One strand of my writing on this blog and elsewhere has been a critical engagement with ‘ecomodernism’. This is the doctrine that both poverty and environmental perils can be redressed by market integration, technological fixes and agricultural ‘improvement’ – in short by ‘modernization’.

You’ll find quite a number of posts on this site looking critically at these claims in their various dimensions, which are grouped under the ‘ecomodernism’ category in the menu to the right (I used to call the doctrine ‘eco-panglossianism’ but switched to ‘ecomodernism’ for reasons explained here). My writing on this topic has culminated in five main outputs: there are more indirect treatments in an article in the refereed academic periodical The Journal of Consumer Culture entitled ‘Kings and commoners: agroecology meets consumer culture’ and an article in The Land magazine entitled ‘The dearth of grass’. And then there are three essays confronting ecomodernist claims more directly – one entitled ‘Dark thoughts on ecomodernism’ which was published on the Dark Mountain website here, and then ‘Ecomodernism – a reply to my critics’ available on this site and on here. I’ve also published an essay ‘Growth, climate change and the war of numbers’ about the ecomodernism debate at Statistics Views. George Monbiot has written a great article critiquing ecomodernism, which draws in part on my essays. The ecomodernists of the Breakthrough Institute wrote a critique of George’s article focused on the nature of small farm productivity – my response to it is here.

There are several left-wing variants on the general ecomodernism theme, such as Leigh Phillips’ book Austerity Ecology and the ‘accelerationism’ of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. I’ve written about Srnicek and Williams here and about Phillips in various places, most notably in my essay ‘From growth economics to home economics: towards a peasant socialism’, available here.

The Dark Mountain piece in particular gained a lot of positive responses, but also some negative ones – mostly on Twitter, where debate tends perhaps by necessity to degenerate into dismissive one-liners, although I’ve found that certain ecomodernists scarcely rise above dismissive one-liners regardless of the medium they employ. Still, I’m sure there are people who broadly identify with the ecomodernist position with whom it’s possible to have a civil and informative debate. As described in my blog post On the iconography of my scythe, I’m not planning to write much more that engages directly with ecomodernism, but as also described therein, I’d nevertheless be interested in reading a constructive critique of my two essays on ecomodernism that eschews the dismissive one-liners in favour of real analysis. So, it’s over to you ‘ecomodernists’ – please tell me, politely and rationally, what I’ve got wrong. I’m sure there are things I can learn from you.

Addendum: A couple of more recent engagements with these themes are in my posts Back to the future and Of bad science and BAD SCIENCE: the angry farmer meets the angry chef.

13 thoughts on “Ecomodernism

  1. What would be interesting is not simply what “Ecomodernists” think is wrong with your post, but also what is right. An issue I had with the response to George Monbiot’s article is that they seemed to simply select something that they regarded as wrong and focused on this. The goal here shouldn’t be to simply pick holes in what someone else has said, but to try and see if there is some way to reconcile the different views to establish which bits most might agree are reasonable, and which bits are likely to always be contentious.

    • Yes, nice point. I suppose you could say that my original essay also falls foul of your ‘picking holes’ point, but what interested me there was in trying to get at the underlying cultural assumptions which motivate very general and otherwise somewhat baffling ecomodernist statements of the kind “urbanisation, industrialisation, and agricultural modernisation are processes that have been overwhelmingly positive for humans.” The advantage at least of the response to Monbiot on the small farm productivity point is that it’s quite a specific line of argument which one can get one’s teeth into – and which I think is wrong in some quite interesting ways. So I suppose I need to write a ‘response to the response’. I’d hoped to move on from the ecomodernist thing, but while the truce lasts maybe it’s worth engaging…

      • I agree that there does seem to be a tendency to make statements that are somehow assumed to be true, but that they don’t back up. Or, if they do back it up, it turns out to be a fairly simplistic interpretation of the evidence. There is an interesting storify of an exchange between Michael Shellenberger and Peter Gleick about water quality (here) that – I think – illustrates this tendency.

  2. ‘We can therefore in good conscience answer to critiques put forward by George Monbiot and Chris Smaje: the two argue that the conception of “high intensity” agriculture the Ecomodernist Manifesto promotes is flawed, and that small-scale, labor-intensive agriculture may in fact enable more efficient land use. Fine: whenever this is indeed the case (and we should keep in mind that the planet is big, and it may not be the case everywhere), and other impacts being reasonably equal, then the Ecomodernist Society of Finland at least will support small-scale agriculture! Ditto for, say, degrowth: insofar as the popularity of degrowth movement helps us to reduce our environmental impacts (and I believe it and other “simplicity” movements do have an important role to play), it is worth supporting — another issue agreed on by our founding members and generally supported by Finnish ecomodernists.’

    So let’s be a little prosaic as an antidote to the excesses of the dark mountain manifesto – before venturing a little song of my own.

    People are my favourite animals.

    Glorious and resplendent – brave and beautiful.
    The only thing I haven’t figured out
    is why we aren’t dancing in the streets
    with joy in our hearts and love in our lives.

    In my own dark days of the soul
    I thought poetry dead,
    and the eschatological promise would
    burst like a new and frightening dawn
    on the consciousness of humanity.
    But I still know where poetry lives…

    All literature has its place in time. Henry Miller – the greatest American stylist – straddled the 20th century and his great achievement was to emerge purified from the flames – the happy rock – the rosy crucifixion. When life becomes an art – art will cease to exist he said.

    “I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans — the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blueprint. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress — but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”
    ― Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

    I too loved the great visionary poets of America. I admire the strength and vigor with which they devoured new horizons under behemoth strides. But at the very beginning of the 20th century Nietzsche’s superman – the beast of old with a will to power – cast a shadow which was soon to swallow the world in a century long cataclysm. Technology – the two faced Janus – facilitated both destruction and redemption. Spengler – the philosopher of decay – cataloged a decline into senescence. Art retreated into esoteric, elitist enclaves – do I dare to eat a peach? By the time of the beat poets the decline was terminal. They had lost all moral compass. Great poetry – they explored the howling of the mind in which the quiet voice of the heart was lost. In this they were preceded by a century by Rimbaud. That luminous shooting star of a poet.

    ‘One evening, I sat beauty on my knees. − She tasted bitter. − And I spat her out. I took up arms against justice. I took to my heels. O witches, O poverty, O hate, I have entrusted my treasure to you! I purged all human hope from my mind. On every joy I pounced silently, like a wild beast, and strangled it. I called on my executioners, as I lay dying, to let me bite the butts of their rifles. I called on plagues to smother me with sand and blood. Unhappiness was my god. I stretched myself out in the mud. I dried myself in the air of crime. And I played sly tricks on madness.’

    By the end of the century – the strands of myth and culture – economics and democracy – were converging in the zeitgeist where new global myths and realities were gestating. Beneath the surface work on the foundation of the new Jerusalem was carried on by people destined never to see it. For centuries now we have affirmed democracy and the rule of law as the central civilizing principles of the enlightenment. Modest workers in the vineyard laid the groundwork for the institutions and economies of the 21st century on which a great, global civilization worthy of the name is to be built.

    Love your manifesto by the way – can’t figure out if I’m laughing at it or with it but either is good for a jaded palate. I’m reduced to writing poems about one legged seagulls. Yours beats hell out of the pedestrian and context deficient rhetoric of the ecomodernists. Something that could well do with distilling down to two pages or less.

    But we were talking about ecomodernism?

  3. In my too frequent interactions with a local ecomodernist and Accelerationist, his argument seems to quickly come down to, “But we have done awesome things, therefore we will do more awesome things!” And if you bother with “facts” you are called a PaleoMalthusianLuddite. Or his favourite, a yogourt weaver.

  4. I tend to see is that what we need is both. The eco-traditionalist small is beautiful perspective serves a very important counterbalancing function in that most activity in this socio-economic arena endeavours to be low impact and so is an essential counterbalancing force to the high impact activities of eco-modernism and as such should be facilitated to the greatest possible degree. On the other hand we need eco-modernism since not everyone wants to get their hands dirty and also we need big to provide the energy and material needs for infrastructure, much of which eco-traditionalist lifestyles will rely upon. So the secret is not creating false dichotomies but determining the best balance between the two to ensure a sustainable future and creating policy to reflect that balance.

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  6. Thanks for your thoughtful words on ecomodernism, Chris. I have been thinking about supporting their position for some time – about two years – and your writing has helped me consider that choice fully.

    Personally, we are taking the choice to do small scale farming like yourselves, but politically, I think we will be supporting ecomodernism. The greater part of the western populace, and therefore the money, doesn’t wish to live how we wish to live and they express that through their democratic choices. I feel in trying to pressure people into behaving in a particular way, environmentalism has unintentionally added to the seeds sown for the current backlash.

    The majority want their cars, their high energy, their luxury tat and that majority will not use their democratic vote to support people who restrict them to the extent required. Obviously, with global governance those figures might look different but we don’t have global governance.

    For that reason, for the majority, I’m afraid ecomodernism is the way forward. That doesn’t stop us highlighting the benefits of choosing another way by being letting other people see that other choices are possible. Best make sure they know it is fun though. They have to want it for themselves.

    Thanks again.

    • Thanks Lyn, glad you’ve found my writing of interest. I agree that many people are happily invested in the status quo – which is perhaps a historical truism. But I still don’t think ecomodernism is the ‘way forward’, because I don’t think it will be able to sustain the status quo, let alone the US/EU standards of living it promises for all. So I think we need credible alternatives. I don’t favour pressurising people into personal lifestyle change, but I do favour more political honesty about the difficult choices we face and the impossibility of resolving them through technical means. Meanwhile, it can’t hurt for people like you to chart a different course – and, importantly, as you say, to try to make sure it’s fun.

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  8. I live in a small village in Spain. Like many small villages across Southern Europe and indeed in many other parts of otherwise rather populated continents, there is actually quite a lot of land available to farm and a shortage of people to farm it. The hodge-podge nature of the land means that intensive farming will never work here.

    The reasons for de-populated areas like this are well known so I won’t rehearse them extensively. It strikes me that there is indeed a solution that neither requites eco-modernism, more monocultures nor a Neo-primitivism.

    I believe that here are many families and groups of like-minded people who would love to live away from cities, achieve something akin to self-sufficiency in food production at least and augment their incomes with occasional work. So why aren’t more people doing it and why are there empty houses and untended plots of land where I live?

    The simple reason as I’m sure Chris has found out is lack of financial stability. I strongly believe that the answer to this and other problems will be the UBS or Universal Basic Income. Freed from the prospect of destitution I think a lot of people would choose to make a go of small holding. Some will end up producing a surplus (and others a deficit). This would also spread people around and take pressure off cities and reduce the need for transporting food.

    For these new farmers, a glut of their favourite annuals will be a heavenly treat but after a few hard years, they will definitely see the benefit of adding perennials to the mix.

    If, as many thinkers believe, UBS is the inevitable consequence of AI and automation, perhaps there is a rosy future ahead. Obviously as long as we don’t trash the planet beyond repair first.

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