Calls for Agricultural Innovation in Africa

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

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Me, enjoying the scenery in a nature preserve that happens to contain the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, which provides power for 3 million homes in California while taking up only a few acres of land. #decoupling

October 22, 2015 | Alex Trembath

You have to read this terrific op-ed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame and K Y Amoako, founder of the African Center for Economic Transformation. 

In their piece, the two call for agricultural innovation and modernization in African countries, writing "From Europe and North America to East Asia and Latin America, agricultural advances have proved to be key precursors of industrial development and gains in living standards." Kagame and Amoako also discuss the "pitfalls" of agricultural modernization, such as excess labor and environmental damage, that gets to the dispute between ecomodernists and George Monbiot in the Guardian a few weeks ago. Fortunately, it seems African leaders are more optimistic about their ability navigate that "long and complex process" than Mr. Monbiot. 

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E&E News has a teriffic new series called Greater Expectations, In a recent piece for the series, Gayathri Vaidyanathan has a spectacular piece of reporting out of India. Vaidyanathan documents the tension between grid and off-grid energy in India, highlighting a story in Dharnai that I blogged about last year. Even as off-grid technologies have gotten cheaper, the grid remains the most coveted form of electricity access in India: Vaidyanathan reports Dharnai citizens chanting "We want real electricity, not fake electricity!" 

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Gaia Vince reports that the world has reached peak kid:

The world has reached peak child, according to the latest data United Nations Population Division. The number of children under 15 has levelled off at two billion and will remain there, perhaps falling by the end of the century. The global population is still growing—we added one billion people over the past 12 years—but at a slower pace. Current estimates predict a stable population of around 11 billion or less by 2100, perhaps followed by a decline.

But there's reason to think global population will never reach 10 billion, let alone 11. Most of the increase in population is projected to occur in Africa, where most countries still have not undergone their own demographic transition. But according to Samir K C at IIASA, the total population of African countries might not grow to 4.4 billion (from around 1 billion today) like the United Nations suggests:

According to our projections at the Wittgenstein Center, projecting population by age, sex, and educational attainment for almost all countries of the World, Africa’s population may only rise to some 2.6 billion by 2100. That number is only 60% of the 4.4 billion predicted by the UN.

The size of the global population is a critical variable in determining what point this century we will reach peak global impact.

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There appears to be a bit of an environmentalist tide turning against bioenergy, which has a far higher land footprint than any other form of energy. In January, the World Resources Institute came out strong against bioenergy, finding that renewable biomass and biofuels rarely contribute to carbon reduction goals once land use change is taken into account. There's also this great ongoing series at Climate Central called Pulp Fiction.

Breakthrough's own Marian Swain recently interviewed Tim Searchinger, Princeton professor and WRI Senior Fellow. One fascinating bit from that interview: 

We did acalculation that showed that even if you’re foolish enough to use the world’s most productive agricultural land in Brazil for solar PV, you’d still produce on the order of thirty times as much energy as you would get from sugarcane for biofuel. The lesson is, if you want to produce energy from solar radiation, cut out the middleman – a very bad middleman. Photosynthesis is the only way to make energy to feed ourselves, and the only way we can produce trees, but it’s a really lousy way to produce energy.

I would only note that bioenergy is the unappealling-but-necessary wedge you have to include if you commit to a 100% renewables future, since intermittent wind and solar can't do it all.

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Ecomodernists Moms Amy Levy and Julie Kelly have a really nice piece at Huffington Post this week on how ecomodernism unites the Left and the Right:

It's a refreshing departure from the usual apocalyptic rhetoric and the tired talking points we're already hearing from presidential candidates in both parties. There is something for everyone in ecomodernism; a growth-based approach emphasizing prosperity that appeals to Republicans and a public policy-directed approach that finally addresses the environmental and global equality concerns of Democrats. Independents will appreciate its pragmatism and lack of polemics. Ecomodernism acknowledges that poverty, energy, and climate cannot be addressed without the partnership of both government and the private sector.

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Apparently, some folks still think that ecomodernists yearn for a future prisoned inside sterile cities, walled off from what remains of a nature that we could give a shit about. Both Amy and I briefly took time out of our week to assure everyone else that this is not the case. If you need any more evidence, here is this segment from An Ecomodernist Manifesto:

We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being.

 

Photo credit: Mark Caine


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