatment for all is one of the few solid conclusions we can draw from all philosophy.

I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. While I’ve been enjoying the book so far, I’m also somewhat let down by Harari’s apparent dislike of liberalism and “socialist humanism” (as he calls movements that seek greater equality for all humans). In a particularly egregious passage, Harari argues that both liberalism and humanism cannot be justified without a belief in a supreme being (pages 260 and 270 in particular in the Finnish translation). According to Harari, without eternal souls and a creator god who created all humans equal, liberals and humanists “have great trouble” explaining what’s so special in individual members of Homo Sapiens. Therefore, without God, there’s really no justification for trying to treat people equally.

I’m fairly certain Harari is wrong. While there’s no denying that the Christian tradition has influenced humanism, I for one find no need to believe in souls or creation to think that individual humans are special, have the same intrinsic worth and should be treated equally as far as possible. The reason for doing so is perhaps best formulated by philosopher John Rawls in his rightly famous principle, the Veil of Uncertainty.

The Veil of Uncertainty is a thought experiment that helps answer what is a just society, and it’s deceptively simple: what kind of society would you prefer if you didn’t know in advance where and with what endowments – such as looks, intelligence, health, or inherited wealth – you will be born?

Put simply, this is “just” a reformulation of the Golden Rule (treat others as you’d like them to treat you). While the Golden Rule is most famously known from Christian tradition, it has been developed by non-religious thinkers as well. The Golden Rule and the Veil of Uncertainty are not religious per se, and require no belief in supernatural to follow. Nevertheless, these two rules provide a sound (in my opinion, the soundest I’ve yet found) basis for making decisions that involve other people.

A desire for equality and a confirmation of intrinsic human worth flow directly from these two maxims. However we wish to implement them, the end result more or less resembles what Harari believes follows only (or even mostly) from a belief in undying souls that are equally important.

For example, if we healty people think of a society we’d prefer if we were born not with our current health endowment but with some significant disability, we’d most likely prefer a society where even the most grievously disabled are cared for, valued, and provided with the necessities for a life worth living. Similarly, if we didn’t know in advance where and with what inherited wealth (societal or family) we’d be born with, surely we should prefer a society where income differentials are moderate and even a very bad luck of birth doesn’t render us destitute?

Likewise for the Golden Rule: if I want that people would treat me equitably if I’m down on my luck, it’s probably the best to try to treat people who are down on their luck equitably.

No need to think about gods or souls, no need even for a “right” or “wrong.” What’s needed are only one belief and one desire: first, a desire to make a difference in the world, and second, a belief that environmental factors have an influence in person’s life. And that, it seems, is a fairly well-justified assumption.

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Dear Scots; vote again, we want toll-free haggis


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Energy transitions: is everything different this time?

The debate about whether transition to low-carbon energy would be faster or slower than previous energy transitions somewhat misses the point. The real problem is whether this time everything is different and whether the low-carbon energy revolution will be complete enough – and for that question, history suggests some very sobering answers.

Last week, the estimable David Roberts a.k.a. @drvox wrote an interesting and optimistic article arguing that while previous energy transitions have been protracted affairs, the current clean-energy transition might be faster. I advise all of you to read the piece, and in general whatever Mr. Roberts writes: in response to critics such as energy polymath Vaclav Smil, who point to historical record and argue that energy transitions tend to take decades, he makes some very good points about factors that truly could help speed up the clean-energy revolution. Moreover, broadly similar sentiments are very common in energy discussions. Typically, they are expressed by energy and climate optimists, particularly those who argue that the necessary energy revolution required to stave off the worst effects of climate change while bringing reliable energy to billions now without can be achieved using only renewable energy technologies.

In fact, in my experience such techno-optimism is a major factor underpinning the renewable only-optimists’ positions. Furthermore, optimism about the coming energy revolution (any day now! Prepare your green banners and save roofspace for solar PV kits!) serves as a major fig-leaf that allows states to fail to act more forcefully on climate: if a revolution is about to happen anyway, then the technological rabbit-from-hat miracle will solve this thorny issue without anyone having to ask difficult questions about, for example, whether we humans and other Earthly life exist here for the purposes of financial economy or whether it should be the other way around.

The question, “can the clean-energy revolution deliver”, is therefore of some importance. Mr. Roberts argues it could: energy transitions have been slow but they don’t have to be. In his view, energy technologies are now developing far more rapidly than before.

He ascribes this development speed to energy technologies becoming smaller and for information replacing hardware in both the design and use of energy resources. According to him, there are now energy options at all levels, ranging from kilowatt-sized home power plants to gigawatt-scale industrial facilities, and this enables innovation to be spread across dozens or hundreds of parties instead of handful of utilities. As a result, smaller technologies iterate and improve faster.

At the same time, better design tools and improved understanding of materials and technology enable energy system designers to design more efficient or cheaper energy technologies, while software revolution drives the development of the system as a whole and enables novel approaches, such as the aggregated use of multiple distributed batteries as one “super battery” able to meet demands that individual, distributed batteries cannot.

All these arguments are familiar to most people who’ve followed the energy debate closely enough, and all of them are true enough. The problem is that we’ve been here before, yet the energy transitions have nevertheless been slow and incomplete affairs.

That damnable S-curve strikes again

One of the major findings in the study of technology has been that practically all technologies go through somewhat similar lifecycles. Initial discoveries – in the words of noted technology economist Brian Arthur1, the “harnessing of a phenomena” for the first time – that in theory enable a particular technology to be contemplated are generally followed by a long period of quiescence as the embryonic technology is confined to lab benches and minds of visionaries. Improvement is slow, but it happens; and once technology either improves enough or the environment changes sufficiently that alternatives become uncompetitive enough, some first users begin to tepidly introduce the technology in specific niches where its benefits outweigh its inevitable drawbacks. In some cases, such niche adoption fosters the further development of technology, and the improvements may result to technology being applicable to other niches. The process continues (a technologist hopes), and, sometimes, it triggers a take-off when suddenly the technology is being tested for just about every imaginable use, just to see whether it might be profitable to use in such settings. At the same time, the number of adopters tends to grow dramatically, driving what for a while seems like an exponential growth curve.

Basic S-curve.png

Figure 1: Idealized S-curve, showing initial slow adoption, followed by a period of nearly exponential growth and a plateau. One should note that at every point of the curve, one can find experts using a ruler to make forecasts about the technology’s future prospects.

However, every technology seen so far has also eventually reached a plateau of slow and steady growth – or no growth worth mentioning. Simultaneously, the profligate variety of competing designs and different use cases tends to get pruned to one or few so-called “dominant designs” and dominant use cases. The interesting experimentation more or less dies out, the industry consolidates, and innovation slows down. A major reason for this seems to be that benefits from innovating follow the law of diminishing returns: in the initial stages of technology life cycle, improvement opportunities abound and are fairly easy to grasp. But as the technology matures, smaller and smaller improvements are wrung out with greater and greater expenditure. This is the nutshell, highly condensed and simplified version of what is known as the logistic S-curve theory, named after the languid “S” shape of the curve that plots technology adoption over time. As an example, I shall use what today is seen as antiquated, almost laughable technology in some circles: nuclear power.

From unlimited promise to unlimited disappointment

The first real patents for nuclear reactors for energy generation date from the Manhattan Project, from about 1944 and 1945. Even earlier, visionaries had envisioned a future powered by radioactive rays of radium or similar compounds, and during the war, the U.S. authorities actively investigated several science fiction writers on suspicion that they had learned about the details of the then-secret Manhattan Project. However, the harnessing of fission for energy generating purposes really begun with the submarine reactors of mid-1950s. In submarines, the budding technology had found a niche uniquely suited for it: a small power plant that could deliver humongous amounts of energy – enough to even wrest breathable oxygen from seawater – from a tiny fuel source while emitting no noxious gases was precisely what was needed for a true submarine, compared to primitive “under-water boats” that had to surface regularly to charge their batteries and refresh their air supplies. The development program paid for by the U.S. and Soviet navies greatly accelerated the chosen technology in particular: the light water reactor.

Meanwhile, largely due to Cold War propaganda pressures, president Eisenhower had announced the Atoms for Peace program in 1953, promising the war-weary, frightened and divided world to forge the atomic swords of Armageddon into nuclear ploughshares of prosperity and cheap energy for all. In the heady years that followed the Atoms for Peace initiative and the first Geneva nuclear conference in 1955, newfangled atomic energy was all the rage. Scientists and popular press alike poured out suggestions for potential applications of this seemingly miraculous energy source and painted heady visions of a world where want itself would be eliminated by the unlimited power liberated from uranium or thorium. Both were seen to hold large potential: even the Finnish Agrarian Party, a party not known even today for innovativeness, discussed the potential of thorium and uranium in their 1962 party program.

city of future.jpg

Figure 2. “City of Future” from a Finnish weekly magazine Seura, mid-1950s. Powered by a single underground atomic power station in the exact center of the circular city. (Thanks to Esko Pettay for this gem.)

Technological explosion reminiscent of the Cambrian explosion in biology followed: by one count, there were nearly one thousand potential reactor or power source designs, and in 1955, about hundred of these were thought to hold technical or economic promise2. The designs ranged from small radiothermal generators producing some kilowatts to large power stations envisaged to produce perhaps 200 or even 400 megawatts of electricity, while numerous solutions for space heating, industrial and process heat were also proposed. These were investigated using the state of the art tools and knowledge of the day, including massive use of electronic computers and extremely novel methods for analyzing materials. Few popular accounts of atomic energy development were complete without mention of the wondrous “scientificity” and unsurpassed rationality of the development process, and laboratory tools featured prominently in almost every pictorial account.

nuclear researcher from Los Alamos.jpg

Figure 3. Typical illustration in atomic power articles: Nuclear physicist unlocking the secrets of the atom with state of the art R&D equipment, which I just have to assume goes “Ping”. From the same Seura article as the previous image.

Even though the number of potential designs dwindled as investigations proceeded, even ten years later, in 1965, there were about ten potential reactor designs and a huge diversity of suppliers. For example, the directory of nuclear equipment suppliers attached to July 1965 issue of EuroNuclear periodical (p. IG-14) listed five suppliers for complete commercial or prototype fast reactors for power production, 13 for complete multi-purpose reactors, and 29 for complete electric power plants – in addition to numerous others offering prototypes, research reactors, laboratory equipment, processing plants, and less than complete deliveries.

For countries large and small, being a part of this energy revolution was more than just a practical matter. Even for Finland, barely out of the privations of the war and rationing, much of its energy supply still reliant on horses (yes, really!) and very much what we’d euphemistically call a “developing country” these days, taking part in the “atomic era” was as much a matter of national pride as it was a decision about energy policy. Finland, cautioned learned observers, would be left behind, if it did not partake in this miraculous wonder energy source of the future. After all, nuclear energy in its various forms was to be the power source that would bring cheap electricity to faraway places, not presently served by power grids of any sort, and enable poor countries to “leapfrog” the suddenly antiquated systems of yesteryear.3

All this may sound eerily familiar. I’m working with a group of researchers on the history of nuclear power, and my research seeks to compare the energy rhetoric of the atomic era to the rhetoric now used with renewable energy. My preliminary analysis suggests that similarities are, frankly, astounding, as are the energy scenarios proposed. Suffice to say that key questions in many scenarios up to late 1970s were how many nuclear power stations would be built to cover the entire energy demand by the year 2000, not whether they would or should be built. By the way, we’re still collecting material – if you know of some good sources, please get in touch!

Detailing the sorry saga of nuclear energy that followed in reality is beyond the scope of this blog post, but to recap the most important issue (those more interested are directed to e.g. R. Cowan’s classic 1990 study4), by 1970 the light water reactor had more or less won the race already. Originally developed for shipboard use, it had a number of shortcomings compared to other potential civilian designs. But it had a major advantage: it was available and subsidized by the state. Furthermore, thanks to the Bomb, there was an existing supply line for uranium, whereas thorium aficionados would have had to build their own. These advantages, and the speed with which countries all over the world rushed to the technology, practically ensured that light water reactor became the dominant design it is even today. Innovation slowed down, and nuclear physics courses no longer drew the crowds they used to. Industry consolidated, and today the serious suppliers for nuclear power reactors could be counted with fingers of one (mutated) hand. Practically every design they offer is a variation of the light water reactor, even though there are some promising signs of innovation perhaps beginning to happen again.

Amidst all this, the growth of nuclear energy flatlined. At one point, it had grown almost explosively – in fact, faster than what the renewables even combined have so far achieved in similar time periods. In absolute terms, the transition was extremely rapid. During that period of expansion, there was no shortage of very serious and genuine experts who boldly proclaimed that the growth observed so far would continue into far future. According to some, by the year 2000, even oil wells would be shuttered because the energy they’d produce simply could not compete.

first 50 years of energy transitions, EJ

Figure 4a. First 50 years of energy transitions in absolute terms (exajoules generated per year).


Energy transitions in history.png

Figure 4b. Past energy transitions, as share of total energy consumption. Data for both figures from Smil (2010), with thanks to Dr. Aki Suokko. Finnish readers in particular should check out his excellent blog on energy, economy and the environment, Palautekytkentöjä.

The more things change, the more they stay the same?

I won’t skirt further around the obvious issue: there are some extremely striking similarities between what happened with nuclear power and what is now happening with renewables. Some of the more notable ones include

  • A great and popular enthusiasm for “wonder energy” of future
  • Extremely positive outlook for its future prospects and rosy promises of a future exclusively powered by this one source alone
  • An interlocking set of intellectual, political and commercial interests that helped reinforce the faith in this energy solution
  • The use of state of the art design and development tools and the top experts of the day; at one point, working in nuclear physics was the prestigious career for the scientifically minded
  • An explosion of potential designs, followed by narrowing down based on technological and economic criteria and technical experience (how many different designs for large wind turbines there are these days?)
  • A major growth spurt in size to capture economies of scale (again, visible in wind turbines, and very likely going to be visible in solar energy as well – witness Ivanpah for example)
  • A consolidation in the industry (happening or already happened with wind turbines, may be happening with PV panels and batteries as “fab labs” are extremely expensive facilities)
  • Diminishing returns for innovation (probably already happened with wind turbines)

Thus armed, one could construct a perfectly valid counterargument to the points raised by mr. Roberts and other energy optimists: when compared to contemporary alternatives, almost all the features that are now supposed to speed up the clean energy revolution were also present during early phases of the nuclear era. Granted, software was less of a business back then; but nuclear plants did co-evolve with the broader electricity system and made use of some fairly advanced stuff back in the day. For example, the first large-scale energy storage systems were pioneered with nuclear power!

It is also true that nuclear power had its unique challenges, although the extent to which this affected decision-making is less clear. On the other hand, variable renewables do suffer from certain drawbacks that nuclear power didn’t have. Their production is inherently variable yet largely autocorrelated (that is, solar panels all produce during day and none produce during night; similar problem applies, to less extent, to wind turbines, as weather patterns can cover large areas). This makes profitable grid integration more and more difficult as renewable penetration increases. Their energy density is low, meaning that large areas need to be appropriated for their use (even though dual use is often a possibility), and, arguably, they can still be fairly expensive.

Furthermore, more positive analysts generally tend to overlook the fact that developments in grid flexibility and energy storage do not necessarily help variable renewables alone.

Given that large-scale energy storage systems have been pioneered and successfully used precisely in the context stable, dispatchable baseload power sources, the silent yet extremely common assumption that development of storage systems will usher a renewable revolution is somewhat puzzling. In fact, as one recent study5 noted, large-scale, scalable energy storage could potentially increase emissions in the U.S. for example. Why? Because cheap storage would allow dispatchable baseload plants to store their excess production when electricity is cheap, and sell it when it’s expensive, thus boosting profitability. At the same time, because the marginal cost of variable renewable production is so low, the periods when these sources actually produce energy would be precisely those periods when the price paid for electricity would be very low. Similar impacts would be seen if demand flexibility changes the demand curve sufficiently.

I’m tempted to think that the source of confusion here is the fact that large-scale storage, demand flexibility or likely a mixture of both are most probably necessary but not sufficient conditions for truly large-scale (that is, the scale we need for climate mitigation) renewable adoption. Since the true renewable revolution is likely to require such developments, many optimists have become confused and think that if such developments happen, then renewable revolution must also happen. But there are no guarantees this is indeed the case. It is also perfectly possibly – perhaps even too likely – that such developments will help baseload plants too, perhaps even to the extent that the relative competitive situation between variable renewables and fossil fuel baseload does not change unduly.

And this is one of the major blind spots in today’s rather ahistorical energy discourse: too many people seem to ignore the fact that all technologies are developing simultaneously.

Humans are very prone to suffering from what is known as “availability bias:” we give more weight to information and events we’ve observed personally. Proponents of a given type of technology tend to follow news about developments in that technology, and more or less ignore news from other sectors. In such a setting, it is easy to become convinced that competing technologies are standing still while one’s favorite technology is developing in leaps and bounds. But in reality, the same types of advanced design tools, materials, and software Mr. Roberts touts as unique to today’s clean energy revolution are being applied to fossil fuel technologies as well. While it’s probably true that fossil technologies are far more mature and innovation there is harder, the precariousness of the competitive edge of renewables may mean that not much innovation is needed to, essentially, maintain the status quo.

This, I believe, was one of the mistakes made by energy optimists of the 1960s. Enamored as they were with nuclear technology, they failed to notice that other technologies were developing as well. Similarly, I believe that developments in other energy technologies were a major reason why renewable revolution did not start from the 1930s or even earlier, even though – for example – wind power was studied seriously back then.

For example, the first megawatt-scale wind turbine was built in 1941. One book in my collection, dating from 1963, expertly discusses the pros and cons of wind and solar power projects; the issues about e.g. variability were the same back then, and only by updating the language somewhat, the discussion could be easily recycled to cover current renewable energy discussion. And the first mention of humanity being “soon” powered “from the unlimited rays of the Sun” I’ve been able to locate is from a 1913 article about large-scale experimental solar power project. Some other forecasts, and actual reality, were recently collated by analyst Michael Cembalest, working for J.P. Morgan:

US RE shares of primary energy and projections

Figure 5. The share of US primary energy from renewable sources, and some notable forecasts. Data from EIA, listed authors, JPMAM, compiled and image by Michael Cembalest and JPMorgan Chase & Co. (2016)

What remains to be seen is the outcome the different drivers and pressures will ultimately produce. Will the renewable revolution exceed all prior energy transformations by truly supplanting, not just adding to, existing energy sources? Or will it follow the path so far followed by every other energy transition and reach a plateau long before supplying even the majority of world’s energy needs? Since we absolutely must quit fossil fuels fairly soon, this is what scares me far more than the rapidity or slowness of the the revolution. Most developed countries absolutely must have a fairly clean energy system by 2050, mere 34 years from today. Even if the renewable revolution well exceeds more pessimistic estimates and reaches a 50% share of total energy consumption by that time, it is not enough. And history shows that energy transitions tend to stall sooner.

(As an aside, I heartily recommend everyone to watch this lecture by esteemed prof. Kevin Anderson, detailing why most climate/energy forecasts are in fact hopelessly and systematically optimistic.)

In fact, one thing I wonder about nuclear history is whether a slower energy transition might have been a good thing: perhaps we wouldn’t have become locked in to state-subsidized light water reactors only, and perhaps some of the problems caused by the rush to this technology, including insufficient safety measures and distrust and resistance-breeding arrogance nuclear boosters exhibited towards the revolution’s doubters, might have been avoided.

Past history does not guarantee future performance, and it is possible that the optimists are right: perhaps there is something entirely different about renewable energy technologies or about the socio-political-economic environment where they are being built. But “this time is different” has been the mantra of the overconfident throughout the recorded history, sufficiently so that there is an excellent book by that title. That book explores the reasons why people don’t seem to learn the lessons of eight centuries of history and repeat follies that predictably lead to economic disasters and disappointments.

As one review of the book noted, “this time is different” are the four most dangerous words in finance. Only time will tell whether the same will apply to energy transitions.


  1. Arthur, B. W. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves. New York: Free Press.
  2. Särkikoski, T. (2011). Rauhan atomi, sodan koodi: Suomalaisen atomivoimaratkaisun teknopolitiikka 1955-1970. (The technopolitics of Finnish atomic power decision.) PhD thesis published in Historical Studies from the University of Helsinki XXV, Helsinki.
  3. Särkikoski, T. (2011). Rauhan atomi, sodan koodi: Suomalaisen atomivoimaratkaisun teknopolitiikka 1955-1970. (The technopolitics of Finnish atomic power decision.) PhD thesis published in Historical Studies from the University of Helsinki XXV, Helsinki.
  4. Cowan, R. (1990). Nuclear Power Reactors: A Study in Technological Lock-in. The Journal of Economic History, 50(03), 541. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700037153
  5. Hittinger, E. S., & Azevedo, I. M. L. (2015). Bulk Energy Storage Increases United States Electricity System Emissions. Environmental Science & Technology, 49(5), 3203–3210. http://doi.org/10.1021/es505027p.


Posted in Ecomodernism, Energy, History of technology | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

What is Ecomodernism? A lecture

Almost forgot! In case you want to hear the undersigned mangle the language of the Bard and talk about ecomodernism, look no further!

This is a hour-long lecture I delivered in English (here with Finnish subtitles) to a packed audience in January in Arcadia International Bookshop, Helsinki. (BTW, excellent – nay, mandatory – destination if you ever find yourself in the “White Daughter of the Baltic.”) Many thanks to Kaj Luukko for superb work in filming the presentation and doing all the post-production, including embedded slides from my presentation. Kaj’s blog “Gaia” was and is one of the inspirations for me, and it’s practically required reading for anyone interested in environmental issues and capable of handling some Finnish.

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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 Resilience.org 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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