Monday, May 11, 2015

On Ecomodernism and Degrowth Part I: Initial Thoughts

As detailed in my previous post, the last E in PELE stands for “Ecomodernist”. Having had the time to read and digest An Ecomodernist Manifesto I thought I should expand on why I think of myself as an Ecomodernist. To begin I need to add some qualifiers here. As I implied in my post expanding on a broader definition of a “Lukewarmer”, I believe that many terms describing social movements are open to enhancements as definitions can evolve to reflect how movements refine their thinking. The difficulty lies when outsiders attempt to re-define terms in order to re-label or re-frame a debate in a negative manner. For those of you who took debating this would be considered the difference between a friendly amendment and an unfriendly amendment in a parliamentary debate. I like to think that my broader, more inclusive, definition of a “Lukewarmer” would be considered a friendly amendment. The re-framing of the definition by the denizens of Skeptical science and their ilk, appears intended to strictly limit the definition to a smaller, less agreeable one. In my view that would be considered an unfriendly amendment.  My intention, in this post (and a following post), will be to propose some friendly amendments to the concept of Ecomodernism. In doing so I will try to keep to the spirit of the authors of the Manifesto, while suggesting some ideas that may make the concept more palatable to some of its critics. In the process of describing my version of Ecomodernism, I will also consider the arguments of the “Degrowth” movement.

You may ask why I would deal with the arguments of the Degrowth movement (who I will call Degrowthers hereafter) in a post about Ecomodernism? The reasons are two-fold: firstly, the Degrowthers appear to have been the first group to really take the ideas put out by the Ecomodernists and challenge them in a direct manner. I have read numerous articles that dismiss the Ecomodernists out of hand, without ever addressing their major points. The Degrowthers have not done this. Rather, they have put on their scholar hats and attempted to refute the Ecomodernist world-view. In doing so they have allowed me to crystallize my thoughts on the topic and frankly they have helped me understand why I now think of myself as an Ecomodernist. The second reason for addressing the Degrowthers is that they look at society (and frankly humanity) from very different worldview and an interesting angle. As a consequence, they have looked at the same issues of societal growth, climate change etc…and come up with not an opposite solution but rather one that a chemist might describe as enantiomeric. To explain: enantiomers are molecules that share the same chemical formula/general conformation but they represent mirror images of each other and are thus not superimposable. I use the term “enantiomeric” because the obvious alternative term: “a mirror image of” has too many negative connotations in our modern culture. Too many times the concept of a mirror image has been associated with ideas having different underlying motivations, thus driving towards a “good” versus “bad” narrative. Enantiomers do not have that baggage. In a pair of enantiomers, neither enantiomer is inherently better than the other; rather enantiomers are made up the identical components in approximately the same configuration and yet they can have vastly different properties. In this first post I will describe what I understand to be some of the theoretical underpinnings of the two schools of thought and in a subsequent post I will address what that can mean in a practical/ecological sense.

On the Communal versus the Individual:
As I wrote in my earlier post on Ecomodernism (and Mannsplaining): in university I was taught that a few simple premises underlie human and societal development:
  • as societies become more affluent, their birth rates tend to decrease
  • as societies become more affluent, populations tend to become more urban as specialization and improved  technologies allow for a reduction in the need for as much human labour in food production and increased per hectare crop yields
  • as societies become more affluent, their willingness to devote more resources for environmental protection increases as does their desires for improved environmental health outcomes.

In light of these premises, scientists and sociologists see a world where the human race continues to expand until the population tops out at an approximate maximum population of 10 billion souls sometime this century at which time the population will begin a decline which could either move towards a demographic cliff or a steady-state number dependent entirely on the choices made in those future decades. I will now add another important consideration not included in my previous post: 
  • humans remain deeply driven by their evolutionary and genetic heritage
While many try to ignore this last fact, humans are first and foremost the products of our evolutionary and genetic heritage. While we as a society continue to work to grow past our evolutionary and genetic heritage, Homo sapiens, as a species, have been around for almost 200,000 years. Our current civilization, meanwhile, is much less than 2000 years old (one might argue that our industrial society is less than 200 years old). Given the vast disparity in time it is not unexpected that our pre-industrial evolutionary history will still influence our industrial-era brains. We do not completely understand brain biochemistry but we do know that human brains are driven by combinations of hormones over which we, as individuals, often have very little control. One feature of our genetic heritage is a drive to procreate and the preference of kin over strangers. This appears to be hard-wired into our genetic make-up. While much research has been carried out on the evolution of altruism, most of the research demonstrates that altruism is typically only observed in limited contexts, typically amongst interrelated social units or in small readily identifiable groups. As groupings get larger, humans tend to become more insular, seeking to share amongst smaller kin or social groups and trusting/sharing less with the greater whole. Yes, I recognize I am being very simplistic in this discussion, but we are talking in general terms here. There will always be altruistic individuals who are altruistic for no identified cause, but the small number of such individuals in our population provides the exception that proves the rule in the case of the majority.

The thing I appreciate most about the Ecomodernists is that they recognize our humanist nature and Ecomodernists acknowledge both the best and worst features of humanity in their discussions. In this they are very different from the Degrowth community. The thing I found most problematic in my reading of the Degrowth literature is how much it ignores human nature. Ironically, it does so, in my view, by pre-supposing that we can be a much better species than we actually are. The Degrowth literature reads like an outgrowth of a form of communalism or utopian socialism (please note I am by no means an expert on this and would accept corrections and further readings if offered). The article that summed it up best for me was in Adbusters (ref), and in reading that article the same thought kept bouncing around in my mind: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. For those of you not familiar, that it one of the most recognizable lines from Marx’ Communist Manifeto. The problem with the Communist Manifesto, as demonstrated repeatedly in the 20th and 21st Centuries, goes back to one of the failings of human nature. As I noted above, while individuals can act in an altruistic manner, we, as a species, tend to only do so based on identifiable groups. Once the individual becomes less attached to the whole, levels of individual altruism fall. For a degrowth-based society to flourish we would need to deny the lessons learned from attempts to apply communism across the globe. We would need to ignore our ultimately human failing: our genetic drive to protect kin over non-kin. In this I don’t think of Degrowthers as naïve, rather I see them as idealists in a less than ideal world. 

On the Intrinsic Value of Nature and the need for true wilderness
The second area where I most strongly agree with the Ecomodernists is that they, like me, appear to cherish the importance and intrinsic value of nature. While we, as a society, seek many services from nature, in my view that cannot be nature’s only role. In order for humans to coexist with nature on our planet we need to give nature the opportunity to grow, evolve and adapt; absent (as much as possible) of human influences. The Ecomodernists describe this in their description of decoupling of the human enterprise from the natural enterprise. While the Ecomodernists acknowledge that we will always have need for ecological services, they want to limit our human ecological footprint on the planet. By exploiting denser energy sources and densifying our populations into a smaller physical footprint the Ecomodernists seek to carve out a foothold for nature to do its own thing. One way in which I disagree with the Ecomodernists, is their strong preference towards nuclear energy. I acknowledge the need for nuclear power in an Ecomodernist energy mix, but I would not give it the dominance that it receives in the Manifesto. I see a world where geothermal and solar power play much larger roles, with nuclear energy forming a role as the ultimate backup/base supply. I envision a world where flexible solar panels allow every window blind to incorporate a solar panel so the act of shading your room from the sun actually results in the generation of power. Similarly, the walls and roofs of our cities should be turned over to the generation of power and/or the growing of foodstuffs. This type of expansion of solar power would not be cheap and the broad implementation of solar energy will definitely require some regulatory changes, but it should be possible to implement gradually and with a minimal amount of regulatory creep. Similarly, I see a strong role for wind (especially vortex-based wind power) and geothermal energy in our future. Moreover, when designed properly, I see run-of-the-river hydroelectricity as an important power source that can be developed to maximize energy output while minimizing our human presence.

The Degrowthers point out that historically the generation of increased power has not driven a reduction in power use (ref) but rather has only served to fuel more demand. This is indeed true to date, but any attempt to apply Ecomodernist theory would require a paradigm shift both in how we view power and how we view growth. My view is as long as the paradigm shift is designed to acknowledge our human failings, it can still be made to happen. I know that is a pretty big qualifier, but I believe it is one we can handle. The biggest challenge to Ecomodernism by the Degrowthers, however, has to do with how the two philosophies deal with how we interface with nature. Sadly, this post is already overlong and so I will leave that for a future post.


  1. Excellent! You have distilled this so well. Would it be ok if I translate it into Spanish and hang it in a Spanish blog? I'm also going to send it to Miguel Octavio at "The Devil's Excrement".

  2. Fernando, I have no trouble with my work being posted elsewhere or even translated. I would be interested to see how my writing style translates.

    Hope you like the follow-up.

  3. Excellent analysis. Your discussion of human nature is spot on.