conservation environment

Decoupling for conservation

A few months ago I wrote about the EcoModernist Manifesto, which suggests a radical new approach to nature: rather than trying to live in harmony with nature, as traditional environmentalism has advocated, we should seek to transcend it. We should leave nature behind, because the best way to protect forests and biodiversity is to leave them alone.

Nature-UnboundI have a few questions about that idea, but I see the logic. So I was pleased to see that the Breakthrough Institute has issued a report that expands on that aspect of EcoModernism in practical terms. Nature Unbound – Decoupling for Conservation looks specifically at how we can decouple ourselves from the land in order to preserve it.

Humanity currently uses 26% of the world’s ice-free land for pasture, 12% for crops and 8% for managed woodlands. We’ve built on just 3%. The other half of the world’s land is unused largely because it’s rough, steep or dry, and generally wouldn’t be economical to bring into production. We have no use for those bits, and as the authors of Nature Unbound observe – “nature useless is nature saved.”

Working from this observation, the paper suggests that land would be spared from human use if it had no economic value to us. If we could meet our needs without it, we’d leave it for the plants and animals. So how do we decouple our production from the land?

There are two main ways that we can reduce our impact on the land. The first is substitution, and we can see that in history. Early humans hunted wild animals for meat. When those were substituted for domesticated animals such as sheep and goats, the amount of land needed to provide a meat-eating diet was dramatically reduced. When fossil fuel substitutes became available for lighting, the market for whale oil collapsed, reducing our take from the oceans. More recently, farms switched from using draft animals to tractors. This saved the land needed to feed the animals, though the trade-off is in fossil fuel use and carbon emissions.

We could be using substitution more strategically, says Nature Unbound. The same leap from wild meat to domesticated meat is possible with fish, as we’re only now realising the potential of aquaculture – see my recent post on farming the oceans. One of the most obvious substitutions we need to make is to phase out the use of wood as a fuel, and replace it with modern fuels. This would improve the lives of the poorest at the same time, which makes it a priority.

The second way we can reduce our impact on the land is through intensification. This happens when we find ways to produce more of what we need in less space. Once again, we can see this in action already. Global crop production has increased threefold since 1950, but the amount of land needed has only grown by 13%. The increase has come from rising yields, rather than expansion. There are still many parts of the world where yields could be improved.

Taken together, substitution and intensification offer a way of pursuing ‘passive conservation’ – we find ways to leave the land unused. It’s an important perspective, because traditional conservation is well set-up to save specific landscapes or species. What it can’t do is reduce humanity’s toll on the earth overall. Conservation has focused on protecting landscapes, which usually displaces activity rather than preventing it. A less aesthetically satisfying landscape is logged, build on or mined instead, but the net impact on the earth is not reduced.

Instead, 21st century conservation needs to be supplemented – not replaced – with decoupling, where we work towards a peak and then decline in environmental impact. Improving yields from farmland, encouraging more farmed sources of animal protein, moving towards denser urban settlements, all of these would mean “leaving behind an expanding space for nature.”

That still raises a bunch of questions. Would we be happy with the idea of intensive agriculture and low biodiversity in one area, in order to free up land for biodiversity elsewhere? What are the animal welfare implications of a big shift towards more intensive meat production? Can the wider green movement get on board with this, or is it speaking a fundamentally different language? The notion of reducing consumption is studiously avoided here, as is infinite economic growth. Does decoupling for conservation punt those longer term considerations even further into the long grass?

Nevertheless, decoupling for nature plays in nicely with the idea of a restorative economy, and with the rewilding movement. It puts technological progress and conservation together in new ways. It recalibrates the messages of environmentalism towards positive solutions as well as preventing harm, and looking to the future rather than the past. Where the EcoModernist vision is often associated with high tech, this more detailed look shows that there are all kinds of development opportunities for poorer countries too, including universal energy access. This is, in short, a really useful idea.


  1. Again Jeremy I have not yet read the report but feel sure that the good sounding description of leaving some of nature alone is false. This idea is really putting the ‘unwanted’ part of it aside, (& possibly missing bio-diversity needs of our wildlife and ourselves), and then manipulating the rest with a view to bettering nature itself. But mankind bettering nature seems to fail one way or another ultimately, whichever way we try to tackle it, yet, we naturally continue to speculate on how to win it. We can but try and, of course, your optimism is easier to accept than my cynicism.I suspect we need your optimism.

    1. That depends what we mean by ‘bettering’ nature. When our ancient forbears moved from hunting and gathering to planting crops, that was ‘bettering’ nature – ie trying to provide food in a more organised and consistent fashion than nature was going to do by itself.

      I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s not saying we know better, but working with nature to get what we need more conveniently.

      It’s not possible for humans to leave nature behind. We’re part of nature whether we like it or not, but the language that ecomodernist proponents doesn’t help them there. The logic of trying to meet our needs on less land is pretty sound once you look past the idealism.

      1. I think aiming for a ‘convenient’ life for mankind globally may well be possible. Unfortunately Jeremy I do not believe it will ever be as simple as that (and idealism is, quite possibly, the least of its problems). It’s good to try though.

      2. Wow Jeremy – Did you see St. Monbiot’s (my nickname), thoughts this week? They start with this:

        The Ecomodernists launching their manifesto today propose solutions that are both ignorant and brutal.

        Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. That is a crucial lesson from history; a lesson that intelligent people in every age keep failing to learn.

        By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 24th September 2015

        1. I did. Worth noticing that this is the UK launch of the manifesto, which I was much more sceptical about: for some of the same reasons as Monbiot.

          This post is about their paper on land use and conservation, and it’s much more practical and careful in its language.

          Monbiot also says that “in some important respects they are either right or at least wrong in an interesting way” and I’d go along with that. There’s no doubt that the ecomodernist perspective is an important one and I’ll keep reading their papers – with a sceptical eye. The same sceptical eye I read Monbiot with, incidentally!

          1. Yes Jeremy, I do understand that scepticism. I just think he is absolutely brilliant at forcefully opening people’s eyes to very many truths, but I do realise that some moderation is probably necessary with all things!

  2. This sounds nice, but the problem is in the details. Take agriculture. Efficiency (as defined as yield per area) has increased over the last 50 years, granted. But so have industrial inputs such as machinery, fertiliser, pesticides and energy (ie. costs are externalised).

    I think the “solution” (or as close as we can get to one) comes from multi use land. We’ve got to integrate natural spaces into agriculture, and into backyards, as well as integrate agriculture into gardens and public spaces.

    Cheers, Angus

    1. Pesticide use in the UK has halved since 1990, nitrogen consumption is 40% below the level of the 1980s. So inputs are declining but yields are still rising.

      It is things like precision farming, using satellites to tell farmers where to plant, when and when to fertilize, as well as guiding machines to harvest incredibly efficiently, that is a big part of the increasing efficiency. It isn’t about using more but being better.

      Eco-modernist optimism is justified by what is actually happening on the ground.

        1. Inputs also includes those required to design, manufacture, deploy and maintain farm machinery (and their support systems). Don’t forget embodied energy!

          I’m not anti-technology (I’m an engineer), but I think there are limits about what technology can achieve. I’m unconvinced by the eco-modernists. Maybe after a few centuries’ more technological progress we could do that…

      1. That may be so, but it has declined from a very high (and unsustainable) level. The green revolution has been built on the back of massive inputs — the fact that these are now slightly less massive does not imply that they can somehow scale to a sustainable level.

        Yes we’re less inefficient — that does not make us efficient. I have worked in agricultural science — I know the challenges we face making our food system sustainable.

        I remain highly skeptical of eco-modernism in the face of declining energy and resource supplies and climate change. Note that I am not anti-technology. I am against the idea that we can invent our way out of our current predicament. Technology is going to be important (vital) — but so is cultural- and behaviour-change.

        1. Well, as has been pointed out by many, from Julius Simon onwards, resources aren’t declining. CO2 emissions are a challenge but energy isn’t in short supply.

          I’m interested in what level of inputs you do think are sustainable. Given the trends are for declining we can then try to see when we might reach sustainablity in your view.

          1. I think there are two pertinent facts, even if you don’t believe energy or resource supplies are contracting:
            1. The energy intensity or resource procurement is increasing rapidly (ie. it now requires far more energy to get a given amount of resources)
            2. Global energy supplies are heavily carbonised, and prospects for a large-scale shift to renewables (especially for transport and mining) look bleak.

            In other words, if we are to mitigate global warming, we need to use much less energy (especially in these areas), which will also greatly constrain resource availability.

          2. Are you sure that energy intensity to get a given set of resources is increasing. For example in the USA from 1980 to 2011 energy use per unit of production has improved (decreased) for corn (-44%), soybeans (-48%), and wheat (-12%). Per acre energy use improved (decreased) for corn (-6%), soybeans (-17%), and increased for wheat (+9%). Greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production have improved (decreased) for all crops: corn (-36%), soybeans (-49%), and wheat (-2%).

            This is along side the other trends in decline of inputs such as fertilizer.

            Given that inputs, including energy, cost money you would expect to prices to go up if energy intensity is increasing rapidly. But it is doing the opposite.

            I think it is important to ensure we are looking at the data.

          3. When I talk about “resources” I don’t mean food. The “efficiency” of food production may well be increasing, because it is becoming increasingly mechanised. These machines all need to be built, maintained and disposed of.

            When I speak of resources, I am talking about metal ores, fuels, chemical feedstocks. The provisioning of these is all becoming more energy-intensive. For example, the book “Energy efficiency and the demand for energy services says (p347) “The quality of iron ore affects energy use … a reduction in the iron content of the iron ore from 55% to 50% increases energy requirements by 25%.”

            Therefore, this idea that farms are becoming more efficient is an illusion. They are effectively outsourcing their energy consumption from the farm to the mining/manufacturing sector.

            Regarding cost, I don’t believe that market forces will result in monetary costs that are reflective of total true costs. Therefore, using decreasing monetary cost as an argument lacks merit. It’s like analysing the cost of oil without considering the strength of the US dollar.

            I will not be replying again in this thread. I have made the points I want to make and will not make them again.

          4. Lower quality ore needs more energy but in Europe most steel is from recycled sources. How much lower quality ore is being processed?

            Price is a good proxy since what is priced in hasn’t changed much.

  3. ‘Eco-modernist optimism is justified by what is actually happening on the ground’

    Surely, ‘what is happening on the ground’ looks at current results, (rather like economic booms!). I would have thought that, whilst previously the trade-offs were often unforeseen, these days we would be in a much better position to predict such other consequences by weighing up so many more factors here and in the future. This would quite possibly be a weighty trade-off to justifications made simply on ‘what is happening on the ground’. Hopefully ‘Decoupling’ and other ideas will be adding such matters into the ‘solutions’.

    1. I’m not talking about just today but longer term trends. You make a comparison to economic booms. Just like those you have look past the immediate booms and busts and at the longer term.

      Pesticides use halved in 25 years is a long term trend, 40% lower nitrogen use than 35 years ago is a long term trend. And over even longer term views we see yields rising hugely consistently over more than a hundred years.

      I do wonder how long is long enough before people stop saying it’s a boom to be followed by a bust that never comes?

      1. DevonChap, I’m sure you are capable of providing very many specific trends that can be seen as much improved But, I am influenced by overall effects because I see a connected thread in all things. Hence, you and I are unable to debate on the same ground – we look at a different picture, and, quite possibly, (as our history suggests), from a very different angle.

        1. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, not their own facts.

          You have to relate ideas to facts. I guess that is where we differ.

          1. By your standards of relating ideas to fact you would not need to guess where we differ!

            But your standards are poor and this is why your guess and latest attempt to put someone in their place (below you), has, as always, failed. The fact is that I have always related ideas to facts. The fact you miss is one of intention. I have always integrated ideas with facts and experience. This gives a much broader and balanced view. A good base to draw lessons from. That was my intention. It was not to persuade others of anything, merely to learn for myself and to discuss with those interested. As previously touched on by others, you merely acquire your data and spew it back out and your intention is quite clearly different from mine – yours is always evidently an attempt to prove you have the knowledge which proves the matter in question – that you know more than other -.that you are right. When you fail, you turn to childish tactics. But many of these ‘facts’ are often argued by others and even when not they give a limited vision on their own. This is the closest you’ll get to the facts about the differences between you and me. I hope this ends the matter once and for all (it does for me).

          2. My point is that you make assertions and present your ideas without any reference to any facts. “I have always integrated ideas with facts and experience.” Yet you give no evidence of this. Just one fact, once, to demonstrate actual understanding.

            How can anyone assess your conjectures unless you show the underpinnings? In a maths exam you don’t get full marks if you just write down the correct answer. You have to show your working. You make no attempt to show your working so you get no marks if you are wrong.

            As to the idea I am trying to put myself above you, Pot, Kettle, Black.

          3. No need to reiterate your point, I’ve always understood it. But you can’t grasp mine because it’s not based on facts and figures or quotes. In general it’s about discussion of lessons and ideas which have been formed from all sorts of information (sometimes, more of a philosophical nature). I don’t need to get marks of the sort you seek. As I said before, we’re on a different wavelength. If you haven’t understood my explanations by now there’s little point to continuing (especially when you always try to score – it’s not my game).
            I just referred Jeremy to George Monbiot’s latest article – he normally speaks as I think, so if you want your kind of facts to my kind of speaking, he generally (if not always) backs up my own thoughts with your type of data.
            You’re wrong again – I’m not trying to place you below me. I’m trying to get to the bottom of your insistence on marks towards scores with your consistent belittling. Another fact as to why it’s not ‘Pot calling Kettle Black’ is that I’m not alone at receiving your superior attitude. I really am going to leave it here whatever attempt you may make to score again. I do not think badly of you but it is a pity you can’t see more generally in the manner Monbiot speaks of and discuss things respectfully in broader terms with me at least.

          4. I said we are all entitled to our own opinions.

            Now you joined a part of the tread where I replied to Angus where we were both discussing quantifiable facts about agricultural yields and inputs. Not unreasonably I expected that you were going to discuss those facts.

            You claim I showed you disrespect. Perhaps it is my failure but I do not see where I have.

          5. DevonChap, I am sorry but Jeremy’s site is not the place for our personal differences. I will then, merely conclude with this.
            1. You repeat yourself (repeatedly!) showing no respect whatsoever for my replies.
            2. Months ago when we entered debate you resorted to blatant abuse. This time you cloaked your words and claim not to see it!
            3. You claim you reasonably expected figures from me when I attempted to discuss your WORDS (not figures) ‘Eco-modernist optimism is justified by what is actually happening on the ground’ –this is a totally different matter and clearly requires no figures for its discussion.

            All of this shows me that you do not understand my debate. I can only refer you again to George Monbiot’s latest article discussing this very subject of decoupling and Ecomodernism. In future, if I see them. I will leave your questionable comments alone as we can go no further on Jeremy’s site and I now have adequate reason to believe it would prove fruitless anywhere, and, that certainly, there is no real need.
            My best wishes, Dichasium.

          6. Clearly you are putting more into this than I.

            A discussion of what is actually happening will involve facts and numbers rather than just words. in relation to policy words unlinked to facts are just useless sounds.

            Still we can agree to disagree.

          7. ‘Agree to disagree’! Oh dear!, you’ve enticed me back again -;) but only because you’ve just precisely demonstrated, the nub of the matter between us simply by summing up with ‘we can agree to disagree’. Of course we could if we were disagreeing, but, we are not.

            I neither disagree with your figures nor wish to argue them. I’ve tried to show you that we have been discussing two different parts of your comments and you have shown no inclination to engage with me on the inherent dangers of relying on current evidence. This is why your repetitious insistence on figures and facts about current evidence is continually missing my intention and amounts to ‘barking up the wrong tree’. I have tried to assist your own intention by referring you to George Monbiot’s latest article as he is normally the better (experienced), voice to my own thought processes and could perhaps fit your requirements, (though not your specific views). But, just in case, I don’t think I gave the title – ‘Wiping The World Clean’.

            I made the error of initiating this type of discussion with you before (I live in hope!), but I must surely learn not to. And now, without a disagreement there can be no ‘agreeing to disagree’. I’ll merely agree to parting as friends.

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