Humanity is facing two fundamental challenges in this century. The first is to lift billions of people out of poverty and give them the opportunity to live healthy and dignified lives. The second is to ensure that this development does not destabilize the climate and ecosystems that have enabled the rise of humans and other life on Earth. The problem is that the gap between these two goals is widening.
It is not easy to reconcile the dual imperatives of conservation and development. ‘Sustainable development’ is a phrase that neatly defines what the world should ultimately achieve, but no one knows exactly what it looks like at full scale.
Later this year, governments will finalize a set of sustainable development goals to guide international aid (see also page 432), and in December global leaders will meet at a summit in Paris to discuss the latest climate agreement. will gather. Any deal will be burdened by unavoidable compromises that allow room for polluting development as the world seeks better and cheaper solutions.
The latest attempt to create a framework for thinking about this dilemma is by 18 environmental activists and academics, who published an ‘Ecomodernist Manifesto’ last week (see go.nature.com/f89sls).
The essay paints an optimistic picture of the kind of technological progress that has so far characterized the rise of humanity, giving importance to the kind of profound development. Only by concentrating our influence in urban, industrial and agricultural context can we achieve the “good Anthropocene” or age of human influence, the authors argue.
Coal, oil and natural gas have improved the lives of many people, and the essay points out that a long arc of development is already moving toward better, cleaner and more efficient energy technologies – just not as fast. At least in the short term, the authors argue, poor countries have a right to focus on improving the lives of their citizens, even if it means expanding the use of fossil fuels until cheaper and cleaner solutions are available.
These ideas are framed in the context of a larger “dissolution of humanity from nature”. What this means, well, is left to the imagination, but the essay also outlines the role of modern agriculture, which freed up labor, enabled the rise of cities and reduced the amount of land. What we need to feed humanity. Rather than lament the trend, the authors argue that it should be encouraged and accelerated.
The government cannot write people out of the equation.
This essay is in stark contrast to the depressing view often provided by environmentalists and scientists. There has to be a little doubt. For the long haul, the authors believe in a new generation of solar cells combined with efficient energy-storage technologies, advanced nuclear fission – and even fusion energy.
In the medium term, hydropower could play a role, in the same way that technologies to capture and seize carbon could improve fossil fuels on this time scale.
The authors largely focus on power generation, but may be too early to write off current wind and solar technologies, which may play a useful role in reducing the demand for centralized electricity today. Intelligent deployment of efficient bio-energy resources can be helpful in intensifying agriculture as well.
It is not yet clear what the climate fix will look like. Clearly, governments need to invest in a portfolio of energy research, development and demonstration. They must implement stronger climate policies that will push companies toward technologies that produce less air pollution and fewer greenhouse-gas emissions.
They need to invest in agricultural research to secure essential food crops and provide farmers and livestock farmers with the tools they need to maximize production. And they need to set limits on the land that can be developed.
Governments cannot write people out of the equation, and tough choices will have to be made. But the first step is to point everyone in the right direction. Human ingenuity takes many forms, and we can still surprise ourselves.