Often Sensible, But with Large Doses of Utopian

A Response from Dan Turello, literary critic and cultural historian

There is a fair amount the "Manifesto" gets right, so I'm going to mention at least one of these facets, before pointing to three of its major shortcomings. First and foremost, and this is where it is refreshing, the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" is a declaration of war on all forms of nostalgia. The past should not be the standard of reference, say the authors. In the past, our lives were shorter and our quality of life lower. No one in their right mind should wish to return to a way of life in which disease was more prominent, nutrition less available, and leisure time more scarce. There is no going back, only forward, they argue, and future prospects for humanity and for the planet depend on our creativity in developing more advanced forms of technology. Right they are, and rest assured, this point of view will surely draw outcries from misty-eyed Heideggerians everywhere. Heidegger, a major influence on a swath of the present day environmental movement, had famously claimed that modern technology was "challenging" to the earth, whereas more primitive forms of machinery had been in greater harmony with the flows of nature. The Heideggerian point of view, which remains prominent, deserves to be challenged.

However, at least three major points in the document deserve serious critique. The first is a certain level of ethical sloppiness. "Climate change and other global ecological challenges," claim the authors, "are not the most immediate concerns for the majority of the world's people. Nor should they be." Really? This statement deserves more nuance than currently granted to it. There is a tremendous difference between claiming to understand why some of the "world's people" might rather have access to consistent energy than be concerned about climate change, versus the normative pronouncement, "nor should they be." The latter is a leap to conclusions. Perhaps they should, and we should too, given that continuing reliance on fossil fuels will significantly alter life on earth as we know it. At the very least there is a significant counterbalance missing here, one which would create a tension between the "should" of granting energy resources to those who need them versus the "should" of ensuring the stability of the ecosystem for the generations to come.

The second shortcoming is a blurring of narrative categories. The document, at points, verges into science-fiction. "Looking forward," it claims, "modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warning." Even with the perfunctory "may," the statement is misleading. Geo-engineering solutions are far from being a get-out-of-jail-free card. Presenting them as realistic possibility is surely no grounds on the basis of which to make policy now.

The third major flaw of the "Manifesto" is a lack of regard for historical nuance. Of course, as a genre (think Communist, Futurist, etc.) manifestos typically seek to up-end the status-quo. The ecomodernist authors are no exception. In their drive to move ahead, they mention history in only the most casual of ways, in the context of what they describe as its general trajectory. What is missing is a profound sense of irony, along with a deeper understanding of costs.

It's not immediately clear to me why the authors chose the name "ecomodernist." The "modernist" part of the title, however, is apt, because modernist thinkers, unlike the relentless uncertainty of post-modern philosophers, were still committed to notions of improvement and progress. What is lacking in the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" is a comprehensive acknowledgement of the deep contradictions of Modernity, and the unintended consequences of technological developments. Unintended consequences are mentioned, but only in passing. References to myth are nowhere to be found, and this too should be seen as a serious omission. From the Prometheus of Greek mythology to the Tower of Babel of Biblical fame, our Western heritage is rich with admonitions about the dangers of unchecked technological optimism. Allowing for a degree of humility is not a concession to the politics of nostalgia the manifesto wishes to disavow. Rather, it would be a move inspired by caution, away from the quasi-Utopian tone of the document –– a concession to the tragic and unpredictable facets of life that give daily texture to our existence, no matter the technology we develop.

Read the full response here.