Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism

A Response from Chris Smaje, a social scientist who blogs at Small Farm Future

The ecomodernists seem to be saying, despite our human need for nature, we can’t be trusted to get along with it. We need a divorce, a division of the spoils: to us the city, and the minimum amount of farmland necessary to support it, to the rest of creation the wilderness where humans can go to look but not to live. I think this will prove self-defeating. Absent people from the production of their subsistence and install an economy of modernisation which offers no philosophical challenge to the proliferation of material demands and you unleash the bedlam we see already: the ecological reach of wealthy cities is global. Beyond global – the demands of ‘developed’ urbanised countries exceed the planetary capacity to furnish them long-term. Maybe city wealth buys the ecological conscience to shop in farmer’s markets and subscribe to Greenpeace, but it buys a lot of other things as well – too many for the world to provide. And the notion that, properly managed, capitalist modernisation will deliver fair wages, efficient production and ecological restoration for all is a utopian fantasy, just as it has always been. The ecomodernists’ programme will more likely terminate with an entrenched urban poverty that allows them, the elite, but not the newly enclosed urban masses, the luxury of ‘connecting emotionally’ with a cowed nature, or else perhaps just with metrogeddon.

Read the full response here.

How Humans Saved Penguins

by Leandro Narloch

My favorite example of innovation in favor of nature has to do with penguins. In the 19th century, a way to make money was to arrange a boat trip to Antarctica and return with a cargo of oil - either whale oil or oil penguin. These animals have a thick layer of fat to protect them from the cold, so people hunted them and boiled the fat for fuel for lamps and street lamps. In 1867, an expedition of four British ships manufactured 200,000 liters of penguin oil. As each bird yielded a pint of oil, you can estimate that in one expedition in that year alone killed about 400,000 penguins.

Because of commercial hunting, the population of penguins was disappearing in the late 19th century. But suddenly fishing boats left the dock in Antarctica. No one else was interested in hunting penguins, as a cheaper and more efficient fuel was gaining market share in Europe and the United States. That's how the invention of kerosene, a fossil fuel, saved millions of penguins in Antarctica.

The original article, in Portuguese, can be found here.

The Ecomodernist Movement

by Martha San Juan França

Unlike traditional environmentalists, ecomodernistas are characterized by their belief that technology can be harnessed to improve the quality of life of people and to save the environment. They are not opposed to large-scale agriculture, fertilizers and with modern production techniques, using less land and water, and they believe that nuclear energy is needed to tackle climate change.

"Much of what is now called sustainable development is actually harmful for the environment," says Shellenberger in an interview with Valor. "Life in the countryside and many renewable energy forms require more land, forests, and resources and leave less space for nature conservation."

Read the full article, in Portuguese, here.

A Tale of Two Planets

by Mark Lynas, coauthor of An Ecomodernist Manifesto

Our new geological epoch does not have to be a bad one, if we consciously seek to manage our collective impacts intelligently. This does not mean abandoning the notion of progress and seeking to wind back the clock, but using science and technology as our most potent tools for first identifying and then solving problems.

I do not see humans as arrogant children wrecking Mother Nature. I see us instead as young adults, looking around us wide-eyed with awe; nervous and conflicted but increasingly aware both of our agency and our responsibility as conscious managers of our own destiny.

It is true that we are just apes, gods only in metaphor not reality. We are no more special or chosen than any other species of life form; there is no divine guiding hand. But no other species since the dawn of life on Earth has achieved this epoch-making combination of global impact and global consciousness.

For the essential truth of the Anthropocene is this: neither God nor Gaia is in charge. We are. We now get to decide everything from the pH of the oceans to the temperature of the biosphere to the very composition and future evolutionary path of life on Earth.

Ducking or denying this responsibility will not make it go away. By virtue of our global influence, we have landed ourselves with this awesome task of planetary management. The Anthropocene is best understood not as a passive state, but an active one.

Viewing it as such is not a gloomy prospect but a liberating one. There is nothing so liberating as letting go of your pessimism.

Those of us who are parents can enjoy our children growing up, without imagining that their future will be worse than our past.

Those of us who are activists and campaigners can continue to dream of a better world and try to build it, without fearing that all our efforts will necessarily be in vain.

And those of us who are innovators and entrepreneurs can try out new ideas with as much hope of success as fear of failure.

Ecomodernism has a vision, and I believe it is both a realistic and an enticing one.

The above is an excerpt from a speech presented at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue. Read the full speech here.

Keeping Humans From Nature Would Harm, Not Heal

by Fred Pearce

In the Anthropocene, there is no pristine nature. Even the rainforests of the Amazon and the Congo have been cleared by humans in centuries past. What we imagine to be pristine forest is recent regrowth, often deliberately planted.

Nature today is not very natural. The world is dominated by what some ecologists call "novel ecosystems" – partly random collections of species that are far removed from anything remotely pristine, and usually well endowed with invasive species brought in by humans. This is good news. It shows that nature is evolving and adapting to the world we have created.

I believe there is no going back. And I find it surprising that the ecomodernists don't agree. Instead, they seem to be hooked on outdated notions of nature as passive, pristine and only able to prosper apart from us. We cannot have the Anthropocene on one side of the fence and the landscape of the Holocene – shaped by 11,000 years of early agriculture – on the other side.

The ecomodernists should banish their quest for some halcyon vision of rewilding. Of course we need to reduce our footprint, but a "good Anthropocene" will achieve that not by cutting us off from nature but by better integrating us into it. As the world's most successful invasive species, we must take this path if we are to make the best of the age of humans.

Read the full article here (subscription required).

Love Your Symptoms

A Response from Paul Robbins and Sarah A. Moore, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and assistant professor of geography, respectively, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rather, however, than arguing that one group’s desires and fears should be repressed or sublimated by the other, we suggest some common ground. Political ecologists and eco-moderns together reject an Edenic idea of balance in nature – acknowledging, with materialist psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, that the idea of balance itself is merely a retelling of The Fall. The concept of nature in balance is a comforting story we humans tell each other, after all, to avoid facing the reality that our socio-natural condition is inherently disordered and never fully amenable to technical or social control. Facing that reality head on, for Zizek, following Lacan, is an uncomfortable act; something that disturbs the surface of the false appearance of order, control and full knowledge. Rather than repressing the common symptom of political ecologists and ecomoderns, the feeling that something is wrong with this world; that it could be made better for humans and non-humans alike, we therefore suggest that ecomoderns and political ecologists follow Zizek’s welcome injunction to “Love your symptom as you love yourself!”

The injunction to “Enjoy your symptom!, to love it as you love yourself, does not mean falling into complacency or worse, unfettered relativism or nihilistic despair, but instead learning to recognize the symptom in ourselves and others – to hear what it is trying to tell us about our own and others’ suffering. We therefore suggest that we join together to render ecomodern political ecology a therapeutic empirical project. Rather than become entrenched in an ongoing battle over the dysfunction of the other group’s phobic attachments, then, we would instead explicitly engage them, working together to pose specific questions, open to productive exploration: Under what conditions, and to what extent, are GMOs a projection of unjust property relations and when, conversely, are they the tools of livelihood autonomy, farmer aspirations, or even sedition? What kinds of states do hydraulically fractured natural gas fields or nuclear power plants make and when are such states amenable to more just distributions of benefits and hazards of power generation? When are they not? Who controls the specific way innovation occurs and when does such innovation actually free labor, imagination, and desire… When does it not? Under what conditions do cities unleash the power of people, increase efficiency and restore the “natural” worlds around them and when does their governance merely remake the violent constraints of what came before?

Read the full response here.

In the Anthropocene, Can Wisdom Overcome Instinct?

by David Ropeik

It is true and encouraging that, if applied with wisdom, a range of incredible technological tools can help us live in more sustainable ways; cleaner energy (nuclear as well as renewables), biotechnology to increase food production in ways that use less land and do far less environmental damage, all sorts of technologies that allow each unit of economic production to cause less and less environmental damage.

But the Ecomodernist case rests on the shaky belief that we can act ‘with wisdom’. This presumes that we can use our conscious brains to overcome the far more powerful subconscious animal instincts that compel consumption in the name of comfort and safety. It presumes that we can use conscious reason to prioritize the long-term greater global good over the deeply embedded instinct to care more about the now and the local and ourselves.


The Ecomodernist Manifesto offers a wise argument that technology can help us live more sustainably and in many ways improve human and environmental well being. But given the intrinsic limits on the ability of the human animal to ‘act with wisdom’, the best life on earth overall can probably hope for in the future is a less bad Anthropocene, rather than an Epoch that historians will look back on and call good, or great.

Read the full article here.

Megacities: Environmental Friend or Foe?

A Response from Mark Bessoudo, a sustainability consultant based in Toronto, Canada

paper recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences led by Chris Kennedy, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, sheds further light on the assumption that megacities are inherently sustainable. The researchers looked at 27 of the world’s largest cities and analyzed their “urban metabolism” — the flow of energy and materials through the city. They found that while these “megacities” (cities of 10 million people or more) account for almost 7 percent of the world’s population, they also consume 9 percent of its electricity, 10 percent of its gasoline, and produce almost 13 percent of global waste. So what happened to the efficiency that we are told is an inherent result of density?

It turns out that while density does equal efficiency, “megacity” does not necessarily equal density. Megacities do encompass those places that we typically associate with dense and culturally vibrant urban centers: New York City, Tokyo, London. But what’s not often taken into account is the fact that to keep them running, these cities also require surrounding areas such as industrial lands, ports, suburbs. In other words, the environmental benefits of a city’s dense urban core can be outweighed by the resource-inefficient, yet essential, areas on its periphery. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin.

An area of focus that Kennedy’s research didn’t explore, but which potentially has an impact on resource use, is the psychological impact that increased urbanization has on sustainability. As people retreat from rural areas into cities, their interaction with nature also decreases. This is particularly true for the developing world. National Geographic’s annual Greendex Survey which measures nations’ consumption habits and attitudes, shows that people who are more connected with the environment demonstrate more sustainable behaviour; the more urbanized, the more unsustainable the behaviour. As author George Monbiot points out, this leads to a vicious circle: the richer we are, the more we consume, the more harm we do to the environment, the less we empathize with the natural world, the more we try to fill the void by buying more stuff.

Read the full response here.

A Brilliant Plan to Go Green

by Matt Ridley

The Ecomodernist Manifesto promises a much-needed reformation in the green movement. Its 95 theses should be nailed to the door of the Vatican when the pope’s green-tinged encyclical comes out next month, because unlike the typical eco-wail, it contains good news for the poor. It says: no, we are not going to stop you getting rich and adopting new technologies and leaving behind the misery of cooking over wood fires in smoky huts with no artificial light. No, we do not want you to stay as subsistence farmers. Indeed, the quicker we can get you into a city apartment with a car, a phone, a fridge and a laptop, the better. Because then you won’t be taking wood and bushmeat from the forest.

The G7 host Angela Merkel says it should be possible to achieve steady global growth without dangerous climate change, and points out that Germany has managed to “decouple” economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions. She is an ecomodernist already.

Read the full article here.

Global Prosperity on a Human Planet

by Thilo Spahl

The ecomodernist vision shows us a human-made and thus also artificial world that enables global prosperity. It shows us a nature that people no longer use for exploitation, but for pleasure. This is an idea that almost everyone should be excited about. But those who feel that ecology and conservation are connected will be doubtful and struggle to move away from the false idea that growth and nature preservation are irreconcilable. The path to these goals may be dominated by disagreement. The authors of the manifesto call for a role for the economy, citizens, and also an active state. 

There are still many open questions. But in any case, it is worthwhile to promote the debate begun here more widely, so that it can animate the current green movement, which has been dominated by pessimism, technology skepticism, and hostility to growth. 

The European is an online opinion and debate magazine. Click here for the original article in German. Thanks to Marian Swain for translation help.