An Engineer, an Economist, and an Ecomodernist Walk Into a Bar and Order a Free Lunch . . .

August 1, 2018

Humanity’s and the Earth’s prospects have been dimming for the past year and a half. But they’ve been bleak for a long time; as little was being done about the global ecological crisis before January 2017 as has been done since. Neither then nor now has the national or world power structure acknowledged that deep reductions in human resource use and economic activity, but with sufficiency for all, are necessary. Instead, the most popular proposed “solutions” would double down on human ingenuity and market forces, the two factors that have been central to creating our predicament in the first place.

. . . So the bartender says, “OK, I’ll start you a tab and bring out your lunch”

With the political-economic road to an ecological civilization seemingly blocked for now, too many of our allies are following detour signs toward dubious industrial and post-industrial fixes.

The mother of invention is the quest for new markets, and, as Thorstein Veblen once quipped, it’s invention that’s the mother of necessity. If a technology will sell, society is obliged to accept it. In this new century, Silicon Valley and Seattle have weaponized the invention of necessity, and innovation for innovation’s sake has become the driver of the human economy. Material and energetic limits are wished away; money, human brain power, and soon, artificial intelligence will miraculously transcend all limits.

That’s all hogwash, of course. The ecological economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and those who followed him have shown that no technology can repeal the Entropy Law—that there is not and will never be a free lunch [1]. Today, those realities are being studiously ignored by innovators, disruptors, and other perpetual-motion specialists.

The most difficult sector in which to apply the entrepreneur’s limit-busting strategy is agriculture. Georgescu-Roegen stressed that because of its seasonality, its intimate dependence on diffuse, intermittent solar energy and ecospheric processes, and its immunity to continuous assembly-line-style organization, crop agriculture, unlike industrial production, can’t be juiced up by adding more capital, labor, shifts, floorspace, computing power, or time-and-motion studies [2]. The net production from farming has lagged even in the fossil-fuel era, thanks to ecological limits. On the farm, there’s no Moore’s Law or anything close to it.

A corollary is that if humanity is successfully weaned from fossil fuels, the economy as a whole will necessarily become intimately dependent on more diffuse energy sources and on ecospheric processes. In other words, all economic production will necessarily become tightly bound by the same limitations that farmers, especially pre-fossil-fuel farmers have always faced.

This message has not gotten through to the mainstream environmental movement, which aims to reverse realty, expecting agriculture (along with forestry and range management) to work the entropic miracle of cleaning up after the industrial sector so the latter can go on transgressing limits.

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. Meanwhile, production of food is to be moved into cities or just outside the city limits, to reduce transportation emissions (already a tiny portion of the industrial food system’s emissions) and to let people feel good about eating locally.

None of those expectations are energetically or biologically feasible at the scale being imagined. One idea in particular—the thoroughgoing urbanization of agriculture—is wildly popular but wholly impracticable. There is simply not enough land in and around cities even to grow the 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 (by comparison, vegetables occupy less than 3% of U.S. cropland).

This idea, that agriculture can proceed under the same rules as a fossil-fueled industrial economy (as opposed to the necessary converse, that industry will be bound by the same ecological limits that constrain agriculture) is casually taken for granted in what has become the most dangerous strategy yet proposed for addressing the global ecological crisis: ecomodernism.

One species of ecomodernist

The ecomoderns foresee humanity 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.” They seem to assume that in the ecomodern world, industry will have a miraculously small geographic and ecological footprint, almost all energy demand will be met through deployment of nuclear power plants, and food will come from . . .

. . . well, that’s not entirely clear, if humanity retreats from the Earth’s landscapes. It’s expected, seemingly, that most or all food will be supplied by urban and periurban farming, augmented by food factories. (I suspect that voice-activated drones, self-driving food trucks and 3D printing of lab-cultured steaks will somehow be involved.)

In making their free-lunch assumptions, ecomodernists must be carefully keeping their calculators in the back of their desk drawers while at the same time working very hard not to think about what happens to people in countries or regions that can’t begin to afford the cost of ecomodernity.

This vision is dangerous not only because of its nuclear dependence but also because it can appeal seductively to people who are worried about imminent climatic chaos and ecospheric breakdown but don’t know much about the ecosphere or agriculture—and that is a lot of people in all walks of life. And like many bright shiny climate “solutions”, ecomodernism can create false expectations and suck support and resources away from what we really need to do.

Neither vertical nor farming

For the past eight years, I have been dragged into spending way too much time and effort pushing back against one ecomodernist delusion in particular, one that somehow has captured the imagination of urban liberals everywhere: so-called “vertical farming.”

In 2010, Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, published a book about a vision that he had been promoting for years: to grow food inside tall buildings in big cities. His publication date was timely, coming at the depths of the real-estate crash when vacant floorspace was plentiful, and his motivation was admirable: to relieve the nation’s soils of the burden of industrial agriculture.

As with many such visions, the motives were fine, but, I suspect you have already realized the many fatal laws in this scheme. Not enough time here to get into the weeds, so to speak; suffice to mention (1) that Despommier had no hope of saving America’s soils (considering that it would require maybe 100,000 Empire State Buildings just to grow the nation’s vegetables—and that’s only 3% of crop acreage) and (2) that the artificial lighting required to grow plants without benefit of sunlight would use impossible quantities of energy (for example, half of all U.S. electricity output would be required to illuminate the vegetable crop in those Empire State Buildings.) The energy used for heating, air conditioning, and other necessary services would come on top of that.

In the years since, the absurdity of the original vertical farming dream has become obvious, but the quest has not been abandoned. Despommier’s vision has instead shrunk considerably. In the past couple of years, news outlets have been running breathless reports on real-life “vertical farms.” These turn out to be warehouse spaces, shipping containers, or other indoor spaces in which lettuce or other leafy greens are being grown hydroponically under LED lights. That’s it.

It’s hugely wasteful energetically to grow any food plants other than leafy greens wholly indoors, so Despommier’s towering vision for saving America’s soils has shriveled into a business model for turning out terrifically expensive salad designed to soak up the disposable income of urban elites. These businesses are calling themselves “vertical farms,” thereby risking analogy with that region of medieval Europe that was neither holy nor Roman nor an Empire; this new incarnation of the vertical farm is neither vertical nor a farm.

Nevertheless, “vertical farming” (I’ve taken to calling it “indoor gardening”) continues to transfix the media, so I keep getting pulled in to play the role of cranky old wet blanket. Some print reporters seem to be rightly skeptical of vertical farming, but even their stories tend to consist mostly of dubious claims by whatever entrepreneur is being featured, with a fragment of a debunk by me buried in the tenth paragraph. Radio hosts are consistently enthusiastic; NPR’s Maria Hinojosa introduced a discussion of the subject in which I participated by calling the practice “something big, different, and permanent.”)

The same people who see factory farming of animals for the ecological outrage that it is are swooning over indoor gardening, a process that amounts to factory production of plants and ends up pretending and failing to prove Georgescu-Roegen wrong. I’ve concluded that the momentum achieved by indoor gardening despite its ecological futility is a case of Silicon Valley boosterism being projected onto agriculture. This was confirmed in a way when a brother of major Republian donor Elon Musk started growing lettuce in shipping containers in New York City.

Another species of ecomodernist

“Enlightened” indoor garden operators are promising someday to run their lighting, heating, and air conditioning on solar- or wind-generated electricity. But that’s a shell game, dependent on the prevalent but false claim that 100% of today’s huge and increasing energy demand, locally, nationally, and globally, can be satisfied with wind and solar energy alone.

The depth of belief in the myth of renewable-powered growth was apparent at the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC a year ago April. The atmosphere there was invigorating. But the signs, banners, and slogans were, to me, dispiriting. Yes, here and there were solid “System Change, Not Climate Change” messages. But the bulk of the messages asserted or implied that ending the climate emergency would be a simple matter of ridding the White House of its current occupants, getting Scott Pruitt out of office (check that one off, but don’t expect anything to change) and taking down Exxon-Mobil. At that point, the thinking went, the gates to a green-growth economy powered by 100-percent renewable energy will be flung wide open.

This 100%-green-energy-for-growing-demand claim, like ecomodernism, autonomous vehicles, weightless-economy positivism, algorithms that foster bigotry and violence, and many other bad ideas, emanates from the Bay Area. The source of this particular dream is Stanford University.

It is possible to achieve 100% renewable energy but only if affluent nations and regions come to operate on far less energy input. Those who were left out of the fossil-fuel bonanza will never be able to indulge in the kind of gluttonous consumption we now practice (although they—in fact all of us—could achieve improved life circumstances in a low energy economy, provided there is production for use rather than profit, greater equality, better public policy, and fair-shares rationing.)

I see the 100-percenters—Stanford’s Mark Jacobson,’s Bill McKibben, and others—as siblings of the ecomodernists in every aspect but one: that they want 100% renewable energy while the self-proclaimed ecomodernists want 100% nuclear energy. But neither variant of ecomodernism acknowledges the necessity for a low-energy, low-production economy that ensures sufficiency for all and excess for no one.

In the battle of the ecomodernists, the 100-percenters can claim the virtue of averting nuclear catastrophe (while presumably tolerating the industrial occupation of vast landscapes in pursuit of electric energy), while the ecomodernists can claim to be preserving the continent’s landscapes (even as they herd 350 million people into fragile plutonium-powered enclaves, with no effective plan for feeding them.)

Billions of people around the world need more energy than they can afford, while billions of others can afford to buy far more energy than is required to meet their needs. These distortions are accepted as assumptions by both strains of ecomodernism; their models would leave in place the current huge gaps in consumption between affluent and poor communities, both among and within countries. We’ll continue to overconsume energy; they will continue to get by as best they can.

Hot air

There’s a military base near my wife Priti’s childhood home in India whose motto is “Be Fikr Badhe Chalo,” which translates catchily into British colonial argot as “Bash on Regardless.” That sentiment was beautifully embodied in an outbreak of climate hype that hit the news in June. The Atlantic ran the most fervently positive piece of all, topped by the unintentionally hilarious headline, “Climate Change Can Be Stopped by Turning Air Into Gasoline.”

What inspired all the excitement was an announcement by a company called Carbon Engineering that it had, on a very small scale, captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through something called a “calcium caustic recovery loop” and then allowed it to react with hydrogen to form hydrocarbons that could be refined into gasoline. The source of both the energy and the potent hydrogen molecules was natural gas.

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This process is what, according to The Atlantic, will “stop climate change.” According to reality, it is simply cycling carbon dioxide out of and back into the atmosphere.

The process could reduce atmospheric concentration (by just a tiny bit) only if it were to stop after the carbon dioxide-capture part and if the carbon were then irreversibly confined within the Earth, instead of being used to produce gasoline. That would essentially be the widely proposed, if highly problematic, carbon-capture-and-storage strategy.

But there is no use or market for permanently buried carbon—so the company, headed by a Harvard professor, hit on the brilliant business strategy of using the carbon to make liquid fuels, which sell very easily. Gasoline is valuable because of the high energy it contains, and in this company’s process, that energy is derived not from that captured CO2 but from CH4, that is, from the methane in natural gas that they used as the hydrogen source.

greener version of this scheme, one suggested but not yet attempted by its developers, would be to use solar and wind farms as the energy source for both the main processes and, via hydrolysis, for the production of hydrogen for gasoline production. The end product would be a fuel with a low carbon footprint. That prospect is what drove much of the media hype.

To the green economist, it would be a dream come true: the automobile economy can keep rolling along unimpeded by climate concerns. The economy doesn’t care that this “green gasoline” will burn just like other gasoline and not reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations at all; in fact, the cycle as a whole will be a net carbon emitter. And it will perpetuate the dominance of the personal car and truck, with their many destructive impacts.

Every atom of carbon in that “green” gasoline, carbon that will have been wrung from the atmosphere at huge financial and energetic expense, will be re-emitted into the atmosphere, from which it will need to be re-extracted. And the huge amount of renewable energy going into this high-tech treadmill will be unavailable for any other purpose, prolonging the need for fossil-fueled power plants.

Ecomodern megacities, LED-powered Caesar salads, robotic servants, gasoline that lets you turn carbon dioxide into carbon dioxide, the blockchain, renewable-energy fantasies, and countless other innovative schemes illustrate how market forces are always far better at producing energy-hungry technologies than they are at finding ways to reduce consumption.

If we ever do manage to break the grip that climate denial and climate apathy have on this country, we still won’t have an unobstructed road ahead. We’ll reach many crossroads, and at each one will stand a corporation, an entrepreneur, an engineer, a disruptor . . . someone pointing us down their own well-paved side street toward an ecological dead-end. We will have to keep to nudge them aside and keep our eyes on the ecosphere.


1. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, 1971. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Harvard University Press.

2. He writes in part, “The scarcity of the low entropy that [humanity] can use does not suffice by itself to explain the peculiar balance and the general direction of economic development. There is a conflict that steadily, albeit imperceptibly, permeates this development and has its origin in the asymmetry of the two sources of low entropy: the sun’s radiation and the earth’s own deposits. . . The difference in the location and nature of these two sources is responsible for some aspects of the asymmetry. Another, equally important reason for the asymmetry is the fact that each source of low entropy is associated with one of the main categories of [humans’] productive endeavors. Solar radiation is associated primarily with husbandry, the mineral low entropy with industry. . . Although nature is the partner of man in every productive activity, this partnership is more stringent nd more subtle in husbandry than in all other sectors.” Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law, 296-97.


Teaser photo credit:  Image: Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park

Stan Cox

Stan Cox began his career in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is now the Ecosphere Studies Research Fellow at the Land Institute. Cox is the author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) and Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. He is also the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (2020) and the The Path to a Livable Future: Forging a New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic (2021), both from City Lights Books. He is starting the second year of writing the ‘In Real Time’ series for City Lights. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast.

Tags: building resilient societies, ecomodernism, limits to growth