Ecomodernism: a response to my critics

George Monbiot, bless him, has recently been tweeting his enthusiasm for my critique of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (‘Dark thoughts on Ecomodernism‘). This gained me quite a lot of positive responses, but also inevitably some negative ones – starting with a mild shot across the bows from one Fahad and thence a veritable blizzard of critical tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute and a cast of fellow travellers.

Some of the issues raised by these critics and the questions they’ve posed of me seem worth following through in greater detail so that’s what I shall essay here. Apologies for the lengthiness of the reply – these promptings from my critics enable me to explore various interesting issues that I didn’t address or only touched on in my original essay, so I hereby commit these words to cyberspace as a companion essay to my ‘Dark thoughts…’ piece.

To be honest, it’s a bit dispiriting wading through some of the invective directed at me on Twitter. Primitivist! Pessimist! Malthusian! Feudalist! Romantic! You spend years writing stuff that painstakingly corrects these misconceptions about the case against modernization, only to be dismissed in one-word caricatures by people I have to think haven’t actually read what I’ve written. And if they have, then god help us, the myth of progress has us in an ideological death grip.

Anyway, I propose to dodge most of the name-calling and try to focus on issues of more substance. I’ll start with Fahad’s comments, but here I do want to begin by taking issue with one of the pejoratives – Fahad’s charge that I romanticize preindustrial society. Then I plan to work my way through Mike Shellenberger’s questions to me and his criticisms of my ‘Dark thoughts…’ piece. So the order of play is as follows:

  • On Romanticism
  • An aside on the politics of agrarian populism
  • Modernization & inequality
  • Of urbanization & ‘the village’
  • Agricultural modernization
  • Enclosure
  • Intensification & land sparing
  • Energy
  • An aside on whales
  • Conclusion

On Romanticism

Pace Fahad, what I actually wrote is that modern humanity faces some difficult problems, that I don’t think more ‘modernization’ is the most promising way of tackling them, that there are things we can learn from non-modern peoples that might help us, and that some people from non-modern societies lived fulfilled lives by their own standards. That’s romanticizing? If so, the implication is that to avoid romanticization you’d need to argue there’s nothing we can possibly learn from non-modern peoples, who have all lived out their lives in unalloyed misery. That goes well beyond what E.P.Thompson called ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ into a realm of remorseless presentism and ethnocentrism. Call me a romantic, then, if it enables me to avoid such epic narcissism. And for more thoughts on the tricky issue of romanticization, have a look at this.

An aside on the politics of agrarian populism

Mike Shellenberger said he couldn’t see any politics in my position, so let me try to broach them briefly by way of another of Fahad’s tweets: “In human history, e.g. food supply in late 19th century. We innovated & managed to get out of those. We ignored Malthusian pessimists”. Interesting, but that’s not how I read the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rather than an incipient global Malthusian crisis that was averted by technological developments resulting from collective human will, I see the key historical dynamic of that period as connected with the emergence of arguably the first truly globalized economy, which was created by British imperialism. There’s been a long-term historical trend in human societies whereby social forms that can direct and organise more people have the ratcheting effect of fostering the secondary formation of more societies in their image: clan and lineage societies beget more clan and lineage societies, (primary) monarchies beget more (secondary) monarchies, empires beget more would-be empires – a point examined in some detail across human history by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus1. This trend doesn’t arise because these forms are ‘superior’ to other less centralizing ones in any fundamental way, but because the less centralizing ones get swallowed up by the more centralizing ones unless they organise in like manner. One way this manifested in the late 19th century was in terms of intense imperial rivalries in Europe – for example, the creation of ‘capitalism from above’ in Germany in competition with Britain and other major powers of the time – and indeed a similar dynamic in other countries, for example under Diaz in Mexico. In the German case, the country’s chemical industry was key to its modernization dynamic2, and few of its chemists were more significant than Fritz Haber – firstly in figuring out ammonia synthesis for agricultural fertiliser, and secondly in developing chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in World War I.

I see the Haber-Bosch synthetic fertiliser process more as an outcome of this competitive capitalist development than the result of some global humanitarian push to overcome a Malthusian limit. It’s had a profound impact on human history over the last century which is by no means reducible to its origins in that particular economic context. So I see little point in adopting a 1066 And All That view of history and debating whether it was A Good Thing or not. It’s led us to where we are now and what matters is the decisions we take from here.

Nevertheless, during that same period there were strong agrarian populist movements in many parts of the world. In some places (Mexico, India) they had a modicum of success, in others (Russia, the USA) they were conclusively defeated – and the emerging synthesis of an imperial, capitalist global economy with a mechanised and industrialised agriculture facilitated their defeat. I’m interested in reviving their legacy as a means of tackling the current problems we face – not in reviving those movements themselves in all their particularities. Things are different now, and in any case there was much in those movements with which to take issue. But agrarian populism, that road not taken a hundred odd years ago, is still in my view pregnant with possibilities for a more equitable and more sustainable future. It involves elements of socialism, but without that movement’s typical disdain for rural petty proprietors and its industrial-capitalism era concepts of ‘progress’. One of the problems, though, is that the ratchet effect I mentioned above makes it difficult for countries to step outside the political dynamic established by the core. The ones that do tend to have extremist ideological axes of one sort or another to grind – Ireland in the early 20th century, say, or Cambodia under Pol Pot. So for those of us working towards a more localized and autarkic agrarian economy, the casebook is not filled with terribly inspiring modern examples. We need to build a more open, internationalist food sovereignty movement. I’m proud to count myself a member of La Via Campesina, which at least has begun that long-term struggle.

I plan to say more about a contemporary agrarian populist politics in future posts. But I thought I’d just mention the points above by way of a thumbnail outline to fill Mike in on my politics. He retweeted this comment: “British environmental movements are not movements, and have “ethics without politics””. I partially agree with that – though I’d extend the charge from British environmental movements to ones throughout the western world, and indeed more generally to its leftist movements too. Witness the current turmoil in the Labour Party, symptomatic of the disarray caused by the loss of organised labour as the key dynamic of the left and by the siren song of neoliberalism. But against the implied criticism of the tweet, I’m happy to bide time. You don’t just snap your fingers and conjure some new alignment of left-green forces out of nowhere overnight. These things take time. Mike added that my line of argument was about lifestyle, not politics. Politics always is about aspirant lifestyles, but I can’t see how anyone could read my ‘Dark thoughts…’ essay as apolitical and ‘only’ about lifestyle. And if they do, I doubt there’s anything more I can say that would change their mind. But I’d add that Mike’s own programme sounds pretty lifestyley to me. “Ecomodernism is political program of cities, ag modernization & cheap energy” he writes. Cities! Modernization! Cheap energy! What a marvellous way to live! But you don’t make it into a politics just by calling it a political program.

Modernization and inequality

Let me now whizz through some points that ought to be easy to clear up before moving on to weightier matters. Mike summarizes my position as “There are still poor people. Hence, modernity is a complete failure….People are still dying from disease. Hence, modern medicine is a complete failure.” This isn’t even a reductio ad absurdum of my argument. It’s just an absurdum plain and simple. As even a casual reading of my essay should make clear, I don’t oppose modernity because it’s failed to end poverty. I oppose spurious claims that modernization doesn’t ever cause poverty or is the only means for ending it.

Mike also wrote “Ecomodernism says we have moral obligation to extend gifts of technology & modernity to those who have to date been left behind”. This notion of being ‘left behind’ by modernity is a common ecomodernist trope, but it’s a fallacy. The slaves shipped across the Atlantic to toil in the plantations of the New World, the modern slaves working southeast Asian fishing boats, the litter pickers of the Mumbai slums, the aborigines killed by colonial genocide and their descendants eking out an existence on reservations in America or Australia, the poor farmers and rural proletarians working across the fields and plantations of the world, the Bangladeshi sweatshop workers and the Filipina maids in the world’s great cities have not been ‘left behind’ by modernity but have lived it every bit as much as Silicon Valley millionaires or San Francisco policy analysts. Mike says that modernity has created more winners than losers. He’s a braver man than me to hazard some great reckoning of slaughtered Indians versus retired accountants, but maybe so, maybe so. My argument is not that people’s lot can never be improved by ‘modernization’ – but it is that modernization, like most political processes, creates winners and losers. Unlike most others, it has done it at an unprecedented speed and scale.

Of urbanization and ‘the village’

As I mentioned above, Mike wrote “Ecomodernism is political program of cities, ag modernization & cheap energy – do @GeorgeMonbiot and @csmaje really oppose those things?” This led to an exchange of tweets about urbanization, in which Mike wrote “Efforts to keep people in villages oppressive”.

Easy now. Do I ‘oppose cities’? No. Does Mike ‘oppose the countryside’? Presumably not. What absurd questions! But his point about ‘people in villages’ betrays another ecomodernist fallacy, which runs along the following lines: there are poor ‘subsistence’ farmers living in ‘villages’ who are untouched or almost untouched by ‘modernity’; given half a chance, they will all gladly leave this miserable existence and flock to city slums where they will earn more money and, ultimately, have a better chance of joining modernity’s winners. Like all simplistic caricatures there’s a grain of truth in it but, honestly, if somebody teaching an Anthropology of Development 101 class were marking an essay based on the urbanization arguments of Mike or of Stewart Brand they’d be generous to give it a pass. Where to even begin? Rural-urban and agrarian-industrial labour processes are thoroughly interpenetrated and have been from their inception in countless complex ways. Rural-urban migration is not a voluntarist act of latter-day Dick Whittingtons. A Mexican fruit-picker in California may be hoping to get a job as a computer programmer, or she may be saving money to extend her landholding back home within a complex set of family, community and wider political relations3. A Calcutta pavement dweller may have lost his farm and be gambling all on getting a no-hope job as a rickshaw puller, or he may have come to town for a few months to earn some extra money to help with the dowry for his sister’s wedding. There is a massive, sophisticated research literature on the great historical, economic and political complexities around migrant and rural labour of which the ecomodernists seem shockingly ignorant.

Notwithstanding these complex individual stories, the broader global pattern in recent years has been one of widespread and rapid urbanization. The reasons for it are complex and vary from place to place – China is a key and very interesting case which I will look at in more detail in a forthcoming post. But to submit a counter-generalization to the ecomodernist one, the key engine of rural-urban migration in most cases is government policies – and particularly those entrusted to global organisations like the IMF and the WTO – which systematically disfavour local agrarian economies. If you make it difficult for poor people to get by in the countryside, they will move temporarily or permanently to the city. The tragedy is that these policies don’t make it especially easy for people to get by in the city either. But it’s not impossible to adopt policies that make life easier for poor farmers – in which case, the pressure for migration may be lessened.

So it’s not a matter of ‘oppressively’ keeping people in villages. It’s about choosing policies that best support people’s realistic aspirations – all people’s, both rural and urban. The EM, and other keystone ecomodernist works like Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, are conspicuously silent on global economic governance policies. They say nothing about the IMF, the WTO, the free flow of global capital and the constrictions on the flow of global labour. But the EM does espouse ‘economic integration’. Which is why I think it’s politics are essentially neoliberal. The ecomodernist notion that nobody wants to farm and everybody wants to move to the city meshes neatly with that neoliberal ideology.

Agricultural modernization

Let me now try to answer some of the other questions Mike posed to me. Do I support agricultural modernization? That could mean virtually anything, so let me say ‘yes’ to avoid needless controversy. But then Mike refined the question: do I support helping farmers increase yield per hectare? I asked him to specify which farmers and yields of what. He replied “Yield of food – crops, meat. All farmers.” To which my answer is, not necessarily.

Let me explain why by thinking about some different kinds of farmers. Take a poor, small-scale farmer somewhere in, let’s say, East Africa. She grows two main crops: coffee for cash, and maize to feed her family. Do I support helping her increase her coffee yields? Probably not, because overproduction of coffee and the dysfunction of tropical commodity markets4 has already driven coffee prices to penurious levels. If she can grow more, presumably so can other coffee growers, and her situation is not improved. Maybe if she could sell her coffee to a government marketing board with a guaranteed price floor, then my answer would be different. Or maybe if there were a public extension service that helped her diversify out of coffee into, say, growing okra to sell in the nearest market town, then I might support efforts to increase her okra yields. Such institutions were widespread in low income countries not so long ago, and were key planks in their own ‘modernization’ strategies. But for the most part they’ve now been swept aside by neoliberal reforms that insist nothing must interfere with the private market. I haven’t noticed much call among the ecomodernists for their return. Do I support helping her increase her maize yields? Possibly. But I’d like to know about what she’s signing up to – what are the input costs, and will the economics work out for her long-term, what is the long-term impact on soils and pests, and so on. I’d also like to know whether increasing her yields is actually the best way of easing her poverty. Maybe she has a lease with a local landlord who will find ways of appropriating her additional surplus as rent. If so maybe I’d be better off supporting her efforts to organise politically than supporting efforts to increase her maize yield.

Now take a farmer in Kansas growing 3,000 acres of wheat. Do I support helping him to increase his per hectare wheat yield? No. He already receives massive subsidies, both implicit and explicit, which help him and others like him to produce such a torrent of cheap grain for export that it undermines local agricultures the world over. His land is over-fertilized and under-protected from erosion beyond any rational allocation of global resources. As I’ve shown elsewhere5, urbanization around the world is placing an increasingly heavy burden on environmentally vulnerable semi-arid continental grassland areas such as Kansas to produce more of the world’s basic food staples. It’s a high risk strategy that I don’t support, so I’d like to see his per hectare yields decrease. I think they soon will anyway, whatever agronomic trickery humanity tries to throw his way to prevent it.

Finally, let’s take a small field on the outskirts of a town in southwest England. Perhaps it’s used for recreational equestrianism, or maybe to raise beef cattle. Meanwhile, most of the food consumed in the town is grown elsewhere – often in distant countries. Do I support increasing the yield per hectare of this field? Yes. I know of such a field. It was bought some time ago by a couple in their thirties. They allowed parts of it to grow wild and untrammelled. In other parts they planted trees for timber, wind protection and wildlife habitats. They kept some of the grass and diversified the livestock, raising sheep, pigs and poultry. Some of it they ploughed, growing several tonnes of potatoes and other vegetable crops each year. They sold their produce in the local town, and used some of the money they made to employ local people and build links with the community in other ways. How did they manage to increase yields? Partly by using a bit more fossil fuel than previously, but mostly by devoting their labour to it. And how do I know about this farm? OK, no surprises – it’s mine.

Presumably Mike will want to praise me for raising the per hectare yield of this field. Let’s see what he has to say: “What is the morality of privileged British intellectuals retreating to countryside to insist modernity has failed & must be turned back?” Ach well, there’s no pleasing some people. But let me rise above the personal jibe and pause to examine this revealing comment. For farmers and rural people historically, the countryside is not a place of ‘retreat’, and the town is not an ‘advance’. The countryside is where they live and work, and they don’t consider their knowledge of farm, wood and common to be of an inferior sort to the knowledge gained in cities. There’s a long history of disdain for the agrarian and the rural by metropolitan opinion-formers, and Mike here reveals his true colours. I suspect part of the reason that he and the other ecomodernists are so enthusiastic about large-scale high-tech farming is that it empties the countryside of people whose thinking challenges theirs and replaces them with like-minded technicians. Obviously people like me are the worst of the bunch – city intellectuals traitorously turned farmer. Ah well, there are plenty of British intellectuals who insist modernity has failed without ever leaving the confines of the senior common room – I prefer to grow some vegetables while I do so and put them on the plates of my fellow townsfolk. But I have never argued that modernity must be ‘turned back’.

Enclosure

In my original essay and in my Twitter exchange with Mike I describe ecomodernism as an enclosure movement – something he finds absurd. I’d suggest anyone with an interest might read the Ecomodernist Manifesto and then read my comments on enclosure in my essay and make up their own mind. Let me just say this – if you were writing a short document that aimed to identify the main actors responsible for our current environmental problems, how much space would you devote to Ice Age Native Americans, hunter-gatherers generally, poor peasant farmers, charcoal burners and bushmeat eaters? Rather less, I’d submit, than the EM does. The ecomodernists would no doubt say that these examples are to show there’s no space in our crowded modern world for inefficient forms of land use, a point I’ll examine in a moment. But, deliberately or otherwise, the effect is to denigrate people who don’t fit with the modernization narrative, and prepare the ideological ground for the elimination of their ways of life. Enclosure in England in the 18th and 19th centuries was prefigured by much learned discourse about agricultural improvement and the need to alleviate the indigence of the rural poor6. I see ecomodernism as a contemporary manifestation of that tradition. Mike says that ecomodernism is about love for humanity, but the EM doesn’t show much love for those who don’t fit within its own narrow parameters.

Intensification and Land Sparing

Mike asks if I embrace or oppose efforts to increase agricultural productivity to leave more room for nature. I find the concept of ‘leaving room for nature’ philosophically problematic, as I argued in my original essay, but I understand the point he’s making: in the interests of our fellow organisms, isn’t it better to produce our food on as little land as possible?

One answer I have to that question is yes, and therefore I favour small-scale labour-intensive peasant farming over high-tech mechanized arable farming. There’s been a lengthy academic debate about the so-called ‘inverse productivity relationship’ – that is, the widespread finding that small farms have higher yields per hectare than large ones. The issues around this are complex. I’ve written about them in this article for Statistics Views, and I won’t dwell on them here. But there are reasonable grounds to think that if land sparing is the aim, then the small-scale, low-tech, labour-intensive peasant farming methods derided by the ecomodernists ought to be the game.

Another answer I have is ‘I’m not sure’, for two reasons. First, the matrix arguments of ecologists like Ivette Perfecto7 suggest that biodiversity may be better preserved through extensive agricultural land use linking areas of wilderness than by having islands of wilderness isolated by blocks of intensive farming, even if those blocks may be smaller. Indeed, there are surely some questions to be asked here about what ‘room for nature’ actually means. Ecologists have often taken the view that virtually any kind of agricultural land is worthless as wildlife habitat, but this involves an element of value judgment based on notions of ‘pristine wilderness’ which have been effectively criticised among others by ‘post-wilderness’ proponents like Emma Marris, whose work has been enthusiastically endorsed by the ecomodernist tribe8. If indeed we now live in a ‘post-wild’ world, and if there’s nature to be found on the farm itself, then the case for intensifying agricultural land use weakens.

The second reason I’m not sure is that if the ecomodernist strategy of enriching the rural poor by packing them off to the cities while intensifying agriculture in the countryside actually works and turns all or most of humanity into financial winners (incidentally, the ecomodernists’ enthusiasm for golden rice suggests to me that perhaps they don’t really think it will work), then it won’t be long before the pristine wilderness only just spared succumbs to the vineyards, horse ranches, coffee groves, golf courses, fruit orchards and trophy hunting demanded by the emerging new billions of urban wealthy. The proposal may thus be self-defeating and it’d be better to explore other avenues: perhaps contraction and convergence towards a more egalitarian world of lower consumption.

I don’t think there can be a simple answer to the question ‘Do you support agricultural intensification?’ On my own farm, described above, have I intensified or extensified production? Both, actually. Mike criticises fear-based environmentalism, but I think the ecomodernists have a fear-based narrative of their own. It proposes that we need a massive increase in food production in the coming years without increasing land-take, and the only way we can do it is through clearing peasants off the land and replacing them with biotech-heavy mechanised farming. This serves their own particular technophile and anti-peasant agenda, but it’s not really true9.

Energy

Mike has more questions for me – do I oppose cheap energy, do I embrace nuclear energy, and if so how can we expand nuclear energy while ‘retreating’ (there we go again…) to ‘pastoral life’? Well, cheap energy is a tricky one. A neighbour of mine here in Somerset had a pallet of kiln-dried firewood that was grown in Eastern Europe delivered by truck to their door. On that score, yes I oppose cheap energy – it’s hard to see sustainable local agrarian economies emerging when the existing energy economy fosters such madness. On the other hand, as a farmer I appreciate the immense labour-saving potential of a can of diesel and a few simple machines, and I also appreciate that there are many people in the world whose suffering could be eased if only they had access to a little more energy. At the same time, it seems clear that we need to restructure the economies of the wealthy countries towards more labour-intensive and less energy-intensive activities, a point argued forcefully by Tim Jackson10. And it also seems clear that the course taken by the western industrial revolution and its successor age that we now inhabit, involving massive-scale substitution of labour by fossil energy, was historically anomalous and possibly unique. The current rise of China and other Asian economies is only partly copying that western model; it’s also following an indigenous, more labour-intensive development path which has been much discussed in academic debates over the so-called ‘industrious revolutions’ of Asia11 – a point I’ll discuss in more detail on this site soon.

So on balance, I think I’d probably say, albeit with reservations, that no, I don’t support ‘cheap’ energy, depending on one’s definition of ‘cheap’. I think the cause of social justice and sustainability is probably better served by a focus on the more equitable distribution of energy rather than too much focus on its absolute amount.

Do I ‘embrace’ nuclear energy? No, I couldn’t honestly say that I do ‘embrace’ it – though that’s not the same as saying that I’m opposed to it in every conceivable circumstance, which I’m not. I do want to highlight one feature of Mike’s views on this, though, which is commonly found among ecomodernists. A couple of people tweeted to him the thoughts that reducing meat consumption and establishing a strong carbon price would help foster sustainability. Mike was scornful: “I have as much confidence in vigorous global C-price occurring as spontaneous vegetarianism”. Fair enough – nevertheless, if the political will existed among certain governments of the world, a vigorous C-price or a large reduction in meat production could be achieved virtually overnight employing little more than policy implementation. Contrast that with nuclear power, an expensive and enormously complicated technology which currently accounts for only 2% of total global energy production and is produced in only 15% of the world’s countries. Mike throws up his hands at the thought of agreeing a C-price, yet seems to think it’s a simple matter to significantly replace fossil energy production worldwide (currently standing at 87% of primary energy production) by nuclear power within a timeframe that’s going to make a difference to climate change. You get the impression that, for the ecomodernists, some policy options are more equal than others.

In summary, I think I’d answer Mike’s question by saying that generally speaking I support a transition to less absolute energy use and a more equitable distribution of energy availability. I can imagine nuclear power having a role to play in that transition in some places, but it doesn’t seem to me to be the lowest hanging fruit. Would this nuclear power be incompatible with Mike’s so-called ‘retreat to pastoral life’? Well, by my calculations, the UK could produce all the food it needs in a sustainable long-term manner if about 12% of the working-age population were farmers12. Double that proportion for occupations ancillary to agriculture, and you get 76% of the workforce available for doing other things, such as running nuclear power plants. A bit of a simplistic calculation, I know, but it gives an idea. It would probably still be necessary to cull a number of what David Graeber has entertainingly called ‘bullshit jobs’. In that context, would it be impertinent of me to suggest that those aspiring to work in policy thinktanks might wish to consider whether a ‘retreat’ to the ‘pastoral life’ could be a better long-term bet?

An aside on whales

I briefly debated with Mike the implications of whale populations for the ecomodernist narrative. A sideshow, really, but I think it illuminates another interesting aspect of ecomodernist ideology. This is the view that modernization causes ecological problems, but then it fosters technical innovations which overcome the problems. Thus, the argument runs, in the case of various whale species modernization allowed them to be dangerously over-hunted, but then innovation allowed substitutes to be found for whale products, so the whales were saved.

I’m not wholly convinced by Mike’s claim that whaling came to an end solely because of technical substitution, but let me concede the point to avoid getting sidetracked into unnecessary dispute. Still, if we take the example of blue whale populations in the Southern Ocean where historically they were most populous, estimates are that prior to large-scale 20th century whaling there were about 300,000 of the animals there, whereas in the early 2000s – about 40 years after a complete ban on hunting them came into force – the population was estimated at around 1,00013. In other words, modern humans obliterated them to the point of extinction but didn’t quite finish them off entirely. Mike considers this exemplary of modernization’s success. Well, I guess if you’re allowed to choose your own criteria for judging a favoured project there’s a lot to be said for setting the bar low. But however Mike wants to spin it, I can’t see the story of the blue whale as a good advert for modernization.

Many other species have failed to make it with us through the modernization process at all. Somehow, humanity just didn’t innovate enough to find substitutes for dodos, passenger pigeons, thylacines and many other less feted species. This is important. The ecomodernists posit the emergence of modernist solutions to modernist problems as if this is some kind of ineluctable natural law. It isn’t. Blue whales got lucky, if you can call a >99% population decline ‘lucky’. Other species didn’t. So while of course it’s true that modern technical innovations can sometimes help remedy problems caused by modernization, there’s no reason to suppose they always can.

Conclusion

I tweeted to Mike that I see ecomodernism as neoliberalism with a green veneer. No doubt there are different shades of opinion within the movement, but I’ve not yet seen anything to persuade me otherwise. Ecomodernists offer no solutions to contemporary problems other than technical innovation and further integration into private markets which are structured systematically by centralized state power in favour of the wealthy14, in the vain if undoubtedly often sincere belief that this will somehow help alleviate global poverty. They profess to love humanity, and perhaps they do, but the love seems to curdle towards those who don’t fit with its narratives of economic, technological and urban progress. And, more than humanity, what they seem to love most of all is certain favoured technologies, such as nuclear power. Mike, you do not convince me, and until you do I will continue to advocate for a politics and an economics grounded in small-scale peasant agriculture from my rural ‘retreat’, and to practise that agriculture too in my own limited and ‘immoral’ way to the best of my ability.

References

  1. Flannery, K. & Marcus, J. (2012). The Creation of Inequality, Harvard University Press.
  1. Smil, V. (2001). Enriching The Earth, MIT Press.
  1. See, for example, Nugent, D. (1993). Spent Cartridges Of Revolution: An Anthropological History of Namiquipa, Chihuahua, University of Chicago Press.
  1. Robbins, P. (2003). Stolen Fruit – The Tropical Commodities Disaster, Zed Books.
  1. Smaje, C. (2015). ‘The dearth of grass: cereals, civilisation and colonialism’ The Land, 18: 34-7.
  1. Neeson, J. (1993). Commoners, Cambridge University Press.
  1. Perfecto, I. et al (2009). Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  1. Marris, E. (2011). Rambunctious Garden – Saving Nature In A Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.
  1. See an introduction to these issues in: Hamer, E. (2014-15). ‘Feeding the nine billion’ The Land, 17: 31-3.
  1. Jackson, T. (2009). Prosperity Without Growth, Earthscan.
  1. Arrighi, G. (2007). Adam Smith In Beijing, Verso.
  1. http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/IndAgFarm.pdf
  1. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/cosewic/sr_blue_whale_e.pdf
  1. Giovanni Arrighi’s discussion (reference 11) of Adam Smith’s views on Europe’s ‘unnatural development path’ is interesting in this context.

19 thoughts on “Ecomodernism: a response to my critics

  1. Thanks for this update on Michael Shellenberger’s response to your “Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism,” and your response to him.

    I’ve been puzzling over Shellenberger and Company’s outpouring ever since “The Death of Environmentalism” in 2004. It quickly became clear that he and his cohort were cherry picking from a wide variety of sources, from Stewart Brand, to the United Nations Environmental Program, to Jesse Ausubel and the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University.

    Their latest screed, “Nature Unbound,” is a cocktail, shaken not stirred, of all the philosophical bits they have been accumulating over the years, in their inimitable, raisins in the porridge (to mix gustatory metaphors), internally inconsistent style that leaves me reading paragraphs and sentences over and over in an attempt to squeeze some sense out them… to little avail.

    Judging by Shellenberger’s Twitter posts alone, he seems to enjoy sophomoric ripostes more than substantive commentary, making me suspect that his partner in industrial public relations, Ted Nordhaus, is the primary author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto (sic) and following publications.

    Ecomodernism has little if anything to do with ecology and even less to do with Modernism. Rather than a rejection of past philosophies and a search for new modes of expression, ecomodernism fully embraces Enlightenment separation of Mankind and Nature, carrying it to absurd heights of denial of environmental and ecological limitations on human growth and development. Most of the Manifesto (sic) and the recent “Nature Unbound” are a rehash of Brand’s “Whole Earth Discipline,” without Brand’s introspection and self-questioning.

    I wouldn’t spend so much thought time on EM et al, were it not for the young, impressionable acolytes gathered to the “Breakthrough Institute,” there to be miseducated about the worlds of industrial agriculture, nuclear energy and genetically modified organisms, and the fantasy of “decoupling” economic growth from impacts to the natural world.

    If George Orwell were alive now, he’d turn over in his grave.

    • Thanks for that background on the Breakthrough Institute, Michael – I’d only vaguely heard of it before, but judging from Mike Shellenberger’s indeed rather sophomoric Twitter comments your account rings true. Agreed, it’s a shame to have to waste time contesting such notions as ‘keeping people in villages’ but unfortunately this ecomodernist stuff catches the attention of policymakers and the public – probably because its message is a conscience-salving ‘we can live a high energy, high consumption lifestyle and be greener than thou at the same time’.

  2. Well, certainly not a waste of time, in fact it was highly entertaining. I continue to find it amazing that the notions of progress are so firmly entrenched. Like a “dogma” of a church it cannot be questioned. Let’s just hope the Inquisition remains verbal.

  3. Pingback: Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism | The Dark Mountain Project

  4. “style that leaves me reading paragraphs and sentences over and over in an attempt to squeeze some sense out them… to little avail.”

    I have felt exactly the same. This stuff is so loaded with horseshit is reeks like an unkempt stable.

    Here’s a gem: “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” WHAT?! What exactly are all these people eating, and where does it come from if not from those, uh, rural economies? Cities survive by plundering the hinterlands. You’d think this would be old hat.

    Absolute decoupling is just as much of a vaporous thinking as thorium reactors are vaporware. At least the reactors are, in principle, possible.

    I agree with those who say, don’t waste your time rebutting this. Those acolytes won’t be dissuaded anyway. They’ll have to wake up their own way.

  5. I really like this blog, but it’s hell to navigate. Please please add widgets that let us see people’s recent comments and more recent posts! Thank you.

    • Vera, thanks for your feedback. I’ll see if I can amend the site as you suggest. I’m not much of a WordPress expert – are there any specific widgets you’d recommend?

      • Ok, for starters, do this:
        – go to dashboard
        – see icons on the left margin? click on the brush
        – click on “widgets”
        – drag “recent comments” and “recent posts” over to the right sidebar
        – open each and set for 15, save setting
        – done! :-)

        • OK, done that, thanks Vera. But it’s pushed my donate button way down the page, just when I figured I may start getting rich! Oh well, I’ll see how it goes…

          • Chris, if the donate button is another widget, you can move it up the page, in the same place. Just grab it and drag it up to the first spot on that sidebar. That way you can arrange all your widgets exactly in the order you want them.

            I recommend donate, then posts, then comments, then the rest of it.

            You could also remove whatever widget is bringing those three recent posts on top (currently). Since now you don’t need it. (You remove a widget by dragging it back to the left from the right sidebar.)

  6. You have certainly laid bare the shallow intellectual roots of Ecomodernism. The remaining question is whether this is simply the product of poor education or a political program to gather influence.

  7. I commented on your former essay my main issues with the EM position, if it were a clear position. It seems to say, essentially, don’t worry about agricultural chemicals, don’t worry about conservation, or the environment, because: tech. You illustrate this well as far as the whales. I’ve seen articles just this week from another supposed EM supportive environmentalist saying that individual actions of conservation don’t matter- but as you pointed out here, individuals *could* make up a collective to create real political change whether a price on carbon, or a new way of doing agricultural subsidies emphasizing responsible farming, or whatever. I just don’t understand this narrative, if one does in fact care about the environment. To give the benefit of the doubt, i think they do. Perhaps they are losing the forest for the trees, or are too easily taken by tweetable “pro-science” mantras without context.

    But specific to this essay:

    “technical innovation and further integration into private markets which are structured systematically by centralized state power in favour of the wealthy.”

    -excellent, and cuts to the heart of it: this is the essence of the issues with modern centralised healthcare, forced and subsidized medical treatments which refuse to acknowledge nutrition or lifestyle, forced land and water uses, legal immunity to immensely profitable pharmaceuticals, food pyramids that require meat and pasteurized dairy to give back to the big donors, and of course the list goes on.

    Oddly, just after finishing that paragraph I looked to my co-worker who was shedding a tear after looking at some spectacular nature photos. We’re trying to develop nuclear for microgrids. We are also trying to use solar, and continually learning about nutrition, agriculture, conservation, preservation of species (we participate in helping keep rainforest frogs and learn about their reproduction habits) and more. We stay up at night thinking of these things. I wish nuclear would not be tied up with the advocacy of selfish abdication of responsibility as a sort of humanistic environmentalism.

    Interesting to learn of your farm! Perhaps one day.

  8. Excellent, some lucidly erudite writings Chris, also…you’ve identified the only pseudo justification for ‘EM’ in it’s attractiveness to policy makes and the status quo in general inasmuch as its (EM) underpinnings, beyond a fig leaf of linguistics, are essentially the laziest embracing of plus ca change and challenges nothing of the/our systemic flaws, it’s a rubber stamp paradise, or an ‘organically-embossed print facilitator’, if one prefers some polish with their turd.
    As for the ‘nuclear energy’, we shouldn’t at all be surprised that after some diligently intense scrutiny (leaving out any clean ups) of a full EROEI audit from mine to maintained repository containment, for how long?, if this isn’t one of the biggest oxymoronic concepts ever conceived, this is the realms of robotic unicorns and airbrushed algorithms based on energy illiteracy.

    Compare that with the beautifully entropic thinking*, that’s the word isn’t it?…’thinking’, of Lawton et al, presented here by John D Liu, on the work at the Loess Plateau, amongst other demonstrable sites of scale.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hk10WfUlciM

    Granted, it’s a different rural apple from that of the orange city, but the former begets, and nurtures, the latter and can be translated on and into the urban setting, but not the other way round as EM asserts.
    If, we’re in the time of big questions being asked of us, and it’s increasingly evident that we are, then we’re going to have to draw on the entire depth and breadth of our intelligence in line with the limits of reality, the real one that is.

    kind regards.

  9. Recently ran across your blog, I think I caught the trail at Resilience. Don’t know if you respond to comments on past entries, but regardless, felt I needed to give my two cents. ( or 1.3 pence, give or take)

    A lot to chew on here, and I’ve only just started to go back through your past. You are delving in an area that resonates for me. I’m not as well read as you and some of the other commenters, but I definitely have been reading and thinking about the current dilemma and all things sustainable.

    Here are my first thoughts on the ecomodernists, and I guess your critique as well. My take on things in general is through the lens of peak oil, peak nonrenewable commodities, EROEI, and thermodynamics as a way to assess what plans make sense, and whether opinions floating around out there are realistic or not. So the thing that strikes me about the ecomodernist manifesto ( went and read it) is that it seems to be blind to peak fossil fuel energy, and the fact that the modern economy is very precariously dependent on fossil fuels. ( I’m recently retired from a segment of the energy industry).

    The brittleness of the current system, and the complete absence of replacements for energy to run it, to me is the trump card, the show stopper, the central dilemma, and the axiom from which all further discussion must start. You did a fine job of identifying and debunking several of their cultural paradigms, extrapolations, logical fallacies, and general hand waving at key points, but I think the central debate has to center on energy availability. We are right near the peak of a one time rocket ride on millions of years of stored sunlight, and all the nuclear, solar, wind, thorium, tide, OTEC, zero point energy, [insert amazing new breakthrough here] etc… is enabled only through the initial use of fossil fuels to convert raw materials. The physical flow of materials and transformed artifacts , and the financial nervous system on top of that stop instantly if the hydrocarbons stop. This will not be an essay, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

    Both the EMs and yourself seem to drift in to philosophical underpinnings on the why and the what if and whether humans can act in enlightened self interest, but I don’t think a solution is forthcoming from that direction.

    I am in general agreement with JM Greer on the cyclical inevitability of civilizations/empires to ebb and flow, and also think that Dave Cohen, sour puss that he is,( decline of the empire blog ) is accurate in his analysis of the human inability to get past subconscious drives, so all the rational logic in the world will not sway us from our appointment with energy descent and a lousy century or two to be alive in.

    All that said, I’m not a fatalist or curled up on the couch. I am well on my way to getting our homestead/smallholding up and running, and am continuously adding new(old) skills to my repertoire. There are still things to be done!

    I do enjoy your writing style and personality. I’ll reserve comment on your enterprise and rationale for same till after I’ve read some more of the archives. In any case, I think you are heading in the right direction, just maybe overthinking it.

  10. Thanks for the comments above – sorry I haven’t replied individually to all of them. Juggling, and took my eye of the ball, so to speak. Steve, I agree that energy is key (and in fact I did talk about fossil fuel dependence in my EM piece) – it’s not the main focus of my writing, but I’m interested in your comments on the underlying hydrocarbon subsidy of non-hydrocarbon fuels, which confirms some of my own suspicions. Over-thinking and over-philosophical? Maybe. But I think the problems we have to solve are ultimately political- philosophical-spiritual ones more than technical ones. So we need to mull them over. We need words, not actions, as I believe the saying goes…

  11. Here’s the review of a the film Tomorrowland. Sounds like another technofantasist offensive. But it’s so pathetic… the blogger says:

    “Of course, techno-optimism is a dogma. It is entirely possible that the net result of technology will be to shorten my life and that of my children, and makes us more miserable. But I have faith that we can find solutions through technology.”

    He says that sort of thing over and over. Apparently the faith needs frantic reaffirmations these days.

    http://lemire.me/blog/2015/05/25/are-you-a-techno-optimist-a-review-of-tomorrowland/

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