Love your symptoms: A sympathetic diagnosis of the Ecomodernist Manifesto

*by Paul Robbins and Sarah A. Moore

Amidst – and despite – its deep-seated rejection of technocratic fixes, can political ecology reconcile itself with ecomodernism?


The Ecomodernist Manifesto is a brash, unapologetic, optimistic, and strikingly accessible text, one that stresses the emancipatory power of human imagination, realized predominantly through large-scale, centralized energy technology. The always-emergent worlds of human and the non-human, the ecomoderns insist, are dialectical, mutually constituted, inseparable. The natures we live in have never been pristine, and are instead ones in which our engineering is both inevitable and, on a good day, desirable. To live in a world that we desire as “environmentalists” (defined broadly as people who like things like wolves, clean water, and breathable air, for everyone), therefore, we must dematerialize the flow of non-human things into and out of the metabolism of human life and commerce. To provide global justice and fulfill the aspirations of our brothers and sisters in the historically colonized parts of the world, we need to admit that energy production will have to increase rather than decrease. Ending catastrophic climate change, most notably, requires more, rather than less technology.

At first blush, any self-respecting political ecologist must feel the urge to reject the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Calling as it does for a technological-fix at a global scale to the challenges of climate change, mass extinction, and human health and well-being, the Manifesto would be instinctively assailed by anyone who has read even the introduction to James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, browsed a competent senior thesis on Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts, or seen even one on-line lecture by David Harvey. The imagination required to relegate the aspirations of the global poor and the beleaguered planet as a whole, after all, to large-scale, technical solutions (e.g. genetically modified organisms, nuclear power, and so on) is one too-closely aligned with the logics of capital and state power to be trusted.

Worse, despite its insistent ambivalence towards corporate power, the Manifesto might be read as “crypto-capitalist” by most with even a basic familiarity with political economy. The insistence on innovation as a driver of substantive social change is a well-established shibboleth, pilloried by political ecologists as one that only defers contradictions, but that can never solve them. Accumulation, the engine of the contemporary economy, always requires variable capital to thrive, harnessing the exploitation of labor or nature, or both, no matter the increasing intensity or efficiency of productivity driven by technics. For political ecologists, the working poor and the Earth could no sooner be liberated by technology than they could be by good will.

That would seem to make the Ecomodernist Manifesto dead on arrival.

Political Ecology as Ecomodernism

But at the same time, the Manifesto so strongly echoes the urgent insights and concerns of political ecologists, it would also seem impossible to ignore. The violence of the trope of “pristine nature,” a basic component of colonial and postcolonial power, has been the target of withering critique by political ecologists for decades, precisely as it has been for ecomoderns. Similarly, the romance of the traditional, the primitive, and the local has time and again been demonstrated by critics to be one convenient for the projection of state and patriarchal power. The seductive errors of Malthus have been the first target in the political ecological critique, precisely as they have been for ecomoderns. A combination of paternalism, orientalism, and tone-deafness on the part of environmentalists has denied serious attention to the demands of global working people, political ecologists insist, even as these people demand and seize a better life through migration, struggle, and demands for the basic things ecomoderns celebrate: education, electricity, food.

What political ecologists have argued for years, in other words – pounding their heads against the elitism, paternalism, and colonialism of traditional environmentalism – has at last been reiterated, named, and deployed by a potential ally, though refracted through a strange new prism. This might be a moment for at least two cheers for Ecomodernism.

If It Doesn’t Scale, Does It Matter?

There are plenty of places where these two camps might choose to disagree, of course. The bizarre insistence that the goal of Ecomodernism is to decouple nature from humanity, even while its conceptual underpinnings insist on their inseparability, might seem a fragile logic to a dialectician. The insistence that people in Africa might prefer to wait on a revolution for still-elusive solar panels rather than have the lights turned on now by natural gas, conversely, might seem a strange position for a justice-oriented intellectual tradition, at least to an unrepentant ecomodern.

But beyond these, the schism between critical observers of Ecomodernism and its adherents most likely lies in a single question, albeit one that might be a red herring: if it doesn’t scale, does it matter?

To this, the ecomoderns must answer no. The logic of physics, its proponents insist, means that the scaled, the intensive, the co-located, and the consolidated are in and of themselves the conditions for emancipation through productivity. To “degrow,” humanity has to expand and centralize its aspirations in the form of ever-more-intensive systems of production. All else is romance.

“Technocratic Leviathan!,” cry the political ecologists!

These critical political observers must conversely answer: yes. Nothing of consequence happens at scale, they insist. The will to “live a simpler life, in common, [in] a world of connection rather than disconnection” (in Giorgos Kallis’ words), sits at the heart of better worlds. To “Degrow,” means shrinking production and consumption. The alternative is crushing hegemony.

“Heideggerian Hobbits!,” deride the ecomoderns!

Diagnosing Ecomodern Political Ecology

It is this fundamental split, and the profoundly affective responses that each community lobs at the other, that shed light on the emergence and significance of both political ecology and Ecomodernism. Both intellectual movements emerge in a messy world that continues to elude either masterial control or a clear or singular revolutionary project. Consider India, where genetically modified cotton is both a strategy for ruthless corporate accumulation and a site where countless tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of farmers in Rajasthan have illegally pirated seed and decreased their pesticide use. This is a world where biodiversity thrives amidst coffee plantations in Karnataka, precisely because these systems answer both to intensive and scalable production logics as well as to the vagaries of local labor demands, women’s control of their own reproduction, and deeply cultural attachments to land.

This messiness, this inherent and inevitable condition of constant difference, is where historic moderns – those who hold to a rational and comprehensible split between nature and society – feel the most discomfort. In such a traditionally modern worldview, it is impossible to reconcile, in any simple way, the natures governed by techne, those rational simplifications that scale easily (at least on paper), with those of metis, those myriad local arrangements of specific local knowledge and practice. Their inevitable co-existence frustrates a traditionally modern worldview, whether techno-triumphalist or revolutionary in nature. The result for historic moderns is a deeply-held and troubled anxiety about the role of progress to advance social and ecological justice.

Ecomodernism and political ecology are twinned versions of productive talk therapy, therefore, for “recovering moderns”, whose anxieties emerge in a fractured world moving at an unimaginably rapid pace. Such a world doesn’t answer to even the smartest nuclear engineer or the wisest Gramscian vanguard, after all. This is because the way the lights go on is always a matter both of state techne and of local metis, always a product of technical machinery (political strong-arming, the bargaining of energy firms, or the simple logic of economies of scale) and local struggles (over dams, drilling rights, or the bodies that labor to build solar panels). Both ecomoderns and political ecologists seek justice in a world that always eludes control and in which technological choices are always sites of both progress and violence. The twinned theories are efforts of differing modern communities to come to terms with a world that has never been modern, and may have always been in the Anthropocene. Ecomodernism and political ecology, and their nervous responses to one another, are symptoms of a common eco-emotional disorder.

In our previous work, we identified a common ecological anxiety disorder underlying many contemporary scientific controversies. This stems from a repressed anxiety about what is to be done, given the complex imbrications of nature and society that, while not new, are intensifying in what some call the Anthropocene. Two contradictory, but also complementary, dysfunctions emerge amongst experts in this context: autophobia (fear of acknowledging one’s own knowledge/power) and anthrophobia (fear of unfettered human influence).

Ecomoderns and political ecologists each display one of these twinned dysfunctional adaptations. Political ecological depressive skepticism of techne always carries with it the gnawing specter of anthrophobia, an anxious sense that the eruptive human engines of urbanization and intensification are always underlain by a cancerous malevolent economic engine. At the same time, the manic ecomodern embrace of techne and visceral rejection of metis displays a lingering autophobia – a persistent fear of acknowledging the biased, power-laden humanness in science and technology, and with it, the obdurate insistence on ignoring the political, normative, entanglements that precede technological choice.


Love Your Symptoms

Rather, however, than arguing that one group’s desires and fears should be repressed or sublimated by the other, we suggest some common ground. Political ecologists and eco-moderns together reject an Edenic idea of balance in nature – acknowledging, with materialist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, that the idea of balance itself is merely a retelling of The Fall. The concept of nature in balance is a comforting story we humans tell each other, after all, to avoid facing the reality that our socio-natural condition is inherently disordered and never fully amenable to technical or social control. Facing that reality head on, for Žižek, following Lacan, is an uncomfortable act; something that disturbs the surface of the false appearance of order, control and full knowledge. Rather than repressing the common symptom of political ecologists and ecomoderns, the feeling that something is wrong with this world; that it could be made better for humans and non-humans alike, we therefore suggest that ecomoderns and political ecologists follow Žižek’s welcome injunction to “Love your symptom as you love yourself!”.

The injunction to “Enjoy your symptom!, to love it as you love yourself, does not mean falling into complacency or worse, unfettered relativism or nihilistic despair, but instead learning to recognize the symptom in ourselves and others – to hear what it is trying to tell us about our own and others’ suffering. We therefore suggest that we join together to render ecomodern political ecology a therapeutic empirical project. Rather than become entrenched in an ongoing battle over the dysfunction of the other group’s phobic attachments, then, we would instead explicitly engage them, working together to pose specific questions, open to productive exploration: Under what conditions, and to what extent, are GMOs a projection of unjust property relations and when, conversely, are they the tools of livelihood autonomy, farmer aspirations, or even sedition? What kinds of states do hydraulically fractured natural gas fields or nuclear power plants make and when are such states amenable to more just distributions of benefits and hazards of power generation? When are they not? Who controls the specific way innovation occurs and when does such innovation actually free labor, imagination, and desire… When does it not? Under what conditions do cities unleash the power of people, increase efficiency and restore the “natural” worlds around them and when does their governance merely remake the violent constraints of what came before?

At last, we must ask: can we simultaneously hold in our head a world “at scale”, a technical world beyond any individual’s control, at the same time as one where we craft and inhabit “other worlds,” locally-specific experiments and moments of possibility? We believe that we must and we can, but only by embracing our own contradictory fears and desires and acknowledging that, as scholars, activists, or public intellectuals, we are as messy and complicated as the environment we worry about. Then, perhaps, we can better engage one another, without need for synthesis, sublimation, or rejection, and with an eye towards exploring the kernel of real – and mutual – concern to which our respective symptoms alert us.

*Paul Robbins is the director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Sarah A. Moore is assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

11 thoughts on “Love your symptoms: A sympathetic diagnosis of the Ecomodernist Manifesto

  1. Reading the Ecomodernist manifesto and following the debate that opened up among political ecologists, there is one phrase that echoes in my head: ‘Jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien…mais l’important n’est pas la chute, c’est l’atterrissage’ (movie, La haine).

    Our own research findings speak to us: the processes through which risk can be -and has been- defined, mitigated, accepted, and concentrated (geographically and socially), are processes of historical fermentation, conflict and domination. The risk of large dams failures, for example, becomes acceptable despite those displaced or drowned, despite the voices of those who call its safety into question. The risk of disease becomes a normalised everyday reality in neoliberal discourse, rendering some simply responsible, incapable or ignorant of how to safeguard their own health. Put more simply, water pollution is rarely concentrated in the glasses of the rich. Those who are not considered experts and do not have the political or economic leverage to define or intervene in these processes, often have the least of say in how much risk they will be exposed to, or how better they can protect from it. I think we can all agree on these points.

    How can then the identification, acceptance, distribution and mitigation of the risks that nuclear power entails, be expected to simply happen in democratic and egalitarian ways? Scale does matter, both in terms of the biophysical interference we are attempting (and the risks that come with it), but also in terms of knowledge. It is not a matter of having an individual control, but of achieving a collective one. Given the hugely concentrated and highly sophisticated nature of nuclear power technology, how can collective and reflexive control ever be achieved? Small-scale and community-managed nuclear power sounds a bit of an oxymoron.

    The point Political Ecology needs to be making is that we need a political space where decisions over risks can be negotiated by those whose health and well being is at stake. The nature of the intervention is often defining that space, and nuclear power seems extremely unlikely to ever “fit” in it.

    It is not fear that drives my intervention; it is the need of acknowledging and posing limits, collectively.

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  2. The problem with ecomodernism—and the critiques of ecomodernism—are that they exist solely in a world of the mind, with no acknowledgement that there are physical limits on the world, and therefore on our behaviour.

    John Michael Greer explains the root of this beautifully:

    “The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.”

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  3. .I get the point, but I agree with Ruben that is is largely a theoretical posturing at this point, and technological choices are actually made at a political coal face where they cost money, lives, and carbon emissions. Political ecology is better focussing on this; cutting through to the precise impacts and effects. A lot of technologies have nasty impacts and we need less, not more.the green political project is alive and well. I for one am unlikely to waste time seeing if the ecomodernists are correct about the conditions under which nuclear technology or GMOs are OK or not.

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    1. Here we obviously disagree Simon. I think empirically examining WHEN GMOs reproduce hegemony and when they emancipate producers is a reasonable way to spend our time, relative to simply having abstract debates about them. This conclusion is drawn after reading and reviewing dozens of articles that simply conclude: “well, its complicated”. Of course it is, so let’s try to sort out what conditions and configurations make technology poisonous, as well as those that make them revolutionary. That seems a first step towards anything like an organized intervention. This is a very Kropotkin project, I’d think…. (“Factories, Fields, and Workshops” anyone?)


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