An Ecomodernist Mishmash

A Response from Giorgos Kallis, environmental scientist, professor at the Autonomous University, Barcelona, Spain

Philosophical mishmashes

The philosophical and epistemological posture of the text is self-contradictory, perhaps betraying differing views among its authors. The manifesto starts with the recognition that the planet has become a human planet, aka ‘the anthropocene’. There is no wild nature out there, sure. And yet somehow the goal of the manifesto is to ‘make more room for nature’ and ‘re-wild’ and ‘re-green’ the earth.

Section 5 argues that the way we come to know ‘nature’, i.e. through science, is shaped by our own constructions and therefore dependent on our own choices. Correct. Yet the whole manifesto is permeated by a blind belief in the power of science to solve whatever problems may be, while constantly invoking science for proving that this or that technology is better than the other.

The authors suggest that they write ‘out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world’ (again, presuming that there is such a natural world ‘out there’, which they said there isn’t). ‘To preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and a mosaic of beautiful landscapes [beautiful for whom?] will require a deeper emotional connection to them‘. The manifesto itself undermines the case for preservation in a spirit of connection, since ‘it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem’. It seems that the manifesto calls for less material connection and more ‘emotional’ connection to nature. Yet it is unclear how the latter will come without the former in the urban, genetically modified paradises envisaged. Playing Tarzan video games?

I was reminded by one of the authors that French philosopher Bruno Latour has written in favour of the ‘breakthrough’ of ‘post-environmentalism’. Following Latour could provide more epistemological consistency to the manifesto, but would, however, expose the authors to the risk of alienating the wilderness environmentalists they obviously want to convince.

For Latour there is no nature or wilderness out there from which we can detach ourselves. The separation between the natural and the social is precisely the type of modernism Latour criticizes, calling for a genuine modernity instead, which will finally take responsibility for our transformations of nature and our hybrid products. We should control our technological ‘Frankensteins’, rather than shy away from producing them, Latour claims.

But dare I ask who would take responsibility and how in the case of a nuclear Frankenstein accident or an intervention in the genome gone wrong? Perhaps, this is too concrete a question for a philosopher to answer. And if the project of modernization is to ‘control’ things, why not control and stop the production of Frankensteins? Modernization, so it seems, is about controlling everything other than the controllers themselves.

Reading Latour more carefully also raises questions on whether he is indeed an ‘eco-modernist’. After all, he is the guy who wrote: ‘to modernize or to ecologize– that’s the question’. Indeed Latourargues that the ‘challenge demands more of us than simply embracing technology and innovation. It requires exchanging the modernist notion of modernity for what I have called a “compositionist” [what when younger he called ‘ecologist’] one that sees the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures’. The manifesto is then modernism 1.0, permeated as it is by a spirit of liberating humanity from nature, while stuck to the idea of preserving a separate wilderness. The possibility for such decoupling is not only factually wrong, as I argued above, but also philosophically inconsistent, as it continues to treat nature as an entity outside society, and, against what Latour argues, as a means to an end, exploiting energy and natural resources more intensively ‘here’ to save wilderness ‘there’ (as if the here and the there could so easily be separated).

True, Latour himself suggests that new technologies, such as the ones advocated by the manifesto, are part of connecting to nonhuman natures, and that putting limits to growth is a form of detachment. But he is wrong. Limits do not have to mean detachment. They are a means for allowing different, possibly stronger and qualitatively different forms of connection. There is nothing to suggest that we connect more to a river by damming it and using it to produce electricity, than by walking along its shores or talking to it.

Anyway, these philosophical complications are too much for the manifesto to handle. The authors finally conclude that no matter what ones’ views on nature are (and they are all fine according to them), ‘decoupling’ our economic activity from it will be for the better and full stop.

‘Anthropogenic choices’

The authors repeatedly refer to ‘anthropogenic choices’ about how to transform landscapes or what to conserve and what not. But what is their choice then, their politics? These are never articulated explicitly. Modernization for modernization’s sake I would say. ‘Pursuing what can be pursued’, without limits, as philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul used to put it.

And they do like their modern technologies big. Dams, but not windmills. Nuclear, but not solar. Why so is never clear. We hear that ‘most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately’ not up to the task, because of their ‘scale of land use’. Yet somehow, hydroelectric dams are nice ‘even though their land … footprint is very large’. Their ‘anthropogenic choices’ here are disguised as objective science. And a bad science, that is. The decisions of Germany, Japan or California to shutter nuclear power plants are ‘counterproductive’. Why? Because somehow nuclear is ‘clean’. And what about all the carbon and energy necessary for extracting and transporting uranium, constructing, operating and dismantling nuclear plants or handling their waste? Calculated over the lifetime of a plant, this makes nuclear far from ‘clean’ and far from clear whether it produces any energy surplus to begin with. But these are too specific details for a manifesto.

I am comfortable with the fact that the preference for nuclear energy, dams or GMOs is the ‘anthropogenic choice’ of the authors, although I would prefer them not to hide it with semi-scientific reasoning or allusions to preserving ‘wilderness’. Even so, they owe an answer ‘why’. Why do they desire a planet populated by nuclear plants and bunkers with radioactive waste? Why do they desire becoming ever more attached to nonhuman radioactivity? What is it that excites them with a nuclear future, so as to make them blindly confident to the eternal capacity of our civilization to have the resources to handle nuclear plants and nuclear wastes? Are earthquakes or civilization downturns ruled out in the eco-modernist future?

For Degrowth and the Commons

Which brings me to my own ‘anthropogenic choice’. If we want to reduce the footprint of the economy, then let’s downscale the economy as a whole, and find ways to make the transition socially sustainable: to prosper without growth, as Tim Jackson put it. If we are to leave land aside, then let’s organize for making land a commons, leaving some of it aside for non-productive purposes.

This call for ‘degrowth’ is neither a call for a harmonious co-existence with nature, nor one of leaving ‘nature’ in peace. Fully aware of our capacity to keep pursuing what can be pursued, the choice is ‘not to’. We do not want to produce new Frankensteins. This ‘not to’ is a choice for the world we want to produce, a world where we live a simpler life, in common, i.e. with more and direct connections among humans and between humans and non-humans. This is an ecological vision. It seeks to connect rather than disconnect, couple rather than decouple, approach rather than distance, engage rather than disengage. It is not about succumbing to external limits to growth. It is about limiting growth because we dislike the detached world produced by growth; a world controlled by others for our sake.

The conscious and collective decision of a society to limit itself, without recourse to spirits and totems, gods and kings, charts or graphs, is the essence of what Cornelius Castoriadis called ‘democracy’. It is the necessary next civilizational step.

To modernize or to ecologize, then? That was, and still is, the question. Eco-modernization is an oxymoron.

Read the full response here.