When my favourite thinkers publicly disagree with one another I regard it as a sign of a progressing debate.
I was not surprised that George Monbiot chose to speak against Ecomodernism. I have been reading his work for ten years or more. However the tone and substance of the critique left me not merely surprised but dismayed.
I expressed as much via Twitter, and George asked “what exactly did I get wrong?”. I offered to write him my thoughts and promptly did so.
I received no response; in itself no problem at all. However I was further let down when the same post subsequently re-ran at his own blog, now labeling the Ecomodernists “brutal”.
Thus I have decided to publish a modified version of my correspondence. I am glad some of the authors have already pushed back on the evidence. As someone who knows several of the authors I am glad to further respond to an attack that was ill-formed and counter-productive.
What exactly did you get wrong, you asked? Very little in point of fact from what I know. It’s not factual grievances; it’s the lenses applied and your characterisation of the authors and the effort that I take issue with.
I was deeply moved by the document. I wrote about my impressions here, including my criticisms of the exclusion of wind power.
Nothing and no one is above criticism. How refreshing that the Ecomodernists post all commentary including that of their harshest critics. This, truly, sets them apart from environmentalists who prefer to ignore or seek to discredit
I was especially grateful to see a human welfare made central in the challenge, not peripheral.
So I found the tone of your piece a remarkable attack on what is, at the minimum, a profoundly thought provoking document.
The authors have been characterised as arrogant and labelled ignorant. Yet the manifesto says:
We hope that this statement advances the dialogue about how best to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet.
Surely, this (and other similar passages) are an invitation and request for respectful and challenging dialogue? Yet you chose to throw stones.
The document is a Manifesto, not an instruction manual. The authors have been the first to acknowledge they have not captured the full complexity of the world. But they deserve credit for an attempt. It is surely environmentalism that feeds the world rigid, simplistic messages in stark denial of complex realities.
The authors positively encourage interactions, questions and criticism of the document. I have seen responses including a) here is how we see it b) that’s a good point and deserves more thought c) that’s incorrect for this reason.
So I would have been at ease if you were putting forward challenges and questions without characterising the authors as you did.
Take Mike Shellenberger and Peter Teague for example. The last year-and-a-half has seen them in war-ravaged Congo, trying to understand the interface of war, poverty and biodiversity, then under a bridge in Indonesia, capturing the story of people living in the informal economy in an urban setting. As a friend of Mike’s I resent the inference that this work is the product of “remote and confident generalisations by intellectuals”.
Which brings me this statement from your critique:
In areas with little work, low labour productivity isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, as it ensures that large numbers of people are employed, even though the pay is often very poor.
That, to me, reads like a remote and confident generalisation by an intellectual! Poorly paid, low productivity agricultural work is a life of poverty. It is life just above subsistence. At some point, for people to leave a situation of perpetuating poverty, that situation has to end. At that time there are challenges. That forms a case for addressing the challenges, not rejecting the process.
Yet your accusation against the authors of the manifesto was profound and unsettling:
…the ecomodernists make it clear that they would wish away almost the entire rural population of the developing world.
I find that statement, and the subsequent labeling of them as “brutal”, to be borderline offensive. Was it your intent to make them sound genocidal? Unlike environmentalism, ecomodernism welcomes these people, unconditionally, as part of our human family. They respect the reality that many of these people wish a more modern life for themselves. They have observed that this trend spares land for the return of biodiversity; a desire many of us share.
You have openly lamented that we may be facing a century that sees the end of wild megafauna in Africa. While poaching is abhorrent and destructive you rightly note that the extraordinary range contraction of these beasts is the primary driver of their fate. In your wonderful book Feral you asked the salient question of why we should expect poor Africans to co-exist with dangerous beasts for our benefit. Meanwhile, some Africans existing with dangerous beasts are indeed terrified of them.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto offers a pathway of resolution to these tensions and conflicts. The intensification of agriculture delivers long-term benefits to species conservation, in Africa and elsewhere. This is exactly the trend that makes the rewilding you espouse in Europe not merely conceivable but actually underway. In Africa, the same processes hold the potential to boost incomes, grow cities, spare land, permit habitat to restore and species to regain their hold. This won’t replace established conservation efforts. It will compliment them and make them easier to implement and enforce.
For naming these evidence-based trends and the potential it holds for us all, you attacked these authors. You called them brutal and sought to draw them into a framework that includes the worst of historical colonialism. You said:
For all its talk of “the liberal principles of democracy, tolerance, and pluralism”, the ecomodernist agenda resonates with a long history of such proposals, from the enclosures in England and the Highland clearances in Scotland, the colonial seizures of land in Kenya and Rhodesia, the Soviet dispossessions and the villagisation in Ethiopia to the current theft of farmland in poor nations by sovereign wealth funds and the rich world’s financiers.
This infers that these individuals are complicit in, ignorant of, or simply don’t care about the human face of the events described above. None of that is true. The Ecomodernist Manifesto may resonate with those events for you. It also reflects a massive body of evidence that modern living involves increased farming productivity, specialisation of labour and a move to cities. Such trends can take place more or less justly, more or less kindly, more or less ethically. What should be of interest is ensuring a firm eye is kept on the justice and human dignity aspects of the profound trends that are underway. Why not issue that as a challenge? I expect the authors of the Manifesto would be up for the discussion. How can we make the growth of cities as just as possible? Can we co-preserve historic cultural diversity and historic biodiveristy in a world of 10 billion souls? These, surely, are questions worth exploring.
Secondly on the land issue, there seems to be a false comparison at play. You referred to distribution of land formerly owned by a tiny elite to a much wider proportion of the population.
I confidently expect that not one of the authors will disagree with you that land concentration in the hands of elites who are indolent in their use of the land is wrong and unhelpful.
The principle of clear agreement will/ought be that productive use of land to grow food is desirable. Reforms needed to achieve that can take inverse forms.
You mention Ethiopia. Here the main problem is too little concentration of ownership thanks to no alienable property rights to trade. People are very much tied to the land and virtual slaves by dint of having no option. The villigisation process you mention may be a complete sham (or it may be a partial success) but if it’s a sham that’s not modernism, it’s injustice. So, too, is a policy void that perpetuates subsistence living and recurrent famine.
In Brazil there is a situation much as you have described stretching back to Portuguese settlement. The problem was not the number of owners per se, but their being too rich to need to care about whether the land was productive or not. Naturally, dispossessed people once possessed will deliver far greater productivity.
This, likewise, needs reform. Both situations are true. If the Manifesto is lacking balance on this point, issue the challenge rather than attacking the authors.
…there appears to be a crude and unexplored assumption that people working in the formal, urban economy are modern, while those on the outside are not.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto doesn’t define or refer to formal and informal economies. I suggest there would be nothing but praise and respect among the Manifesto’s authors for the informal economies of both rural and urban environments. As I mentioned, Mike went to hear from some such people first hand. I will also assume, confidently, that the authors would hope to see such people integrated into a formal economy, preferably sooner not later, meaning: offered the opportunity to own and have secure tenure of their homes; sanitation; electricity; protection by police forces and fire departments etc.
You make this assertion:
“modernisation” of the kind they celebrate may have liberated many people from bondage, oppression and hard labour, but it has also subjected many to the same forces.
You may be correct in this assertion. Are we to presume that the authors of the manifesto don’t care? Might it be that in fact they care very, very much? What has been the overall trajectory of humanity here? The authors have evidence on their side when they say “Historically large numbers of humans — both in percentage and in absolute terms — are free from insecurity, penury, and servitude.”
Surely the challenge here is to reduce, wherever possible, the bondage and oppression as fully and quickly as possible. That is not served by a retreat from modernity (I argue) but an assiduous focus on justice. If you feel this element is under-represented, I urge you to issue the challenge. I am confident you will find justice for the poor and dispossessed is a foremost concern of the authors
There surely are contradictions within modernism and the modern world. True, the word “inequality” did not, literally, appear in the manifesto. However recall it is the ecomodernists who reject the suggestion that “basic human needs” can be met on as much electricity as an Australian uses in one week. It is the environmentalists fostering inequality with that argument, sometimes over corporate accounts of cold drinks and fine food. The ecomodernists refuse to accept that the poor must and should stay poor. The environmentalists internally and often overtly argue that it needs to be that way until there is a “breakthrough” in renewables. My reading of history is that the past was a remarkably equitable place; nearly everyone was a peasant. Equality is not axiomatically good.
Much may remain irreconcilable for you with ecomodernism. Nonetheless this critique was ill-prepared. Your criticism, properly weighed and measured, can only make this discussion better. I hope that is something I will read in future.