Why traditional “environmentalism” falls short

If you are reading this page, the chances are good that you consider yourself an environmentalist.  You want to protect the environment for future generations just like we do.  It is easy to be against pollution and environmental degradation but the question is, what are you for? 

Mainstream environmental groups have grown large as alliances of people who want to protect the environment at all costs, and so are effectively against everything — they protest mining, strip mining, fracking, drilling, damming, large construction projects, the laying of pipelines and power transmission lines in fragile habitats, and they especially protest nuclear power. Yet they are not saying that people should deprive themselves of light, heat, television, streaming video-on-demand, vacations, traveling by car or planes or any of the other things all these sources of power provide us with.

While it is easy to ally with others who say “No” to the environmental affronts of continued industrialization, they have yet to figure out how to provide all of the energy that enables a sufficiently high standard of living without saying “Yes” to something.  This is extremely unrealistic.  As a result, the mainstream environmental movement has been politically sidelined, dismissed by industry as “anti-business” and even excluded from serious policy discussions because, if they were listened to, nearly all economic activity would grind to a halt.

In an odd way, this is okay with the mainstream environmental groups because they only raise funding from donors when there is clear environmental damage and crises. They do not raise funds when problems get solved.  In fact,  environmental groups’ only obligation to their donors is to be effective at raising the alarm and protesting things; they are beloved for their passion and idealism: they are not even expected to solve real world problems such as how to provide ample power to the world with the least damage.

Which explains why it has been so easy for fossil fuels to run the table — because in fact humanity demands electricity, heat and power all the time.  As much as a billion and a half people still don’t have adequate levels of power to lift them out of poverty. Yet groups like Greenpeace have proposed “climate action plans” projecting decreases in global energy demand by as much as 44% (even with additions of several billion people), showing how little environmentalists care about the under-developed nations.  This leaves the fossil fuel industry as the only group whose business is to ensure that people have the energy they want.

Ecomodernists are trying to change that.  They are environmentalists who want to protect the environment but also want to be brutally realistic about providing for human needs.  These are people who come from think tanks, funded not by polar bear appeals but by foundations which are motivated to solve complex problems.  Ecomodernism is the name given to environmentally-informed sets of policies that endeavor to find solutions  that strive to optimize both sets of priorities.  They realize, as Steven Pinker recently noted, that:


Industrialization has been good for humanity. It has fed billions, doubled lifespans, slashed extreme poverty, and, by replacing muscle with machinery, made it easier to end slavery, emancipate women, and educate children. It has allowed people to read at night, live where they want, stay warm in winter, see the world, and multiply human contact. Any costs in pollution and habitat loss have to be weighed against these gifts.


Accordingly, ecomodernists, as originally defined by “The Ecomodernist Manifesto” try to find the best way to enable modern life with the least impacts to the environment, and then to use technology to solve the problems associated with those impacts.  These are difficult priorities to balance and require strict respect for science and facts in order to come to the best solution with the least loss.  All forms of energy have advantages and disadvantages, not one is a perfect solution.  Yet among the available technological solutions that exist for powering society’s needs, one stands out.  Nuclear power — using energy dense “fuel,” scalable reactors which operate 95% of the time, small ecologic and built footprint, and near zero carbon emissions — has proven to be best for a power-hungry world. 

Which is not to say that nuclear does not have problems that need solving. This relative assessment necessarily includes looking realistically at the disadvantages of nuclear power — the true risks rather than the exaggerations — and optimizing solutions for these.  Some see historical mistakes as the basis for nuclear’s current unpopularity; many believe that, while the risks are manageable, it is past time for nuclear power to be updated for the 21st century. This, then, is the allure of advanced nuclear, which are updated reactor designs that solve for the problems of traditional light water reactors: they can minimize and/or burn radioactive waste; they can run off of thorium and other non-bomb-grade elements and eliminate “proliferation” risk; they can be sized according to distributed energy needs and be more cost effective; they can divert power to alternative purposes such as industrial heat, water purification and carbon draw-down; and they can be fail-safe without water cooling. 

We cannot explain Ecomodernism better than Steven Pinker has done in his recent essay “Enlightenment Environmentalism: The Case for Ecomodernism” or by the think tank The Breakthrough Institute, where Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (who is now running for Governor of California) originally developed these ideas, so we invite you click on the links that we have included here to read more.