Sunday, 26 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 3

The third part of my review of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. The first instalment was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction (although I can't say that I've changed my mind). The second proceeded to go through the Manifesto point by point. I'll try to continue in that vein.

Part 3 of the Manifesto gets to one thing I particularly take objection to: the 'early' Anthropocene thesis. It does not use this phrase explicitly but it is implied:
Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution.
If the point being made here were simply that humans have never been 'in harmony' with nature—indeed, there has never been a harmonious 'nature' to sing such sweet choral lullabies to at all—that would be fine. But that is not what's happening here. The point being made is to attach the 'anthropos' in Anthropocene to homo sapiens as such—that is, to locate the driving force behind climate change, etc. in generic, biological human capacities rather than understanding it as resulting from a particular mode of production or an historically specific and peculiarly instrumentalist social formation.

It derives not, then, from a criticism of the concept of nature as such since it retains an essentialised concept of human nature that is taken as the aetiological basis of the planetary transformations that we are concerned with.

However, again, curate's egg as this Manifesto is, they are making this assumption in the context of an interesting claim:
Insofar as past societies had less impact upon the environment, it was because those societies supported vastly smaller populations. [...] The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs supported much lower living standards with much higher per-capita impacts on the environment.
Of course, precisely who would claim that we must go back to a pre-Industrial collective tech-scape is unclear. There is a hint of the straw man here (as elsewhere). While the general point is indeed an interesting one, they then go and spoil it all again:
Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food hunt mammal species to local extirpation.
They quickly qualify this by adding:
Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature.
However, the classic rightwing pseudo-environmentalist trope of blaming the poor for their feckless inefficiencies relative to the enlightened tech-savvy ways of metropolitan elites is more than echoed here.

The next section defends the project of affordable energy generation. Here, again, there is a valid point to be made:
Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. For millions living without light and forced to burn dung to cook their food, electricity and modern fuels, no matter the source, offer a pathway to a better life, even as they also bring new environmental challenges.
This is very important. Decarbonisation is a global goal that should not be taken to automatically prescribe the best course of action locally. Attention to this kind of complication and the way in which the negative effects of climate change, although they will disproportionately affect the already impoverished, are by no means the only concern that the poor, or those who govern them, have to contend with.

It does, however, seem to be a deliberate strategy of the Manifesto's textual composition to alternate progressive and conservative ideas because, once again, the bad follows the good:
Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation.
The suggestion seems to be that because restrictions to consumption alone cannot do the job therefore technological innovation must bear the larger weight of the transition. It's faulty logic, although it may reassure the conservative reader that their wealth is in no way under threat.

The point that the right kind of technological change might preconditionally necessitate political change is never addressed. An implicit teleology flows right through this text: technological innovation in and of itself is what is needed because technological innovation is a direct, rational response to a need, right?...

They do go on to say that:
Technological solutions to environmental problems must also be considered within a broader social, economic, and political context.
But this context only goes so far as noting misguided policy choices:
We think it is counterproductive for nations like Germany and Japan, and states like California, to shutter nuclear power plants, recarbonize their energy sectors, and recouple their economies to fossil fuels and biomass.
It'd be simplistic to call this Manifesto straightforwardly 'neoliberal.' The authors are wary of showing their hand in this regard:
Too often, modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions. What we refer to when we speak of modernization is the long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies toward vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom.
More liberal, Third Way apologistic Western triumphalism than strictly 'neoliberal' in the usual Anglo-American sense.
Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards.
Despite criticising Germany's anti-nuclear policies above, this sounds an awful lot like Ordoliberalism.

The Manifesto's closing lines are programmatic:
We hope that this statement advances the dialogue about how best to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet.
It has certainly done that. I will try to make a more constructive and evaluative contribution in my next post.

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