activism environment technology

An Ecomodernist Manifesto

ecomodernistHaving reviewed a book on the postgrowth society last week, I thought I’d mention something that comes from the other end of the spectrum this week. A number of high profile environmentalists released a statement last week called An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Signatories include Steward Brand, Roger Pielke, Mark Lynas, and a number of other academics and members of the Breakthrough Institute.

The manifesto builds on idea of the ‘anthropocene’, a new era in which humans are the chief influence on the planet. Rather than see this as something scary to back away from, they suggest we need to own this new reality. By taking responsibility for it, we can make it a ‘good anthropocene’ for ourselves and for nature. “Both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable.” In short, it aims for a positive, optimistic environmentalism.

If that sounds interesting, I can recommend reading the manifesto before reading my comments. You’ll find it here.

There’s a lot to like in their vision. They rightly point out how far we’ve come, and how many of the fears of previous generations of environmentalists have not panned out in the doom and gloomed predicted – the population bomb among them. Technology, urbanisation and the peaking of population growth offer a far more optimistic possibility:

Taken together, these trends mean that the total human impact on the environment, including land-use change, overexploitation, and pollution, can peak and decline this century. By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends.

To achieve this vision, the paper argues for sustainable intensification. Through cities, intensive agriculture, aquaculture, and nuclear power, we can meet our needs with less land. The land spared can then be freed up for reforestation and rewilding.

There are lots of hopeful statements here, but many dubious ones too. The assertion that “the use of many material resource inputs such as nitrogen, timber, and land are beginning to peak” sounds premature, given how many people remain in poverty. So do the generalisations about how liberal values are becoming globally universal. The dismissal of any concept of planetary boundaries seems rather hasty. The fact that they are largely negative about renewable energy is also a problem, and puts them out of step with the trend towards decentralised power.

The ecomodernist vision also leans very heavily on one idea: decoupling. Decoupling is the disconnecting of human activity and economic growth from environmental impact, carbon emissions and resource use. They argue that there are existing trends to build upon, and that “decoupling human well-being from the destruction of nature requires the conscious acceleration of emergent decoupling processes.”

Like James Wallman’s ideas about postmaterialism, for example, that demand for goods may be peaking in developed countries. That may be true, or it may not be – it’s pretty early to call. There aren’t many examples of absolute decoupling and good news stories like Britain’s recent drop in carbon emissions are pretty rare.

It is possible to decouple economic growth and environmental impact. The key factor, and the main reason why I remain convinced by the need for postgrowth solutions, is time. It is theoretically possible to create infinite economic growth. It’s the urgency of climate change that complicates matters. Can it be done fast enough? That’s the real question, and the maths is not on the ecomodernists’ side.

Perhaps what I find most striking about the manifesto though is a kind of anthropogenic dualism that lifts humanity out of nature through technology.

In the long run, 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.

Putting aside the existence of ‘nuclear fusion‘ and ‘most plausible’ in the same sentence, consider how extraordinary that goal is: ‘a radical decoupling of humans from nature’.

It isn’t an isolated statement either. “Cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature” they say, favourably. They “reject” the perceived environmentalist ideal “that human societies must harmonize with nature.” They nobly claim that “humans should seek to liberate the environment from the economy” and then elsewhere praise “the modernization processes that have increasingly liberated humanity from nature.”

This is where I have to part company with the ecomodernists, however much I may hope they’re right about our optimistic future. We are not separate from the rest of creation, and it is hubris to think otherwise. Considering ourselves above it and in dominion over it is a core part of the problem, but disconnecting ourselves from nature to avoid abusing it is not the solution.

I understand the idea of the ‘anthropocene’, and the point that we are already shaping the planet whether we like or not. But I am likely to avoid the phrase after reading the ecomodernist take on it. We cannot protect nature by attempting to live alongside it in a separate synthetic world of our own making. Quite the opposite. Surely it is through a deeper appreciation of how connected we all are that we will begin to take responsibility.


  1. I’d agree with our comments above it was Amory Lovins who said that if we find a cheap source of energy we should not use it. This is a background concern of mine about solar.

    1. Neil, I’ve just read that the Rocky Mountain Inst. ‘fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources’.. Do you think solar is not one of the most likely to be ‘efficient and restorative’? Would you be able to give a brief explanation of your background concern about solar?

  2. Obviously this is the kind of position I hold. Self consciously liberal and looking forward to progress.

    Where the Ecomodernists win out over the no growthers is that they are promissing a better life and not requiring a huge change to the functioning of the economy to methods that are unproven at best. The post growth agenda is austere, we in the richer would should be poorer, certainly no richer. Yet people want a more prosperous future. Just look at a lot of election discussion- will our children be richer than us? That cuts to most people’s hopes. Stagnation or economic decline are deeply unpopular. No Growthers don’t trust humans, they need to be controlled; Ecomodernists have faith in people and the markets they live in. To put in a Wolf Hall context, we’d rather be ruled by Cromwell than More.

    1. The ecomodernists have the rosier story, that’s for sure. But it’s not enough to paint a pretty picture about the future. Anyone can do that. Is it enough? Can we transition to their vision of the future without dangerous climate change? That’s what matters.

      As I say, I’d like the ecomodernists to be right, but too much of the manifesto is concerned with the long term future, and not enough with the short term peak and decline of emissions that we need to see.

  3. I think you are confusing terms – decoupling is not separation. Nor is separation what ecomodernism really advocates. What they argue for (rightly, I think) is the decoupling of human well being from (negative) environmental impacts – which can only be achieved by energy prosperity and greater “intensity” of our activities.

    That is primarily land use intensity (more in cities) and using technology to not only limit our negative impact but give back. It’s a laudable policy objective (which is what manifestos attempt to articulate) -so now we can have productive discussions about the best way to achieve that.

    I think primarily it is an attempt to change the dialogue from existing somewhat anti-human environmentalism that regards all that we do as evil.

    Refreshing though to see engagement with the issue-as too many shut their ideological blinkers 🙂

    1. Yes, there is a deliberate effort here to reframe environmentalism in more positive terms, although that anti-human streak is very much a minority view in my experience. And they’re right about a lot of things, including their critique of sustainability, and the idea of intensification and urbanisation. That’s a useful concept that I will come back to another time.

      Decoupling does not necessarily imply separation, no, but the manifesto steers quite heavily in that direction. It suggests a disentanglement from the natural world that I’m not sure is possible or desirable.

      Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. I’m working on a project at the moment that is all about reconnecting with the natural world, so the idea of a ‘radical decoupling from nature’ really leapt from the page.

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