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.
I 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.