Ecomodernism is Not the Answer!

nuclear plant

Summer has finally come and with it lots of fish have arrived in our bays. I know it might seem contradictory to be a fisherman and an advocate for flourishing at the same time. I always release my catch and use barbless hooks to minimize any damage to the fish. Most time spent on the water is still and very peaceful as striped bass in Maine are few and far between. But once I have a bite, it soon turns into a battle; stripers can fight very hard. Yesterday, my rod snapped in two while trying to boat a big one. Even with that, I managed to pull the fish up to the boat and release it. It was a good one. This summer, boat traffic seems much lower than usual, allowing me to enjoy the scene in peace and quiet.

I am finding it harder and harder to write these posts and also to work on my current book. I use the time on the water to think about this. I am caught on the horns of a proverbial dilemma, maybe a trilemma. One stream of thought focuses on how to wake us up to recognize how our addiction to the beliefs and norms of Modernity have become dysfunctional and the resulting world increasingly dystopian. The second is to mount a convincing argument that the necessary replacements for these beliefs and norms are present-at-hand, that is, already out there but unrecognized as such. The third is to probe mechanisms for bringing the first two together such that the new concepts and processes actually take over in practice, not merely in theory.

I am heartened by observations that more and more people are aware of the dystopic conditions that are growing among us humans and also the rest of the world we inhabit. But, and that is a big “but,” I do not see any lessening of their attempts to change the situation by tinkering bases on the current system of thought and action. We/they are guilty of persisting to ignore Einstein’s counsel not to solve our problems by thinking the same way that created them in the first place. I could have used many other such warnings or aphorisms in place of this well known phrase. I will spend the rest of this post focused on the first of these three issues: our stuckness in the ways of thinking and acting that are at the roots of our persisting concern with sustainability as a future world that works for both humans and non-humans. One of the problems with those who worry about such things is that they have little or no ideas about how that world should be. If not made explicit, it usually is a world much like today’s except that humans and non-humans exist in two independent, functioning spheres; the latter protected from the former by a shield of technology.

The most direct conversation with this theme comes from the Breakthrough Institute and a related manifesto on ecomodernization. The Breakthrough Institute harbors a group firmly rooted in the belief that technology can provide the best of all possible world. Their “solution” for global warming relies heavily on nuclear power. The following quote is taken from a post on their blog by Mark Sagoff, titled, “A Theology for Ecomodernism: What Is the Nature We Seek to Save?”

The recently published ecomodernist manifesto, of which I am a coauthor, has much to say about how society will be able to protect the natural environment. The best way to protect nature, on this account, is for us to depend on it less and to rely on technology more to support human needs. “Nature unused,” ecomodernists argue, “is nature spared.” This manifesto is largely silent, however, on the question of what kind of nature we want to spare and why we want to spare it. Ecomodernists, along with the advocates of ne conservation, should do more to define the difference — if it is not the absence of human taint — that distinguishes the parts of nature they want to conserve from, well, everything. If all baselines are arbitrary and if all of nature has been profoundly influenced by human activity, then what exactly is the object of conservation?

Sagoff touches, as do most of those signing on to the ecomodernism thesis, almost entirely on the side of the nature of nature, omitting discussion of the condition of humanity. By bifurcating the relationships between the two, they make a serious error or, better, several errors. The first is they unconsciously continue the hubristic modern views of scientific knowledge and its offspring, technology, that Descartes, Bacon, and other Enlightenment thinkers buried deep in the western culture that followed and still surrounds our daily lives. Here’s a quote from Francis Bacon: “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bid her to your service and make her your slave.”

A second error follows. The ecomodernists have, like so many, failed to think in systems terms. Nothing they propose gets at the roots of the problem. They have fallen into the trap of a common, unsystemic behavioral pattern called “shifting the burden.” In this mode of operation, actors continue to apply fixes to the symptoms which practice leads them further and further away from a focus on its roots and, often, deeper into the problem at hand. Our modernist love of technology has gone even further in systems dynamics terms, to become an addiction. This occurs when the continued application of fixes creates new problems of such magnitude that the original issues fade away. Unsustainability, as a constellation of issues/problems, has arisen, in part, from our unthinking reliance on market economics as the solution to all social problems. Technology continues to be the primary tool to improve efficiency. Unsustainability is an unintended consequence (not “side-effect”) of this addiction. Other normal practices also contribute.

Nothing much is going to happen to alleviate or eliminate unsustainability until we address its systemic root causes. These are many, but the two, I believe are most responsible for our situation, are our reductionist methods and view of the world and a related mechanistic belief in homo economicus as the model to explain human behavior. Both are firmly rooted in the ecomodernist programme. Systems thinkers know that the world is complex, and not generally amenable to analytic modeling. By using reductionist methods and tools, of which technology is an example, we fail to map human activities onto the “real” world with now serious unintended consequences.

Our stuckness, which is normal in well-established societies with well-established power hierarchies, keeps us in the shifting-the-burden mode. Our disciplines today, although powerful, are fundamentally reductionist as is the “science” on which they are based. The real challenge that ecomodernism poses for us to be able to keep one foot in our disciplines (we need an anchor), but let our minds wander into the same place where the problems come from. The beliefs that are the culprits rest in our individual cognitive systems and in the metaphorical “collective mind” of our society. If we are to change these foundational beliefs to a set that works, we must all learn to be pragmatists, as well as scientists.

There is no magic in these beliefs. They were just that, words, until powerful men (only men at the time) put them into practice whereupon they became embedded (and hidden) in the cultural structure and in our heads. They now appear to be written in stone and so we continue to accept them, unthinkingly, and operate only at the surface. There is no analytically based way to find the future we want. Analysis can, at best, only reproduce the past. We must re-invent the future, ab initio. For me that future is flourishing, a quality that defies being reduced to numbers of any kind. The same goes for new beliefs; any that can be analytically derived from the present ones will not work. We have a paradigmatically different view of reality, complexity, already available to us. It is a better in terms of fit, I claim, belief about the real world, but confounds our analytic minds. That’s why I argue to replace our reliance of positivism by pragmatism, which thinking processes can move us forward towards this vision, even if we cannot exactly describe the system we are within.

Returning to the introductory quote, Sagoff is a philosopher, who is using his discipline to find arguments for maintain, but improving, the status quo. Disciplinary thinking, whether it be philosophy, economics, engineering, science, or whatever, cannot cope with our dilemmas. All disciplines are children of Descartes’ reductionistic model of knowledge. The failure to think in systems terms is one of the most serious causes of our current problems. I’ll end today with two related aphorisms from Gregory Bateson, a wonderful and original systems thinker, who marvelously described our situation:

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.