Democracy in the Anthropocene

"Democracy, tolerance, and pluralism,” my coauthors and I wrote in early 2015 when we published An Ecomodernist Manifesto, hold the “keys to achieving a great Anthropocene.” At the time, it was the notion of a great Anthropocene that seemed preposterous to some. In the face of looming ecological catastrophe, the only choice, according to many critics, was between a future that would be bad and one that would be worse. But today, it is our faith in democracy, tolerance, and pluralism that perhaps seems more audacious.

The ecomodern project is predicated upon a notion of providence — that life for humans is getting better, as social scientists like Hans Rosling, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Ruth DeFries have reminded us in recent years. Despite the depredations of the Great Recession, Western publics remain, from top to bottom, among the wealthiest human beings to have ever lived. The freedoms, identities, privileges, and opportunities available to even the poorest among us are simply unprecedented in the history of the human species.

With unprecedented knowledge, technology, and resources at our disposal, human societies have the capability to make a planet that is good for both humans and nature. The question today, and not just for ecomodernists, is whether, in the face of the proliferating values, ideologies, and priorities that come with material prosperity, we will be capable of charting a course that can assure wise development of the global commons.

A rising tide may have floated all boats, but it has also set them against each other in new ways.

From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, it has become apparent that in increasingly affluent, postmaterial, and unequal societies, the center cannot hold. A rising tide, over more than two centuries, may have floated all boats, but it has also set them against each other in new ways. Unmoored from the disciplining project of modernization and lacking real external enemies, politics has become a zero-sum competition for status, recognition, and identity.

Since the 2007 financial crisis and the deep global recession that followed, these fractures have galvanized the wave of populist revulsion — at the “establishment,” the status quo, shadowy elites, and international cabals of bankers, capitalists, and globalists — that has swept across advanced developed economies, as publics around the world have sought strong leaders and strong medicine to restore the nation, the people, and the economy to their rightful place in the world.

Elections in France and the Netherlands have stanched the momentum of populist movements for the moment. But nowhere is there much confidence that the long-standing formula for peace, prosperity, equality, and freedom over the seven decades since the end of World War II is capable of addressing the grievances that are fueling the retreat to populism and authoritarianism among polities around the world.

Today, liberal democracy, internationalism, global trade, and multiethnic societies are all under duress. The Left rails at something called “neoliberalism,” while the Right blames immigrants, internationalism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism. Lacking anything capable of uniting increasingly fractious and polarized polities, politics, in the ordinary sense of the word, becomes impossible. The social solidarity necessary for all nation-building projects, or even increasingly just the simple exercise of basic governance, recedes from view.

In this issue of the Breakthrough Journal, we consider the many consequences of this postmaterial, postindustrial, and postmodern moment for ecomodernism. How might the long-term planning horizons necessary for good outcomes in the Anthropocene be reconciled with bottom-up, democratic governance? And what is to be done when late-modern, postmaterial publics lose track of both the civil and material conditions that have made the extraordinary prosperity and freedoms we take for granted possible?


“What does environmentalism look like when it takes women’s realities seriously?” geographer Jennifer Bernstein asks in a bristling new essay, “On Mother Earth and Earth Mothers.” Tracing the troubled gender dynamics of modern environmentalism and the biological determinism of ecofeminist discourse, Bernstein documents the ways in which calls for a return to the kitchen by food and lifestyle gurus like Michael Pollan, and a return to the farm by ecofeminists like Vandana Shiva, disempower women and naturalize traditional gender roles.

“At a moment in our history when increasing numbers of women have liberated themselves from many of the demands of unpaid domestic labor,” Bernstein writes, “prominent environmental thinkers are advocating a return to the very domestic labor that stubbornly remains the domain of women.”

The consequences of this sort of “new naturalism” for women are not insignificant. In developed countries, as lower- and middle-class working women attempt to make the best of stagnating wages, packed schedules, and the demands of their “second shift,” moralizing calls for “a languorous, technology-free, larger-than-life cooking experience” only add to the burdens of women’s work. In the developing world, Bernstein continues, those burdens are all the more onerous on women, condemning them to often brutal and patriarchal rural livelihoods that bear little resemblance to the pastoral idyll romanticized by those who would reject modern industrial society for an agrarian alternative.

Environmentalists need to rid themselves, once and for all, of the pastoral romanticism that has animated environmental ethics for more than a century.

What will it take for environmentalism to reconcile itself with feminism? At bottom, environmentalists will need to rid themselves, once and for all, of the pastoral romanticism that has animated environmental ethics for more than a century. “Modern notions of rights, identity, and agency cannot be reconciled with premodern social, economic, and political arrangements,” Bernstein concludes. “Environmental ethics that reject those prerequisites in the name of the natural and pastoral are, simply put, irreconcilable with feminism.”

Abandoning our nostalgia for pastoral utopias doesn’t mean we must abandon a personal connection to farms, food production, or wild nature, nature writer Emma Marris argues in “Can We Love Nature and Let it Go?” But it does require that we reconsider why we love those things and what we want from them. Too often, the case for conservation has been made with species counts or calculations of the economic value of so-called “ecosystem services.” But it is the intrinsic value of nature, Marris observes, “which we variously characterize as love, respect, connection, awe, sense of place,” that she sees as “by far the most powerful motivator for those who work to protect nature.” This becomes evident in the abundance of farmers’ markets, urban farms, and community gardens in our midst today, which produce virtually no food at scale but fulfill an essential need for connection to nature within increasingly urbanized societies.

We aren’t going to feed the world with small-scale, low-intensity agriculture.

Decoupling human well-being from environmental impacts shouldn’t entail decoupling people from experiencing nature in all its manifold expressions, whether “out there” in wilderness or just down the street in a community garden. But it does require recognizing that we aren’t going to feed the world with small-scale, low-intensity agriculture. Were such a thing even possible, it would require turning all the world’s forests and wetlands and savannas into smallholder farms and pastures. The answer, rather, lies in what she calls “interwoven decoupling,” a world in which most food is produced intensively and at large scale, and most people live in dense, urban settlements, but in which nature of all sorts – protected areas, “tendrils of wildness” reaching into cities, small farms, and community gardens – abounds, not because we need it, but because we want it.

The key to continuing to love nature even as we let it go will be to decouple our spiritual, emotional, and cultural connections with it from our dependence on it for material sustenance. “If we use up nature,” Marris writes, “we will be miserable. If we wall ourselves off from nature, we will be miserable. The path to joy is to allow nonhuman nature to thrive by reducing our demands upon it, while loving ourselves enough to allow ourselves to remain within it.”


Imagining a future in which a prosperous, modern, and technologically advanced society pulls back from nature because it no longer depends on it for material well-being is the sort of first-world concern that much of the planet would love to have. Liberating most people from backbreaking agrarian labor and creating enough societal prosperity that thoughts can turn to what kinds of nature we would like to keep around is a project that, for most people around the world, is still unfinished.

In “Leapfrogging Progress,” the great Harvard development scholar Calestous Juma reminds us that despite the promise of cell phones and solar panels, there is still no substitute for infrastructure and industrialization. Africa has, over the last decade, experienced a mobile communications revolution. Hundreds of millions of Africans now have access to smart phones. Mobile banking and a variety of other telecommunications services are widely available throughout the continent. But Africans today are still primarily consumers, rather than producers, of those technologies and services. Until that changes, Juma argues, Africa will remain poor and underdeveloped.

The mobile revolution might have provided a foundation for industrial growth and economic diversification. But it was wrongly seized upon as an opportunity to leapfrog industrialization altogether. As a result, African countries remain wedded to their legacy economies, pursuing value addition to raw materials as a means to development — a strategy that in the end limits their capacity to become dynamic learning economies. It is infrastructure, Juma writes, and the institutional growth and technological learning that go along with building and maintaining it, that generates innovation and diversification truly capable of transforming African economies.

Despite the promise of cell phones and solar panels, there is still no substitute for infrastructure and industrialization.

The missed opportunities of the mobile revolution hold important lessons for those who argue that it might be replicated for Africans through the provision of solar-powered distributed energy systems. Unless African economies are able to capture a significant share of the value chain associated with solar manufacturing and distribution, solar panels may provide minimal amounts of energy for African households but are unlikely to significantly raise incomes or contribute to Africa’s economic development.

Innovation, Juma argues, is the primary driver of long-term economic transformation, and infrastructure, counterintuitively for some, provides the foundation for learning and innovation. “If anything, the evolution of the mobile sector demonstrates the continued importance of industrial development as the source and catalyst for innovation and economic growth,” Juma concludes. “Leapfrogging particular technologies, such as landlines, may in some cases be an option. But industrialization itself, and the innovation and development it generates, cannot be skipped over.”

If distributed solar isn’t likely to offer a path out of poverty and toward modern living standards, then what energy source might provide Africans with cheap and abundant clean energy, capable of powering development and modernization? In “Untapped Potential,” Breakthrough Senior Fellow Sid Shome suggests it might be time to reconsider an older source of renewable energy — hydroelectric power.

Because of its social and environmental costs, hydro development has long been viewed skeptically in most environmental quarters. But it also remains the largest source of renewable electricity production globally and the world’s largest source of low-carbon power. Shome offers a surprising case to demonstrate his point: the “Green Republic” of Costa Rica, in which hydro not only accounts for two-thirds of the country’s total electric power generation but has also played a central and largely unrecognized role in its extraordinary history of forest conservation.

Good institutions, industrialization, infrastructure, wise energy development, and conservation are a package deal.

Hydro is worth a second look, Shome argues, because it offers a cheap and abundant source of low-carbon, dependable, on-demand energy for nations with relatively modest technological and engineering capabilities. For this reason, it has historically played an outsized role for many nations around the world in their transition to becoming modern energy economies. Hydro development has brought with it significant collateral damage to communities, especially indigenous communities, and habitat in and around flooded areas. But the Costa Rica case demonstrates that with wise planning and good institutions, the impacts of hydro development can be significantly, if not entirely, mitigated, with significant benefits for both local communities and surrounding forests and habitat.

Of course, given Africa’s tragic colonial history and complex challenges in the postcolonial era, wise planning and strong institutions are no certainty. But there is little reason to think that Africa can successfully leapfrog functioning institutions any more than it might leapfrog industrialization or infrastructure. Good institutions, industrialization, infrastructure, wise energy development, and conservation are a package deal. Pursuing those outcomes piecemeal is unlikely to bring good outcomes for either people or the environment.


If the last two decades of effort to address global environmental challenges have proven anything, it is that global, top-down restrictions upon human activity, be it greenhouse gas emissions or conversion of tropical forests for agriculture, are a dead end. Yet even as the United States withdraws from the Paris agreement, supposedly science-based technocratic frameworks to limit human environmental impact continue to proliferate. Whether framed in terms of global carbon caps, planetary boundaries, or restricting humanity to half the planet so that the rest may be reserved for nature, the notion that technocratic limits might be imposed upon a growing global population from above by a self-regarding and moralizing expert class is neither practical nor wise.

Yet the same critique might also be lobbed at ecomodernists advocating a good Anthropocene. The vision of an urbanized planet in which human societies are powered by nuclear energy and fed with large-scale, technological agriculture is no less prone to top-down technocratic regimes than is the idea that various sorts of scientifically prescribed boundaries might limit human endeavors. In a world in which human activities and impacts have achieved unprecedented planetary scale, it is difficult to even comprehend the challenges and opportunities we face in the Anthropocene without both thinking at global scales and relying upon science and expertise to make those challenges and opportunities visible.

In “Nature for the People,” leading Anthropocene theorist Erle Ellis offers a framework for thinking about nature and wilderness in the Anthropocene that is both sweeping and bottom up. Sustaining and promoting biodiversity, he argues, will require a global, threefold approach: enhancing the productivity of the lands we use around the world for our own purposes, protecting the areas this intensification opens up, and — “the greatest challenge of them all, the grand challenge of the Anthropocene” — reconnecting habitat across both on a planetary scale.

Humans today have greater powers than ever before to craft our planetary future.

Doing so, Ellis acknowledges, will involve trade-offs, as well as an unprecedented level of social coordination. Such collaborative work, if it is to be effective and equitable, must emerge and evolve from the bottom up, through intricate and prolonged social learning and cultural negotiation across local and regional societies and private and public institutions. But perhaps most important to the success of such an ambitious collective project, Ellis suggests, will be the force of its ideals and aspirations.

“Protection and connection at the planetary scales needed to sustain wild creatures and wild spaces through the Anthropocene will not succeed without connecting deeply with the abiding human love and concern for wild nature,” Ellis insists. The forms these values take are many and at times conflicting, and the decisions ahead will be complex and open-ended, but such is the nature of a democratic and aspirational conservation ethic up to the challenge, and true to the potential, of a good Anthropocene.

In these ways, Ellis makes the paradoxical nature of the Anthropocene clear. Humans today have greater powers than ever before to craft our planetary future. But at the moment those powers have begun to come into view, it is not at all clear that we are capable of finding sufficient consensus across borders, ethnicities, values, or ideologies to use those powers with foresight and wisdom.

For now, long-term processes of industrialization and modernity continue to chug along, decoupling our land, energy, and resource use in relative and sometimes absolute terms. But despite these impressive gains, it has also become clear that the challenges we face require a more rapid and intentional acceleration of these processes. That, in turn, would seem to demand some renegotiation of the social, cultural, and political arrangements that appear increasingly incapable of doing so today.

In the face of those challenges, now is not the time to retreat to our technocratic toolboxes, nor into our ideological corners. As Ellis maintains, the planet we occupy, “is a social construct, shaped physically and culturally by the perceptions, values, aspirations, tools, and institutions of societies past and present.” These structures and processes are impossibly complex, but that should not imply that they are out of our control.

Faced with great social, economic, and environmental challenges and increasingly cacophonous global polities, one can understand the temptation to put ourselves in the hands of some cadre of social, economic, or scientific elites. As the fray appears to descend into madness and tribalism, the search for anyone who might be above that fray is not just limited to populists convinced that a wealthy and successful man, not beholden to “special interests,” might do the public’s bidding. The same desires motivate liberal elites to want scientists and technocrats, whom they imagine to be detached from popular political passions or corrupting economic interests, to guide environmental policy making. But there is no real alternative to democratic accountability and self-governance. Democracy, pluralism, and tolerance still represent the only path to a good Anthropocene.

Read more from Breakthrough Journal, No. 7
Democracy in the Anthropocene
Featuring pieces by Erle Ellis, Emma Marris, Calestous
Juma, Jennifer Bernstein, and Siddhartha Shome