Dark Thoughts on Ecomodernism
- dark-mountain.net August 12th, 2016
Unlike some of those election manifestos, the EM is a model of clarity. It has a goal to be reached, a process for reaching it, a problem that must be solved along the way, and a solution to the problem. The goal is ‘vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom’ (p.28). The process is modernisation. The problem is leaving ‘room for nature’. And the solution is decoupling: decoupling human consumption from the drawdown of natural resources, and decoupling humans themselves from the world of nature and from their dependence upon it.
Dark Mountain has a manifesto of its own, of course. It could hardly be more different from the EM. I assume that people reading this blog have an idea of its contents, so I won’t dwell on it here. Nor will I pretend to be neutral in my estimation of these two manifestos’ respective merits. But like any ornery voter, I don’t willingly surrender myself to other people’s manifestos of whatever kind. When it comes to manifesto ‘narratives’, I want to find the stories that lie beneath the words, and compare them with my own. So here I’m going looking for the stories of ecomodernism in Dark Mountain’s light – and if that sounds oxymoronic, so be it. Perhaps there are some truths that only reveal themselves in another’s shadow.
Looking at the list of ecomodernist goals the key one is surely ‘vastly improved material well-being’ because things like public health are implied by it, while things like economic integration are a (debatable) means for achieving it. But the question arises, ‘vastly improved’ compared with what? The EM seems to have two answers. One is vastly improved with respect to people who lived in the past. The other is vastly improved for poor people living in the present.
On the first point, the EM states that humanity has flourished in the past two centuries, citing various pieces of supportive evidence: life expectancy increasing from 40 to 70 years, reductions in infectious diseases, a decline in violence and the rise of liberal democracy. Most of these claims are debatable. Two hundred years ago the global human population was around a billion; today, it’s seven billion and counting, but a billion are clinically undernourished – as many as existed two hundred years previously. Is that flourishing?
Well, maybe. I don’t see much merit in arguing the counter-thesis that the human condition has worsened in that time, but there are issues of emphasis and interpretation. Indeed, the EM is peppered with tendentious statistics and factoids that prompt an exasperated ‘yes, but…’ Take life expectancy. In England in 1841 (when records began) it was indeed around 40. But that was because of stunningly high infant mortality, which an urbanising country was only beginning to control in the cities. The modal age of death for females over ten in 1841 was 77, and it wasn’t until 2001 that ten more years were added to that figure, giving a more sober sense of the pace of change. The upward trend came mostly through rather basic public health improvements such as adequate diets and clean water, which don’t in themselves suggest any particular need for us to embrace complex ‘nature-distancing’ technologies today. Good diets, clean water: such fundamentals of human flourishing have often been the birthright of ‘non-modern’ peoples both past and present as well as modern ones.
Let me pursue the EM’s two-century timeframe a little further. In England in 1815, parliamentary enclosures were putting the finishing touches to a process of land divestment that had turned rural peasants into urban proletarians over the previous 50 years. Waterloo brought a shuddering end to one particular ‘modernising’ project that very year. The Peterloo massacre was four years in the future, the Reform Act 17. Slavery in the British Caribbean only had another 23 years to run, but plantation agriculture with coerced labour was gearing up in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and British depredations in India had barely started. ‘Modernisation,’ states the EM ‘has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labour, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance’ (pp.28-9). Maybe so, but it has also delivered ever more people into them, both in the past and still today, often through colonial and neo-colonial projects of extraordinary violence which have always been part of the modernisation package. So if today we can celebrate the improvements wrought over the last two centuries, what we’re ultimately celebrating is the ability of modernisation to solve some of its own internal contradictions, usually through the struggles of those who’ve suffered at its hands, and usually without thought to the longer term environmental consequences. To compare 1815 with 2015 is in many ways to compare a low point with a high point in a longer, messier modernisation cycle.
So much for poverty in the past. What of it today, for those people or those countries living in straitened circumstances in the midst of modernist plenty? A word you won’t find in the EM is inequality. There are glancing references to poverty, poor people and poor nations. But in the ecomodernist vision poverty is equated with a lack of modernisation. There is no sense that processes of modernisation cause any poverty. So there is no mention here of the vast literatures on the changing and varied economic fortunes of the many civilisations that have come and gone, or the changing and varied ideas they’ve had about themselves. There’s nothing on uneven development, historical cores and peripheries, proletarianisation, colonial land appropriation and the implications of all this for social equality. The ecomodernist solution to poverty is simply more modernisation. And you then begin to understand why the improvement in material wellbeing needs to be ‘vast’. Every year, for example, US citizens each eat 100kg of meat on average, whereas the rest of the world makes do with 31kg. Since ecomodernism lacks any critique of consumption, instead choosing to equate increased consumption with increased wellbeing, its only feasible solution to this maldistribution of meat must be to raise up global meat consumption. If global levels equated with US levels, we would need to conjure something like another half billion tonnes of meat from global agriculture annually, and that probably would require the impressive breakthroughs in technology and resource use efficiency that the ecomodernists crave.
An obvious question is whether increasing meat consumption from 31kg to 100kg, or likewise increasing the consumption of anything much else, really does equate with ‘vastly improved material wellbeing’, still less with wellbeing writ large. A humbler ecomodernism might acknowledge that other people construe wellbeing and humanity’s place in the world differently, and consider how its programme might interact with theirs.
But the EM doesn’t do this. Instead, it insists there is no alternative. Once the historic brakes are off, it claims, modernisation is intrinsic to human nature. And the ecomodernists want to release the brakes. This, they say, is no matter of narrow ideology: ‘Too often, modernisation is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions’ (EM, p.28). At first this move seems generous, but its effect is to make modernisation something universal and ineluctable, a process to which all right-thinking humans are committed, apart perhaps from a few straggling hunter-gatherers, peasants, backward agrarians and their latter-day champions, for ‘modernisation is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy’ (p.13).
Now, there really is no such thing as a ‘subsistence economy’ – or if there is, then every economy is a subsistence economy inasmuch as it produces what those in control of it deem necessary for human subsistence. The anthropology of those so-called ‘primitive’ societies that we like to call ‘subsistence economies’ documents the elaborate measures they take to prevent the multiplication of material ‘needs’ and the emergence of inequality. Pierre Clastres, for example, has written, ‘when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men’s axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter'(2).
Only in ‘modern’ societies does it strike people as obvious that the correct thing to do with superior technology is to produce more with it, and though not all modern societies have been capitalist ones capitalism has pushed this logic of modernisation furthest. Its basic feature is the insecurity of both capitalist entrepreneurs and the populace at large before the impersonal dictates of the interest-bearing loan, forcing entrepreneurs into a ceaseless search to lower relative input costs and the populace into a wholesale reliance on monetised market exchange. In that process lies the fury of capitalist modernisation to find new markets, new human relationships to monetise, new ways of improving efficiency and extracting value. And the result of that process is the ‘modern’ world that the ecomodernists describe – with its incredible material wealth for the few and its misery for the many (the true ‘subsistence agrarian economies’ are the ones that have been made such by losing out in the battles of modernisation), its prodigious energy use, its constantly revolutionising technology, its relative resource efficiency and its absolute resource drawdown, its profound disruptions of the human and non-human environments.
The EM devotes considerable space to arguing that preindustrial peoples were worse environmentalists than we moderns – for example pointing to the relative inefficiency of foraging over farming, and raising the issue of the North American megafauna extinctions arguably associated with Paleoindian hunting. As a matter of historical accuracy, it seems hard to sustain the view that the environmental impact of the North American Paleoindians was any match to that of North Americans today. But the larger question is why the ecomodernists should feel the need to scorn the doings of peoples who preceded them by over 10,000 years. What exactly is their beef?
Perhaps one answer is that the ecomodernist worldview depends upon a universalising narrative of smooth and pristine forward progress: ‘smooth forward progress’ in the sense that the human story it wishes to tell is one of almost uniform ascent towards greater wellbeing and greater control of nature; ‘pristine’ in the sense that the process involves no major contradictions. If the Paleoindians were indeed responsible for the megafauna extinctions, perhaps this makes them modernisers too, but not necessarily worse ones than us. Human actions always have consequences in the wider world, but we have choices over how we respond to them. The ecomodernists replace choices with an unyielding historical progression: their worldview demands that there can have been no past times in which people might have lived as well or better in their own terms than we live today.
I accept the dangers of primitivism: we achieve little by simply reversing the modernist narrative of progress towards future perfection with a primitivist narrative of degeneration from a perfection in the past. But all these dualities of progress-regress, Eden-Fall, heaven-hell etc. are products of civilisation itself and its doctrines of modernisation. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern China the evidence is clear: development implies underdevelopment, material wealth implies material poverty, freedom implies slavery and so on. These couplets are not two ends of a historical process, with modernisation ringing the death knell for the misery of the past, but contradictions within the modernisation process itself. Often, the negative term is merely placed beyond sight of modernisation’s victors. Thus, the EM notes the reforesting of New England but fails to note the deforesting of New Guinea, or any possible connection between the two. It claims that reforestation is a resilient feature of development, without noting that global net reforestation rates are negative. And it implicitly assumes that ‘development’ is some unassailable historical achievement that can never be undone, rather than a temporary flux in longer-term political relationships that are always subject to renegotiations of the kind we’re currently seeing in the gradual transfer of America’s economic assets to China.
For its part, the Dark Mountain manifesto describes progress as a myth. I largely agree, or at least I reject the metaphorical topography of going ‘back’ or moving ‘forwards’ as a way of thinking about ‘progress’ historically. Here is the anxiety in the ecomodernist argument: once you abandon the notion of a smooth upward progress undergirded by technology, once you abandon the common or garden ethnocentrism that our own times and our own people sit at the apex of human achievement, then it’s possible to look at other peoples and ask open-mindedly whether there is anything we can learn from them, not so that we can live just like them, but so we can live better in our own terms.
The whole thrust of the EM is to answer ‘no’ to that question, but it becomes ensnared in contradiction. It states: ‘The parts of the planet that people have not yet profoundly transformed have mostly been spared because they have not yet found an economic use for them – mountains, deserts, boreal forests, and other “marginal” lands’ (p.19). And yet these places have long been occupied by hunter-gatherers, herders, ‘primitive’ agrarians, the uncivilised, the ‘marginal’ and supposedly inefficient non-moderns whose ‘economic use’ of them stretches way back. I think the answer is ‘yes’. I think we can learn much from the uncivilised about equality, equanimity, self-reliance, the illusory nature of material acquisitiveness and what we, but not they, might call ‘natural resource management’. So much of the discourse of the modern world religions and so much of the angst in contemporary civilised society chafes on those very points, because we know that modernising civilisation hasn’t got them right.
In that sense, the EM reads like a religious tract. Despite all the trappings of science and policy analysis, it’s really an attempt to keep the barbarians from the gate and to insist that, while few now believe in the perfectibility of humanity in heaven as a sacred process, we can still believe in the perfectibility of humanity on earth as a historical process. We can, in the words of the EM, have a ‘great Anthropocene’. Well, maybe – but I don’t believe in perfectibility, sacred or profane. So I’m standing uncertainly at the gate, ready at least to give the barbarians a hearing.
The EM also reads like a literary tract. Curiously, despite adopting the moniker of modernism for themselves, the ecomodernists don’t identify with modernism as an aesthetic movement – and yet their programme meshes perfectly with that of the literary modernists. Like Baudelaire wandering through the less salubrious streets of 19th-century Paris, the ecomodernists want to invent a new language that scorns romanticism and the naturalistic, and embraces the city in general and the slum in particular as the engine of a new world order involving a self-conscious rupture with everything that has gone before. I won’t dwell on all the connections, or on the career and aftermath of modernism: from Baudelaire to Eliot to Iain Sinclair, from Marx to Stalin to Lyotard’s ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, from Le Corbusier to Ronan Point to the mock Tudor semi, from the Factory Acts to Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg. But as self-avowed ‘modernists’ the eco-modernists might do well to ponder the long career and drawn out death of modernism in the arts and policy sciences. Certainly, modernism was an important moment in its time. But now it’s over. The moment for eco-modernism is over too.
Inasmuch as modern civilisation’s drawdown of non-renewable natural resources is a problem (for the ecomodernists it’s essentially civilisation’s only problem; I’d offer a wider indictment), it makes sense to seek technical innovations that make more sparing use of resource inputs for a given output. This is called relative decoupling. But relative decoupling is only useful if it enables societies to use less total resources or emit less total pollution, in other words to achieve absolute decoupling.
Clastres’ story of the Indians, the white men and the axe comes to mind here, for though we’re achieving relative decoupling on some measures, we’re not achieving absolute decoupling. In 2012, CO2 emissions from coal and natural gas were more than double their levels in 1980, with petroleum emissions over 40% higher – and yet the EM claims that nations have been ‘slowly decarbonising’ (p.20) . Nitrogen pollution is also rising, as the EM acknowledges, while adding the irrelevant qualification that ‘the amount used per unit of production has declined significantly in developed nations’ (p.14). Another example is meat consumption, which the manifesto correctly states ‘peaked in many wealthy nations’ (p.14). But in 2012, the world produced about 238 million tonnes of meat, up a third from 179 million tonnes in 2000. And so it goes on. The EM consistently muddies the water between relative and absolute decoupling to create a rosier picture of global resource use than the data warrant.
It also consistently muddies the water between the certain, available technologies of today, and the uncertain, possible technologies of the future. ‘Human civilisation can flourish for centuries and millennia on energy delivered from a closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle, or from hydrogen-deuterium fusion’ it states (p.10), without acknowledging that there are scarcely any full-scale power plants currently in operation using these technologies. It follows this with an upbeat assessment of human prospects ‘given plentiful land and unlimited energy’. That raises the bar for disagreement pretty high, given those givens – but first I’d like more evidence about how ‘given’ they are. Despite excitable talk of unlimited nuclear energy, the truth is that currently only 31 of the world’s 200 countries have any nuclear energy capacity, and this furnishes less than 2% of global energy production. That figure may well go down. India, a leader in the push for a thorium-powered nuclear future, is also planning to treble its per capita coal use by 2030. This alone would make a mockery of the ecomodernists’ equation between development and decarbonisation. Present global energy scenarios remain almost wholly wedded to a fossil fuel future.
The other kind of decoupling the EM advocates is a physical decoupling of people from nature through urbanisation, agricultural intensification and the restoration of wildlands, for in its words ‘Nature unused is nature spared’ (p.19). As noted earlier, the Eden myth, the notion of a pristine and uncorrupted nature, has such a deep currency in our ‘modernising’ culture that this sentence probably seems uncontroversial to many. But I find it strange and troubling. For uncivilised thought, its sentiments are unintelligible. ‘Nature’ is not something that goes ‘used’ or ‘unused’. And though humans can probably never escape entirely from a godlike differentiation of self from nature-other, our power lies not in ‘sparing’ nature but rather in moving purposefully within the realm of its power. Here the EM is caught in a morbid dialectic of capitalism, which first reduces everything in the world to a set of instrumental use values and then, abhorring what it’s done, tries to extricate a sacred wholeness from the consequences of its own ugliness. In contrast to the more anti-modern strands of radical environmentalism, ecomodernism is often characterised as an optimistic doctrine. But listen to the melancholy:
We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves. They connect with their deep evolutionary history. Even when people never experience these wild natures directly, they aﬃrm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual well-being. Humans will always materially depend on nature to some degree (p.25).As a philosophical statement, there seems a grand absurdity in advocating rupture from something that you need to be a part of. I empathise with the sadness, but it’s a pity the ecomodernists try to overcome it with chest-thumping affirmations of human independence. They sound like the jilted lover, at once defiant: ‘I don’t need her anyway, I’m better than her’; then alone, and afraid: ‘she was everything to me, what will I do without her?’ Eventually, the lover moves on. It’s less clear where a denatured humanity would move to. Here, again, the modernism of the ecomodernists already meets its end.
So, 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.
The policy framework of ecomodernism is equally concerning. The EM in muted fashion, and other writings by some of its authors more forcefully, are in favour of urbanisation and agricultural intensification, and against low-yield farming, people who depend on firewood for fuel, and the consumption of bushmeat. The targets here are obvious. Better to knock peasants, hunter-gatherers, commoners and other people not yet fully coopted by the capitalist dialectic off their perch and corral them into the slums of the growing global metropolis. ‘Let no one romanticise the slum conditions’, EM co-author Stewart Brand has written, before doing precisely that, ‘But the squatter cities are vibrant‘ (3).
It’s true that the fizz of urban economies draws in the rural poor – often temporarily, sometimes permanently. But it rarely delivers them out of poverty. And though it’s doubtless true that non-moderns can cause local environmental degradation, in the ecomodernists’ hands this small tail wags the large dog of the widespread degradation caused by wealthy, modernised citi-zens – and the tragic results of this kind of thinking reverberate around the nature parks and forests where indigenous peoples are cleared in the name of progress. Twenty-first century ecomodernism is an enclosure movement, much like the discourse of 18th-century ‘agricultural improvement’: clear the commons, for the commoners are poor and indigent. Better they labour for others, where they will earn more and cause less trouble. As in the case of that earlier debate, there’s scope for much massaging of the evidence on both sides, but it’s by no means settled that modern, high-tech agriculture produces higher yields than small-scale farming; that the ‘intensive’ arable grain farming on which the urban world relies better promotes biodiversity or food security than small, mixed plots; that city slums provide good routes out of poverty for the rural poor; and that the nature-dependent rural poor exert a more baleful environmental influence than the nature-decoupled urban wealthy.
The same ‘improver’ arguments were used by John Locke in the 17th century to justify colonialism in words that, barring changes in literary convention and racial sensibility, wouldn’t be out of place in the EM:
For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres [will] yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated? (4)Civilisation and Uncivilisation
That brings us back to the American Indians. Locke in his time and the ecomodernists in ours presumably considered the ‘modernisation’ they underwent at the hands of European ‘improvement, tillage or husbandry’ beneficial. It’s not a view I can share. That’s not to say I’d endorse the Eden that other currents of civilised thought might wish to make of the uncivilised Indian, but I am drawn to Dark Mountain’s notion of ‘uncivilisation’ – not so much as a social state to aspire to, but as an idea we might use to escape from false dualities in ‘civilised’ thought.
What lies beyond civilisation? I’m not sure, and I’d need another essay to even begin outlining it. But, in brief, I think something more attuned to social contradiction and the need to keep certain human tendencies (acquisitiveness, hierarchy) in check. Something that values the quality of human relationships in their everyday particularity rather than their quantity in relation to abstract manifesto-style nostrums like development, freedom or productivity. Something that doesn’t reduce wellbeing to material wellbeing, and reduce the latter to questions of energy, objects and infrastructures. The EM’s narrative, like that of the major political parties, tells us that if we knuckle down we’ll soon be back on track. But, beyond civilisation, the tracks are many, and it’s high time we explored off the beaten one.
Ecomodernism: a response to my critics
This article provoked a vociferous reaction online from some ecomodernists, most notably from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute. Chris Smaje responds to this criticism with another essay published on his blog, further developing his analysis of ecomodernism as ‘neoliberalism with a green veneer’. Read this essay here.
(1) Asafu-Adjaye, J. et al (2015) An Ecomodernist Manifesto www.ecomodernism.org
(2) Clastres, P. (1989) Society Against The State, Zone Books, p.196.
(3) Brand, S. (2010) Whole Earth Discipline, Atlantic Books, p.36.
(4) Locke, J. (1689) The Second Treatise of Government, 37.
Chris Smaje works a small mixed farm in Somerset and blogs at smallfarmfuture.org.uk, where a fuller version of this post is available. He’s written on environmental and agricultural issues for publications like The Land, Permaculture Magazine and in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, and also in academic journals (Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems; the Journal of Consumer Culture; the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture). Trained in anthropology and social science, he previously worked at the Universities of Surrey and London.
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