Decoupled, Not Detached

How Making Nature Useless Can Help Us Love It More

In the months after the publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, a curious agglomeration of environmentalists attacked the manifesto for its call to decouple human societies from dependence upon nature. The idea seemed calculated, nature writer Michelle Nijhuis suggested in the New Yorker after interviewing a number of prominent conservationists, “to alienate.” Ecomodernism leaves “no room for enjoyment of hunting and fishing, botanizing and birdwatching,” Joshua Halpern, a chemistry professor and climate activist at Howard University, wrote in the Guardian. “No backyards to grill in and mow, but all must move into the megopolis. No place for wild pollinators.”

A similar criticism came from Giorgos Kallis, a professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and a prominent degrowth advocate, in an online response. “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?”

The manifesto had made clear that what we meant by decoupling referred to our material dependence on nature, not our spiritual or emotional connection to it. Camping, gardening, wilderness, and parks were good. Trying to grow all our food with low-productivity smallholder farms was not. But that seemed not much to matter to these and other critics. Conservationists whose lives had literally been dedicated to walling off nature by creating nature preserves and various other sorts of protected areas attacked the manifesto for proposing to do exactly that.

In part, this was because much of the focus of the manifesto was on measures that would improve resource productivity such that humans would need less nature to meet their needs, rather than on placing restrictions upon human activities. In part it was because we did not suggest degrowing the economy or otherwise restricting human living standards or economic prosperity as a key measure to protect the environment.

But perhaps more than anything, the claim that ecomodernists propose creating a fully synthetic world, entirely detached from nature, was a useful fiction, allowing its purveyors to recast the pragmatic and empirical environmental case for intensification of human settlements, food, and energy systems as a recipe for a dystopian future. This idea, that technology alienates us from nature, and hence our authentic selves, has animated environmental thought and ethics from its 19th-century origins onwards, a conviction drawn, in turn, from the movement’s Romantic antecedent. Humans in nature are authentic. Humans using technology to mediate, manipulate, or modify nature are alienated.

It is this dichotomy, more than anything, that explains the revulsion at the manifesto shared by both traditional conservationists who deify nature and political ecologists like Kallis who reject concepts like nature and wilderness altogether. Human technological progress cannot be the environment’s salvation because it is, a priori, its antithesis. If we don’t depend on nature for our sustenance, in this view, we won’t value it for its intrinsic worth.

In a new essay for the Breakthrough Journal, environmental writer Emma Marris challenges this idea on social, philosophical, and practical grounds. She reminds us that modern conservation ethics only emerge once people have been liberated from the hard physical labor of scraping a living from the natural world, and that it is precisely the Tarzan videos, National Geographic specials, and other sorts of virtual experiences of nature that Kallis mocks that account for much of our contemporary appreciation of the natural world. And she argues that appreciating nature for its intrinsic value remains a deeply anthropocentric act. We value nature neither because some ethicists have decided that all creatures have “existence rights” nor because forests provide water filtration services (Marris reminds us that just about any kind of forest, including a tree plantation, can provide those services just as well) but because in uncountable and ineffable ways, having nature in our lives enriches our experiences and our physical and emotional well-being.

But beyond that, Marris offers an explicit and specific vision for precisely how we might decouple human material well-being from nature while maintaining, indeed deepening, our spiritual and emotional connections to it. She calls this framework “interwoven decoupling,” envisioning urban centers pulsing with human and natural life, “interwoven” with urban farms, community gardens, city parks, wilder, untended lots, and other “tendrils of nature” reaching in from the wilderness beyond the city’s reach.

But having these things also means recognizing precisely what function they serve—not any meaningful form of production, but rather connection. A world with both more wilderness and small farms, gardens, parks, and urban wildlife that connect us, as we put it in the manifesto, “to our deep evolutionary history” is only possible if the vast majority of food that we produce is grown and raised through hyper-efficient forms of agriculture. “The paradox of the ‘natural upscale’ lifestyle,” Marris writes, is that modes of living and farming that remain tightly coupled with nature—eating local, organic, grass-fed, and the like—are simply less efficient modes of production and hence, by most metrics, worse for the environment.

Marris’s essay is an important read for all who care about conservation and who wish to deepen human connection and commitment to an ecologically vibrant planet. It is also, of no less import, a useful corrective to those who suggest that there is no alternative to the binary choice between recoupling human societies to natural systems or accepting a future that is sterile, synthetic, and fully detached from nature.

As always, your thoughts and responses are welcome.