Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus

Prometheus is the man (or immortal, depending who you read) from Greek myth who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity. Like other tales from the classics, this one has been co-opted in many different ways. In this case, Promethean fire has most often been taken as symbolic of the development of technology and industrialism: Blake’s ‘dark Satanic mills’ in all their forms, from eighteenth century English mills to twenty first century sweat shops.

Classically, environmentalism is painted as a reaction against industrialism, a Romantic call for nature untainted by human artifice. Reflecting another Classical trope, much Western environmental thought has been seen as Arcadian, comparing a dystopian urban and industrial present with an idealized rural past.

But not all environmentalism is Arcadian. In his 1992 book Green Delusions, Martin Lewis criticised ‘radical environmentalism’, and its calls for a return to a simpler, rural, way of life. He saw it as doomed to fail: ‘at present’, he said ‘radical environmentalism is a marginal movement that presents little threat to the status quo’ (p. 14).

Instead, Lewis proposed a ‘Promethean environmentalism’ that ‘embraces the wildly creative, if at times wildly destructive, course of human ascent’.   He argues ‘our future lies not in abandoning technology, but in harmonizing it to a new environmental vision’. He suggested ‘we should, and we will, continue to burn Prometheus’s flame – but we must learn to do so as responsible adults rather than as pyromaniacal adolescents’ (p. 15).

Promethean environmentalism reappears at intervals. Its spirit animates the ecological modernization that has lain at the heart of mainstream sustainable development since the Rio Conference in 1992. Technological advance, efficient organization and smart solutions are the emblems of the Green Economy: capitalist, technocratic and progressive.

Promethean environmentalism has appeared again recently in the self-proclaimed Ecomodernist Manifesto, published in April by the Californian Breakthrough Institute. In the words of the Institute’s website, the Manifesto proposes ‘to use humanity’s powers to create a good Anthropocene’.   It starts from a slightly Panglossian picture of progress and associated ‘human flourishing’ (freedom from violence, disease, natural disaster), and modernity’s accompanying toll on nature. It then argues that human wellbeing is becoming progressively decoupled from environmental impacts, as economic growth rises faster than environmental impacts (deforestation, defaunation and pollution). They predict that future aggregate demand for material goods will progressively fall so that human impacts on the biosphere will rise to a peak and then decline through the twenty first century.

The Manifesto’s central argument is that to bring this cheerful picture into being requires the vigorous adoption of novel technologies (including urban living, aquaculture, agricultural intensification, renewable energy, nuclear power and desalination) to improve resource use productivity. The Manifesto therefore offers an up-tempo version of the classic ‘win-win’ scenario of sustainable development: both more nature and more development.   And, as Giorgos Kallis points out, it continues to treat nature as a means to an end, trading off intensive exploitation of nature here for its preservation elsewhere, in the remote and elusive ‘wild’.

And here a problem lies. The Manifesto’s heart is not in sustainability as such, but in its implications for this ‘wild’. The authors speak of their ‘deep love and emotional connection to the natural world’ (p. 25). Their core argument is that decoupling will allow humanity to ‘spare nature’, achieving ‘peak human impact’ without ‘intruding much further into relatively untouched areas’ (p. 19). To get ‘more wild nature’, they argue that decoupling must be accelerated, while in parallel the ‘biodiversity and wilderness movement’ propounds aesthetic and spiritual reasons to protect nature.

So the Ecomodernist Manifesto is a blueprint for an all-out high-tech route to sustainability, designed primarily to allow the protection of wild nature.   If this sounds too simple, it is. A remarkable feature of the Manifesto is what it says about politics: precisely nothing. How is this brave new world to be brought about?   The Manifesto does not say.   It notes that market-driven technological innovation in the face of scarcity is not enough, but although it mentions the ‘broader social, economic, and political context’ (p. 28), this is not explored. The Manifesto is seemingly blind to the politics of sustainability and resource use. It does not consider how the benefits of this brave new world are to be achieved or shared. Its techno-optimism screens out discussion of the messy realities of winners and losers, or vested interests, or the working of capitalism, the political ignorance of science, the lack of democratic control of economic change.

There may be no politics in the Manifesto, but the paper is nonetheless deeply political. Indeed, in place of a discussion of politics, there is a deliberate anti-politics. This term comes from James Ferguson’s 1990 book on development in Lesotho, The Anti-Politics Machine. Anti-politics involves the presentation of political decisions as merely technical. So, in the Manifesto, decoupling is presented as a technical challenge: the choice of technology is technical; the process of replacing old processes with new is technical; the processes of decarbonization and dematerialization are treated as technical; the protection of ‘wild nature’ is presented an emergent property of a process brought about by technical decisions.

There is no space for the messiness of politics in this ecomodernist world: just neat pieces of kit, technical innovation, human ingenuity and common human interests, all underpinned by a shared love of nature. But who benefits from decisions about technology and the maintenance of contemporary patterns of wealth and wellbeing. Whose nature is preserved? Here the Manifesto is silent.

The anti-politics of the Manifesto is by no means unusual. In a recent paper in the journal Environmental Values, Jeremy Baskin argues that it is characteristic of the current breathless enthusiasm for the idea of the Anthropocene. He describes this rather neatly, as a paradigm dressed up as an epoch. By this he means that the idea comes attached to prescriptive claims. Promethean visions of the future, like those that advocate ‘living within boundaries’, claim to speak about and for a single humanity. Baskin asks ‘who is this human, this anthropos?’ The idea of the Anthropocene focuses on the power of humans, but not who is powerful, and how that power is exercised.

In the same way, the lack of politics in the Manifesto undermines the feasibility of its prescription. Will nature really be spared if it isn’t needed? Of course not, if there is a buck to be made by exploiting it. Stopping this from happening will be a struggle. Even in an ecomodernist world, there will be winners and losers.

The de-politicized discourse of the Ecomodernist Manifesto allows certain views of the world to dominate. It is ‘we’ who face the challenge of the Anthropocene and whose future must be assured. Who is this ‘we’? Whose lifestyle is guaranteed by technological fixes of consumption? Whose comfort in the ‘Holocene-like’ conditions of the planet’s ‘safe operating space’ is threatened and needs to be assured? Whose life expectancy, health and wellbeing, have been secured by the trade-off between development and non-human nature? Whose sensibilities about ‘the wild’ are reflected in the protection of ‘unused nature’, and whose lifestyles (global travel and digital processing power and bandwidth) allow that nature to be enjoyed?

To every question, the answer is the same: the already rich and the growing middle classes and the wealthy countries, and wealthy enclaves within poor countries. These are the beneficiaries of the ecomodernist vision, and they are also its managers: their skills drive innovative change, their employers deliver for-profit environmental management, their pension funds invest in green corporations, and their digital devices offer simulacra of ‘wild nature’.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto may try to disguise its politics, but its authors cannot make them go away.

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9 thoughts on “Ecomodernism and the Anti-Politics of Prometheus

  1. Reblogged this on Ideas for Sustainability and commented:
    I have taken the liberty to reblog this new post by Bill Adams. I encourage readers to visit his blog “Thinking like a human”, which I personally find one of the more inspiring blogs out there. Personally, I had not got around to blogging about the Ecomodernist Manifesto — actually, I had decided it was not worthy of being given attention. However, Bill’s thoughts struck a chord with me, and so I decided to share them on this blog, too. Go visit the original, too! — Joern

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  4. Instead of reblogging I read it :). Certainly among the more insightful and deep analyses of that manifesto. The question remains: Are the emm’s authors even aware of how shallow their text is?

  5. There are many weak spots in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, but its political dimension (or the absence of it) is the least relevant one. Certainly, a green growth or decoupling strategy – nothing else is presented by the manifesto – does not solve the distributional problems we face. As it does not address the issues of corruption, dictatorship or malaria. Because – this is simply not its purpose. Its purpose is to present a vision for a politically feasible path to sustainability, leaving tons of other complicated problems aside for the moment.

    Of course, environmental degradation and resource exploitation have a distributional (“political”) dimension as well. Benefits and costs of using the natural environment are unevenly distributed. However, as environmental problems have to be addressed with environmental politics, distributional problems have to be addressed with (additional) distributional politics. The past has tought us more than once that trying to reach two goals with one policy approach is doomed to fail in both respects. What is more, distributional problems have always been exploited by critics of environmental policy to block any respective progress. Arguing about the lack of distributional justice of the manifesto plays into their hands.

    Even if we accept the idea that environmental policy and distributional aspects are inextricably linked (which they are not) the question would be: Which other overarching environmental protection strategy leads us closer to a reconciliation of these two goals? Degrowth? Steady state economy? All other strategies which are more radical (and decoupling is by far the least radical as it basically says ‘let’s just sit and hope it all goes well by itself’) imply much worse distributional problems. Green growth (decoupling via technological progress) is in fact the best strategy to solve distributional issues as well as it increases overall welfare and thus the potential to meet the needs of all. That is – if green growth would work. Unfortunately it does not. But that is another story…

    • Green growth (decoupling via technological progress) is in fact the best strategy to solve distributional issues as well as it increases overall welfare and thus the potential to meet the needs of all. That is – if green growth would work. Unfortunately it does not. But that is another story…

      Whether it’s the best or the worst strategy, it’s going to be followed. Maybe it won’t be green growth, but I’m sure they’ll call it that.

      This article was really good, BTW. This is another good one about the anti-politics of the Ecomodernists, with the following conclusion:

      The reliance of the ecomodernist city state on complex technologies requires strong central control to keep the machine running, leaving little room for individuality. City states may occupy not much land, but they require a great deal of land and resources from that land to provide all that the people living in them need. Urban organization and governance is complex. As Izen points out at ATTP, the ecomodern city state requires a social monoculture with no room for dissent and that monoculture is enforced by the power of the state.

      The brave new world of ecomodernism will be a very uncomfortable fit to many ecomodernists’ dreams.

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