Monday, 7 December 2015

Second thoughts on Ecomodernism

Earlier this year, I made some enthusiastic comments on David Brin’s blog about the Ecomodernists, who published their manifesto earlier this year.

Why? I have been seeking ways in which people might maintain many of the advantages of a technological civilization, jettison some (or a lot of) the more toxic aspects, and also start repairing some of the damage we’ve inflicted on the biosphere. Ecomodernism seemed attractive because it offered a pathway to realise some of these aims.

But now I’m not so sure.

Several things made me uneasy, including two informed critiques by George Monbiot and Chris Smaje at The Dark Mountain project. George Monbiot accuses them of subjecting the poor to “remote and confident generalisations” and historically this has meant that the the poor have “suffered gravely.” Smaje offers a long critique, highlighting the downsides of the nineteenth century style of (neo) liberal modernism that the Ecomodernists seem to be offering.

One pivotal issue is the claim that we can protect nature and wilderness areas better by ‘decoupling’ human activities from nature, increasing (material) living standards while decreasing the damage to the planet.

 This claim seems attractive but is currently unproven.

In fact, a recent paper disputes the claim that as nations develop economically, they ‘decouple’ at all. This claim has been supported in the past by some standard measures used by governments that seem to show that “some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling).”

However, the study, by Thomas Wiedmann and team shows the opposite, that “achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even non-existent.” In fact, their research “confirms that pressure on natural resources does not relent as most of the human population becomes wealthier (my emphasis).”

This seems to me to dent the credibility of some ecomodern claims.

Finally, a word about manifestos. These can be useful for political movements, but seem worse than useless if you’re trying to sort through difficult issues objectively. This is because manifestos too often degenerate into dogmas, which devotees end up defending tooth and claw, often by ignoring or denigrating potentially threatening evidence.

And the survival of civilization seems to me too important for this sort of thing to happen.

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