The 'Ecomodernist Manifesto': Often Sensible, But With Large Doses of Utopian

04/22/2015 02:31 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

An ambitious document, the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" makes bold claims about history, philosophy, technology and economics. Its authors, an eclectic group, are working with foundational myths: they engage with basic beliefs about the nature of reality and the desires of human being -- the kinds of beliefs typically dealt with in religious and philosophical teachings. That such profound claims cannot be adequately addressed in such a short space soon becomes evident. All the same, given its bold call to action, this document deserves to be read and critiqued with care.

There is a fair amount the "Manifesto" gets right, so I'm going to mention at least one of these facets, before pointing to three of its major shortcomings. First and foremost, and this is where it is refreshing, the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" is a declaration of war on all forms of nostalgia. The past should not be the standard of reference, say the authors. In the past, our lives were shorter and our quality of life lower. No one in their right mind should wish to return to a way of life in which disease was more prominent, nutrition less available, and leisure time more scarce. There is no going back, only forward, they argue, and future prospects for humanity and for the planet depend on our creativity in developing more advanced forms of technology. Right they are, and rest assured, this point of view will surely draw outcries from misty-eyed Heideggerians everywhere. Heidegger, a major influence on a swath of the present day environmental movement, had famously claimed that modern technology was "challenging" to the earth, whereas more primitive forms of machinery had been in greater harmony with the flows of nature. The Heideggerian point of view, which remains prominent, deserves to be challenged.

However, at least three major points in the document deserve serious critique. The first is a certain level of ethical sloppiness. "Climate change and other global ecological challenges," claim the authors, "are not the most immediate concerns for the majority of the world's people. Nor should they be." Really? This statement deserves more nuance than currently granted to it. There is a tremendous difference between claiming to understand why some of the "world's people" might rather have access to consistent energy than be concerned about climate change, versus the normative pronouncement, "nor should they be." The latter is a leap to conclusions. Perhaps they should, and we should too, given that continuing reliance on fossil fuels will significantly alter life on earth as we know it. At the very least there is a significant counterbalance missing here, one which would create a tension between the "should" of granting energy resources to those who need them versus the "should" of ensuring the stability of the eco-system for the generations to come.

The second shortcoming is a blurring of narrative categories. The document, at points, verges into science-fiction. "Looking forward," it claims, "modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon that drives global warning." Even with the perfunctory "may," the statement is misleading. Geo-engineering solutions are far from being a get-out-of-jail-free card. Presenting them as realistic possibility is surely no grounds on the basis of which to make policy now.

The third major flaw of the "Manifesto" is a lack of regard for historical nuance. Of course, as a genre (think Communist, Futurist, etc.) manifestos typically seek to up-end the status-quo. The ecomodernist authors are no exception. In their drive to move ahead, they mention history in only the most casual of ways, in the context of what they describe as its general trajectory. What is missing is a profound sense of irony, along with a deeper understanding of costs.

It's not immediately clear to me why the authors chose the name "ecomodernist." The "modernist" part of the title, however, is apt, because modernist thinkers, unlike the relentless uncertainty of post-modern philosophers, were still committed to notions of improvement and progress. What is lacking in the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" is a comprehensive acknowledgement of the deep contradictions of Modernity, and the unintended consequences of technological developments. Unintended consequences are mentioned, but only in passing. References to myth are nowhere to be found, and this too should be seen as a serious omission. From the Prometheus of Greek mythology to the Tower of Babel of Biblical fame, our Western heritage is rich with admonitions about the dangers of unchecked technological optimism. Allowing for a degree of humility is not a concession to the politics of nostalgia the manifesto wishes to disavow. Rather, it would be a move inspired by caution, away from the quasi-Utopian tone of the document -- a concession to the tragic and unpredictable facets of life that give daily texture to our existence, no matter the technology we develop.

I end with a brief reference to the idea of "decoupling" from nature, another major stance for the authors. Here too there is certain degree of naiveté at play. In the Western tradition, the debates over the human relationship with nature became particularly thick during the 16th century, as Latin translations of the pseudo-Aristotelian Mechanical Problems made their way to centers of learning such as Venice, Paris, and Urbino. In those cities, this text contributed to a complex debate over the relative ease or difficulty of using the mechanical arts to protect humans from the forces of nature. Some of the most popular among 16th century engineers including Agostino Ramelli and Guidobaldo del Monte argued then, as do the ecomodernists now, that technology, broadly construed, had served as a barrier to the forces of nature, and had made easy the operations of life. And yet, look where that has gotten us, environment be damned. What some of the 16th century engineers forgot then, and what the authors of the "Ecomodernist Manifesto" pay lip service to now, but don't seem to take very seriously, is that humans are inescapably a part of nature. Technology has been, and will continue to be a protective barrier, and yet it is a permeable one, part of a complex and dynamic system. While there will surely be shifts in the balance, ultimately there can be no such thing as "decoupling." Every technological transaction will have a cost, both for humans, and for the rest of nature of which we are a part. Greater awareness of these costs is surely warranted.