What is Modern in Ecomodernism?

Nature, Technology, and Politics in the Anthropocene

“Is ecomodernism a white elephant to kill as soon as possible, or a hopeful monster that requires the care of a whole bunch of Dr. Frankensteins?”

So asked sociologist Bruno Latour at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which was “The Good Anthropocene.” Latour offered a rollicking critique of ecomodernists and their manifesto, kicking off a discussion among the other panelists and participants about what it means to be human and the division between nature and society.

Latour rejected a fundamental tenet of ecomodernism –– that humanity can save wild nature through modernization by accelerating decoupling and technological innovation. Rather, modernization is a myth of “emancipation from some stagnant, archaic, and stifling past,” but actually further entangles society with nature rather than decoupling from it.

Environmental historian Jenny Price offered a similar reaction, arguing that any discussion of humans and nature should be about specific societies and particular natures since no real action takes place in any other context, according to Price.

“Nature and humanity are the two most powerful terms in environmental history,” argued Price, “but they make nature invisible and human interaction invisible.”

Fundamental to Latour’s and Price’s critiques of ecomodernism was their shared contention that human societies are fundamentally and progressively embedded within their surrounding natural environments. Separation of the two is philosophically and rhetorically impossible.

Steve Fuller, professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick, disagreed.

“Humans have distinguished ourselves as a species that can exist in very different ways from the rest of nature,” he said.

Fuller agreed with Latour that “modernity” is a myth, but insisted that did not mean that modernity is not real.

“Modernity is a story we tell ourselves to motivate ourselves,” said Fuller. “It gives us a kind of guidance toward when we’re doing things right and wrong.”

University of Maryland professor and coauthor of An Ecomodernist Manifesto Erle Ellis offered his expertise as a leading scholar on the Anthropocence. Humans must be special, he contended, because by observing nature we are partially creating it.

“I’ve learned there is no such thing as the Anthropocene,” he said. “There are Anthropocenes.”

Latour also critiqued the ecomodernist manifesto’s lack of explicitly targeted opponents, which he interpreted as a lack of politics in ecomodernism.

“I will be convinced only if I get a detailed list of your friends and enemies,” he said.

Matthew Nisbet from Northeastern University took issue with Latour’s framing of politics, arguing that “if you look at the collective writings of the ecomodernists, they have a clear theory of politics: it starts with critical forum for self-reflection and critique.”

Nisbet argued that the Manifesto was a “platform and a discourse for new ideas” and that division of friends and enemies was not necessary for a political coherent philosophy at its outset.

Latour responded that he liked the idea of bringing people together in order to disagree, but asked, “What do you do with the disagreement?”

Suzanne Waldman stoked a bit of debate over romanticism and pragmatism by alluding to Latour’s famed essay “Love Your Monsters.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Waldman pointed out, “alternates between Enlightenment and Romantic ideas much like lots of 19th century literature.” Waldman asked how we might mute romanticism so we can think about problems in a more technical fashion.

The panelists felt this was a step too far.

“Choosing Enlightenment over Romanticism is recoiling from conflict,” said Latour.

According to Steve Fuller, “we’re talking about what it means to be human.”

Read Bruno Latour's presented remarks here.

Listen to Steve Fuller's full response to Bruno Latour here.