Save the World, Give Up on Nature

Some scientists think we have no other choice.

This is what people do to the environment.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg

The typical approach to environmentalism involves finding ways for humans to live in harmony with nature. But what if that's wrong? What if our destiny is to leave nature behind? It's a radical idea, but it's worth a moment of reflection.

A group of respected economists and environmentalists from the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, California, recently published a document they call the Ecomodernist Manifesto. One of their ideas is a doozy: Humanity's best hope to thrive in the future -- and solve environmental problems such as climate change -- is to evolve to the point where we are no longer constrained by nature.

Their approach to the environment goes far beyond cost-benefit calculations. In contrast to many economists, they don't see nature merely as a resource on which one can place a value. Rather, they see it as priceless, a deep source of joy and beauty, part of what makes life worth living. Their concern is that it can no longer support the growth of human activity. “Human flourishing,” they write, “has taken a serious toll on natural, non-human environments and wildlife.”

Their solution: Isolate ourselves from nature, or “decouple” our economic activity from it. Rely even more on technology, yet find some way to keep it from grinding nature to bits.

How? First, encourage the further concentration of human populations within the cities where more than 50 percent of us already live. If, say, more than 80 percent dwelled in such centers of economic productivity and per-capita energy efficiency, humanity's consumption of resources could be rationalized, leaving countryside spaces less populated and, at least potentially, available for nature.

True, cities require vast flows of energy and food that must be produced somewhere, which brings the Ecomodernists to their second point. We'll need to intensify activities such as farming, energy extraction and forestry, so they occupy less land and interfere less with the natural world. This idea runs directly counter to the views of many environmentalists, who champion a return to more decentralized ways of living.

Finally, to make decoupling happen, we must find new and more potent sources of clean energy, including safer technology for nuclear fission and, if possible, nuclear fusion. That's because energy is a key resource for decoupling. We can, for example, replace human labor and land requirements with energy-intensive farming, or use energy to desalinate seawater, reducing human demands on natural freshwater sources.

I'll admit that I find this view of “leaving nature behind” somewhat alarming. Living with nature has more direct emotional appeal to me. Even so, there's an undeniable coherence to the Ecomodermist arguments.  Preserving nature, while also ensuring that people thrive, would seem to require some kind of separation. Short of moving humans into outer space, it's hard to see how that can happen without human activities becoming more concentrated, intensive and contained.

On the other hand, I wonder if the Ecomodernists overstate the possibilities for leaving nature behind. Even if we do flock into cities, find unlimited, clean sources of energy, and learn to use energy more efficiently than ever, our total energy consumption may well keep growing as we find new ways to use it. Basic physics demands that more energy use always means more waste dissipated to the environment in one form or another -- heat, pollution, environmental damage.

So leaving nature behind, in the sense of freeing it from our impacts, might not be so easy. Can we really sequester all the damaging aspects of our activities, collecting them up like trash and neutralizing them in a set of small repositories, out of sight, and even outside of nature? That would be great. It also seems a little fantastic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.