EnvHum vs. EcoModernism


Volume 7 of the journal Environmental Humanities included a Special Commentary section containing five essays responding to The Ecomodernist Manifesto. I'll be reading them all (I suspect I'll be reading Environmental Humanities from beginning to end pretty soon), but the two that jumped out at me were transcripts of talks delivered at an ecomodernist conference. Last June, Bruno Latour and Clive Hamilton visited the Breakthrough Dialog conference in Sausalito, California, and talked about the manifesto and ecomodernism. Latour said, "it sounds much like the news that an electronic cigarette is going to save a chain smoker from addiction. A great technical fix which will allow the addicted to behave just as before, except now he or she will go on with the benefit of a high tech other words, 'ecomodernism' seems to me another version of 'having one's cake and eating it too.' " Or in other words, technology-wielding corporations have figured out a new way to capitalize on our worst proclivities.

Latour went on to highlight the ironic difference between the modernity of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) which we used to emancipate ourselves from dogmas, and the modernity we've used to entangle (enslave) ourselves to technology. One of the issues that came up in my Environmental History class this week was some students' reaction to the migrations of prehistoric peoples and their development of agriculture. It was amazing, they said, that these primitive, uneducated people could do so much. Yes it is amazing, but I obviously need to work harder in this Prehistory chapter to plant the seed that these ancient individuals were smarter and stronger because they lacked the cultural crutches we're not even aware we're using every day.

Latour then addressed the ecomodernists' misuse of the idea of nature. He corrected them on the nature of nature, and he took it a step further, suggesting that the ideas of modernity and nature are not being misused by the ecomodernists by accident or ignorance, but because they allow a "political traction" that "distribute[s] agencies" so that "those who resist -- who remain backward, who remain archaic, etc. -- are beaten into submission." This is basically an end-run around the democracy and plurality the ecomodernists claim to revere. They short-circuit political debate "by creating a second power--that of nature-- out of reach of political assemblies."

Latour concludes, "Never in history was there such a complete disconnect between the requirements of time and space, and the utopian uchronist vision coming from intellectuals." Funny that he was giving this talk in California. Apparently, he didn't visit the nearby Singularity University.

Clive Hamilton also spoke at the conference, and called the ecomodernist program "a theodicy, that is, a theological argument that aims to prove the ultimate benevolence of God." Hamilton equated this to Voltaire's Pangloss, whose "endearing personality trait became his deluded philosophy of life." But the ecomodernists, Hamilton said, have secularized the idea, "So in place of a theodicy they instate an '
anthropodicy' in which human-directed Progress thakes the place of God." It's still Providence, but now it's self-directed.


I wonder if part of the ecomodernists' belief in the power they think humans have over nature comes directly from observing the problems we've created. If they think the Anthropocene is proof of Stewart Brand's claim that "We are as Gods," then they've completely missed the irony of the rest of Brand's statement, "so we may as well get good at it." Being able to cause a bunch of unanticipated collateral damage is not the same as Mastering Nature.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't try really hard to develop technologies to fix the problems we've created. We should and I hope the solutions work. The danger is in believing that we inevitably will, because that's the way the world works. Especially because it's always someone else who comes up with the killer app. Elon Musk will figure it out; we have nothing to worry about.

And here's a quote so good I couldn't pass it up: "Providence is a tool invented by the rich to lull those whom they oppress into silent endurance" (Susan Neiman,
Evil in Modern Thought). Hamilton says ecomodernism is the new Providence.

EcoModernist Hubris, part 2

Part Two of a response to The Ecomodernist Manifesto which I began yesterday.

The third point of the manifesto challenges the idea that "early human societies lived more lightly on the land than do modern societies." The only reason this seems to be so, the authors say, is because populations were lower. While I'm suspicious of claims that indigenous people were
always better environmentalists than modern folk, I think the ecomodernist claim is hard to support. Early societies didn't run open pit copper mines using leachates that end up in groundwater. They didn't apply nitrogen fertilizers with 50% runoff rates that created dead zones in lakes, rivers, and the ocean. They didn't melt the ozone layer or pump CO2 into the air at the rate we do. So yeah, Jared Diamond notwithstanding, their actions as well as their numbers were lighter on the planet.

The authors highlight a passage where they claim our ancestors had much larger per-capita environmental footprints than people today. They say a lot of deforestation and burning happened before the industrial revolution, not to mention the Holocene Extinction. I'll give them the Holocene Extinction, but on the other points I disagree with their conclusion. In the Americas, forest management and burning were elements of native culture that were sustainable for millennia. No one is saying early people lived as "Noble Savages" and didn't modify their environments. Claiming that these practices created problems comparable to the current crisis is just silly.

The authors also avoid a crucial issue with their focus on aggregates that underlies the per capita approach. There were wide variations in how different early societies interacted with their environments, just as there are wide variations today. We're not
really talking about the difference in the overall behavior between about a million ancient people versus about 7 billion today when we discuss climate change. We're talking about the industrial revolution and the acceleration after WWII. When a small percentage of the global population contributed far more than its per capita share, both to material progress and to its consequences.  Just ninety corporations have been responsible for two thirds of emissions. Per capita is irrelevant.

Unbelievably, when the authors  give examples of ecosystem-threatening current practices, they choose cutting firewood and eating bush meat. They do get around to mentioning the industrial "modernization processes that have increasingly liberated humanity from nature." Yeah, they're double-edged, they say, but "Had technologies not improved since the Dark Ages, no doubt the human population would not have grown much either." That's the choice they're offering. The status quo or the Dark Ages and "a massive human die-off."

The fourth point of the manifesto relates to energy production, and the authors bring up some important issues. Reducing carbon emissions challenges the impulse to raise "developing" societies to "first-world" standards of living. Facing this obvious justice issue, the authors suggest that carbon mitigation has to be a technological solution. I have some sympathy for this argument, even though it is buried deep inside a Green Revolution wrapper that assumes the only effective solutions are the ones
we used.

In the fifth point, the authors affirm their love for nature. In language that could have been written by Teddy Roosevelt's Progressive buddies, they praise wilderness and suggest that as humans concentrate themselves more in the high-tech cities of the ecomodernist vision, this will allow re-wilding and leave room for nature on the planet. People may even choose, they say, "to have some services -- like water purification and flood protection -- provided for by natural systems, such as forested watersheds, reefs, marshes, and wetlands, even if those natural systems are more expensive than simply building water treatment plants, seawalls, and levees." Apparently, they've figured out how to provide clean water and flood protection for 7 billion people. I'd love to see the blueprints.

Point six reiterates the authors' support for nuclear power, which has been mentioned several times throughout the document. They try to separate their concept of modernization from "capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies" by saying they support local institutions and cultures, even when they make the wrong decisions like Germany and Japan regarding nuclear power. Of course, they ignore the actual history of modernization and fail to suggest how local cultures and the public sector are going to win a seat at their modernizing table.

In point seven, the authors offer a brief conclusion, featuring their optimism about the future and commitment to democracy, tolerance, and pluralism.

After finishing the manifesto, I scrolled back up to the photos and bios of the authors. I've got to say, I'm disappointed, puzzled, and a bit astonished. It's not that they had no ideas. The discussion of energy does bring up some important points. It's just that the manifesto's point of view is buried so deeply in a technocratic, progressive vision that it just doesn't seem to be talking about the world
I think I see around me. I guess it's an important document from that perspective. But I'm a bit depressed. I think I'll go read some James C. Scott.

EcoModernist Hubris, part 1


In week three of the
UNSW Environmental Humanities class I'm taking online, we're reading "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." I was vaguely aware of this, but hadn't read it. It's quite a document. Here are my initial reactions.

The manifesto's purpose is to advance the idea that "knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene." The authors say, "we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse." Harmonizing with nature is not a solution, they say. "Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind's dependence upon them."

If we're not going to harmonize with nature, what should we do. The answer seems to be "intensifying." I think a lot will hang on how they define "intensifying," especially in agriculture. Chemical-enhanced monoculture and GMOs are  capitally intensive, but the type of intensification that concentrates control, power, and money is not what's needed. I also hope the type of intensification they're advocating isn't technology. High-rise hydroponic farms might be a better solution than mile-wide cornfields, but new technological solutions to problems that were solved centuries ago are a waste of energy. We don't need to raise meat in laboratories. We need to adjust our meat-eating and raise animals rationally.

The authors make a series of points in the manifesto. On point 1, I tend to disagree that modernity has resulted in a "growing population able to live in many different environments." Sure, population has exploded. But more of us live in cities than ever before. Yes, humans can even survive in space for extended periods of time, but only at extreme expense. Our tech allows us to do many things, but our dependence on it weakens us and reduces our ability to solve our own problems. Humans may be less "able" than they've ever been.

The authors ask an important question: "Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?" But I disagree with their "paradox of technology" answer. Yes, technology has replaced less efficient survival techniques like hunting and gathering. But technology has not actually made humans less dependent on ecosystems. It has merely shifted the ecosystems most of us are depending on to faraway locations where we are less aware of them.

Cheap fossil fuels basically enable the whole system. They come from far away, as do the other resources (copper, phosphate, etc.) we extract using their energy. We manufacture nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas, while manure from CAFOs overruns holding ponds and poisons lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Increasingly, we do our manufacturing far away, where environmental contamination and human inequality are out of sight, out of mind.

There may or may not be evidence of limits to growth, but there is certainly evidence that increasing inequity threatens many, even in the face of overabundant capacity. This is not a new phenomenon. Mike Davis wrote very effectively about this in
Late Victorian Holocausts.

The second point the authors make is that "long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts." An important element of this decoupling is that "environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth." Wait, what? This is a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Or, to be blunter, of comparing the
real with the unreal.

Environmental impacts are real things. Economic growth is not. Economic growth (as we all know but routinely forget) is a measurement that depends on what is valued. At its heart, the economy is simply a reflection of a very large but finite number of individual decisions in the market. Most economists make no claim to understand the dynamics of these decisions; they just add them up.

So saying the economy is growing faster than environmental impacts is only saying that people don't value the right things in the market. The disease is the cure. Yes, if we were all
so happy to be living packed into domed cities eating manufactured food while the environment outside looked like apocalyptic sci-fi, the market would reflect our decision and the economy would continue to outpace the environmental impact. So is the real task of the ecomodernists social engineering to make people happy in domed cities?

Cities, they say, "occupy just one to three percent of the Earth's surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people." This, in their minds, symbolizes the radical decoupling of humanity from the constraints of nature. Really? Where does the food come from? Where does the waste go? Does the electricity appear in the wall outlet by magic? It's almost absurd. Let's make it easy -- when cities can produce even just their own
water, you can tell me how decoupled they are.

The authors claim that "modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy." This is in the section on cities, so I assume modernization refers to urbanization, new iPhones, and less work. It's ironic that, like efficiency experts of the early industrial age, the authors are fascinated by the idea of reducing labor when growing populations are either completely unemployed or reduced to working in meaningless jobs. Thank goodness, they say, that only 2 percent of the population feeds the other 98% in America. We wouldn't want more people to live on the land and grow things!

That's my reaction to the first half of the Manifesto. I'm getting annoyed, and this post is getting long. So I'll take a break and read the rest tomorrow.