The Ecomodernist Myth

In the wake of the Pope’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si, in which he calls for action on climate change and other environmental challenges, Mike Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Oakland-based energy and environment think-tank The Breakthrough Institute, along with Mark Lynas, campaigner and author of The God Species, have put together a response entitled “A Pope Against Progress.” Herein, I want to focus on this piece as a means of broader response to the general project of ‘ecomodernism’, recently outlined, for example, in their previous publication, “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”

laudato siI will firstly engage on their level of discourse by outlining some fundamental practical misgivings, flag up their extensive bias and historical revisionism, and try to put some brakes on a form of environmentalism which in fact is nothing of the sort. Let us have no illusions, ‘ecomodernism’ is an excuse to keep technological civilisation on its tracks, pushing the non-human world over a cliff. Any pretensions to humanitarianism are dubious and, as I will demonstrate by the end of this piece, their response to the encyclical ultimately consists of three privileged, rich white men telling us that capitalist modernity is the apotheosis of human existence. It isn’t.

Therefore, I will conclude with some of the broader worldview implications which underpin ecomodernist writings. This is a more philosophical level of analysis which the ‘pragmatist’ ecomodernists are uncomfortable with, but which I hope to establish is crucial to upholding their anthropocentric, technocratic vision of reality.

Myth 1: “It is not the sin of greed but rather aspirations to a better life that led countries from England to the US to China and India to burn huge quantities of coal. All sought to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.”

Shellenberger, Nordhaus, and Lynas set the rose-tinted tone early on in the piece in their astonishing claim that the origins of the industrial revolution had nothing to do with a nascent capitalist system, investing colonial wealth (a very tangible link, outlined beautifully by the late Eduardo Galleano in The Open Veins of Latin America) to further private gain. Rather, enforced enclosure of common land and the driving of people off the land and into polluted cities, to work long hours in dangerous factories, was some sort of philanthropic act to lift millions of people out of poverty.

Presumably this will make the poor of Latin America, Africa and almost everywhere else feel much better, knowing that their centuries-long sufferance of structural poverty and oppression at least went to a good cause in early industrialising countries.

Sarcasm aside, as historian Eric Williams has stated, ‘The colonial system was the spinal cord of the commercial capitalism of the mercantile epoch.’ James Watt’s coal-guzzling steam engine was one product of this arrangement. Watt, Washington Alcott writes, ‘expressed eternal gratitude to the West Indian slave owners who directly financed his famous steam engine. Their money allowed him to take his designs from the drawing-board to the factory.’ Other direct and indirect links abound, but the conclusion is certain — industrial capitalism has no interest in lifting people out of poverty, and why should it?

Myth 2: “While the Pope bemoans the burning of coal, oil and gas he does so without recognizing that increasing energy consumption in developing countries is a precondition for poverty reduction. He seems to have no understanding of trade-offs — or the fact that pretty much all the projected future carbon emissions increases will come from the developing world.”

There is certainly a major sleight of hand in discussing ‘future carbon emissions increases’, without mentioning the intensification of poverty which is projected to occur, and already is occuring, due to existing high-energy lifestyles in the west. That’s one major trade off which Lynas, Nordhaus and Shellenberger would rather not discuss. Mainly because they consistently fail to address inequities in the present.

Either way, is energy consumption really a precondition for poverty reduction? Ecomodernists’ shortsighted faith in the ability of industrialisation, urbanisation and high-energy lifestyles to reduce poverty and fertility rates ignores the possibility of other alternatives which might not follow the planet-destroying path of the West. After all, with just a minority of the planet living the high-energy urbanised lives so admired by the authors, humanity’s (read primarily: the West’s) footprint is already far exceeding planetary boundaries.

Without denying that there may be correlations between energy consumption and poverty reduction, given ecological constraints one wonders what motivates the ecomodernists to jump to support the western lifestyle when, for example, they could look at the state of Kerala in India which obtains the same development indicators as many so-called developed states, without the same high-income, high-consumption lifestyle. For example, a paper in the reputable journal World Development states:

Kerala’s per capita GDP… was significantly lower than the Indian average and at about the same level as that of sub-Saharan African nations during the 1950s–80s when the state witnessed its most important improvements in education and health indicators… It is important to note that despite its preeminent position among Indian provinces, the absolute levels of social development in Kerala in 1947 were quite low. More than half the population was illiterate. In 1930, a man in Travancore was expected to live an average of 29.5 years, only a couple of years longer than a man in India… Successive state governments in Kerala, both Communist and Congress, have focused their attention overwhelmingly on the provision of primary education and basic health care, which catered to the needs of the poorest Malayalis. This was in marked contrast to other Indian states, where education expenditures were targeted toward secondary or higher education, which was of disproportionate benefit to the elite sections of society who had already completed basic schooling.

Myth 3: “And with continuing agricultural innovation we will be able to double food production as needed to feed 9.5 billion people by 2050.”

I’d like to briefly note the authors’ use of the word ‘need’ here. Just to be clear, and as the authors well know, the rate of food production globally has outstripped population growth for decades. We produce more than enough food to supply the global population well into the future, and of the food that is produced, it is estimated that nearly one half of it is thrown away before making it to the dinner table. If we decide to continue with technological agricultural innovation then it’s a choice, and not in any way driven by need.

Rather, development economist, Amartya Sen, through his capabilities approach, and others have been getting it across for many decades that food insecurity is rarely the result of a lack of food, but rather a lack of politico-economic access to the food that’s available. Hence, for example, a million of my fellow Irish dying, and another million being forced to emigrate during the Great Famine of the 1840s, despite living in a country which at the time was exporting plentiful grain foodstuffs abroad. The Great Famine was a political product of prejudice and colonialism, and the fact that a billion people go hungry today due to similar factors is an uncomfortable reality which the authors would prefer to ignore.

However, this is the crux of the religious ecomodernist faith in technological innovation. There is negligible, if any talk of reform, no challenging of centralised power. In fact, the opposite is the case. This agenda, despite all its claims to being ‘progressive’ is inherently conservative.

Perhaps the ecomodernists should discard this vague generality of labelling themselves ‘progressive’ as it is too often used to gloss over the important details. ‘We believe in growth’, say the ecomodernists, ‘therefore we’re progressive’. ‘I put forward a sustainable steady state and/or degrowth future’, I respond, ‘therefore I’m progressive’. Nobody wins the argument, and the term is rendered an empty signifier.

Myth 4: “One popular idea among environmentalists is that, instead of economic growth, the wealthiest two billion should redistribute their wealth to the poor.

Setting aside the practical reality that is highly unlikely to ever occur, economics is not a zero-sum game. Indeed, it is rapid economic growth and technological innovation in developing nations that is required to reduce carbon emissions to zero and eradicate extreme poverty.”

Another convenient sleight of hand takes place with the ecomodernists’ defining for us what constitutes ‘practical reality.’ Whether it’s desirable or not, they say, let’s write off redistribution, set it aside.

Economic growth, they then state, ‘is not a zero-sum game’. Here the famous neoliberal economic assertion is echoed that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’. And socially, they could be right. In an ideal world. However, their belief in writing things off based on ‘practical reality’ come back to bite them. Wealth redistribution is ruled out, but economic growth benefiting the poor is magically taken for granted. The social record begs to differ, however. As Oxfam have been making abundantly clear, the wealth of the richest 1% will soon surpass the total wealth of the rest of the planet. They’ve already captured 48%, a figure looking set to rise to 54% by 2020. In the United States, according the Wall Street Journal, 95% of income gains between 2009 and 2012 went to the richest 1%, a figure increasingly replicated worldwide. Seven out of ten people living in countries where economic inequality has worsened in the last 30 years.

There is theft under way. Daylight appropriation of wealth from ordinary people. And the ecomodernists would prefer to just stand by and watch it happen.

There is, however, uncomfortably for the ecomodernists one sense in which economics is a zero-sum game. And that is ecologically. A rising tide, in their economic ideology, may lift all boats (though as we saw above, that probably isn’t true), but a rising tide, as we also know, drowns Bangladesh and many other coastal regions.

Their faith, as supposed environmentalists, in a growth-based future presupposes an economic growth/ecological impact decoupling. This underpins the whole vision of a techno-utopian future and is perhaps best portrayed by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) which posits that as incomes rise people can eventually afford to care about their environment, so impacts fall. Unfortunately, this faith is based on thin air, with no evidence for the EKC on anything but a local level, and no major evidence of any decoupling of economic growth from absolute ecological impact anywhere. None.

Linear ideology of the EKC

There may be occasional evidence of isolated relative decoupling but absolute decoupling only exists in ecomodernist fairytale land. And even clinging to those cases of relative decoupling is tenuous, being generally premised, on the overseas outsourcing of energy-intensive industries, often to China. This isn’t to say that with, say, contraction of Northern economies there won’t be room for countries of the South to grow their economies in some way. There are enough white men dictating what shape economics should take globally. However, a blanket faith in growth, as consistently shown by ecomodernists, is simply inadequate to the challenges we face.

Myth 5: Industrial Progress vs. Agrarian Dystopia: A convenient forgetting of the majority of human history.

Elsewhere Breakthrough Institute founder Mike Shellenberger has recently turned to the topic of subsistence farming, rhetorically asking (for we all know the caricature which he is trying to set up), ‘is life better working in harmony with nature?’

He is implying, for those unfamiliar with the implicitly sarcastic, high-horse tones of ecomodernism, that the environmental movement is riddled with an unreasonable romanticisation of our agrarian past, the life of the small-holder peasant farmer.

I have dealt with this accusation of romanticism among environmentalists elsewhere, by noting that if romanticisation is something to be avoided, ecomodernists tend to reverse the romanticism by just as dangerously looking on the future with rose tinted glasses (techno-utopianism and reliance on faith in techno-fixes, discounting the law of unintended consequences and Jevons Paradox) to at least the same extent. They have an overblown distaste for “going back”, whatever that might consist of, a distaste which arises with the assumption of the purported salvation of humanity from the brutal state of nature by the industrial revolution.

The logic of eco-modernists is ultimately premised on an outdated notion of social progress, the assumption that life prior to ‘modernity’ was everything Thomas Hobbes posited life outside the Leviathan to be – “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Of course, without romanticising, and instead by pointing at cutting edge studies in anthropology, archaeology and other social sciences, we can see all the signs that pre-civilised existence was the opposite of solitary (humans are deeply social creatures who appeared to live in close-knit, egalitarian co-operative bands), poor (former Professor of Anthropology at Chicago, Marshall Sahlins, has famously referred to the hunter-gatherers he closely studied as “the original affluent society,” well able to cope with environmental variability), nasty and brutish (many studies projecting epic violence onto the non-civilised have at this point been discredited, such as that by anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, who hardly adhered to neutral science by bribing his informants with machetes, among other ethical transgressions.) Let’s not forget that the 20th century, was the bloodiest in human history, aided as Zygmunt Bauman has noted, by technological bureaucracies. As for the ‘short‘ element of Hobbes’ statement, the lifespan issue is complex and usually far blown out of proportion. The reality is that life for most post-agricultural peasants, until the industrial revolution, was marred by chronic illness and a short-lifespan to a far greater extent than for hunter-gatherers. Mark Nathan Cohen is just one scientist to have written eloquently on the negative health impacts of civilisation, which we conveniently never hear about in ecomodernist stories.


The ‘progressivist’ re-writing of history and social thought which I have only really been able to touch on above is unfortunately becoming all-too-pervasive, and undoubtedly demonstrates how weak the case for the status quo truly is. However, the response from environmentalists has been almost non-existent. Perhaps too many have been swept up in the fervour of a mythical hyper-technical, ‘smart’ future. ‘Progress’ is a myth. Societies do not develop in any linear fashion, and capitalist modernity is not the end of history. Sure, some things are probably ‘better’, many things are worse. There are no universals.

However, the bottom line is that global civilisation stands at the edge of a cliff that defenders of business-as-usual, like the ecomodernists, seem ideologically determined to run us off. The law of unintended consequences, Jevons Paradox, the absence of any substantial evidence for an environmental Kuznets Curve, and many more uncomfortable truths seem certain to make sure of that.

While the authors argue for what is essentially more of the same, it is up to those who are interested in the holistic health of our interconnected planet to argue for genuine, egalitarian alternatives to unequal and unsustainable global capitalist civilisation. Permaculture, bioregionalism, a return to the commons, rewilding, degrowth and much more will surely play at least a part. But most of all, we need social justice and a socially collaborative approach which is willing to speak up against privilege and hierarchy. And for that, we must turn our backs on the snake oil of ecomodernism.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). Read other articles by Thomas.