What Direction Ecomodernism?

A Response from Jeff Filipiak, a lecturer in history at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley

On the level of ideas, ecomodernism would decrease the importance of the “precautionary principle.” Both the intellectuals of the movement, and average activists, have been drawn to the movement in part by a hope that through the movement they can limit the adoption of large-scale technological innovations (particularly chemical use) which, they fear, are dangerous and unproven.

Ecomodernists, on the other hand, appear to place their hopes, and greater decision-making power, in the hands of corporations which activists have often seen (rightly or wrongly) as creating threats to health and the environment. Potential conflicts over this issue are sharp: one of leading promoters of the agricultural intensification which ecomodernists advocate is Monsanto, a lightning rod for environmentalist criticism today as in the past. As the American producer of PCBs, Monsanto played a significant role in the rise of concerns about hazardous waste; concern about PCB waste also inspired the protests in Warren County, North Carolina, which helped give birth to the awareness of the Environmental Justice dimensions of waste and health issues.

For these reasons and others, social justice advocates might worry that ecomodernism might be less even inclusive than environmentalism, a movement that has already rightly been criticized for being dominated by white males. Roger Gottlieb asserts that women active on environmental issues often were particularly concerned about the dangers of nuclear power and toxics; the Manifesto offers little role for those with such concerns.

More broadly, by proposing the “decoupling of humanity from nature,” ecomodernists risk abandoning what has been both a key means of identifying problems (having people notice pollution), and of motivating support of the movement. From the organic growers who contacted Rachel Carson to anti-pollution activists to Lois Gibbs, concern for the local environment (and local dangers to human health) has been central to motivating people to become active in the movement. Recent works by Christopher Sellers and Adam Rome demonstrate how closely tied the movement was to local communities.

One of the most prominent themes in nature writing has long been the encouragement of individuals to get out and know nature, whether it be locally or in distant places. Richard Louv’s popular 2005 book argued that we need to increase the ability of children to play in nature, because if children do not do so they will be unlikely to want to preserve nature. In contrast, Ecomodernists suggest diminishing the personal relationship with nature, removing people (at least for the most part) from much of the landscape. And the authors say little about their connections to nature; David Gessner complained about 2004’s Break Through, by two of the manifesto’s authors that he didn’t “encounter a single rock or tree or bird” in the book. The manifesto’s authors place less importance on ideas and experiences because they believe that “humans are as likely to spare nature because it is not needed to meet their needs as they are to spare it for explicit aesthetic and spiritual reasons.”

On the other side of that decoupling, ecomodernism challenges recent scholarship in the environmental humanities and wilderness management that argues that humans need to see less separation between themselves and wildness. Environmental historian William Cronon, in his 1996 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” suggested that wilderness ideas had misleading aspects, and that “the core problem of wilderness is that it distances us too much from the very things it teaches us to value.” He ended his essay with a call for people to instead perceive themselves as making a home in nature, as a means of acting responsibly. The essay sparked a divisive debate, but it inspired many who felt that environmentalists focused too much on distant wild places. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, present a vision which removes more people from rural communities, and which appears to seek to increase the role of wilderness areas from which people have been removed. They seek to “to re-wild and re-green the Earth,” at a time when most environmentalist scientists have shifted towards trying to figure out how species can coexist with humans and human management.

Read the full response here.