More responses to ecomodernism’s critics

Happy belated May Day to everyone, leftist and non-leftist alike! Up here above the 60th parallel, yesterday was – to me – the first real spring day of the year. I celebrated by taking my wife’s bike to a ride, as my own bike is still in what’s very likely its first total overhaul for 50 years or so, and ended up admiring a local Iron Age cemetery. Back then, the hill was probably an island, as the Earth’s crust here was still depressed after the press of the last ice age. In the intervening millennia, however, after ice relented, the ground has been rising steadily, and continues to do so. In fact, Finland may escape the worst effects of climate change-induced sea level rise, because at current projections, land rises at about the same speed as the sea level is rising.


Which brings me back to the topic of environmentalism, yet again. I’ve been very busy with my PhD thesis (of which more later), and haven’t had much time to follow discussions about environmental ideologies. Over the weekend, I nevertheless happened to read some very interesting writings about ecomodernism, and these sparked a desire to continue the discourse.

The strawman arguments that refuse to die, part I: ecomodernism as “tech-fix faith”

The latest in the series of writings criticizing ecomodernist thought springs from a noted critic of growth and consumer society, Dr. Ted Trainer. I have immense respect for his writings and have previously used and publicized e.g. his critiques against 100% renewable energy future visions, ironically in order to advance what I think are ecomodernist ideals. Given Dr. Trainer’s background as a proponent of “simpler way,” an anti-growth movement, I had little doubt he would find much to criticize in the thoughts of prominent ecomodernists, and in fact I was waiting to see what he thinks of this emergent environmental movement. I was not disappointed: Dr. Trainer’s critique of Leigh Phillips’s book “Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts” (2015) does not present a break from his previous logic, and provides a good starting point for discussion about certain oft-stated misconceptions of what ecomodernism is.

Dr. Trainer’s critique follows the line of reasoning that has been common to many critiques of ecomodernist thought so far (e.g. Chris Smaje’s writings). In these critiques, ecomodernism is defined as an illusionary “easy way out” from our current environmental and social predicament, founded on a false hope that technological progress and economic growth can solve all the problems while enabling us to continue our consumption culture unabated. In view of many of ecomodernism’s critics, this is all there is to ecomodernist thinking: a heady but ultimately impossible vision of cornucopian utopia, probably promoted by those who simply cannot let go of the impossibility of modern consumer culture. Even as a founding member of Ecomodernist Society of Finland, I too would criticize the movement harshly – if this was indeed a fair description of ecomodernism.

Before I go further, I readily admit that the style and content of many self-styled ecomodernist writings does little to shield ecomodernist thinking from both thoughtful and less thoughtful critique. At this point, ecomodernist thinking is only developing, and as in many previous cases where a new modality of thinking is emerging, the first ones to proclaim the creed are its most strident advocates. Generally, these seek to make a splash, not necessarily to respect those who disagree. Almost inevitably, such a situation means that there is little space for nuance and for respect for those who think differently. I think this is regrettable, but history has shown there is little that can be done to prevent it from happening.

To me, it seems that the main fault of Phillips’s book is precisely this. I must admit that I haven’t read the book itself, but from various reviews like Dr. Trainer’s, it seems that Phillips does the movement no favours in making his case as stringently as he does. As I have previously lamented, similar attitude problem is apparent in other ecomodernist writings, particularly in the somewhat problematic Ecomodernist Manifesto. However, as an outsider to English-language debating culture, I have noted that this seems to be a recurring problem in almost any written debate in English: in practically every field I’ve followed, there seems to be a tendency to write highly polemical works that make their case very simply, discounting the opposing arguments if not ridiculing the opponents directly. Such works are probably easier to sell to those who already hold broadly similar views and are happy to see the opposing viewpoints skewered, but this tradition also seems to polarize the discussion needlessly: witness the vitriol expended between different branches of environmental movement as a result of the emergence of ecomodernism. (I have my own theories as to why English-language authors and works may be particularly susceptible to following the strict pro/contra-logic of debating, but these theories are not pertinent to the discussion here.)

That said, I have to say that in all honesty, I do not recognize my thinking from the stylized definition of ecomodernism above. Neither do I recognize the thinking or the debates that Ecomodernist Society of Finland and its members have been having. First of all, the very reason me and (to my knowledge) every other founding member of Finnish Ecomodernist Society came together and decided to start a new environmental movement was intimately interlinked with pessimism regarding technology and techno-fixes. We were, and are, also genuinely concerned – horrified, more like – about the scale of environmental problems, and the very short time we still have to avert the most dangerous consequences. Among active members of Finnish ecomodernists, there may be one person who is doubtful whether we need some kinds of constraints on consumption, one way or another, and even his views cannot be (as far as I know) in any fairness equated with cornucopianism or unrestrained belief in the benefits of the free market.

The main issue I take with how critics of ecomodernism have been boxing us into their neat “opponent” boxes is how they characterize ecomodernism as a “tech-fix faith.” To me, this simply does not make any sense at all. I’ve written two books and numerous blog posts in two languages, given several talks, and spent twelve days in the COP21 climate negotiations, all with the explicit purpose of trying to warn the public and the decision-makers of the dangerously overoptimistic assumptions baked into most popular climate change mitigation plans. Specifically, I have been criticizing the techno-optimistic claims where the world can stop dangerous climate change while sustaining economic growth even if we simultaneously refuse to use some of the most effective and proven tools for decarbonization that we have. I have written sections about how the current infatuation with renewable energy is extremely reminiscent of the way nuclear energy was treated during the 1950s and early 1960s, and how very similarly the boosters of renewables-only strategy envision a future powered fully and only by their favorite energy source(s), while dismissing any critics as luddites and dinosaurs. I’m even planning a scholarly article on the topic, and hope to get it off the ground after I finish my PhD thesis – which happens to deal with the interplay of material and energy constraints on technological change.

If anything, I’m a techno-pessimist. I do not believe we should stake the future of human civilization solely on largely unproven (on a requisite scale) solutions, and I have serious doubts as to whether technology will develop the way we want it to develop, merely because it would be highly convenient for us if it did. (This is actually a major theme in my PhD thesis.)

This is a common theme among almost every ecomodernist I know of or have heard of. As Matthew Nisbet put it already almost exactly one year ago,

“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?”

Indeed, it is telling that many critics of ecomodernism have never, to my knowledge, criticized mainstream environmental organizations for their “techno-optimism” or “techno-fix religion” – although Dr. Trainer is a valuable exception in his intellectual consistency. Why is this so, even though impartial review of evidence should find that ecomodernists are actually less techno-optimist? Inevitably, such omissions raise the question: how much of the criticism levied against ecomodernism is related to our goals, and how much of it is because of the tools we’re willing to at least consider? After all, ecomodernists tend to be supportive – although not unconditionally – of nuclear power and genetic engineering, the top two bogeymen of the more established environmental movement.

The second strawman: Ecomodernists, magic-bulletism and technocracy

The question of tools brings me to my second point. Several critics of our movement have argued that we are somehow pushing for a one-size-fits all solutions, centralization, and even forced relocation of people to megacities (!). Relatedly, we are accused of being against small-scale solutions or consumption reduction measures in our addled pursuit of “big” solutions, technological marvels or growth, growth, growth. I cannot but wonder whether such accusations spring more from projection, as the charter of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland – for example – states explicitly:

“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.” (Charter of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society)

The word order is deliberate: we, the founding members, wished to emphasize social or societal solutions, and relegate technological advances to the last place. However, we acknowledge that the “solutions” – the word unfortunately does not convey quite the same meaning in English as it does in original Finnish – are likely to take many forms. In effect, we are the exact opposite of what we are claimed to be: far from advocating one-size-fits-all solutions or demanding that the world follow our technocratic directives, we acknowledge that the planet is vast, the problems are multifarious, and there is likely to be room for all kinds of partial solutions.

I have stated, numerous times, that I’m extremely happy and intrigued of initiatives like eco-villages, “small is beautiful” and resilience movements, degrowth, small-scale farming, and the like. To the extent that these help us reduce our environmental footprint, or at least increase our well-being while not being too destructive of the environment, I’m an ardent supporter, and as long as I have anything to say about it, so is the broader ecomodernist movement.

However, what seems to separate ecomodernists from many more traditional environmental activists is that we do not believe there is ever going to be “the” solution to our environmental predicament – which should probably be classified as a “condition” rather than a problem, since “problem” implies something we can solve once and for all, whereas “condition” more accurately reflects the position we’re in. We do not believe, for example, that small-scale ecovillages of the sort advocated by Dr. Trainer are going to be the universal be-all-end-all solution, nor that solar power, wind turbines or nuclear power will be the only sources of electricity, nor that growth should be pursued everywhere. Whenever I follow discussion among more traditional environmentalists, I tend to note that there is a strong tendency to focus on some pet idea, and even argue that those who don’t agree are stupid. Witness, for example, how quite a few people commenting at argue that the root of all our problems is population growth, and that everything else is subordinate to it.

(This line of thinking is unfortunate and unproductive escapism, and sometimes borderline – even openly – racist. Human population peak at about 9 to 11 billion sometime this century is for all intents and purposes already baked into system, given that population growth is not driven by fertility but by increased life expectancy, and significant changes to human population would therefore require reducing the life expectancy of billions. In legal terms, the required processes are generally defined as “murder” or “wrongful death.” The population growth doomsayers rarely go into explicit details on how they would achieve desired human population reductions, but perhaps they should: and after being explicit about whose life expectancies they’d be cutting and by what means, I would also welcome discussion as to what is stopping them from starting from cleaning their own stables first, that is, from themselves – be the change you want to see in the world!)

We ecomodernists explicitly reject this kind of magic-bulletism. There will be room for all sorts of solutions and initiatives, and it is highly likely that a solution that works at one context will not work in all contexts. Similarly, if a solution does not work in one context, it does not necessarily follow that it won’t work in any context. To me, this is the key reason to be ecomodernist: I can look at initiatives on a case by case basis, without the prejudices and pressures existing and established environmental movements place on solving the environmental problems using the solutions they have defined to be “good,” sometimes three or four decades ago and often in a very different place from where I’m living. To take just one example, it is an axiom of traditional environmental movement that much of our electricity should be produced by solar panels. But here, north of 60° latitude and absent major breakthroughs in energy storage (which, as an ecomodernist, I’m hoping for but not counting on), such a solution is currently practical for about four months of the year. For another four months, the solution is no solution whatsoever; and in general, installing more solar panels in Finland is actually likely to increase total emissions, as grid electricity can be obtained with less CO2 emissions and environmental damage than what is the average lifecycle emissions for solar PV electricity.

Furthermore, I have always argued and will continue to argue that ecomodernism is very fundamentally a local movement. Our case by case approach cannot function otherwise: I simply do not have the temerity to lecture to people elsewhere how exactly they should go on living and solving the environmental crises they face, albeit I’d be more than happy to offer help and assistance if I can. But local context matters a very great deal indeed, and cookie-cutter solutions are highly unlikely to take root outside from the context where they’ve been baked. Right now, a major issue and a goal for ecomodernism is to nurture more local chapters that could begin to work on environmental issues relevant to them, in ways and using tools and solutions that are relevant to where they live. It remains to be seen whether we can achieve that, or whether ecomodernism is nothing more than a flash in a pan; but given the massive interest for ecomodernist ideas from many corners of the world, I’m hopeful we can bring more and more people to the environmental movement.

And that, to me, is a major reason for supporting ecomodernism. We’ve already demonstrated that we are not competing with existing environmental movements: rather, we are bringing into environmental activism people who so far have felt themselves excluded from it. It is easy to understand why this may be so: in traditional environmental movements, you had to accept the predefined problems, solutions and ideas more or less wholesale, or you risked being excluded from the group. This may even explain why ecomodernism has been so strongly identified with pro-nuclear power and pro-genetic engineering: many of those now finding ecomodernism felt themselves excluded from traditional environmentalism because they dared to question the unyielding opposition to both of these technologies. I, for one, certainly felt myself unwelcome in any traditional organization, even though I shared probably 90% of their thinking and values.

I repeat: we share most of the values with you, our dear critics from the traditional environmental movement. Many, if not most of us, are sympathetic to most things you are doing, even though there are also those who heap scorn on what they see as “wrong” roads to more sustainable future. This faction undeniably exists, just as there exists a faction within traditional environmental movement that sees ecomodernism as the worst kind of heresy and therefore the mortal enemy of environmentalism as they understand it. After all, humans have a tendency to reserve their most virulent hate not towards those who disagree with them on most issues, but to those who agree on most things but not all: perhaps such heretics are seen as a real threat to the in-group in a way total outsiders can never be. This is regrettable, and I’d like to find ways on how to bridge the chasm separating us. After all, there are many sectors where we certainly could cooperate for a better world for us all.

None of this means I wish to stifle any criticism. Criticism helps us improve, and I’ve been very happy to read the thoughtful pieces mentioned in this text. I shall be returning the favor in the future by expressing the reasons why I reject the small-is-beautiful approaches and “ecoprimitivism.” I shall also make some notes why I believe the statement “growth cannot go on” – which Dr. Trainer and others routinely but with little reflection trot out against proposals that do not include drastic decreases in world’s affluence – may be true, but a bold claim at very best; but until that time, thank you for reading, and good weathers and happy life.

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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