Ecomodernist Hubris


In week three of the UNSW Environmental Humanities class I'm taking online, we're reading "An Ecomodernist Manifesto." I was vaguely aware of this, but hadn't read it. It's quite a document. Here are my initial reactions.

The manifesto's purpose is to advance the idea that "knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene." The authors say, "we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse." Harmonizing with nature is not a solution, they say. "Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind's dependence upon them."

If we're not going to harmonize with nature, what should we do. The answer seems to be "intensifying." I think a lot will hang on how they define "intensifying," especially in agriculture. Chemical-enhanced monoculture and GMOs are  capitally intensive, but the type of intensification that concentrates control, power, and money is not what's needed. I also hope the type of intensification they're advocating isn't technology. High-rise hydroponic farms might be a better solution than mile-wide cornfields, but new technological solutions to problems that were solved centuries ago are a waste of energy. We don't need to raise meat in laboratories. We need to adjust our meat-eating and raise animals rationally.

The authors make a series of points in the manifesto. On point 1, I tend to disagree that modernity has resulted in a "growing population able to live in many different environments." Sure, population has exploded. But more of us live in cities than ever before. Yes, humans can even survive in space for extended periods of time, but only at extreme expense. Our tech allows us to do many things, but our dependence on it weakens us and reduces our ability to solve our own problems. Humans may be less "able" than they've ever been.

The authors ask an important question: "Given that humans are completely dependent on the living biosphere, how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?" But I disagree with their "paradox of technology" answer. Yes, technology has replaced less efficient survival techniques like hunting and gathering. But technology has not actually made humans less dependent on ecosystems. It has merely shifted the ecosystems most of us are depending on to faraway locations where we are less aware of them.

Cheap fossil fuels basically enable the whole system. They come from far away, as do the other resources (copper, phosphate, etc.) we extract using their energy. We manufacture nitrogen fertilizer using natural gas, while manure from CAFOs overruns holding ponds and poisons lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Increasingly, we do our manufacturing far away, where environmental contamination and human inequality are out of sight, out of mind.

There may or may not be evidence of limits to growth, but there is certainly evidence that increasing inequity threatens many, even in the face of overabundant capacity. This is not a new phenomenon. Mike Davis wrote very effectively about this in
Late Victorian Holocausts.

The second point the authors make is that "long-term trends are today driving significant decoupling of human well-being from environmental impacts." An important element of this decoupling is that "environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth." Wait, what? This is a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Or, to be blunter, of comparing the
real with the unreal.

Environmental impacts are real things. Economic growth is not. Economic growth (as we all know but routinely forget) is a measurement that depends on what is valued. At its heart, the economy is simply a reflection of a very large but finite number of individual decisions in the market. Most economists make no claim to understand the dynamics of these decisions; they just add them up.

So saying the economy is growing faster than environmental impacts is only saying that people don't value the right things in the market. The disease is the cure. Yes, if we were all
so happy to be living packed into domed cities eating manufactured food while the environment outside looked like apocalyptic sci-fi, the market would reflect our decision and the economy would continue to outpace the environmental impact. So is the real task of the ecomodernists social engineering to make people happy in domed cities?

Cities, they say, "occupy just one to three percent of the Earth's surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people." This, in their minds, symbolizes the radical decoupling of humanity from the constraints of nature. Really? Where does the food come from? Where does the waste go? Does the electricity appear in the wall outlet by magic? It's almost absurd. Let's make it easy -- when cities can produce even just their own
water, you can tell me how decoupled they are.

The authors claim that "modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy." This is in the section on cities, so I assume modernization refers to urbanization, new iPhones, and less work. It's ironic that, like efficiency experts of the early industrial age, the authors are fascinated by the idea of reducing labor when growing populations are either completely unemployed or reduced to working in meaningless jobs. Thank goodness, they say, that only 2 percent of the population feeds the other 98% in America. We wouldn't want more people to live on the land and grow things!

That's my reaction to the first half of the Manifesto. I'm getting annoyed, and this post is getting long. So I'll take a break and read the rest tomorrow.