Ecomodernism 2022: Deregulating Abundance

Sunday, October 2 through Tuesday, October 4, 2022
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Ecomodernism 2022: Deregulating Abundance

The material abundance that characterized 20th century American infrastructural and economic development came with major downsides.

Industrial food systems—awash in irradiated seed varieties, irrigated water, and synthetic nitrogen fertilizers—eliminated starvation for the first time in human history, but in doing so denuded forests and grasslands, leached hypoxic nitrogen runoff, and otherwise polluted the nation’s air and waterways. Continent-spanning pipes, wires, and highways allowed for the transmission of energy, goods, and people, but dissected ecosystems and neighborhoods in the process, generating extensive industrial pollution and, of course, greenhouse gas emissions. New technologies abounded, but with them came fears of previously unimaginable risks – invisible radiation from nuclear technologies, genetic drift from bioengineered crops.

The postwar regulatory state was erected, largely, to mitigate these downsides. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and bureaucracies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission were created to monitor, regulate, and–often explicitly–to restrict the deployment of new infrastructure and novel technologies.

These new policies and agencies had salutary public health and environmental effects. Conventional pollution has plummeted in the 50 years since the EPA was created. Food contamination is rare. Occupational accidents and deaths from natural disasters are down. Even greenhouse gas emissions, which have never been formally regulated in the United States, have declined markedly, partially thanks to regulations against co-pollutants like particulates and sulfur oxides that are common in fossil energy combustion.

But effectively addressing climate change will require more than pruning our techno-economic systems at the margins. Instead, it will require grafting a wholly new abundance on top of the old one. And the innovation, construction, and socialization of that new abundance are in many ways being choked off by the same administrative state designed to reign in the worst excesses of the old abundance.

That the environmental challenges of the 21st century differ so much from those of the 20th century is a truth not yet universally acknowledged by the mainstream environmental movement, who owe so much to the institutions and figureheads of prior generations. The legacy organizations of conventional environmentalism may simply be incapable of assimilating a deregulatory agenda into their priorities and their culture. Yet a deregulatory environmentalism is precisely what the so-called “abundance agenda” calls for.

We may require a new set of rules and institutions to realize that agenda. And that might not only mean new environmental organizations–or, dare we say, ecomodernist ones–but also a new politics.

Policy Director, The Neoliberal Project
Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Senior Fellow, Brookings Metro
Director of Climate Policy, Niskanen Center
Staff Writer, The Atlantic
Executive Editor — Breakthrough Journal
Senior Counsel, Employ America
Vice President, Corporate Affairs, Inari

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