U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What Direction Ecomodernism (Guest post by Jeff Filipiak)

[Note to readers: the following is a guest post by Jeff Filipiak, a Lecturer in History at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, and a Lecturer in Environmental Studies at UW-Oshkosh. His intellectual interests include Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, John Denver, popular culture, the food movement, and winter.]

What Direction Ecomodernism: a Manifesto’s Place within the Environmentalist Tradition

by Jeff Filipiak

Should those concerned with environmental issues turn to ‘ecomodernism’ as a solution? Recently, a group of eighteen authors published an Ecomodernist Manifesto, which has been receiving a fair amount of media coverage, including a piece by two of the authors in USA Today, “Want to Save Nature? Leave it Behind.” The authors provocatively argue that in order to deal with key environmental issues like climate change and biodiversity, most humans must have less contact with nature.

When a bold statement like this posits a new direction for the future of a social movement, it is useful to ask: how can we connect its perspective to previous arguments within the movement? The manifesto suggests that the existing ‘environmental movement’ has significant shortcomings, and thus a new movement, ecomodernism, is required to deal with the most important environmental problems.[1] At this point, ecomodernism basically just exists as a manifesto, a media discussion and a group of supporters; what organization might follow the proposal remains to be seen. The manifesto looks to draw upon some key aspects of the movement: concern for climate change, attempts to manage resource use, and attempts to develop more sustainable technology. But it also represents a dramatic shift away from key principles which the environmental movement has promoted, including the belief that humans should be close to nature, that average citizens should have a voice in government, and the precautionary principle.

Central to the manifesto is the belief that societies should NOT “harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.” The authors instead look to achieve the goal of reducing human impact by “intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement.” Energy issues appear to be central to this project, as they argue that “next-generation solar, advanced nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion represent the most plausible pathways toward the joint goals of climate stabilization and radical decoupling of humans from nature.” These positions build upon ideas which earlier conservationists and environmentalists have expressed – but ideas which have rarely become popular in the movement’s mainstream. Environmentalists suggest that getting close to nature is something to value for its own sake, as well as way to motivate concern for environmental issues – but ecomodernists disagree. Instead, they propose “let us resolve to leave nostalgic dreams of recoupling with nature behind and embrace instead an ecologically vibrant future in which all of humanity thrives by increasingly leaving nature alone,” encouraging the movement of people out of rural and suburban areas, and into urban ones. Management of nature will thus be left to a decreasing number of people.

This reflects a significant difference of opinion with many environmentalists, who have consistently advocated that individuals become closer to nature and take more accountability for personally acting sustainably. Activism on the household level, including recycling, gardening, and reducing resource use, was emphasized during the first Earth Day and throughout the 1970s. More recently, Wendell Berry’s 1990 essay “The Pleasures of Eating” helped inspire the development of a food movement which suggests that sustainability be promoted by encouraging individuals to grow some of their own food, and to purchase food from local small farmers. Berry suggested in that essay that “eating is an agricultural act,” a line which the most popular food movement author, Michael Pollan, said inspired his interest in food issues. One of the major strands of recent environmentalist activity has been the food movement’s mixture of do-it-yourself reliance and green consumerism, which supports projects like Community Supported Agriculture, organic food labelling, and the Transition Movement. The country’s leading climate activist, Bill McKibben, feels that supporting local economies is an important means of addressing climate issues.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto draws largely upon other streams of ideas, with stronger roots perhaps in conservation than in environmentalism – faith in expert leadership and technological innovation. In this regard, the most significant author of the Manifesto is Stewart Brand, former editor of the influential 1970s series of Whole Earth Catalogs. As Andrew Kirk has demonstrated, Brand’s work in the 1970s and after provided a model for a libertarian vision of sustainability which emphasized technological innovation. More recently, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s 2002 Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things spurred discussion by promoting design as the key solution to environmental problems, suggesting that improved use of materials can resolve problems which politics and individual agency appeared unable to address. In part in response to the nostalgia that is part of the food movement, ecomodernists seek alternatives more supportive of trends in recent technological change.

Faith in expert leadership and technological innovations, however, has tended to only appeal to smaller numbers of those concerned about environmental issues. Calls to have elites in government play more of a role in managing resource use were part of the environmentalist debate of the 1970s and have often been part of the discussion about population control (see Thomas Robertson), but their appeal has been narrow. On the other hand, much of environmentalist activism – including its challenges to scientists on issues from forestry to pollution and chemicals– looked to empower citizens within their own communities, to force urban leaders to listen to middle class concerns about pollution, to allow average citizens to voice their concerns in public hearings, and so on.

During the 1970s, some environmentalists looked favorably upon nuclear power, which is central to the ecomodernist project. Scientists have remained supportive of nuclear power, so ecomodernism could appeal to many who have provided expertise to the movement. However, by the end of the 1970s the movement, in part in response to grassroots suspicion of nuclear plants, had largely turned against that option. More popular with the movement were those like Amory Lovins who supported ‘soft energy paths,’ involving a role for engineers but also for personal experimentation with wind power and other options. That said, while Lovins and others like him were regularly published and included in environmentalist discussions of these issues, they were not been able to mobilize large numbers of supporters behind them.

On the level of ideas, ecomodernism would decrease the importance of the “precautionary principle.” Both the intellectuals of the movement, and average activists, have been drawn to the movement in part by a hope that through the movement they can limit the adoption of large-scale technological innovations (particularly chemical use) which, they fear, are dangerous and unproven. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, appear to place their hopes, and greater decision-making power, in the hands of corporations which activists have often seen (rightly or wrongly) as creating threats to health and the environment. Potential conflicts over this issue are sharp: one of leading promoters of the agricultural intensification which ecomodernists advocate is Monsanto, a lightning rod for environmentalist criticism today as in the past. As the American producer of PCBs, Monsanto played a significant role in the rise of concerns about hazardous waste; concern about PCB waste also inspired the protests in Warren County, North Carolina which helped give birth to the awareness of the Environmental Justice dimensions of waste and health issues.

For these reasons and others, social justice advocates might worry that ecomodernism might be less even inclusive than environmentalism, a movement that has already rightly been criticized for being dominated by white males. Roger Gottlieb asserts that women active on environmental issues often were particularly concerned about the dangers of nuclear power and toxics; the Manifesto offers little role for those with such concerns.[2]

More broadly, by proposing the “decoupling of humanity from nature,” ecomodernists risk abandoning what has been both a key means of identifying problems (having people notice pollution), and of motivating support of the movement. From the organic growers who contacted Rachel Carson to anti-pollution activists to Lois Gibbs, concern for the local environment (and local dangers to human health) has been central to motivating people to become active in the movement. Recent works by Christopher Sellers and Adam Rome demonstrate how closely tied the movement was to local communities.

One of the most prominent themes in nature writing has long been the encouragement of individuals to get out and know nature, whether it be locally or in distant places. Richard Louv’s popular 2005 book argued that we need to increase the ability of children to play in nature, because if children do not do so they will be unlikely to want to preserve nature. In contrast, Ecomodernists suggest diminishing the personal relationship with nature, removing people (at least for the most part) from much of the landscape. And the authors say little about their connections to nature; David Gessner complained about 2004’s Break Through, by two of the manifesto’s authors that he didn’t “encounter a single rock or tree or bird” in the book. The manifesto’s authors place less importance on ideas and experiences because they believe that “humans are as likely to spare nature because it is not needed to meet their needs as they are to spare it for explicit aesthetic and spiritual reasons.”

On the other side of that decoupling, ecomodernism challenges recent scholarship in the environmental humanities and wilderness management that argues that humans need to see less separation between themselves and wildness. Environmental historian William Cronon, in his 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” suggested that wilderness ideas had misleading aspects, and that “the core problem of wilderness is that it distances us too much from the very things it teaches us to value.” He ended his essay with a call for people to instead perceive themselves as making a home in nature, as a means of acting responsibly. The essay sparked a divisive debate, but it inspired many who felt that environmentalists focused too much on distant wild places. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, present a vision which removes more people from rural communities, and which appears to seek to increase the role of wilderness areas from which people have been removed.[3] They seek to “to re-wild and re-green the Earth,” at a time when most environmentalist scientists have shifted towards trying to figure out how species can coexist with humans and human management.

The shifting of priorities for Stewart Brand provides a striking demonstration of the direction the ecomodernists desire. During the 1970s, his Whole Earth Catalogs were impressively wide-ranging; they appealed to those interested in discovering new ideas, to those who sought technological change, and perhaps most directly to those who hoped to buy the products it listed in order to create change on their own land. In 2015, he co-authored a manifesto which emphasizes the intensification of land use, and which offers little role for the appropriate-technology individual tinkerers and experimenters who found inspiration in the 1970s publications. Environmentalists have struggled to adapt to the changed political climate brought about by the rise of conservatism, as Judith Layzer has demonstrated. The ecomodernists respond to the new situation by deemphasizing concerns about consumption patterns, distribution, values, or the role government would play. Instead, they seek to create a new movement which would make it easier for corporations and inventors to contribute to sustainability, and which focuses mostly on more efficient production.

[1] Two of the authors, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, wrote a popular 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” a previous suggestion for redefinition of the movement. They (and a handful of other authors at the turn of the century) said they supported some of the key goals of the movement – but suggested that the movement itself should die off in order to be replaced by something related, yet different. I wonder: to what extent have there been parallels to this in other social movements; people calling for the death of the movement (at least in name) who are sympathetic to many of the movement’s concerns?

[2] See http://islandpress.org/forcing-spring, page 301.

[3] The manifesto does note that “we recognize that many communities will continue to opt for land-sharing,” rather than removing human populations from wild places, so it is flexible on this issue. But the main theme is one of removal.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It may not seem like it, but this post fits right in with the weekend’s theme of sci-fi. I say this because in a lot of those dystopian 1970s sci-fi movies, humanity is cut off from nature (if nature exists at all). And that seems to be what the ecomodernists are advocating, although perhaps not such an extreme version. You know, everyone lives in domed cities and that sort of thing. Of course, in the dystopian films where mankind lives in huge cities cut off from nature (if nature still exists), being cut off from nature is either the big problem, or what led to all the problems facing the characters in the movie. I’m not sure whether the ecomodernists need to watch these movies or have been watching them. But the idea isn’t so new, and when it’s been considered before has not been embraced, to say the least.

  2. Varad, I am definitely with you on this one! One of my current projects is expanding upon a paper I gave called “’They Paved Paradise’ vs. Ecotopias: Greening the Culture? Environmentalism’s Impact on American Popular Culture in the 1970s,” so I’ve spent some time watching some of those movies, and thinking about the connections. Now that you mention how technocracies often appeared in dystopias, I am pondering what that might mean. Ideas about land managers with global control were likely more prominent in pop culture dystopias… than within the environmental movement itself.

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