Lots to dislike in the “Eco-Modernist” Manifesto


In order to solve our global environmental and inequality crisis we must go deeper into the wormhole; more of the same is the cry of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. The Ecomodernists reject any notion that we should pull back from our model and breakneck pace of development. The notion that we should harmonize or even mimic natural systems is false; as now we are now firmly in the era of a human led planet, we should embrace it and leave nature behind.

The statement came signed by some well-known thinkers, like Ted Nordhaus and Stewart Brand, but was received with somewhat muted response by the press at large. Although they reported it, many reporters seemed unable to parse out significance. For people concerned about the state of world and the state of inaction, it is a somewhat tempting argument to throw up our hands and give into the logic of no turning back. But no turning back also means that solutions we have relied on in the past – like nuclear energy – are probably not going to get us to the secure future we seek. Here are a few summaries of selected responses to the Manifesto from our approach:

Degrowth Critique

Georgios Kallis, author of a Vocabulary for Degrowth, writes that the authors have presented a false choice. It’s not either a natural world or a human world; it’s both. He calls their vision an oxymoron because there’s simply nothing ecological about the modernism they present. Kallis pokes that its not really much of a manifesto if you’re arguing for the status quo.

Moving into substantive aspects Kallis believes the Ecomodernists confuse efficiency with scale, citing the example of cities – which yes, are more efficient – but still consume more absolutely relative to rural societies. He gives the example of China which has industrialized as people are consuming more efficiently, but they’re also consuming much, much more than before; offsetting that efficiency.

Eco-modernists have a conflicted relationships with nature, he claims –unsure whether “nature” exists and what they value about it and a rosy view of modernism which has wrought some of the most horrific events in world history. Finally, Kallis concludes they simply failed to show the intrinsic or substantive value of growth.

Sustainable Consumption Critique

A number of academics within the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), wrote their own critique, also citing Degrowth, but with a slightly different framing of the term. The SCORAI team, led by Jeremy Caradonna, take issue the logic of the Ecomodernists. As a base level, they claim that there is no concrete, scientific evidence that economic growth can be decoupled from its harmful consequences, let alone that it could somehow be the solution to our environmental woes. Furthermore, Ecomodernists fail to consider that a solution may not lie in a lie in the realm of technology. Like Kallis they criticize that ecomodernism seems to have little understanding of ecology and fails to look under the rug of development and its legacy of violence and exploitation and gives no space for values of non-modern societies.

Clive Hamilton

Hamilton is a public intellectual in ethics and philosophy troubled by the Manifesto’s techno-optimism. He argues that their position, which strangely embraces nuclear energy, will not even consider renewable energy sources. He slams the group for their political naïvete and alignment with climate deniers. Perhaps his greatest insight is how the piece somehow repositions the Anthropocene, originally intended to alert humans that they are fundamentally changing earth’s systems, into something to celebrate, rather than to cause concern. In response, one Ecomodernist highlights the obsession with renewable energy as a parallel techno-optimism–a fair point, but a caution for concern for the entire movement than a resolution of a flawed argument.

Sustainability Science, Practice & Policy (SSPP)

Ethan Goffman, Associate Editor of SSPP first regrets the Ecomodernists appreciation of nature. He implies the authors perhaps have not been reading their mutual fund prospectus, which clearly state that past performance is not necessarily indicative of future performance. Goffman believes the divergent options on this piece are rooted in the worldview of human existence, one rooted in growth and another in sufficiency. Sufficiency is the prudent course, he argues.

Deric Gruen

Deric is a Fellow with Rethinking Prosperity. He is a member of the Emerging Leaders in Energy and Environmental Policy network (ELEEP) a transatlantic program of Ecologic Institute and Atlantic Council, for whom he recently completed a project on economic and monetary policy. Deric was the founding director of the Office of Sustainability at Bellevue College, winner of a national 2013 Climate Leadership Award, where he led campus, curricular, and student leadership initiatives. He has consulted on transportation, environment, and community development for organizations including the Sightline Institute as is a contributor to the Seattle Globalist.