Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Are we all Ecomodernists now?

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.


Quentin Quencher said...

Thilo Spahl kommentiert das „Ecomodernist Manifesto“ im TheEuropean. Ich hatte dort folgende Bemerkung hinterlassen:

„Genau dieser gedankliche Ansatz, wie er hier beschrieben ist, hat das Potential aus der ideologischen Sackgasse herauszuführen, in der sich die Gesellschaften, vor allem des Westens, befinden. Es würde die Überwindung des »Cultural Lag«, in der sich eben die Gesellschaften befinden, möglich machen. Das Anthropozän wird zum Technium, eine sehr angenehme Vorstellung.“

Ich habe mich noch nicht durch dieses Dokument durchgearbeitet, sehe aber beim der ersten groben Durchsicht, schon einiges was ich nicht teile. Dennoch scheint mir gerade in Hinblick auf den »Cultural Lag«, so wie ich ihn in Anthropozän und Technium beschrieben habe, dieses Manifest einen Ausweg aus der derzeit verfahrenen Situation aufzuzeigen. Bin sehr neugierig auf die Diskussion.

Werner Krauss said...

Reiner, thanks for posting the manifesto and your thoughtful discussions. I spent last week in Istanbul, with the manifesto in my mind. Against this backdrop, here some lose associations:

In the manifesto, "culture" plays a role next to nothing. It is mentioned only twice: cultures will decide the choice of technologies, and better economies will improve culture, among other things. That's it.

In Istanbul with its approx. 20 million inhabitants, there is no doubt that in such a mega-city, technology, infrastructures, and modernization are key. Erdogan enforced something like a turbo-modernization, but this modernization is channelled through culture - through religion (Islam), gender, and regional identity (Istanbul / Anatolia). There is no modernization without a pre-fix. This here is Islamic modernization.

Outside of Istanbul, heritage sites are flooded for hydro-power; the first nuclear power plant will be built at the Black Sea (earthquake region); there are plans for a new Bhosporus (!), and (allegedly earth-quake proof) constructions abound in the city, creating a new construction bubble. Protests are not allowed, at May 1st 21.000 police troops closed the city. Gezi Parque is intended to become either a shopping mall or a mosque. Like in the manifesto: environmentalists or old fashioned lefties simply disturb the process of modernization.

In the manifesto, modernization and technology bring welfare, equality, climate protection and everything, while culture plays a minor role. In Istanbul, they serve to strengthen Islam, Erdogan and his supporters, and rumours about corruption abound. This made me think that cultural issues are key for the "good anthropocene"; modernization and technology are only the means to make the city livable (and not the other way round).

Just two short examples for the tensions in this city - and where the manifesto fails, too, in my opinion:

The manifesto states that modernization brings equality for women. In Istanbul, modernization is equal to women wearing a hijab, from the new wave of designer-Islam to the traditional version; the role of women is increasingly defined by religion - judge yourself if you will call this "increasing equal rights".

And I read in the manifesto, that modernization alleviates poverty, statistically. In Istanbul, there are currently close to 2 million refugees from Syria, without any rights. You see families sleeping on the streets, begging children everywhere. Late at night, I ran into an old Syrian couple, sitting at the side of the road, and I realized: statistics make no sense here, and against this backdrop, many arguments in the manifesto are cynical or ignorant.

The whole eco-modernist attitude of saving the poor with modernization, of bringing cheap energy to enable a good anthropocene reminded me of the New York Times video, "36 hours in Istanbul". There a simulation of Turkish culture is presented for American tourists: Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmend mosque, a boat trip to Asia across the Bhosporus. Great food, beautiful sights. The good life, seen from the US.
I do not argue against eco-modernization, and there is no doubt that mega-cities need the best of it. But the eco-manifesto approach purely based on statistics and energy calculation has nothing to do with the reality of mega-cities. It sounds to me like a strange kind of hubris.

Werner Krauss said...

Gezi Park, not parque...Sultan Ahmet Mosque - not Ahmend (Blue Mosque) etc. - I hope you get my point despite sloppy language!

@ReinerGrundmann said...


I am afraid I don't get your point.

The point about religion and women's rights seem so suggest that Islam, the veil and female emancipation do not go together. This is contentious but even if we accept it, there is still evidence for the ecomodernist claim that technology and cheap energy are crucial in this respect.
Hans Rosling explains this in his famous TED talk about the impact of the washing machine on female lives:

The point of the manifesto is that these changes are viable, bringing immediate benefit. Of course these things will be appropriated by the regime in place who praises itself for doing this - and we may reject the regime's illiberal tactics. But imagine how difficult it would be to install a regime you like, without religious dominance in public life, etc. In this respect I am defending the ecomodernist approach.

I don't understand how the influx of Syrian refugees comes into play as an example against ecomdernism.

And I don't understand how you can dismiss statistical data in the light of individual examples which you equate with 'the reality of mega-cities'. What is reality in this regard is a good question. Any answer will start with a selection of important aspects. The ecomodernist answer selects the spatial and energy aspects (high density being more efficient), something which neglects the input and output aspects of people, matter and energy, as I have tried to argue above.

I cannot see how you can use the example of homeless people you encountered as a refutation of a statistical reality. "In Istanbul, there are currently close to 2 million refugees from Syria, without any rights" as you put it. This does not refute the ecomodernist claim about a general tendency of modernisation to alleviate poverty.

Werner Krauss said...


indeed, obviously you did not get my point. I do not refute the ecomodernist claims that modernization in the long run alleviates poverty or strengthens women's rights. I simply doubt that this statement does make much sense in the face of Istanbul or other mega-cities. It is an argument in a debate in the Sierra Club between environmentalists; Erdogan knows for long that modernization is key. For me the problem is that you can easily ruin the idea of modernization, and that modernization and cheap energy have helped to ruin the environment - as much as it can help to improve it. Thus, a simple plea for "eco-modernization" is a little shallow to me. There is the question of culture and politics that mark the difference, this is my point.

And yes, the question of the veil is contentious, as are the questions of nuclear power plants in earthquake zones, the building of mega projects like a new Bhosporus or super dams, and also the question of Turkey's role in the Syrian conflict. It is not about what kind of regime I want (sounds like a polemical argumet to me) - the point is that these are the questions at stake. To vote simply for (eco-) modernization means nothing here - you can easily ruin the idea of eco and of modernization once you leave culture and politics aside. Modernization is always channelled through something, it is never only statistics. Isn't that a valid point?

And, by the way, the manifesto mentions shortly that cultures will decide which technology they will use for modernization. You would not pass an undergraduate seminar in anthropology with such a naive statement. But I also follow comments on twitter or in the NYT by Ted Nordhaus or Marc Lynas, and I am afraid they would not allow at all "cultures" to decide against nuclear power or GMOs. Culture for them just means just being ignorant in the face of science and statistics, I am afraid.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Thanks for clarification Werner.

Let's take this a bit further. You write "the manifesto mentions shortly that cultures will decide which technology they will use for modernization. You would not pass an undergraduate seminar in anthropology with such a naive statement."

I have two issues with this:

- this is a manifesto, not an academic exercise. It has no footnotes or references, and it is very short.

- what would a good anthropology argument look like in this context?

Werner Krauss said...


I have no idea what a good anthropological argument would look like here; I find the context strange. If we stay with Turkey: who represents culture when it comes to the decision about a nuclear power plant? Who is included, who is excluded? And how does this "culture" decide? And what about "Turkish culture" deciding to build a nuclear bomb - would "the American culture" let them do so?
I think the mentioning of culture in this context is a bit hypocrit.
I say this as someone who liked the previous manifesto "Death on Environmentalism" a lot; but this was mostly "local" and addressed to American environmentalism. This manifesto sounds like a projection of Breakthrough's worldview onto the rest of the world. Modernization and statistics are not value neutral, but I said this before.

Werner Krauss said...

Here an excellent critique of the manifesto from Bill Adams, "Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus":

"So the Ecomodernist Manifesto is a blueprint for an all-out high-tech route to sustainability, designed primarily to allow the protection of wild nature. If this sounds too simple, it is. A remarkable feature of the Manifesto is what it says about politics: precisely nothing. How is this brave new world to be brought about? The Manifesto does not say. It notes that market-driven technological innovation in the face of scarcity is not enough, but although it mentions the ‘broader social, economic, and political context’ (p. 28), this is not explored. The Manifesto is seemingly blind to the politics of sustainability and resource use. It does not consider how the benefits of this brave new world are to be achieved or shared. Its techno-optimism screens out discussion of the messy realities of winners and losers, or vested interests, or the working of capitalism, the political ignorance of science, the lack of democratic control of economic change. (see next comment)

Werner Krauss said...

"There may be no politics in the Manifesto, but the paper is nonetheless deeply political. Indeed, in place of a discussion of politics, there is a deliberate anti-politics. This term comes from James Ferguson’s 1990 book on development in Lesotho, The Anti-Politics Machine. Anti-politics involves the presentation of political decisions as merely technical. So, in the Manifesto, decoupling is presented as a technical challenge: the choice of technology is technical; the process of replacing old processes with new is technical; the processes of decarbonization and dematerialization are treated as technical; the protection of ‘wild nature’ is presented an emergent property of a process brought about by technical decisions.

There is no space for the messiness of politics in this ecomodernist world: just neat pieces of kit, technical innovation, human ingenuity and common human interests, all underpinned by a shared love of nature. But who benefits from decisions about technology and the maintenance of contemporary patterns of wealth and wellbeing. Whose nature is preserved? Here the Manifesto is silent." (Bill Adams).