What is Ecomodernism? A lecture

Almost forgot! In case you want to hear the undersigned mangle the language of the Bard and talk about ecomodernism, look no further!

This is a hour-long lecture I delivered in English (here with Finnish subtitles) to a packed audience in January in Arcadia International Bookshop, Helsinki. (BTW, excellent – nay, mandatory – destination if you ever find yourself in the “White Daughter of the Baltic.”) Many thanks to Kaj Luukko for superb work in filming the presentation and doing all the post-production, including embedded slides from my presentation. Kaj’s blog “Gaia” was and is one of the inspirations for me, and it’s practically required reading for anyone interested in environmental issues and capable of handling some Finnish.

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About J. M. Korhonen

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3 Responses to What is Ecomodernism? A lecture

  1. Pingback: Making Nuclear Power an Environmental Topic | The Energy Reality Project

  2. Excellent take on the ecomodernist agenda. Just wondering if you could transcribe the lecture by collecting the subtitles and autotranslate them. I’ll be giving some lectures on ecomodernism later this year and it would be helpful to have some basic teksts.

    I agree that the Ecomodernist Manifesto is not a very thorough piece of work. I quite prefer your more European and ‘leftist’ approach of the kind of pragmatism that is really needed for the transition we all need to make

    • Hi Gijs, and thanks for the comment! As you ask, you shall receive:

      I’m Janne.

      I’ve been involved in this new environmental movement known as ecomodernism for quite some time now.

      My background is in engineering, and now I’m a PhD student. I’ve written a couple of books about ecomodernist topics.

      I have here books both in Finnish and in English if someone wants one.

      This bookshop where we’re at would like a three-euro donation from each one of us for the use of this space.

      Today’s topic: what is ecomodernism?

      It’s a somewhat difficult question to answer, because ecomodernism is an emerging environmental movement that isn’t quite yet complete.

      It’s finding its ways, and people here in Finland and elsewhere are trying to define what it is.

      So you can consider what I’m about to tell you as notes about the emergence of a new environmental movement.

      The roots of the movement are clear. Let’s take a look at the history from the last 40 years.

      During that time, environmentalism as a movement has grown significantly.

      I would even say that environmental thinking has become, to some extent, mainstream.

      From the initial beginnings and small circles of like-minded individuals in the 1960s, we’ve come into a situation,

      where world leaders were discussing environmental matters in Paris in 2015.

      The environmental movement has grown and gone a lonw way, but I’d say that unfortunately it hasn’t grown enough.

      If we look at the percentage of people supporting the traditional environmental organizations, like Greenpeace,

      we’ll notice that they are still attracting relatively few people.

      Of all people [in rich countries], perhaps 5…10 % are environmentally active, although it’s hard to say for certain.

      To me, it is nevertheless clear that despite all the successes, the environmental movement hasn’t grown enough.

      If it had, we wouldn’t be in a mess we’re in.

      I’m not going to use time now to explain all the environmental problems. I assume you have some idea about them: about climate change, biodiversity loss, et cetera.

      We’re not “in the green” so to speak.

      This, in my opinion, is a serious problem.

      How to activate the majority of the people?

      Environmental movements are still extremist movements of a sort.

      Even though the topics they’ve raised into discussion have gone mainstream to an extent, there’s still a lot to do.

      If we want to ease environmental problems, I don’t think the word “solution” applies.

      Is there any hope for the environmental movement to change the thinking of the majority, or at least of a large enough group?

      Of course, I cannot be sure, but I think the probable answer to this question is “no.”

      Traditional environmental organizations are large organizations.

      Large organizations are often stagnant, change slowly, and have a lot of in-built resistance to change.

      The environmental movement and NGOs are generally the products of the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s, or descended from that.

      They’ve very often set their views on stone.

      They say “these are the things we believe in, these are the problems, and these are the acceptable solutions.”

      Politically, these movements are very left-wing.

      Globally, they’re mostly active in Western countries.

      I had a very interesting discussion about this topic in Paris with a hindu environmental activist.

      He said that many of the things the traditional environmental movements such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the like are saying,

      simply do not make sense from his viewpoint.

      The cultural differences are so great, that getting the traditional message across is difficult.

      So these old organizations have their baggage.

      Nevertheless, around the world there are a lot of people who are really very concerned about environmental issues.

      I’m one of them.

      Many of these people don’t feel themselves welcome in the traditional environmental organizations.

      In my opinion, these organizations have been witnessing a kind of a minor civil war.

      By the people who have begun to question the fundamentals of these organizations, such as their uncompromising opposition to nuclear power and GMOs.

      Very often, these people find themselves expelled from the organizations. I know a few cases like that.

      Or, like myself, they’ve never even joined.

      For example, I’ve been thinking that if we have this climate crisis going on, there’s very little sense in opposing nuclear power.

      So we have a lot of people interested in environmental issues and protecting the natural environment, who can’t find a place in traditional environmental organizations.

      During the last decade or so, this group has been steadily growing in strength,

      but they feel isolated.

      Of course, today we have the Internet and we can know that we’re not alone.

      But in order to actually do something, it is almost mandatory to organize properly.

      The civil war of environmentalism I mentioned is caused by, for example, people like me who’ve tried to influence the current organizations.

      I’m sure that many of you have some kind of experience from debates about, say, whether the existing organizations should cease opposing nuclear power, for example.

      This battle has raged for years.

      In Paris, I understood that this has been a huge mistake.

      Because even if it is winnable in any real sense, which I don’t believe,

      if traditional organizations suddenly changed some of their long-held views,

      what would likely happen is that people who don’t accept these changes simply left to found a new organization.

      Achieving such a “victory” would take years at least, and it would burn a lot of bridges between people who generally agree that environmental issues are important.

      It would be a complete waste of time.

      This is, for me, a major reason to be involved in the Ecomodernist movement.

      New kind of environmentalists need a new kind of home.

      We humans are individually fairly weak, but our strength is that we can organize.

      At the moment, we’re trying to organize into a larger movement.

      We try to offer an organization for people, who care for the environment,

      but who for one reason or another cannot fit into the mold of traditional environmentalism.

      By doing so, we hope to offer an organization to a large group of people who haven’t been environmentally active before.

      We’re not competing with traditional organizations.

      They have their own supporters, we hope to create our own.

      Of course, there is some overlap, and there may be some people who quit existing organizations and join ours, but that’s normal.

      But we don’t seek competition: we seek expansion.

      A concrete example is a climate march last December in Helsinki.

      It was, at least in Finland, the first time that ecomodernists participated in a demonstration for the environment.

      It was really quick action – someone spotted the event only a few days before it happened.

      So we couldn’t organize it properly, but we nevertheless mobilized a dozen or so people,

      of whom nearly all hadn’t ever been involved in environmental activism of any kind.

      This, I believe, is the core reason for Ecomodernism.

      To recruit people who haven’t been active before.

      A little bit about history, because this isn’t actually a new idea. Here’s my quick and dirty overview of the past.

      The fundamental idea is, in part, a return to the future optimism of the 1950s and 1960s.

      Some of the writings of James Lovelock contained themes that are familiar to us – others, not so much.

      But I believe that if we want to fix one date for the birth of this movement, it would be 2004.

      The text “Death of Environmentalism” was published back then,

      by two U.S. environmentalists, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

      They had become disillusioned with traditional environmental organizations. They wrote this rather provocative essay.

      “The entire [existing] environmental movement needs to die,” etc.

      They founded a think tank called The Breakthrough Institute.

      It’s an interesting think tank in a sense that people from all across the political spectrum are criticising it.

      Everyone thinks it’s doing something wrong.

      The Right criticizes it for its support of state interventions. The Right in general doesn’t much like environmental protections.

      The Left and the traditional Greens accuse it of being in the payroll of gas-, nuclear-, and whatever industry.

      Here’s the book by British Mark Lynas, The God Species.

      At least to me, it was the first book that convinced me:

      We humans have so much power these days, that we really have to learn to use it.

      I’d say that because we’re going to alter our planet anyway, we need to learn how to do it responsibly.

      Last year, Mark Lynas, Breakthrough Institute and 18 academicians, mostly from English-speaking countries, published the so-called “Ecomodernist Manifesto.”

      It raised a lot of debate among English-speaking environmentalists.

      I think it is somewhat confused writing. I don’t think it’s very good. It’s great discussion opener, but it has large holes in it.

      It’s been criticized, in my opinion for a reason – for the most part. For example, it never even mentions wind power.

      I don’t understand why. Possibly they just forgot it.

      So it’s more like a first draft. But it’s also a living document, whose authors have already noted that it’s only the beginning of the discussion.

      Last summer, another thing that happened was that eight people – I think – who gathered and decided to found the Finnish Ecomodernist Society.

      We had been discussing for some months in Facebook wheter there would be a need for a new kind of an environmental movement,

      and whether we ought to call ourselves as Ecopragmatists, Ecomodernists or something else.

      Then someone suggested that we should do something now, and call ourselves Ecomodernists, because others are already using the term.

      So that’s the extent to which we’re indebted to the Manifesto, but we’re also the first Ecomodernist organization in the world.

      Now things are happening in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands,

      but we’re the first ones. One reason for that is that we’re not that happy with the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

      We wanted to move early, so that we could influence what is ecomodernism.

      We decided to start right away, before someone else defines what we are.

      So what is Ecomodernism all about?

      I think that if we separate our most central thought, it might be this.

      We humans need to learn to live as a part of the nature. We are part of the nature; there is no dichotomy between “us versus them.”

      The well-being of humans and humanity is fully dependent on the well-being of the nature.

      We need to leave room for the nature and its well-being.

      On this we totally agree with the traditional environmental movement.

      However, we believe that this doesn’t mean we need to live in “harmony” with the nature (whatever that means).

      This thought about living in harmony with the nature is controversial.

      It’s been soundly criticized by several scientists. They say that there has never been any harmony in the nature.

      Nature is always in a state of flux. Humans have altered nature for the whole of our existence.

      At its core, this thought about harmony with nature is a retelling of the central myths of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

      A repeat of the myths where humans were once cast from the Paradise – where they had supposedly lived “in harmony” with the Nature.

      This is apparently a major reason why hindus for example have difficulties understanding Western environmental movements.

      Because their central myths are different, they don’t really get the traditional Western environmental rhetoric that originates from the idea of being expelled from the Paradise and has the goal of re-entering the paradise, living in harmony with the nature.

      We Ecomodernists have been characterized as techno-optimists, but I believe this is a false characterization.

      [discussion snipped]

      We are in fact technology pessimists, if something.

      We believe that we can and we have to use technology to reduce our environmental footprint.

      But how do I understand the concept, “leaving room for the Nature?”

      Let’s say you’re living in a large house with your family.

      Usually we think it’s very bad manners to leave your own stuff or garbage in someone else’s room.

      We need to use different tools to collect our stuff from the rooms of the others.

      We also need to avoid spreading our stuff to all over the house, while claiming it’s for the best of the other occupants.

      I believe this latter is what would happen in the scenarios proposed by traditional environmental movements, if they come to pass.

      I’m not saying they’d want it, but if they succeed, the very likely outcome

      would be a large-scale industrialization of the remaining areas of wild nature.

      Probably the worst threat here is bioenergy, but wind and solar power are also problematic.

      Because they spread their networks, generators, power lines, access roads etc. everywhere.

      Mines for the required raw materials would be spread across the planet.

      I think this is a major problem in these visions, and we’re not discussing it enough.

      I believe we ecomodernists are somewhat more optimistic about the possibilities of technology

      mitigating the humanity’s environmental footprint than the traditional environmentalists are.

      But we don’t believe in technological silver bullets that would allow the business as usual to continue.

      We nevertheless believe we need a high-energy society – an industrialized society.

      This is the second point where my views differ from the traditional environmentalist views, which I find highly myopic.

      Our task is to preserve life and self-awareness for a very long time – I’m talking about billions of years.

      This means that we must expand to space. For that, we need a high-energy society and more improvements in technology.

      We’re in a cusp of change. Fossil fuels that have made the modern society possible,

      are becoming increasingly difficult to use. Not just for climate reasons, but also because they’re simply going to run out.

      I see the current times as a critical period in the history of humanity and Earth.

      I believe we have an opportunity to reach the broad, sunlit uplands. But there is also a significant possibility of some kind of a slow collapse.

      The diversity in our society would diminish as a result.

      We would become a low-energy society.

      Where fewer and fewer people would have the opportunity to enjoy the opportunities brought about by easy energy access.

      For example, I can study and don’t have to work the fields for living.

      If we end up in a collapse of some sort,

      because we’ve burned up all the easily accessible fossil fuels, used up all the easily used resources –

      it is very likely that we cannot ever rise again.

      We’d be stuck in a low-energy society, until some cosmic catastrophe destroys us, or we become extinct for other reasons.

      [discussion]

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