A Response to Clive Hamilton's Critique

A response from Matthew Nisbet, associate professor of communication studies and affiliate associate professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University

Read Clive Hamilton's critique.

I was glad to see Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton weigh in with his thoughts on the recent Ecomodernist Manifesto (link above), but his critique reflects two widely repeated mischaracterizations of the ecomodernist argument. These are the following:

1. Ecomodernists are neoliberal, techno-optimists.

There is a tendency like Hamilton does to equate ecomodernist thinking to a blind belief in the market and technology to drive social change, a "Silicon Valley" mindset as Hamilton argues.

But ecomodernists in fact are strongly critical of the belief that carbon pricing, venture capital, and other market-based instruments can drive social change or innovation.

Instead, they argue the need for big government in the form of strategic planning and spending on research, development, and deployment.

Rather than Silicon Valley thinking, ecomodernists are espousing Tennessee Valley Authority thinking. They advocate big government-funded clean energy projects that have the ability to modernize whole regions of the world, lifting millions out of poverty, and reducing society's environmental footprint in the process.

Techno-optimism is also a relative term, subjective in its application.

Who is more of a techno-optimist: Greens who argue that solar, wind, and efficiency are all the technologies we need to address the problem, or ecomodernists who argue that other energy sources are required as part of our arsenal?

2. Ecomodernists don't acknowledge the reality of climate change politics.

In this case, Hamilton faults ecomodernists for not devoting a substantial portion of their Manifesto to the efforts of the fossil fuel industry and "deniers" to block action.

But rather than ignore politics, ecomodernists have a different theory of politics than Hamilton.

For ecomodernists, social change starts through critical self-reflection and challenging of our assumptions. Rather than insisting that everyone sign on to the same outlook and strategies, they argue for engaging with a diversity of viewpoints and seeking the best ideas available.

Second, they believe that by widening the options available to policy makers and publics; and by investing in technologies that reduce the costs of action, opposition will soften and the debate over uncertainty subside.

History suggests that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if options are available that allow them to meet their social development goals, than for any sacred, moral, or ideological reasons.

Politics, argue ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons. Politics is not about getting everyone to share the same belief, or vanquishing from politics those who disagree.