The Ethics of Ecological Modernization

Embracing Creative Destruction

The concluding panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue raised questions about the doomsday narratives embedded in current conversations of mankind’s ecological impacts, and pointed to an alternative set of ecologically modern ethics that might succeed the “small-is-beautiful,” anti-consumerist, and technologically skeptical values of traditional environmentalism.

Moderator Emma Marris framed the discussion around the ethical challenge of moving away from using natural as the definition of good. “Natural isn’t the good, and going backward isn’t the natural. If you go backward you don’t hit some moral, holy baseline,” Marris proposed. But how, then, do we know when to take action and what ethics guide this process? Marris pointed to humility as an overarching virtue, not just because we like humble people, she said, but because if we are humble, then we don’t aggressively pursue a single approach to the point that we foreclose future options.

Zealotry was also on the mind of philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner, who opened the panel with the provocative argument that traditional environmentalists have become consumed with guilt and fear about the destruction of the Earth, and that contemporary predictions of the (ever-coming) environmental collapse structurally resemble Christian stories of sin, redemption, and the apocalypse.

“In the Western world, progress has become a broken promise that started with the Renaissance and the scientific revolution engineered by Francis Bacon in the 17th century, and has continued until now when we have entered a time of catastrophes,” said Bruckner.

He continued:

If we ask the question of who is the enemy nowadays, we must consider the answers that have been made since WWII. For the Marxists the enemy was capitalism and bourgeois; for the Third Worldist, the enemy was Western imperialism; radical ecology goes a step further and answers man is to himself his worst enemy. Man’s main flaw is his will to conquer and dominate the world, so we have to redress ourselves and the enemy that lies within.

The primary tool of apocalyptic environmentalism is seeding fear and anticipated remorse, the latter defined as the guilt and sorrow we feel now for the harm we will inevitably commit in the future. But if the end times are nigh, points out Bruckner, two central contradictions upend this outlook. First, if it is already too late, then why should we bother pursuing any solutions? Second, the enormity of the diagnosis does not match the triviality of the remedies. For example, if the world is at the edge of collapse, traditional environmentalists advise simply riding your bike and abstaining from eating meat.

“Ecological ethics is at a crossroads,” said Bruckner. “Either we give in to the prophets of doom or we combine progress with respect for the environment. The race has begun between the powers of despair and the powers of audacity.”

Martin Lewis, professor of geography at Stanford University, started out as a radical environmentalist in his youth, but in his graduate work discovered that even the most strident Greens were espousing ideas that would have devastating implications for the global ecosystem. His critiques later formed the 1992 book Green Delusions. Although roundly dismissed by the environmental community as a “heretic” at the time, Lewis’s critique of eco-radicals’ responses to environmental degradation, and the Arcadian ideals underlying them, continues to inform current debates over how to “save” nature.

“The Arcadian sentiments have so deeply infiltrated environmental mainstream so much so that much of environmentalism has become its own antithesis,” says Lewis.

A self-canceling approach to the environmental dilemma, argues Lewis, is rooted in large part in an Edenic system of environmental ethics, one that contends that we must do everything possible to save the small fragments of Eden that have survived the despoliation of our modern, industrial society. This philosophy is intrinsically conservative, and hence serves to thwart the development of a truly progressive philosophy that recognizes the need for creative destruction and progress.

What should succeed these outmoded ideals is a form of evolutionary ethics, one that embraces natural, human, cultural, and technological evolution. Evolution is creative destruction writ large, according to Lewis, and so respecting evolution at the interconnected, continental level is what will move us away from Edenic thinking.

Whereas Brucker’s and Lewis’s lectures were largely formulated by a negative definition of what modern ecological ethics should be, Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, argued that ecomodernists are still operating under a politics of deferral where “progress” is used as a catchall for the unaddressed, specific values they bring to tending to our environment.

Citing Bruno Latour’s essay “Love Your Monsters,” which argues that we must learn to love our technologies as we do our children, Robbins suggested that this ethical framework insufficiently answers the questions of how to addressspecific monsters and their attendant entanglements.

Robbins explained:

How should we adjudicate decisions over diverse breeds of cotton in India, for example, where Bt varieties has been embraced and enthusiastically crossbred by countless farmers, but opposed by many others? How does the drift of proprietary genetic code entangle farmers not only with GMOs but also with international property laws and circulations of capital that may transform their relationship to debt, financing, and markets for inputs and land?

Ecological interventions are always vehicles to both exert power over the environment and to direct the flow of value from the landscape to specific interests, says Robbins, which means that green moderns will never transcend the political struggle, and nor should they. Rather than operating in reaction to the elitism and regressive nature of traditional environmentalists, ecomodernists must first engage with the messy, violent, and specific details of the environmental problem before reaching any conclusions or general principals.

Questions arose from the audience on how might ecologically modern ethics be concretely implemented, and how anxiety, rather than fear, might become a friend to public policy. Another participant queried the actual influence of radical environmentalism upon the mainstream. The complexity of environmental issues today, replied Robbins, requires that we make decisions on the ground, rather than in the room.

“[Ecological] decisions rarely benefit from unanimity of values and goals, so that any adjudication of whether to extirpate or nurture a species, or to drill for gas or not, must be the result of conflict and the exercise of material and discursive power, often exercised under condition of gross social, economic, and political asymmetries,” he said.