Wednesday, April 29, 2015
Two weeks ago a group co-ordinated by The Breakthrough Institute published the Ecomodernist Manifesto (EM). Among its 18 authors there are some who co-authored the Hartwell Paper which advocated a specific approach to climate policy, and which was featured several times here on this blog (yours truly being one of the Hartwell authors). The EM goes beyond climate policy, addressing the broader question of humanity’s place in nature, and history. There is a dedicated website for comments which has some very useful and thoughtful posts.
The title of the manifesto reminds of a framework proposed by social scientists in the 1980s and 1990s, and which was called Ecological Modernization (Martin Jänicke, Joseph Huber, Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Amory Lovins, among others). Although none of the proponents of this earlier tendency is listed as co-author, there is some clear inspiration visible.
What did the earlier Ecomodernists have to say? Briefly put, they suggested to marry economy and ecology, claimed that increasing environmental productivity is profitable, that we should increase resource efficiency and advance clean technologies, engage in pollution prevention, waste reduction, recycling, use life-cycle assessments of products and establish environmental impact assessments. Policies to combat acid rain and to protect the Ozone layer were seen as successful examples.
The EM is written in this spirit. It acknowledges that much of human well being is the result of technological progress. However, it also acknowledges that this development has led to negative impacts on the natural environment. The task of ecomodernization is to decouple economic and technological development from its side effects. The main issues are material flows and impacts, such as species extinction, or pollution. I concur with their critique of some ecologists’ idea that ‘human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.’
However, the EM tries accommodate another, more spiritual strand which is not exactly identical with the ecomodernists, or ecopragmatists, as they also call themeselves. Among the authors of the EM there is a divide between the two, with some authors perhaps being able to credibly claim they impersonate both roles, the ecopragmatist and nature conservationist. Both groups come together because they believe in the virtues of density, be it energy density (as in fossil fuels or nuclear energy), or population density (urban environments are more beneficial for wildlife than suburban sprawl). Both groups think that societies are on a trajectory to achieving peak material production during this century, and peak population. Energy and services will still grow but the effects on nature will be minimized.
There is a large dose of hopefulness here which rests on speculation. Some skepticism is in order here. Sociologists since Durkheim and Simmel have known that poverty is a relative category. Over the past decade, hundreds of millions may have been lifted out of immediate poverty (defined as surviving on less than $1 per day), and the EM rightly joins in the celebration of this success. But apart from addressing severe poverty (homelessness, malnutrition, starvation), there will be other, more subtle forms of poverty, and thus competition for new goods and services, be they material or immaterial. In this sense human societies will never be able to ‘solve’ the problem of poverty, and the associated problems of social inequality and crime.
The same can be said about climate change, which the Hartwell Group (among others) described as wicked problem. These problems cannot be solved for good, only managed better or worse. Here the EM takes a different line. It is optimistic with regard to the possibilities to solve these problems, once and for all. The promise to nature lovers is that the more we modernize, the less we will need to encroach on natural beauty and wildlife.
For me this is sounds a bit naïve, and invokes two sentiments which are very much last century. One is the idea that modernization is a project leading to progress, with an endpoint that can be clearly defined (see Modernization Theory with its inevitable stages--The EM says that by the end of this century several goals will have been achieved). The other is that nature is something beautiful, spiritual, to be protected from human interference. This sounds a bit like the belief of deep ecologists.
I would argue against the first that we do not know what the future holds, and a bet on (existing) technical fixes (such as nuclear power) may not be a very attractive vision. There will be unexpected developments in technologies (energy, digital, medical, and so forth) and they will lead to new challenges. These new developments will have side effects on nature, and on the social fabric. Competition for the desirable products will be intense, and the age-old questions of social equity, freedom, and democracy will persist.
Regarding the deep ecology ideas (the EM says ‘humans should seek to liberate the environment from the economy’, and demands a ‘re-wilding and re-greening the earth’), this is in fact an anthropogenic project. There is nothing intrinsic in nature which makes it worth to be protected, it is our choice, as the EM rightly says. We may prefer water from natural aquifers at a greater cost, from beautiful landscapes, to water from purification plants. But nature is not only beautiful and benign. It is cruel and unforgiving as well, and much of our efforts as a human species has been a fight within, against nature. The idea of nature as bucolic is a cultural product.
Both groups of authors of the EM are united in the belief that intense, dense forms of living together and of energy sources provide the possibility for the rest of nature to be left untouched. But this begs the question: clearly cities need energy and resource input from the world around it, and they dump its waste products onto it. And those who want to enjoy the imagined natural (‘restored’) beauty, will be in competition with each other. Unless, that is, nature becomes the preserve of the few and rich who can afford a house in garden Eden (think Richard Branson and others who own their own island).
The EM convincingly states: ‘Accelerated decoupling alone will not be enough to ensure more wild nature. There must still be a conservation politics and a wilderness movement to demand more wild nature for aesthetic and spiritual reasons. Along with decoupling humankind’s material needs from nature, establishing an enduring commitment to preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and a mosaic of beautiful landscapes will require a deeper emotional connection to them.’
So in the end, the process of ecological modernization will not lead inevitably to more progress with regard to nature restoration, and in fact worship of nature. This is a human choice. But it is a choice we need to make, the EM says. These ideas are an add-on to the ecopragmatist strand in the manifesto, and I wonder how central it is, especially with its normative impetus that ‘we need a deeper emotional connection’ to nature.
Over the past thirty years or so the language and discourse of sustainability has operated on three levels, the environmental, the economic, and the social. It looks as if the EM has taken into account the first and the second, but largely neglected the third. It does address society’s material and spiritual needs, but it is nor clear where the social needs could be accommodated.