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An Ecomodernist Mishmash


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By Giorgos Kallis

The ecomodernist manifesto is the latest and most visionary document under the auspices of the ‘post-environmentalist’ think-tank the Breakthrough Institute. I first heard the Institute’s founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger speak at Berkeley some eight years ago, presenting their case for the “death of environmentalism” (hence the ‘post’ prefix). For half of the presentation I was thinking how much I agree. They claimed that environmentalists have to let go the idea of a pristine nature with which we have to live in harmony. We constantly rework nature, they argued; what worlds we create is a matter of choice. They also took issue with the professionalization of the ‘big green’ NGOs and their transformation into a vested interest fighting for this or that legislative gain - while losing the overall picture of systemic change which had inspired the early green movement. I couldn’t add more. Next I expected to hear about growth and capitalism, the type of worlds environmentalists may want to produce, the political choices at stake and the alliances they have to forge with labor, feminist or social justice movements to bring about systemic change.

Nope. In an amazing mishmash of critical theory, political liberalism and technological cornocupianism they came up with a government-funded ‘Apollo plan’ instead. Not one that would fly us to the moon again, but to an earth powered by nuclear plants and fed with GMOs. Post-environmentalists’ preferred allies were Monsanto and the nuclear industry, it turned out. This mishmash full of contradictions continues in the new manifesto.

A manifesto for what will happen anyway

The document starts with a celebration of technological progress, centralized production and urbanization. It assures us that population is peaking (true) and so does resource consumption (untrue). ‘Land-use change, overexploitation and pollution can peak and decline this century’, they argue, if the forces that brought us here continued. Well, then why write a manifesto in the first place? To ‘accelerate’ things, is the answer. This must be the first manifesto whose goal is to save a few years down the line. And why accelerate things? Ah, because problems are hitting the fan, it is implied. So we aren’t doing that well, are we? Could it be that, rather than accelerating the train of history, we might have to ‘pull the emergency brake’, as Walter Benjamin memorably put it?

Confusing efficiency with scale

Cities’, we are told, ‘perform far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts’. Here, efficiency is confused with scale. Cities may use less resources per unit of product, but they produce and use more resources overall. This is precisely why footprints have increased, not declined with urbanization. Actually, the very indicator of ‘ecological footprint’, invoked in the manifesto, was invented to calculate the extent to which the consumption of cities extends beyond their borders. ‘Cities occupy just one to three percent of the Earth’s surface’, the manifesto says. Yes, but they are also responsible for the transformation of the remaining 97%.

The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs [had] much higher per-capita impacts on the environment’, we read. The ‘proof’ for this is that, in the Pleistocene, native Americans had cleared forests and hunted mammals to extinction. If older technologies had more impact per capita indeed, industrialization in China would have come with a decline, not an increase in per capita emissions, energy or resource use. Everywhere, and without exception, the transition from rural to urban/industrial economies has come with a total increase, not decrease, of resource and energy use, both in absolute and per capita terms (this should not be confused with the fact that the environmental impact per unit of product declines as an economy grows). The only resource whose use has declined are forests, but this has to do with the shift to fossil fuels, not with efficiency improvements in the use of forests. (The effects of so-called forest transitions on biodiversity are also questionable, to say the least).

Of course, if the 8 millions of New Yorkers were to be dispersed in the countryside and to live exactly as they did in New York, the total environmental impact would be much higher. It would even be worse if New Yorkers were to pursue their current standard of living by hunting mammals and clearing forests. But the point is precisely that ‘our ancestors’ or the people who live in the countryside (other than the suburbanized countryside of the U.S.) could never achieve the same standard of material consumption achieved in cities. They consumed less, precisely because life in the countryside was less productive than in the city. If you have to fetch your own water or raise and milk your own cows, you won’t shower and you will drink less milk. Being less productive per unit of product, you can only produce less. Hunter and gatherer societies consume fewer resources, in total and per capita, than agrarian societies, who in turn consume less than industrial ones. The efficiency of new technologies and the economies of scale the authors celebrate are causally related to the increasing scale of resource use they want to see inversed.

This is a fundamental aspect of the economic process: productivity and efficiency fuel growth. This is why economists love them. The so-called ‘Jevons paradox’, whereby improved efficiency in the use of resources drives down their prices and leads to more resource use, is a paradox only for the mindset of environmentalists. Centralized production and new technologies liberate labor and resources for more production and more resource use. This is after all the magic of capitalism. This is the source of the growth take-off. And this is why footprints have been growing and the authors had to write their manifesto. If urbanization and technological progress did the trick we weren’t here talking about climate change.

The manifesto suggests that the linkage between growth and resource use may be breaking in modern economies, as they become materially lighter ‘knowledge economies’. However, Facebook and Google might seem materially light on screen, but their servers have become among the highest consumers of energy and emitters of carbon. Huge resources, natural and human, are necessary for training the next Brins and Zuckenbergs or powering the military and University labs where the next internets will be invented. All these costs are hidden. Energy use in the US is not increasing, not because a peak is being reached due to technological efficiency and dematerialization, but because the US economy imports its garments from China and has its servers in Norway.

The authors argue that ‘humans are as likely to spare nature because it is not needed to meet their needs as they are to spare it for explicit aesthetic and spiritual reasons’. The issue is that nature is never spared under capitalism. If temporarily spared it becomes cheaper, and then new needs are created by innovations on the consumption side and by advertising - to make sure that surplus nature is put to profitable use, including tourism for ‘aesthetic reasons’. Only a political act of setting limits, of keeping this land out of circulation, of enclosing this resource for the public good, leaving that oil under the soil or getting these emissions capped, can spare ‘nature’. But this, as all regulation and institutional change, requires social struggles. It is not something that will happen automatically because of technological progress and ‘modernization’. It is a battle against such modernization.

Philosophical mishmashes

The philosophical and epistemological posture of the text is self-contradictory, perhaps betraying differing views among its authors. The manifesto starts with the recognition that the planet has become a human planet, aka ‘the anthropocene’. There is no wild nature out there, sure. And yet somehow the goal of the manifesto is to ‘make more room for nature’ and ‘re-wild’ and ‘re-green’ the earth.

Section 5 argues that the way we come to know ‘nature’, i.e. through science, is shaped by our own constructions and therefore dependent on our own choices. Correct. Yet the whole manifesto is permeated by a blind belief in the power of science to solve whatever problems may be, while constantly invoking science for proving that this or that technology is better than the other.

The authors suggest that they write ‘out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world’ (again, presuming that there is such a natural world ‘out there’, which they said there isn’t). ‘To preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and a mosaic of beautiful landscapes [beautiful for whom?] will require a deeper emotional connection to them'. The manifesto itself undermines the case for preservation in a spirit of connection, since ‘it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem’. It seems that the manifesto calls for less material connection and more ‘emotional’ connection to nature. Yet it is unclear how the latter will come without the former in the urban, genetically modified paradises envisaged. Playing Tarzan video games?

I was reminded by one of the authors that French philosopher Bruno Latour has written in favour of the ‘breakthrough’ of ‘post-environmentalism’. Following Latour could provide more epistemological consistency to the manifesto, but would, however, expose the authors to the risk of alienating the wilderness environmentalists they obviously want to convince.

For Latour there is no nature or wilderness out there from which we can detach ourselves. The separation between the natural and the social is precisely the type of modernism Latour criticizes, calling for a genuine modernity instead, which will finally take responsibility for our transformations of nature and our hybrid products. We should control our technological ‘Frankensteins’, rather than shy away from producing them, Latour claims.

But dare I ask who would take responsibility and how in the case of a nuclear Frankenstein accident or an intervention in the genome gone wrong? Perhaps, this is too concrete a question for a philosopher to answer. And if the project of modernization is to ‘control’ things, why not control and stop the production of Frankesteins? Modernization, so it seems, is about controlling everything other than the controllers themselves.

Reading Latour more carefully also raises questions on whether he is indeed an ‘eco-modernist’. After all, he is the guy who wrote: ‘to modernize or to ecologize– that's the question’. Indeed Latour argues that the ‘challenge demands more of us than simply embracing technology and innovation. It requires exchanging the modernist notion of modernity for what I have called a "compositionist" [what when younger he called ‘ecologist’] one that sees the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of nonhuman natures’. The manifesto is then modernism 1.0, permeated as it is by a spirit of liberating humanity from nature, while stuck to the idea of preserving a separate wilderness. The possibility for such decoupling is not only factually wrong, as I argued above, but also philosophically inconsistent, as it continues to treat nature as an entity outside society, and, against what Latour argues, as a means to an end, exploiting energy and natural resources more intensively ‘here’ to save wilderness ‘there’ (as if the here and the there could so easily be separated).

True, Latour himself suggests that new technologies, such as the ones advocated by the manifesto, are part of connecting to nonhuman natures, and that putting limits to growth is a form of detachment. But he is wrong. Limits do not have to mean detachment. They are a means for allowing different, possibly stronger and qualitatively different forms of connection. There is nothing to suggest that we connect more to a river by damming it and using it to produce electricity, than by walking along its shores or talking to it.

Anyway, these philosophical complications are too much for the manifesto to handle. The authors finally conclude that no matter what ones’ views on nature are (and they are all fine according to them), ‘decoupling’ our economic activity from it will be for the better and full stop.

‘Anthropogenic choices’

The authors repeatedly refer to ‘anthropogenic choices’ about how to transform landscapes or what to conserve and what not. But what is their choice then, their politics? These are never articulated explicitly. Modernization for modernization’s sake I would say. ‘Pursuing what can be pursued’, without limits, as philosopher of technology Jacques Ellul used to put it.

And they do like their modern technologies big. Dams, but not windmills. Nuclear, but not solar. Why so is never clear. We hear that ‘most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately’ not up to the task, because of their ‘scale of land use’. Yet somehow, hydroelectric dams are nice ‘even though their land … footprint is very large’. Their ‘anthropogenic choices’ here are disguised as objective science. And a bad science, that is. The decisions of Germany, Japan or California to shutter nuclear power plants are ‘counterproductive’. Why? Because somehow nuclear is ‘clean’. And what about all the carbon and energy necessary for extracting and transporting uranium, constructing, operating and dismantling nuclear plants or handling their waste? Calculated over the lifetime of a plant, this makes nuclear far from ‘clean’ and far from clear whether it produces any energy surplus to begin with. But these are too specific details for a manifesto.

I am comfortable with the fact that the preference for nuclear energy, dams or GMOs is the ‘anthropogenic choice’ of the authors, although I would prefer them not to hide it with semi-scientific reasoning or allusions to preserving ‘wilderness’. Even so, they owe an answer ‘why’. Why do they desire a planet populated by nuclear plants and bunkers with radioactive waste? Why do they desire becoming ever more attached to nonhuman radioactivity? What is it that excites them with a nuclear future, so as to make them blindly confident to the eternal capacity of our civilization to have the resources to handle nuclear plants and nuclear wastes? Are earthquakes or civilization downturns ruled out in the eco-modernist future?

The other face of modernization

The benefits of modernization the manifesto celebrates (higher material living standards, higher life expectancy and the rest) are confined in time and space much more than the authors admit. The atrocities of colonialization and the two World Wars are not something modernizers should be proud of, nor the near nuclear holocaust, which wouldn’t have let us be here discussing manifestos today. The improvements in birth, living and working conditions the authors rightly celebrate are concentrated in a small part of the world (the Euro Americas) and in a small period of time after the outmost modern disaster that was the second world war (the ‘30 golden years’ as the French like to call them, which for the authors of the manifesto are curiously ‘the planning fallacy of the 1950s’).

No word that it was the working classes who won public health or free education, and that these did not naturally trickle down from growth and technological progress. Also no word of the evidence that since the 1970s growth has become ‘un-economic’ in the already ‘modernized’ parts of the world, such as the U.S. for which this manifesto is written. No word that it has more social and environmental costs than benefits and doesn’t increase self-reported or objectively measured wellbeing.

Why keep pursuing growth then? Presumably because it can be pursued. This is what it is about to be modern after all. And please spare me the paternalistic argument that the Global North needs to grow out of concern and solidarity for ‘the poor’ of this world, who without ‘our’ growth will not grow up too. ‘We’ seemed to have grown pretty well without them growing in the past. In fact we did grow by exploiting their cheap labor, plundering their resources and shifting our costs to them. From the comfort of my University armchair I do not feel entitled to speak about what the ‘back-breaking agrarian poor of this world’ (sic) want, and neither should the eco-modernizers.

For Degrowth and the Commons

Which brings me to my own ‘anthropogenic choice’. If we want to reduce the footprint of the economy, then let’s downscale the economy as a whole, and find ways to make the transition socially sustainable: to prosper without growth, as Tim Jackson put it. If we are to leave land aside, then let’s organize for making land a commons, leaving some of it aside for non-productive purposes.

This call for ‘degrowth’ is neither a call for a harmonious co-existence with nature, nor one of leaving ‘nature’ in peace. Fully aware of our capacity to keep pursuing what can be pursued, the choice is ‘not to’. We do not want to produce new Frankesteins. This ‘not to’ is a choice for the world we want to produce, a world where we live a simpler life, in common, i.e. with more and direct connections among humans and between humans and non-humans. This is an ecological vision. It seeks to connect rather than disconnect, couple rather than decouple, approach rather than distance, engage rather than disengage. It is not about succumbing to external limits to growth. It is about limiting growth because we dislike the detached world produced by growth; a world controlled by others for our sake.

The conscious and collective decision of a society to limit itself, without recourse to spirits and totems, gods and kings, charts or graphs, is the essence of what Cornelius Castoriadis called ‘democracy’. It is the necessary next civilizational step.

To modernize or to ecologize, then? That was, and still is, the question. Eco-modernization is an oxymoron. ---------------------------------------------

See also Giorgos Kallis' other essay on this topic on the ENTITLE blog

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