Eco-modernists Versus Eco-radicals

2015•04•28 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

Edward Norton, actor, environmentalist and UN Ambassador for Biodiversity, talks to journalist and author Mark Lynas (left). Photo: SLOWLIFE Symposium. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

We are entering a new and more intense phase in the ongoing battle for our hearts and minds between eco-modernists and eco-radicals. The former want us to believe that we can solve climate change through accelerated technological progress, while eco-radicals insist that only through fundamental transformation of our consumer capitalist society (in other words by scrapping it) can we avoid disastrous climate change.

This is a deep-rooted confrontation and the truth is that for as long as environmentalism has been in existence, various groups have sought to paint it differing shades of green reflecting their own political agendas. The recent forays in this clash of ideologies can be traced back to the emergence of ecological modernisation in 1980s Europe, and the characteristics of both ecological discourses are succinctly explained in John Dryzek’s 1997 book entitled The Politics of the Earth.

Most recently, with the April 2015 publication of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”, the eco-modernists have taken a blatant shot at the eco-radicals. The Manifesto embraces “an alternative, technology-focused approach to conservation”.

The meteorologist Eric Holthaus described the Manifesto as a call for an end to “People Are Bad” environmentalism. In other words, an end to “eco-radicalism” and any other form of environmentalism that claims “human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse”.

Before I continue, I must confess to having dabbled with “eco-modernism” in the past, including editing a book in 2005 on Ecological Modernisation and Japan. At that time, I really wanted to believe that eco-modernism is the solution to our contemporary environmental problems, but now I am not so sure.

Who are these “People Are Bad” eco-radicals?

When I think of eco-radicalism, I am reminded of a comment made by Philomena Cunk (comedienne Diane Morgan) on Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, a British TV programme where a group of comics review events in the UK and around the globe. Like most people, I enjoy a good stand-up comedian and appreciate that hard truths can often best be delivered via a powerful joke. In her regular segment on the Weekly Wipe, Philomena talks for a couple of minutes on interesting news stories, movies and TV shows.

One week she mentioned how politics was interesting because Russell Brand (a British celebrity, comedian, actor, etc.) was getting involved with various social issues. He had just published a new book called Revolution.

Russell Brand

Photo: joannageary. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

Philomena explained that in the book, Brand is talking “about how catapultism is naughty, and how we could build a better world if we were nice to each other instead of spending our time thinking about coins”.

She went on to describe how Brand sounds really clever, especially because he uses lots of big words. Philomena concluded that “basically the only way to find out if he is clever or stupid would be to do everything he says and see if society totally collapses and hundreds of thousands of people die”.

Now, Russell Brand is a good friend of Naomi Klein, he interviewed her in one of his Youtube broadcasts, and she shares his views about capitalism being naughty.

Recently I wrote about her most recent book, This Changes Everything — Capitalism vs. The Climate, in which her basic argument is that capitalism in its current form is a failed economic system that is destroying the climate. In order to transform this system, we need to become active, protest, block certain types of development, and seek to build something radically different (but not clearly defined).

Now, if you are a world leader and you like how things are right now (even though you are concerned about the future of the climate) the implication that capitalism needs to be discarded somehow, so that a new kind of economy can emerge, is not going to be a platform that you will use to get re-elected. Quite clearly, Klein is not targeting world leaders with her message.

But even for regular folk like myself, the message is hard to swallow. It sounds like I must risk losing everything I have right now in order to save the climate and in return I may gain an unknown something in the future.

What exactly am I being asked to do — stop consuming, stop flying, get rid of my car, move into a commune, join the sharing economy? Would it be equivalent to stepping back in time, rather than progressing into a bright and shiny future, or am I being asked to join a new peoples’ revolution?

OK, maybe those thoughts are just a gross oversimplification on my part. But what is really playing on my mind is the question of how we go about transforming the current form of capitalism so that a new climate-friendly economy can emerge, without hurting a lot of people who will be very angry as a result?

From fringe to mainstream

For such a transformation to take place these eco-radical ideas have to move to the mainstream and, in that context, people like Brand and Klein are uniquely placed to popularize this thinking.

But there are many others who have been working on this transformation for decades. A good example is Bill McKibben — author, educator and activist.

I have a little story to share here about an episode involving Bill McKibben and one of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, Ted Norhaus.

In 2008, Ted Nordhaus gave a lecture at the United Nations University in Tokyo. I had read his influential 2004 article, “The Death of Environmentalism”, and I proposed his name to conference organizers as a possible speaker. James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, was also there to give the keynote address.

Bill McKibben, who was in China at the time, joined the event via videoconference to give his speech. In his remarks, McKibben made connections with the presentation from Nordhaus.

Later on, this drew a comment from Nordhaus along the lines that McKibben appears not to recognize how far they had moved apart in their views. While back in 2008, Nordhaus had yet to adopt the “eco-modernist” label, he was clearly trying to differentiate himself from people like McKibben.

In Nordhaus’ eyes, McKibben is still very much the traditional environmentalist. I am sure that McKibben would not disagree. He is an activist and successfully led the environmental group for a number of years. Moreover, in 2013, McKibben and James Hansen were arrested for protesting against the North American Keystone XL pipeline. McKibben is one of the leading advocates of the strategy to push financial and other institutions to divest from the fossil fuel sector. It is a strategy that is attracting criticism from some quarters.

Mckibben arrest

Writer and climate activist Bill McKibben was among several dozen pipeline protesters arrested outside the White House in August 2011. Photo: Jay Mallin. Creative Commons BY-NC (cropped).

His writings and his actions are eco-radical, reflecting a grave concern that if we continue on our “business as usual” course we will trash the planet and ultimately crash the economy.

In Australia, where I now live, there are other influential thinkers who share McKibben’s concerns. Permaculturalist David Holmgren is one example, although he approaches the problem from a different angle. In his 2013 paper “Crash on Demand” he argues that “radical, but achievable, behaviour change from dependent consumers to responsible self-reliant producers (by some relatively small minority of the global middle class) has a chance of stopping the juggernaut of consumer capitalism from driving the world over the climate change cliff”.

He suggests that this change can be achieved by just 10% of the global middle class and that this would reduce economic growth by 5%, sufficient to crash the fragile global financial system.

After that crash, the self-reliant producers would re-build a climate friendly economy from the bottom-up. He acknowledges that “it may be a slim chance, but a better bet than current herculean efforts to get the elites to pull the right policy levers — whether by sweet promises of green technology profits or, alternatively, threats from mass movements shouting for less consumption”.

Holmgren freely admits that such thinking can easily be branded as counter-productive, as crazy or even terrorist. But one point he makes in his paper that rings true in my opinion is his argument that “even mainstream responsible proposals for saving us from climate chaos could also crash the financial system”.

Moreover, what the 2008 global financial crisis clearly showed is that we don’t need eco-radicalism in order to collapse the global economy. Our global financial institutions are more than capable of doing that by other means.

Holmgren’s proposal does seem to be in line with the “People Are Bad” way of seeing the world. Yet at the same time, it also presents people as a force for good, as a positive force for change. Of course that is based on the assumption that you consider tackling climate change to be a good thing to do.

The way the eco-radicals like McKibben and Holmgren appear to differ most from the eco-modernists, in my view, is that the former believe that change will at some point involve pain. Eco-radicals suggest we need to accept some pain now, so as to avoid even greater pain in the future. Or even more simply: no pain, no gain!

What the eco-modernists offer is a no pain solution. This I suspect is designed to garner widespread support in a world were we are encouraged to think that we can have everything now (great job, beautiful home, fast car, holidays in the sun, etc.) without consequences.

Eco-modernists to the rescue?

The Ecomodernist Manifesto is intended to be inclusive, appealing to everyone who wants to solve the climate challenge within the frameworks we now have in place.

As one of the authors of the Manifesto, journalist Mark Lynas wrote in the Guardian: “Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.”

Lynas has written extensively on climate change with notable examples being his 2004 book entitled Six Degrees — Our Future on a Hotter Planet, followed by his 2011 book The God Species — Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans.

In his Guardian article, Lynas focuses his critique on Naomi Klein, arguing that her insistence on subordinating the tackling of carbon emissions into a wider agenda of social revolution and the dismantling of corporate capitalism “isn’t making climate mitigation easier” but instead “is making it politically toxic”.

The challenge, according to Lynas, is primarily about technology and includes a combination of greater energy efficiency, renewables, next-generation nuclear and carbon capture. There are many climate scientists who agree with him on the need to promote nuclear energy, including James Hansen.

Taking this forward, the Ecomodernist Manifesto argues that urbanization, agricultural intensification, nuclear power, aquaculture and desalination have the potential to reduce human demands on the environment.

What is lacking here is the concrete data to back up those claims, particularly as we look forward over the next few decades and consider how we can meet growing global energy demands.

In his book 2013, Nuclear 2.0, Lynas does provide a projection related to nuclear energy. In order to ensure that global electricity production is 82% carbon free by 2030, he calculates that we should aim to have 1,000 nuclear plants in operation by that date. Allowing for the phase-out of some of the 420 existing plants, he calculates that we would need to construct four new reactors each month between now and 2030 (I am assuming these are 1-gigawatt plants).

Elsewhere I have seen other estimates for how many nuclear power plants we may need to build in order to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees. For instance, Saul Griffith in his 2008 Game Plan presentation argued that over a 25-year period we would need to build one 3-gigawatt (GW) nuclear power plant every week — a total of 1,300 new plants. This is for a world where in 2033 we are predicted to be using energy at a rate of 15 terrawatts (TW), which is pretty much the same rate as today.

reactor construction

Workers pour the basement for the Unit 3 reactor at the V.C. Summer site near Columbia, S.C., United States (Nov. 2013). Photo: US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Public domain.

But surely energy use is going to grow in line with both future population and economic growth? Well, another 2006 report from the US Department of Energy predicted that by 2050 the world’s energy consumption rate would be closer to 43 TW (nearly three times the rate we have now), and that all of this needs to be supplied by carbon neutral sources.

The report presented a scenario where 15 TW (out of the total 43 TW) is supplied by carbon-neutral nuclear power. However, this would require roughly 14,636 new 1-GW nuclear plants, or roughly one new plant per day for forty years.

Unfortunately, they also estimate that at this rate of construction, and assuming that slow-neutron nuclear power technologies remain dominant, the estimated conventional uranium terrestrial resources would be exhausted in less than 10 years.

The picture is very confusing since differing timelines are used and different types of reactors and plants are discussed. Of course, you can throw in more variables and complexity by saying we would go with the thorium-based nuclear reactor (which is still at the research and development stage), or by including the costs involved with these scenarios, and by making clear your assumptions about nuclear safety and waste. What these estimates suggest is that, depending on the assumptions you make about the technologies and future trends, you can get divergent results with regards to the feasibility of this so-called techno-fix.

The same applies to carbon capture, still at the early stages of development, which is being presented as another answer to our climate woes. In February this year, Nick Breeze wrote in The Ecologist that the even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommendations for carbon sequestration are science fiction. We just do not have the technology available right now, nor will we in the near future, to enable us to suck billions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. As a consequence, we can conclude that it may be a high-risk strategy to put too much hope on carbon sequestration as the answer to mitigation of carbon emissions.

However, the appeal of this techno-fix is unquestionable. I am sure we would all rather believe that using nuclear power and carbon sequestration will allow us to continue on without making any changes in our daily lives.

Breakdown or breakthrough?

What is clear is that both the eco-modernists and the eco-radicals are offering the same thing — hope for a way forward. But neither can guarantee that their path would lead to a breakthrough and not to a breakdown.

Perhaps it is fair to say that they have an intelligent hunch, based on their knowledge and experience, that a breakthrough could be possible.

More than anything it appears that they want to be heard by their audience, to be persuasive and to occupy the moral high ground. Both claim to represent what the people really want or need. To some extent, the eco-modernists more frequently attack eco-radicals than the other way around. This could be because eco-radicals simply view the eco-modernists as part of the “business as usual” mindset.

To be honest, I am happy to pitch my tent in both camps from time to time. I think we need to explore every possible option when it comes to avoiding runaway climate change. We are going to need both dramatic technological innovation and socio-economic change over a very short period of time. This change is bound to be disruptive. As a result, we will experience huge social upheavals similar to those encountered in the shift from a feudal agrarian society to an industrial capitalist society in the 19th Century.Tweet from David Roberts

Fundamentally, we need the eco-modernist’s techno-fix. But we should be cognizant of the possibility that the required scale of technological change could very possibly be beyond our current capabilities. Simply investing in more research and development is not necessarily going to overcome this challenge, but it will certainly help.

Therefore, we ought to keep an open mind about the need for a social and economic transformation, and to reflect upon how we can alter the current model of capitalism to one that is benign for the climate.

In the end, recognizing the immensity of the challenges we face, perhaps we should listen to Philomena Cunk’s advice and just follow both the eco-modernists and the eco-radicals and see what happens.

Alternatively, we can make a new eco-something ideology. The writer David Roberts captured this sentiment in his 17 April tweet: “I’m starting a new tribe called the Ecoawesomests. We support awesome, while our blinkered opponents reject it.”

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Eco-modernists Versus Eco-radicals by Brendan Barrett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.