Protecting the environment is not about "reconciling" man and nature, it's about giving each their due space. In large part, this means concentrating people in cities.
BOGOTA — Consumerism or "exaggerated consumption," states Pope Francis's recent encyclical on the environment, is an affront to life in all its forms.
Our great challenge today may well be a need to redefine what we deem to be progress, which is seemingly totalitarian in scope even as it is rooted in very Western (and Christian) ideas about living. Such excessive consumption that we see — and suffer from — today is as the encyclical observes, a subjective reflection of "the techno-economical paradigm" of a Westernized world.
With the pope's prophetic denunciations floating around my head, I read a manifesto issued by a group of scientists describing themselves as ecomodernists or ecopragmatists, a tentative response to the clash between climate change deniers and radical environmentalists warning of our inexorable advance toward collective destruction.
These ecomodernists say we have entered a new geological era — the "Anthropocene" or age of humans — and that this could be a good period, if appropriate use were made of science and technologies.
What is needed they suggest, is to "decouple" development from its environmental impact. How? Through socio-economic and technological processes that will allow us to reduce our dependence on natural resources.
The initiative wants to free the environment of its subservience to the economy, and save it by simply leaving it be, as far as possible. So it is not suggesting we should choose between environment and human welfare, but rather that we should guarantee our welfare without destroying nature.
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Taking aim at Mother Earth in Helsinki. Photo: Dodo.org
In broad terms, our task then is to intensify and concentrate the human activities that involve nature — like food production, energy provision and settlement — in and around cities, which for ecopragmatists are perfect symbols of the decoupling of humanity and nature.
It is a process that is already happening, with some 70% of humans expected to live in cities by the middle of the century. This intensification and spacial concentration will free parts of the land from the yoke of economic activity, and allow nature to tend to them as it sees fit. The same intensification process will allow societies to attend to people's needs rationally, and without the consumerist frenzy. The Anthropocene will supply itself with the most powerful of energy sources, solar and nuclear.
The movement generally rejects the suggestions heard intermittently on the need to "recouple" or reconcile humans and nature, or on using primitive-type technologies. The problem thus is not one of technology but of occupation, since the pragmatists observe that 75% of deforestation happened in any case before the 19th century industrial revolution.
Decoupling is not a solution for tomorrow or the immediate future: It is gradual, and technological advances are already opening the way. The pope too has spoken of transitional measures, designs and technologies that will gradually make us independent of fossil fuels.
The task may not be easy, but it is essential for the continuation of any human progress, and of life itself.