Escaping the Ecomodernist Binary
In his review of Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, Ted Nordhaus chides humanity for being too “bashful” when it comes to manipulating nature, insisting that such manipulation is necessary if we are to meet our environmental protection aspirations. We’ve likely been in a kind of Anthropocene for far longer than we recognize. The cat is out of the bag, Nordhaus seems to be saying, so we might as well learn to embrace environmental tinkering in earnest. Yet for all his chiding of environmental activists and their “grossly simplified models of the relationship between humans and nature,” Nordhaus ends up offering an equally facile binary in its place.
Nordhaus is no doubt correct that the concept of nature has always been problematically slippery. Metaphors like “carry capacity”, “balanced webs”, and “great chain of being,” obscure as much as they enlighten. He reiterates the well-known problem with “nature.” That is, it is very difficult to draw the line where humanity ends and nature begins. Humans impacted the climate as soon as they discovered fire, a tool that they used to reshape their environment. Yet, despite William Cronon’s over 25-year-old critique of the fantasy of pristine wilderness and how it blinds people to the difficulties of our unavoidable interconnectedness to nature, the myth of the untouched environment persists.
But humans think metaphorically. No differently from the problematic categorizations people use to order their world, they are a largely inescapable component of our imaginations. Eliminating previous metaphors and categorizations usually doesn’t uncover a previously hidden objective reality, because that process of elimination invariably involves overlaying new value-laden images on top of it. What exactly is the metaphor driving Nordhaus?
It would have been nice if Nordhaus had been more explicit. I feel like he hid behind the truism that humanity’s tinkering with the environment has been ever present. But it’s not too difficult to read between the lines when he seems to put prehistoric humans creating grasslands where forests once stood at the same level as genetically engineering coral to survive anthropogenic climate change.
Michael Shellenberger, only formerly associated with Nordhaus’ Breakthrough Institute, isn’t so keen to hide his cards. In coming out against renewable energy, he claims that their problem is that they cannot be sufficiently “modern.” Shellenberger makes a little bit too much out of a few Heidegger and Bookchin quotes and a handful of decontextualized statistics to claim that a society based on renewable energy would be inevitably arrested in a state of agrarian backwardness.
Although Nordhaus isn’t so brazen, he doesn’t seem too different from Shellenberger when he talks of humanity’s relationship with the environment. In contrast to Shellenberger, however, he does recognize the risks, something apparent when he recounts the compounding unintended consequences brought on by creation of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The canal was first constructed to keep Chicago’s sewage from inundating Lake Michigan. Asian carp was introduced to control weed and algae growth, but the carp’s capacious growth now threatens the ecosystem—only being reined in by erecting electric barriers to limit the species’ movement. As lamentable as this turn of events might be, Nordhaus waves it off: “Most Chicagoans would probably choose [ecological tragedy] over open sewers running through their streets.”
Imagine that humanity’s control over their tinkering with the environment were regulated by the same controls in an automobile. Nordhaus and Shellenberger seem to be preoccupied with the accelerator and brake. The above depiction of the Chicago Sanitary Canal ends up implying almost the same Hobson’s choice as Shellenberger presents for renewable energy: We either dig canals and electrify them, following previous technological errors with new technical fixes in the same style, or we wallow impoverished and in shit.
To fair, technological decisions don’t happen in a vacuum. They are path-dependent. We are partly ruled over by earlier decisions made by people who are now long dead. Electric (and perhaps automated) vehicles appear to be the only answer to the ills of the automobile in a country where travel by foot, bicycle, or trolley car is made difficult to impossible by already established infrastructure—not to mention culturally entrenched ideas connecting automobility to progress, America, and masculinity.
But the answer given by eco-modernists, even if more implied than explicitly stated like in Nordhaus’s book reviews, reads almost like a kind of learned helplessness in the face of "progress": “This is the path we’re on, we might as well stick with where the least resistance seems to be. But don’t worry! We have read the statistical tea leaves. Everyone will probably be better off. We might as well push forward with our current mode of tinkering.”
History may end up vindicating ecomodernists’ faith in linear progress, at least in the short term, but their quickness to discount alternative pathways stifles a more charitable conversation about environmental problems. There is a real and troubling tendency in ecomodernist writing to reduce the debate into a black-and-white struggle between cornucopians and Malthusians, modernity and pre-modernity, or abundance and austerity. Such a move is just as oversimplifying as the “pristine nature” myths they critique.
Notions like modernity, progress, and abundance are themselves inextricably value-laden. If there is anything productive to come out of debates about how humanity ought to tinker with nature it will only be if those debaters were more honestly up-front about their value commitments. Too often ecomodernism (or degrowth) is presented similarly as liberalism, as if it were just a neutral path toward a better world rather than a one particular partisan vision of the good. And too often, statistical trends read from thirty thousand feet are included less to inspire thoughtfulness and more to lend one side’s argument an aura of inevitability: “Can’t you see that collapse/progress is coming?” Obscured are deeper questions about what makes for a good life and a good society. Exactly what kind of world should our environmental tinkering lead to?
Just because words like “nature” can be problematic social constructions doesn’t mean that they are useless. Most people would admit that there is a significant difference between viewing a tiger at the zoo and encountering one in a jungle. All the thorniness inherent in the concept of wilderness aside, dispensing with the notion that non-human or “natural” agency is important prevents a more complex conversation regarding biological and environmental problems, one that can’t be reduced to facile questions like “Is energy use good or bad?”
Consider minimalistic shoes, of which Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes are only one example. These shoes are touted for helping runners realize a more “natural” running form, biomechanics ostensibly discouraged by the heavily padded runners developed during the 20th century. The debates regarding the merits of the shoes quickly went into scientistic territory, with no shortage of evidence available for either side to declare victory.
But most observers missed that the central tension was only superficially about what constitutes a “natural” human gait. It was really rooted in the question of how people should interact with the very ground that they run on. Are the parts of nature outside of our own bodies something simply to insulate and protect against or should there be a more dynamic dance between the agencies of non-human nature and of people? Should our shoes be built to make the material configuration of the ground almost irrelevant to our running or keep it as something we are forced to reckon with on an intimate level?
Taking these examples seriously doesn’t mean falling back upon an idealized bucolic nature, one without the “corrupting” influence of human beings and their technologies. Rather, the point is that there are different qualitative styles to engaging with world that the exists outside people and their creations. A pair Vibrams is no less a technological creation than Nike’s Vapormax running shoes, but each take for granted a different relationship to inherited human biology and how it intersects with the ground. Our disagreements about nature will only be productive when we recognize that it is the tension (and fuzzy border) between nature-to-be-controlled and nature-to-be-engaged, not fanaticizing binaries like “abundance vs austerity,” that lies at the root of them.
It’s easy to forget that Chicago only needed a Sanitary Canal because American society chose to dump its waste into waterways rather than compost it. Chicagoans were wallowing in shit because they failed to envision a relationship with waste other than trying to make it disappear into ditches, sewers, and lakes. Because they failed to commune with composting bacteria, early modern cities had to go to war with cholera.
We lose the ability to reimagine the dynamics and character of humanity’s tinkering with nature when progress is imagined as a binary. The pathways available to us are not just forward and backwards, toward “modernity” and away from it, or doing things “because we can” and environmental asceticism. There is a steering wheel available to human societies, which they could use to chart any number of pathways through our environmental challenges, if we would only remember that it’s there.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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