Last year, I wrote about the dangers of “eco-whiggery” – which I described as “a narrative of inevitable human progress, in which we’re certain to make good any self-inflicted harm.”
Eco-whigs have a half a point, which is that there’s plenty of good news about the state of humanity and the planet we live on. What they miss, however, is that the technological mastery that has got us this far increasingly has the potential to inflict unprecedented global harm – and that consequently an attitude of caution and humility is in order.
Now, from America, comes An Ecomodernist Manifesto – which, like eco-whiggery, is likely to find a following on the right. Unlike the eco-whigs, however, the eco-modernists are seriously concerned about the big environmental problems of our time, such as climate change, and recognise the need for action.
Nevertheless, eco-modernism differs from mainstream environmentalism in a number of ways. This is how Michelle Nijhuis characterises the movement in a piece for the New Yorker:
“Calling themselves ecomodernists and ecopragmatists, they argue that technology, supported and accelerated by government investment, can allow humanity to simultaneously mitigate climate change, protect land, and relieve poverty. They approve of urbanization, intensified agriculture, nuclear power, aquaculture, and desalination; they disapprove of suburbanization, low-yield farming, and forms of renewable energy with large acreage demands. High-efficiency solar cells, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion, they write, ‘represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature.’”
This challenge to mainstream greenery goes well beyond its endorsement of nuclear power and other ‘environmentally incorrect’ technologies like genetic modification:
“The April manifesto, with its memorable call to ‘decouple’ from nature, seems calculated not just to irritate but also to alienate. Although its authors acknowledge the importance of protecting biodiversity and ‘wild nature,’ their rhetorical stance is what some scholars call post-preservationist—dedicated to the idea that humans ought to embrace, not minimize, their enormous influence on the planet.”
There is a counter-balance here to those who think we should ‘return to nature’ – as if that were a remotely feasible or humane option for a global population of nine billion people. I particularly agree with the argument that well-designed, liveable cities provide a vital, though obviously unnatural, path to a sustainable future.
Yet the idea that we can decouple from nature through technological intensification is highly questionable.
Yes, we’re increasingly capable of shoving nature out of the way, but sometimes nature shoves back. The link between antibiotic resistance and the intensive rearing of livestock is one example; the link between the crude mismanagement of river catchments and flash flooding is another. As for GM crops, we shouldn’t be surprised if genetically re-programming the edible part of the biosphere has some unforeseen side-effects.
The call for government investment in the acceleration of key technologies is also problematic. It’s certainly true that the state can play a central role in getting new tech off the ground (the US military origins of the internet being a case in point), but the trick is knowing where to leave off. For instance, after decades of government subsidy and other expensive favours, nuclear power is no closer to being market ready.
Indeed, there’s a danger that an eco-modernist bias towards intensification could direct investment away from the modular, versatile and localised technologies that are more open to the competitive, innovative and consumer-driven workings of the free market.