Stan Cox narrates a brilliantly leery take on modern attitudes relating to sustainability, the dismal search for new markets and the relationship between the double eco – ecology and economics. The piece, published on at the start of august this year, presents an unforgiving authenticity to which modern day memes (presented as so-called “solutions”) are beaten down with a rigid-fact-filled stick. The socially contagious concepts, which folk nowadays, swallow, hook, line and sinker such as innovation, disruptive technologies and eat local are put through Cox’s wringer and come out on the other side more than a little deflated.

Cox begins by presenting the irrefutable discrepancies between the business world – craving innovation “for innovation’s sake”, nature – as it suffers today and agriculture – as we so heavily rely on. Personally, my bullshit radar turns red when I hear the term “innovation”- easily said but difficult to quantify or tangibly see. I do not however doubt that innovation exists and does benefit humanity greatly but nowadays any small rendition of a traditional process can be deemed “innovative”. A slight tweak here or there and suddenly you are a game changer driving innovation in new markets. No doubt if we saw “innovation” as a kind of globall resource, humankind would soon be coming to the end of its finite supply. Breaking news: worldwide consumption of innovation has skyrocketed over the past 10 years due to its frequent consumption in the business and marketing sectors. Scientists predict that at the current rate of usage, we will have depleted our sources of innovation by 2030. And let’s consider the concept of new markets as a complete and utter scam – perhaps even the biggest capitalistic deception of the 21st century. There are no new markets, just old markets that are infiltrated by new players. Take social media for instance, there was not suddenly 2.23 billion new consumers of daily media who all created a Facebook account. Rather, there were 2.23 billion citizens of the world who transitioned away from their newspapers, magazines or other information sources (religious sermons?) to rather masticate on SoMe sources of news and digital sources of information. Cox likens to this notion by enlisting ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen as scholastic back-up stating “that no technology can repeal the Entropy Law” and yet “today, those realities are being studiously ignored by innovators, disruptors, and other perpetual-motion specialists”. Beating the drum of new markets poses a dangerous trap, which young entrepreneurs can easily be lured into thinking their product or service will be applicable to consumers[1] in a totally new capacity or realm. The reality is that we only have a set number of hours in the day to “consume” any given product or service and this sets the natural limit as to how much one can use, buy, sign up for, log in to etc.

Cox describes the Ecomodernist as those “retreating entirely into high-tech, self-sufficient, nominally carbon-neutral urban areas connected only by bullet-train corridors, while ostensibly turning the rest of the Earth’s surface over to “nature”.  I began to question my 100% organic, Fairtrade, eat-local, re-wilding, fast-train-travel-decisions that I am privileged to exercise daily in a capitalistic context. Having never heard of the term Ecomodernist, I could not help but think of the Terry Pratchett Truckers Nome stating, “there’s some things we can’t think because we don’t know the words”. Could I have become an Ecomodernist myself without ever having known the word?

Cox questions the energy demands and food supplyif we all took on the Ecomodernist approach“in this magical world, lunch is on the house; green plants will be asked not only to double their output of marketable product but also to produce enough combustible biomass to displace a large share of fossil fuels and sequester in the soil a large portion of the carbon emitted by fossil fuels.” After having completed a 2-year Master’s degree in agricultural sciences, I have been thoroughly wooed by the magic of plants, all that they can do and more importantly, what we can do with plants. Yet with this single ironic statement, Cox left me doubting what all my professors had promised and devoted their decades of research to in terms of sustainable agriculture, the potential for plant-based fuels and biosequestration. Could Cox be right? Are we kidding ourselves into thinking that we can turn to plants to provide all modern day energy and calorific demands and on top of that expect them to mop up the CO2 mess we make afterwards too? There have of course, been great advances in today’s agriculture, which have driven increased productivity within low input systems, giving hope to the future challenges our farmers will face. Take the huge China study, which applied evidence-based management techniques to more than 21 million small hold-farmers based on their local conditions. Call it “precision farming” if you do but the advice was basic and included nitrogen application scheduling and seed planting spacing. These low-tech ideas turned out to increase crop production for all grains by an average of around 11%, fertiliser usage dropped by about 15% per crop, which in turn saved approximately 1.2 million tonnes of nitrogen and farmers were together US$12.2 billion better off. The results of this study shows how agricultural, environmental and economic factors (also referred to as the triple bottom line in agriculture) can all be enhanced with a little foresight and good planning – and at scale!

In terms of clean energy, Cox blatantly states that it is a false to suggest that ‘today’s huge and increasing energy demand, locally, nationally, and globally, can be satisfied with wind and solar energy alone’. However future idealist, such as Jeremy Rifkin, would argue that many civilisations on a whole do not use the full potential of our current energy sources, “they haven’t taken aggregate efficiency into account. Aggregate efficiency is the ratio of potential work to the actual useful work that gets embedded into a product or service. The higher the aggregate efficiency of a good or service, the less waste is produced in every single conversion in its journey across the value chain.” In terms of exploiting aggregate efficiency in energy systems, Rifkin suggests that improved “digital power grids, stretching across continents will allow millions of people to produce their own wind and solar electricity and send their excess power generation back into the system”.  Even if one cannot envision a world without fossil fuels, estimates are that we have about 115 years of coal production, and roughly 50 years of both oil and natural gas remaining. So the sooner we focus on getting alternative energy sources optimised, such as Rifkin suggest, the better off we are on a whole.

Concepts such as urban and vertical farming are also massacred by Cox as kind of green-wash-feel-good concepts, which today, do not, nor are forecasted to reach critical mass. “There is simply not enough land in and around cities even to grow the (US) nation’s vegetable crop, let alone the cereal, grain legume, oilseed, root & tuber crops that cover the bulk of our cropland and make up the bulk of our diet.” In terms of vertical farming specifically, Cox states “it would require maybe 100,000 Empire State Buildings just to grow the nation’s vegetables—and that’s only 3% of crop acreage”. Having visited a couple of urban farming projects and being a part of a neighbourhood collective which owns and care for 5 “inner city chickens”, I too have been seduced by the concept of growing food close to where one lives. I think deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know that these projects are more novelty than novel in terms of food production but surely eating locally is better off from an environmental point of view? Well perhaps not. Cox crushes the eat local philosophy by stating that “transportation emissions are a tiny portion of the industrial food system’s emissions”, thus while it might feel good to eat local, it actually makes very little difference in the greater scheme of things and other produce demands  should rather be considered such as land and water usage per calorie unit.

Overall, Cox’s article has overlooked some of the great modern day advances in agriculture and renewable energy technology, yet it still left me feeling like a kid who just heard that Santa Claus does not exist by some playground bullies. What is the hope for our future civilisations? Where should we position our focus, investment and energies into if not sustainable solutions? Are we really blind sighted by ‘corporation, an entrepreneur, an engineer, a disruptor pointing us toward  their well-paved side street toward an ecological dead-end’? Maybe it’s the Ecomodernist in me, but I reckon we, as a people, are not as dim as Cox presents us.  Whether you love them or loathe them, environmentally friendly tech-fixes should be put to the test in the context within which they make their promises, be it agriculture, energy or the greater good of humanity. All craze, popular interest and investment will naturally dwindle if these solutions cannot withstand the inevitable encumbrances which follow.  The path to finding solutions often looks more like a maze than a straight line.

About the author: Tina Koutouleas is a citizen of the world, plant lover, biologist and eternal optimist who has just joined the REBBLS core

[1] The term “consumer” irritates the author significantly. She uses it in this regard begrudgingly and wishes to states that the widespread, infrequent use of the term “citizens” in its place is likely due to the moral aspects. Consumers are literally de-moralised as the role of the “consumer” is to choose what works best for themselves in the marketplace, regardless of others but rather in absolute primary regard for themselves.

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