Why I am an Ecomodernist

“Ecomodernism is an environmental movement that seeks to defend and enhance the environment’s well-being while simultaneously increasing possibilities for human prosperity. For ecomodernists, both the vitality and diversity of natural world and the existence and progress of humanity are fundamental values.”

Thus begins the Charter of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. I was one of its founding members and currently serve as its treasurer. In the few months since our inception in late June, our membership has increased slowly but surely, and our Facebook pages host lively discussion on environmental topics.

But why did we feel the need to found a new environmental movement? Why did we feel we couldn’t work within existing organizations and movements?

First of all, I must say that there are probably as many reasons as there are people identifying themselves as ecomodernists. At our first public workshop in Helsinki on 4th September 2015, the 18 participants represented almost the entire Finnish political spectrum from members of right-liberal Coalition Party to ardent left-wingers (which is closer to my personal political preference). Similarly, our backgrounds and opinions were highly varied, and several topics generated heated debate.

What was common to all, however, was a sense of urgency about the need for increased environmental protection and disappointment in the existing environmental movements. A fair few had been involved in various environmental organizations; many others (myself included) stated they had never joined any, because they couldn’t in good conscience toe the line prescribed by the majority in these movements. There were plenty of reasons, but it is fair to say that the two most important reasons were the existing environmentalist’s unflinching opposition to nuclear power and genetic engineering. In all of the discussions I’ve had about the subject so far, it’s apparent that many have been exhilarated to finally find an environmental movement they could agree with: as Esteban Rossi wrote in a thoughtful piece on the Ecomodernist website, ecomodernism could very well be environmentalism for everyone.

Most Finnish ecomodernists haven't been active in any environmental movement before. (Based on Facebook poll)

Most Finnish ecomodernists haven’t been active in any environmental movement before. (Based on Facebook poll)

From this it might be easy to conclude that ecomodernism, or at least its Finnish chapter, is simply an environmental movement that supports nuclear power and genetic engineering. This is a simplification: our Charter specifically states that we do not seek either to support or to oppose any potential solution (a somewhat problematic term I will return to later on) but to evaluate each on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, I would argue that there are deeper differences than just lists of “good” or “bad” solutions between ecomodernism — or how I understand ecomodernism — and traditional environmental movement.

Ecomodernism is “all of the above” approach to environmentalism

In particular, the Ecomodernist Manifesto has gathered considerable amount of criticism from established environmentalists. Much of the criticism seems to center on the assumption that ecomodernists believe that advanced technologies and market mechanisms will provide a “technofix” to society’s ills, environmental problems included. As a result, ecomodernists have been dubbed as techno-optimists, “cornucopians,” neoliberalists, and freemarketeers.

Some of this critique is well-founded. For example, the Manifesto is oddly one-sided in some parts (where is wind power, for example?), and it does seem to downplay the need for and potential of social changes in decreasing our environmental impact. Furthermore, some critics such as Chris Smaje have rightly pointed out that “modernization” is not without its drawbacks, that it too creates winners and losers, and can do so at an unprecedented speed and scale. Hence considerations of equality are of great importance. I also admit that many of those interested in ecomodernism, particularly those hailing from science and engineering backgrounds (probably a significant share of total), are prone to downplaying or even totally ignoring the social and inequality aspects of our environmental problems; this is a problem I hope to be able to ease in the future.

Who is techno-optimist, actually?

Nevertheless, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that we are not techno-optimists. Not, at least, among environmentalists. Very strong belief (as far as I’m able to gauge these things) among Finnish ecomodernists is that our environmental problems are so pressing that we are likely to need and at least must give a fair shake for every option we can have. Contrast this with the traditional environmental movements, who have for years argued that climate change — quite possibly one of, if not the most dangerous and difficult environmental challenge ever faced by the human species — is not only possible but even easy and profitable to “solve” with nothing more than renewable energy and energy efficiency; that the only thing keeping us from solving the problem is lack of “political will” to do so.

I have argued for years that such optimism is most likely unfounded and have co-written a book about the subject. (If the following examples seem to center on nuclear energy, therein lies the reason: energy is the field I’m most familiar with.) In fact, it is precisely this selective techno-optimism of existing organizations that drove me to help found the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. And the Charter of our Society states in no uncertain terms:

“The solutions to the problems we now face may take many forms, from societal change and improved regulation to technological advances, and they need to be considered based on their merits and without prior prejudices.”

As Matthew Nisbet already pointed out in his response to one critique of ecomodernism,

“Who is more of a techno-optimist: Greens who argue that solar, wind, and efficiency are all the technologies we need to address the problem, or ecomodernists who argue that other energy sources are required as part of our arsenal?”

To reiterate: I do not believe ecomodernism can be fairly equated with techno-optimism or “cornucopianism,” although there are people who identify themselves as ecomodernists and hold views I, for example, would criticize as overtly optimistic. But on the whole, almost every ecomodernist I’ve talked with so far has believed that we need an “all of the above” approach to our environmental problems.

Messy problems are likely to require messy solutions

Equally important to me and several others, at least, is that the solutions be judged on a case by case basis rather than taking a firm stance for or against some or other potential solution: what is a good solution in some place and some time may not be good in another, and vice versa. Furthermore, while such notions have not yet been put to paper, in our internal discussions everyone present has strongly agreed that ecomodernists need to be able to reassess their positions periodically: one of the proposals is to mandate a regular review of proposed policies in light of new evidence. To us, changing one’s opinion based on factual arguments is not a sign or weakness; rather, it is a sign of an open mind.

It is this embracing of a variety of potential solutions with explicit attempts at overcoming deeply held prejudices and keeping an open mind that, in my mind, is one of the things that distinguishes ecomodernism from established environmentalism. And now we come to the part I promised: what do we mean by “solutions?”

(As an aside, one could argue that the talk about “problems” and “solutions” smacks of technocratic engineering mindset, and one would not be completely wrong. There is an apparent tendency to simplify what may be more realistically be called “predicaments” to simple “problems” with equally simple “solutions.” However, ecomodernists are far from the only ones doing so, as is apparent from just about any environmentalist discourse. That said, “problem” and “solution” are still useful and understandable terms, so those are what we shall use until something better comes along. Could “remedy” be such a term? But I digress.)

As our Charter spells out, the “solutions” we may support are not based on technology and market mechanisms alone. Far from it: we list societal change as the first example, regulation as second (there goes the claim we’re some sort of free market fundamentalists), and technological advances only last. When that specific section was debated, our founding members agreed unanimously with the wording; and it should be emphasized that the list was only intended to illustrate some examples.

We can therefore in good conscience answer to critiques put forward by George Monbiot and Chris Smaje: the two argue that the conception of “high intensity” agriculture the Ecomodernist Manifesto promotes is flawed, and that small-scale, labor-intensive agriculture may in fact enable more efficient land use. Fine: whenever this is indeed the case (and we should keep in mind that the planet is big, and it may not be the case everywhere), and other impacts being reasonably equal, then the Ecomodernist Society of Finland at least will support small-scale agriculture! Ditto for, say, degrowth: insofar as the popularity of degrowth movement helps us to reduce our environmental impacts (and I believe it and other “simplicity” movements do have an important role to play), it is worth supporting — another issue agreed on by our founding members and generally supported by Finnish ecomodernists.

In my opinion, a striking difference in discussions with ecomodernists, compared to discussions I’ve had over the years with members of traditional environmental movements, is the openness to the sheer variety of potential solutions. Most of the people describing themselves as “ecomodernists” have been very open to all sorts of potential solutions, whereas the traditional environmental movement has, in the past, even resorted to statistical fraud (documented, among other places, in our book) to avoid even discussing some of the options. Further difference lies in the trust placed in favored solutions: as a rule, ecomodernists tend to be in favor of “all of the above” strategies and acknowledge that it’s unlikely any single solution or approach will be enough. In contrast, it is easy to find examples of self-described environmentalists who argue that the “only way” to solve our environmental problems is by limiting consumption (perhaps by force if necessary), or through renewable energy, or via increasing the “wisdom” of people sufficiently.

Furthermore, it seems that to these people it is not always enough to see their own proposed solution to “win;” for many, success seems to require that other proposed alternatives lose. In less virulent but nevertheless troubling manner, similar dismissive thinking against any but the personally favored solution seems to infect the thoughts of even the most intelligent traditional environmentalists: I would be a rich man today had I received a ten-euro note every time a smart environmentalist argues against building any nuclear power (for example) on the grounds that it alone may not be able to save the environment.

Can traditional environmentalism change?

And this brings me to the another reason to be ecomodernist: the traditional environmental movement has failed, and we probably do not have time to wait for it to change. Despite years, nay, decades of otherwise commendable effort on their part, climate change is even larger problem, and there are few reasons to believe humankind will collectively enlighten enough to voluntarily adapt their lifestyle to the limits of our current techno-environmental-social system in time to prevent horrendous degradation of our natural environment. Despite all the pronouncements of the urgency of the climate problem, the traditional environmental movements have again joined forces to demand that nuclear power (again, an example with which I’m most familiar) must not be even considered even as one of the tools to use against climate change. Instead, to this and other environmental problems the prescription is just more of the same remedies these organizations have so far prescribed.

In this way lies madness — and not only that, but high probability of losing what we have termed “climate gamble.

It is conceivable that traditional environmental movements change and eventually come to accept that the solutions to messy problems are likely to be messy as well. But how long does that take? Those who have studied organization theory, for example, are aware of the concept of inertia: large, entrenched organizations are prone to being so entrenched in their ways that any change is difficult, if not impossible.

I would argue that this all too common tendency is exacerbated in environmental organizations, as they are perhaps the most ripe environments for groupthink that I can think of: people with differing opinions rarely even join these largely volunteer-based organizations, and advancement is most likely difficult unless one shares the “party line” to the letter. I have personally heard from more than one employee of Finnish environmental groups, for example, that they privately believe their organization’s energy policy stances are outdated; but they are afraid to voice their opinion as jobs in that line of work are not that easy to come by.

Of course, there is the danger that ecomodernism will stagnate to a state of dogmatism; but at least we’re aware of the danger. I hold no illusions that ecomodernism will solve all the world’s problems, not even the environmental ones. And I hold no ill will towards traditional environmental organizations: they have done sterling work in raising awareness about many environmental issues, and without their efforts we would definitely be in a worse jam than we are now. In fact, I have constantly argued for cooperation, not scorn: I hope that people having differing opinions would be able to ally at least for the duration against common enemies, so to speak. Nevertheless, every now and then it is time for something different, something new: and it is my hope that ecomodernism could be an invigorating and useful challenge to the status quo of environmental debate that’s frankly still largely dominated by thinking straight from the 1970s and 1980s.

Ecomodernism still has some rough edges and unanswered issues: I would hazard a guess that such has been the case with many now established and polished movements even years after their formation. And I’m sincerely grateful to all the thoughtful critics, those named here and others, who have pointed out problems and in some cases even suggested solutions. As for my part, I can promise that the day may come when the Ecomodernist Society of Finland refuses to reconsider its opinions based on sound scientific evidence and logic, but that day shall come to pass only over my dead body as long as I have anything to say about it.

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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6 Responses to Why I am an Ecomodernist

  1. Meri Lauranto says:

    Reblogged this on Suomen ekomodernistit.

  2. Hi,

    It was a pleasure reading your post.

    There is a link below to something I wrote yesterday.

    As F. A. Hayek said in 1967 – what ‘we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty.’ What we have with ecomodernism is a broad statement that development, economic growth and environmental conservation are compatible. This has been stated much more succinctly before. Notably by the UN in the 1987 report on sustainable development. Something I took to heart as a relatively young and idealistic man with degrees in hydrological engineering and environmental science. What we continue to lack is any sort of a programme for reclaiming this principle – of sustainable development – back from increasingly strident anti-democratic and anti-capitalist voices. Nor do we have much in the way of a philosophical underpinning – the foundations on which a sound future is built. Neither is there any discussion of the design of social institutions or much detail on the technologies of ‘decoupling’ development from the environment. The lack of detail allows critics to invent objections out of thin air.

    Robert I Ellison

    • Thanks, very interesting, and you are right in that there’s much lacking yet from the ecomodernist ideology – and that this allows opponents to invent things to fill the gaps. But we have a great starting point and an opportunity to shape the movement, so I have hope that in time we can flesh out the details that have so far been left out.

      Social institutions in particular need a lot of thought here. Although I think it’s somewhat against the fundamental pragmatism of ecomodernists to construct strong theoretical utopias… 😉

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    “Nevertheless, every now and then it is time for something different, something new: and it is my hope that ecomodernism could be an invigorating and useful challenge to the status quo of environmental debate that’s frankly still largely dominated by thinking straight from the 1970s and 1980s.”

  4. I’m sorry. I hit “send” too soon. Thanks for the post. I look forward to hearing more of your ideas. Best, Amy

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