Thumbs Down on Ecomodernization


“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.”
(Both from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)

Earlier in this summer I wrote a post about ecomodernization in response to a new manifesto arguing that technology can and will save both our species and the Planet as well. Since then, I have read a few of the papers that were presented at a conference sponsored by the institution behind the manifesto. The sponsors invited a few skeptics and opponents to participate. I was particularly struck by the thoughts of Clive Hamilton, who likened the central themes of the manifesto to a modern form of theodicy. Theodicy is an inquiry into the reasons that good forces, like God, may and do also produce evil or contrary outcomes from time to time.

The idea came into being to explain the presence of evil in the world at a time when the belief in God was hegemonic. Here is Hamilton’s discussion about it.

Although the ecomoderns write as humanists, they construe the new epoch in a way that is structurally a theodicy, that is, a theological argument that aims to prove the ultimate benevolence of God. In Christian apologetics the proof of God’s goodness in a world of suffering was first attempted by Augustine, and later taken up by Leibniz who (in his book Theodicy) argued that evil acts, when we take a larger perspective, are necessary to the functioning of the whole. What may appear to us as monstrous crimes to which God acquiesces must be understood as in the service of his greater, if mysterious, benevolence. In Leibniz’s pithy aphorism: ‘Everything happens for the best’ or, in the troubling words of Alexander Pope, ‘Whatever is, is right’. It was a sentiment satirized by Voltaire in the shape of Dr Pangloss who, after being reduced to the status of a syphilitic beggar, clung to his optimistic outlook. His endearing personality trait became his deluded philosophy of life.

In this secular era, when God is not the ultimate creator and causal agent, her place has been taken by science and technology. Modernity began when humans started to turn to the knowledge created by science and its applications in the form of technology as the ultimate agents of change. The future produced through their agency was considered to be always good for humankind; the process describing this unfolding chain was named “progress.” And so it becomes a big problem when conditions that depart from the goodness of progress start to show up. Modernity might be said to have begun when Galileo and others sought to explain worldly phenomena other than by God’s hand, although always hedging to keep God in play. As science began to explain more and more about how the world works, God as the only agent, faded into the background. As an aside, I find it ironic that God is making a comeback in US cultural life today.

Hamilton described ecomodernization as a modern theodicy with technology as the god-like agent. Both he and Bruno Latour, who also spoke at the conference I mentioned, referred to the Frankenstein story as a paradigm example of technology gone awry. The advocates of ecomodernization either implicitly or explicitly claim that the present perverse outcomes of the hegemonic application of science and technology should not destroy the fundamental belief in its goodness, analogously to earlier theodicists worried about the perversity of evil in God’s world. The consequences of this pattern of thinking is to stay the course, but with enough tinkering to alter its direction back to the road to progress.

Hamilton and many others, including me, strongly disagree. This kind of “skim over the perversity of deep-seated beliefs thinking” might have sufficed when the troubles were small, but, on many accounts, we are already or about to enter a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. In this new epoch, distinct from the Holocene that enabled human development as we know it, human agency is overwhelming the processes that have been maintaining our Earth such that human evolution and settlements have been able follow a progressive pathway (however one defines progress). The theodictical assumption that one should hold course and not question the engine driving the boat fails in such discontinuous situations. While not using the language of theodicy, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory of the evolution of science is based on the same model. Follow the same beliefs until the problems faced cannot be explained away or solved and then seek a new set of beliefs, discontinuous with the old. Modernity, as a sociological era, can be said to be just such a discontinuous event following the theocratic period of the late Middle Ages, as is the passage from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

The ecomodernists hope to dispel fear about the consequences of this shift by adding “good” as in “The Good Anthropocene,” implying that the agency of human intervention, abetted by powerful, but benign, technology will keep things on an even enough keel to avoid serious interference or destruction of the kinds of modern life we lead. Hamilton puts a knife through the heart of this argument.

Throughout its geo-history the planet has never ‘bounced back’ from one epoch to the previous one. The Earth has now crossed a point of no return; its great cycles have changed, the chemical compositions of air and ocean have been altered in ways that cannot be undone. By the end of the century it will very likely be hotter than it has been for 15 million years. …In short, the Earth system is now operating in a different mode and nothing we can do now, even ending the burning of fossil fuels in short order, can get it to ‘bounce back’ to the Holocene. It will never look like the Holocene again, so arguments based on Holocene conditions are simply misleading. Whatever its validity at a local level, the ecomoderns’ ecosystem thinking has been superseded by Earth system thinking, and applying it to the Anthropocene is akin to making Newtonian arguments about a quantum world.

Bruno Latour, another lecturer at the conference (also by a dissenter), argues that

The ecomodernist manifesto is written entirely as if humans were still alone on stage, the only being who out of its own free will is in charge of apportioning space, land, money and value to the old Mother Nature. (The notion of “decoupling” would be loved by psycho-analysts, I am sure). But this is, as Clive Hamilton said yesterday, cruelly but accurately I think, a complete anachronism. Not content with the utopianism of modernity — rewilding, decoupling, growing, smoking healthily without smoke — the ecomodernists are also uchronists, as if they were living a time where they alone were in command.

I tried to find other definitions of uchronist, but what I did find only made me more uncertain of the meaning. But the sense of the paragraph is clear. Who put the technologists in charge? It is certainly true that technology has underpinned much of the change seen during modernity since Galileo and Descartes kicked it off. The successes of science in explaining much, but, critically, not all, phenomena, and of its applications in providing the tools and institutional structure of modern societies have as, Hamilton writes, given it a sort of god-like character to its supporters. But with that self-appropriation of agency comes arrogance and hubris. Latour, while not labeling the stance of the ecomodernists as such, argues in his lecture that the issues about what to do about moving into a new and uncertain future is fundamentally a political issue and should be discussed in a political forum, not determined by technology and its human agents.

I most heartily agree. I always add another layer to the argument against letting technology/technologists determine our future. It is that the same science that spawns all this technology works only through a reductionist framing. It can only look at parts of the whole Earth system, that is both humans and non-humans, but cannot take in the whole, incessantly changing system. It fails when the context is complex and cannot be reduced to an isolated, abstract part. The “real’ world of the Holocene or Anthropocene is complex. We cannot describe it in nice, neat formulas and rules. We cannot predict the future. The appearance of unwanted, unintended consequences is a powerful indicator or science’s inability, guided by humans, to work things out perfectly.

In other venues, Latour has defended technology as a fact of modern life. (I won’t go into his claim that we are yet to become modern as they do not bear on this situation) He wrote that we must learn to love the monster (of technology), using Frankenstein’s monster as the metaphoric source. He is no enemy to its place in the world, but he understands that it can become a monster that turns against its maker if it is not nurtured properly. My interpretation of his writings is that Frankenstein’s technological magic turned bad because it was abandoned and improperly nurtured by its maker. The ecomoderrnists claim to have the power to create a new technology that will save the Earth from doom, but fail to have the understanding that they lack the power to nourish and civilize what they create. Only if that power is shared with others through some sort of political arrangement can we avoid creating a non-fictional monster.

Again, I agree with Latour, but go further and argue that we must avoid any process of analysis and design based only on technology because it has failed us. I have much confidence that it will continue to fail us as we enter a new epoch. As I have written in this blog, the primary reason not to put our eggs in technology’s basket is the simple paradoxical notion that the world is complex. We do know how to deal with this, and it should be no surprise that the way is through what Latour calls politics. I call it pragmatism, but, at it heart, it is a “political” way to address complexity. Not any old politics, but a careful, rigorous inquiry by concerned parties tied to a consensus-building process to figure out what to do with the information they glean. Pragmatism is the antithesis of the hubristic science that fuels movements like ecomodernization.