A response from Esteban Rossi, assistant professor of environmental ethics at the Bioethics Institute of Javeriana University in Bogotá, Colombia.
If you like wildlife, dislike human poverty, and are willing to try new technologies with a fair share of optimism, you are probably an ecomodernist. This last April, the leaders of the ecomodernist movement published their Manifesto, provoking vigorous debate among environmentalists. Yet, the manifesto, and ecomodernism more broadly, has also inspired a number of academics, business leaders, philanthropists, and governments to revise their approaches toward environmental issues. Here, I argue that ecomodernism invites us to rethink some of our deeply held assumptions about nature, politics, and technology in order to renew environmentalism across the world. Engaging with ecomodernism can also enrich debates in political ecology on issues ranging from biodiversity conservation to energy and open new spaces for political debate.
Ecology without nature
What is nature and how can we know it? For more than a century, scientists and humanists have asked themselves this question, yet the answer remains as ambiguous as ever. For some, nature is a totality that encompasses all living things: bears in the mountains as well as mosquitoes in the porch. Others, including numerous scientists, claim that nature is an abstraction that describes all that which is nonhuman, the biophysical world that exists “out there” and that includes the beautiful landscapes that captivate the human heart. Places such as the Serengeti Plains, the Grand Canyon, and Iguazu Falls embody this form of “sublime” nature. On the other hand, scholars ranging from Raymond Williams, Neil Smith, and David Harvey, to William Cronon and Alston Chase, have argued that nature is a social construction, a metaphor whose meaning is culturally specific. Therefore, they claim, there is no nature and never has been .
Furthermore, we can also conceive nature as a signifier rather than a concept. A signifier is an empty category to which we attach meanings that reflect our values and beliefs. Signifiers acquire meaning from the way in which they are articulated in a discourse; for example, notions such as freedom and love take different meanings depending on how they are articulated and can therefore be regarded as signifiers. By considering nature as a signifier, we can accept that it is nothing but a human construct that can be refined and changed. Consequently, we must recognize that there is no natural framework to interpret environmental change. This is what Tim Morton calls "ecology without nature" . Therefore, rather than attempting to protect nature, we can gradually improve the management of watersheds, fisheries, forests, and wildlife populations in order to provide goods, services, and multiple human values.
Identifying our environmental values – the things we care about – is the first step towards an ecology without nature. When the values of social actors are identified, dissimilar concerns such as timber production, biodiversity conservation, cattle ranching, and rural lifestyles can be negotiated if not openly reconciled. In contrast, when we attempt to speak on behalf of a “Nature” or “Science,” whose authority is above other concerns, we often end up imposing our values on others, particularly on vulnerable populations. This is not only unfair, but also counterproductive because it polarizes environmental discussions .
Second, to improve our understanding of environmental issues, we should combine different disciplinary perspectives. By describing the economic and environmental impacts of the natural gas revolution in the United States, ecomodernists illustrate the potential of this approach. Interestingly, the economic and environmental effects of the natural gas revolution were largely unexpected by numerous environmentalists . To build on these efforts we must facilitate collaboration between disciplines and institutions and expand our interests.
Third, we should be specific about the contexts in which we work. Environmental problems are determined by a combination of social and ecological factors that depend on the context and the place. Because of this, we should avoid overly simplistic solutions and broad generalizations. For example, rather than establishing more and ever-larger protected areas for biodiversity conservation, as many countries continue to do, the ecomodernist invitation consists of engaging with local communities, identifying shared interests, and working together, as many development practitioners have been doing for decades . There is ample evidence that in the long-run, collaborative approaches that reconcile local needs with conservation goals are more likely to succeed than traditional approaches . By identifying our values, combining perspectives and acknowledging the importance of the context in environmental problems, we can strengthen the dialogue among social actors and confront the political limitations of mainstream environmentalism.
One of the fundamental political questions of our times is how fast can we eradicate material poverty. It is no longer about alleviation, relief, or reduction: mosquito nets to control Malaria, sanitation to prevent diarrhea, and improved stoves to reduce pulmonary disease. These types of approaches are inadequate for the needs of the poor and shortsighted considering available resources and technology. When the possibility of eradicating poverty seems within reach, alleviation efforts become counterproductive. Yet, as environmentalists, we recognize that eradicating poverty is beyond our expertise; indeed, development scholars, state agencies, and community organizations are better qualified to address it. Nonetheless, we know that environment and development are closely intertwined and that political concerns influence resource management and conservation across the world. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: what can mainstream (Western) environmentalism offer the poor?
The answer is not much. In the past, mainstream environmentalism – as opposed to progressive grassroots efforts like the green belt movement – has been perceived as regressive, colonial, elitist, and for the most part, out of touch with the needs and values of local people. Writer Emma Marris referred to this problem in the following way: “rich people worry about wildlife, poor people worry about dinner.” Although scholars from political ecology, anthropology, and sociology have thoroughly described the political shortcomings of Western environmentalism, for states and multilateral institutions, aligning environmental and development agendas remains challenging . Therefore, to reconcile environment and development, we must ask ourselves the same question – what can ecomodernism offer the poor?
The answer is energy. Since it plays such a crucial role in development, ecomodernists argue, energy must be cheap, abundant, and gradually cleaner. This will radically improve the lives of millions of people, while reducing their use of polluting and inefficient fuels such as charcoal, dung, and wood. Basic social services such as education, healthcare, and modern communications depend on a stable supply of energy. Industrial processes also demand cheap energy and are essential for economic growth . Therefore, we must not forget the obvious: energy access is essential for development.
The prospect of abundant and cheap energy is widely appealing to leaders on both the political Left and Right, partly because the traditional means to get people out of poverty – economic growth and redistribution – have been insufficient and difficult to implement. The need to expand energy access reflects the recognition that as long as environmental agendas are at odds with development goals, the latter will prevail. Presently, reducing poverty is one of the most pressing political issues in developing countries. We painfully learned this lesson from the repeated failures of the international climate negotiations, from Kyoto to Copenhagen . Undoubtedly, from the poor’s point of view, ecomodernism trumps mainstream environmentalism.
At a personal level, ecomodernism invites us to recognize how Western lifestyles depend on abundant energy and modern technology, and to make those benefits accessible to others. Basic amenities such as air conditioning, refrigerators, and gas stoves should be readily available to everyone across the world . As environmentalists, we should encourage the diffusion of these technologies.
Yet, without political change, energy and modern technology may not be sufficient to bring about the kind of social change we would like to see. Expanded energy access does not amount to eradicating poverty, and eradicating poverty is not the same as reducing inequality. Scholars interested in questions of equity and justice have noted that the manifesto’s lack of politics is troubling . I have observed this critique in conferences in the U.S. and abroad. The absence of politics in the manifesto is intriguing because in the last decade, two of the leaders of ecomodernism, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, wrote influential and prescient pieces on political issues such cap and trade and the future of American liberalism.
Based on these essays, we can speculate on what the politics of ecomodernism might be. At first, ecomodernist politics can be described as an eclectic, undogmatic liberalism that is willing to question, and perhaps change, its assumptions. This is refreshing. A closer look shows that ecomodernists have thoroughly engaged with both political and technical questions, which has allowed them to participate in debates on complex issues ranging from fracking to public perceptions on climate change . Most importantly, for those political ecologists and humanists that struggle with “ecomodern bipartisanship” and “technoptimism” and long for the days when political enemies could be easily identified, Nordhaus and Shellenberger invite us to examine some of our own deeply held ideological commitments.
By ideological commitments, I refer to the fundamental assumptions, the implicit lens that we use to examine reality and that are closely related to our beliefs about how the world is and should be. In their pieces on modernizing liberalism, Nordhaus and Shellenberger describe how these commitments shape our understanding of complex issues. To illustrate this point regarding our perception of risk, they ask the following questions: Why are liberals so deeply concerned about climate change? And why are conservatives so deeply concerned about terrorism? Curiously, although the data shows that the risk of dying in a car accident is significantly larger than both climate change and terrorism, neither party dedicates too much attention to road safety. Is this not an indication of how ideological commitments shape our perception of risk? A detailed elaboration of this argument can be found in their writings on modernizing liberalism.
For those under the umbrella of liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism invites us to rethink our reliance on markets and the drivers of social change . For the last three decades, numerous environmentalists have attempted to use markets to allocate environmental goods and services . So far, and despite significant investments, these efforts have not yielded the desired results. From the Kyoto Protocol to the present, attempts to create a global carbon market have been ineffective and deeply controversial. The reasons for this have been thoroughly described by political ecology, and although numerous small private and voluntary initiatives to reduce emissions exist all over the world, their scale is orders of magnitude below the targets set by the IPCC to stabilize emissions . Therefore, we know very well that we cannot simply rely on the market to allocate environmental goods. Instead, we could develop mixed approaches in which states, social organizations, and markets can interact in different ways . To drive social change and foster more equitable ways of distributing environmental goods and services, political ecology and other social sciences have engaged in various forms of activism and critique. These types of political engagement have been inspiring and successful, but have caused other drivers of social change, such as technology, to get overlooked.
Technological change and demographic transitions can also drive social change. Information and energy technologies are changing the ways in which people learn, work, and participate in public life. Hundreds of millions of people routinely communicate through email and social media, buy and sell goods in ever-larger markets, and have access to better technologies. Moreover, a significant portion of the information we use every day is free. Even though the extent to which these technologies can bring about positive social change is still unknown, the possibilities are enormous. I sense that ecomodernism invites political ecologists and other progressive scholars to consider these possibilities.
The claim that the future is already here, but just not evenly distributed, was attributed to novelist William Gibson three decades ago . Sadly it still rings true today.
Presently, about one-third of the world’s population has only limited access to the technologies that make modern life possible. There are political reasons for this, but high costs generally delay technology diffusion; some technologies remain prohibitively expensive for the means of poor people. Regardless, technological progress keeps pushing social change; think of cell phones, the Internet, and natural gas.
Since the first industrial revolution, technological progress has allowed for continuous improvements in efficiency and productivity in manufacture. Thanks to this, cars, light-bulbs, and computers become better every year. Similarly, agricultural yields have increased gradually and continuously, demonstrating that food shortages are rarely caused by production failures. The mechanization and intensification of agriculture has made more land available for conservation and favored the rebound of wildlife in various countries. Moreover, technological progress coupled with the use of cleaner fuels, has allowed numerous industrial processes to produce more goods while gradually reducing their carbon emissions. This trend is known as the decarbonization of the economy . Taken together, these observations suggest that there is no shortage of resources, that technology can help us separate economic growth from pollution, and that our environmental future might be brighter than we thought. This is good news and ecomodernists deserve praise for placing technology at the center of the debate.
Despite the achievements of ecomodernism, the academic Left, and political ecology in particular, has critiqued its technological optimism. The fundamental concern revolves around how ecomodernist emphasis on technological progress undermines political demands for greater equity. Since this broad and fair critique can be approached in numerous ways, I will focus on two specific questions that are particularly interesting: first, what is the relationship between modernity and capitalism (briefly noted in the manifesto) and second, whether technological change may cause extensive job losses in the next three decades.
Regarding the first question, political ecologists contend that the prospects of technological progress are part of the narrative of modernity that was never fulfilled . They argue that modernity is inextricably bound with capitalism and therefore it will never be realized within the current economic system. Although technology has improved the lives of numerous people, reducing inequality will be impossible without radical political changes. Exploring this question requires determining if modernity and capitalism are indeed two sides of the same process and anticipating how late capitalism will unfold . This is a deeply interesting project that will require years of empirical as well as theoretical work. I believe that ecomodernists and political ecologists should work together on it. The extent to which technology will open new political spaces is unknown, but in order to occupy them, we must make the best use of available technologies. Therefore, the question is not whether to embrace technology and modernity, but rather, how to build a modern society where technologies are accessible, user-friendly, affordable, and cleaner. As both political ecologists and ecomodernists have repeatedly shown, our lifestyles are so dependent on modern technology that we cannot go back to primitive forms of living. Fortunately, as described in the manifesto, socioeconomic trends suggest that we can shape the future and facilitate the transition towards a more equitable society, while enjoying an ecologically vibrant planet.
The second issue is social. As technology improves and diffuses, it seems more and more likely that numerous jobs will be replaced by machines, software, and robots. Machines are becoming increasingly better at performing various tasks previously executed by humans. Indeed, estimates suggest that up to 40% of the U.S. workforce could be automated within two or three decades . These types of predictions are rarely accurate, but if current trends in manufacturing continue, it is likely that numerous jobs will disappear. How should we manage a transition towards a society with fewer jobs? What opportunities could we open to people with manual skills in a society that is highly dependent on complex skills and knowledge acquired over decades in academic or professional settings? The implications of this problem are serious: the experience of postindustrial cities suggests that when jobs rapidly disappear, the cascading impacts on communities are devastating. On the other hand, in a wealthier and more equitable society, it is easy to imagine that sectors such as education, social services, and healthcare could provide meaningful jobs to large numbers of people. Transitioning towards a society with few jobs will demand considerable efforts from all parts. Once again, I believe that political ecology and ecomodernism should join forces to tackle this issue.
In sum, despite these critiques, the manifesto’s invitation to engage with technology is compelling and hard to refuse. Similarly, the trends in industry, agriculture, and energy systems are impossible to ignore. I have no doubt that examining these trends from different academic perspectives can open new political spaces. The relative importance of technology vs. politics as drivers of social change remains controversial; but I hope that in future studies, ecomodernists and political ecologists can jointly explore this question. Lastly, ecomodernism invites us to examine our beliefs, reconsider our positions, and to be slightly optimistic about the future. This is much welcomed, not only because some environmental problems remain pressing, but because, as William Gibson claimed, the future is already here.
 William Cronon. 1995. Unbound Nature.
Alston Chase, 1996. In a dark wood.
 Arturo Escobar, 2008. Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes.
 Tania Li, 2007. The Will to Improve; Arturo Escobar, 1995. Encountering Development.
 Todd Moss and Madeleine Gleave, 2014. “My fridge uses 9 times more energy than the average Ethiopian citizen”.
 Shellenberger and Nordhaus, 2009. Apocalypse Fatigue: Losingthe Public on Climate Change.
 Steve Bernstein, 2001. The compromise of liberal environmentalism.
 Tim Forsyth. 2002. Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science.
 Karen Bakker, 2010. Debating green neoliberalism: The limits of “neoliberal natures”.
 Jesse Ausubel, 1996. The liberation from the environment.