The modern environmental movement promotes a strange mix of solutions:
Self-driving electric supercars and a return to walkable communities.
Smartphone-connected transit networks and tiny houses in the middle of nowhere.
Yet, for the ecomodernists, a collective of "scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens" who've just launched a controversial manifesto, it appears we greenies spend too much time yearning for a sentimental and naive "return to nature," and too little time embracing the potential of technological progress.
I don't entirely recognize the modern environmental movement they take issue with, but I'll get to that in a minute. Let's first look at some of the central tenets of the ecomodernist approach:
Embrace the city
Far from being a blight on the landscape, the ecomodernists argue that dense, modern, well-planned cities offer an extremely efficient way to create community and reduce our footprint on the natural world. It's an assertion that's hard to argue with. From fewer car miles and lower car ownership to tiny apartments with lower overall energy bills, the per capita ecological footprint of a New Yorker is way smaller than a suburbanite and, most probably, smaller than all but the greenest of green back-to-the-landers too. The more of us who live in cities, the more room there is for nature to thrive — perhaps even allowing us to "rewild" areas that had previously been tamed.
Don't abandon nuclear power
While many greens have been anti-nuclear for years, the ecomodernists argue that we can't afford to abandon nuclear power if we are to have any hope of curtailing global warming. Mark Lynas, one of the manifesto's authors, is no fan of the expensive nuclear power plants currently being built, but he says that we're going to need a new generation of smaller, safer nukes if we're going to replace fossil fuels.
To be clear, the manifesto also embraces renewables — specifically solar — but suggests that because of cost, intermittency, land-use pressures and more, a 100-percent renewable-powered world is neither feasible nor necessarily desirable. (Now, while I'm not qualified to judge the competing claims, I do know of at least one team of researchers who would profoundly disagree.)
Intensify modern farming
It's in their recommendations on food and farming that the ecomodernists appear to have raised the most hackles, arguing that the per-hectare outputs of large-scale modern, industrial farming should be improved on, not abandoned, and that environmentalists' bias toward small-scale farming requires the continued servitude of the world's rural poor. Environmental writer and thinker George Monbiot has no time for the ecomodernists' approach to agriculture. He points out that small, labor-intensive farms often outperform their larger counterparts in the developing world, and suggests that the urbanization of rural populations could leave many disposessed and unemployed:
"For all its talk of 'the liberal principles of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism,' the ecomodernist agenda resonates with a long history of such proposals, from the enclosures in England and the Highland clearances in Scotland, the colonial seizures of land in Kenya and Rhodesia, the Soviet dispossessions and the villagisation in Ethiopia to the current theft of farmland in poor nations by sovereign wealth funds and the rich world’s financiers."
The ecomodernists, however, hit back — suggesting that we shouldn't compare small farms with slightly larger ones in poor countries, but rather small farms in poor countries with farms of any size in richer nations where yields can be 10 times greater.
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So who's right?
In Monbiot's aforementioned critique of ecomodernism, he welcomes the manifesto as an opportunity to examine our prejudices and hold a discussion about what it is we're trying to achieve. It's certainly true that environmentalism, like any movement, can cling to sacred cows and ignore solutions that don't fit the prevailing ideology. That said, I for one feel that the anti-growth, technology-skeptic environmental movement that the ecomodernists appear to be reacting to has been shifting for a long time. I also can't help feeling that the framing of the manifesto suggests a low-tech versus high-tech straw man argument that really doesn't move things forward.
Take my own life: I work from home over an Internet connection and drive a battery electric car, and yet I also love composting and have several friends who poop in a bucket. I'm a big fan of the produce and meat from my local farmers market, yet I also dig Quorn and would totally eat a lab-grown hamburger. I love the small farmers I buy from, yet I also applaud efforts to make large-scale farming more resource-efficient and to give up the plow in favor of cover crops. And no, I'm not necessarily 100 percent opposed to GMOs or nuclear power — I just want to make sure they're safe, reliable and necessary.
A more balanced environmentalism
This isn't an either/or equation. And once you dig deep into the ecomodernists' manifesto, they appear to acknowledge that as well, touting their own connection with nature and suggesting that their primary goal is to build a broader movement and a more constructive dialogue:
"It is our hope that this document might contribute to an improvement in the quality and tenor of the dialogue about how to protect the environment in the 21st century. Too often discussions about the environment have been dominated by the extremes, and plagued by dogmatism, which in turn fuels intolerance. We value the liberal principles of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism in themselves, even as we affirm them as keys to achieving a great Anthropocene. We hope that this statement advances the dialogue about how best to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet."
In launching this project, they've certainly promoted more discussion — unfortunately, a "depolarization" appears to be a long way off. In an honest post-mortem of the ecomodernist launch, Lynas describes it as a "screw-up of impressive proportions," lamenting the immediate descent into name-calling, finger-pointing and shaming by folks who would use the agenda to discredit environmentalism.
I have no problem with the ecomodernist suggestion that we should use technology and modernity to both improve the human condition and protect the environment. I think what I resent is the implication that environmentalists aren't already on the case. True, there are legitimate and contentious debates over nuclear power and GMOs where the case could be made for a more evidence-based approach. But it's been a long time since I've heard a credible environmentalist argue that we should all return to our villages and abandon modernity. (And when I've heard this argument, it's usually been expressed online ...)