Are You An Ecomodernist or a Degrowther?
Perhaps an Inbetweener?
Before you say it, yes, this issue of Thin Ink is very very late. I blame a combination of multiple delayed flights as well as deadlines. Who knew it’s impossible to work at airports while your plane gets rescheduled time and again?
Anyway, I hope you will enjoy it, even though it is likely reaching you a day late. I definitely enjoyed researching it.
I had come across the term ‘ecomodernism’ before but didn’t pay much attention until a few weeks ago when I saw an explainer from TABLE, the successor to the Food Climate Research Network of the University of Oxford, and a joint project between the University of Oxford, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University and Research.
The report is a short - less than 20 pages - and an interesting read so I encourage you to have a look at it. But below are some of the key takeaways as well as more resources on this topic.
What is Ecomodernism?
This is how the briefing defined it, based on the writings by ecomodernists themselves.
“An environmental philosophy rooted in the belief that technological progress can allow humans to flourish while minimising our impacts on the environment. Ecomodernists define human flourishing as both “democracy, tolerance, and pluralism” and material wellbeing in the form of access to “modern living standards” for all.”
A key element of ecomodernism when it comes to food systems is its belief in technology. They see high-tech crops and agricultural intensification as solutions to reduce farming’s outsized impact on the environment, because growing more food on less land using technology will free up land for conservation (land sparing).
This is different from land sharing where farmers “share” the land with nature and animals and maintain biodiversity through less intensive practices. If you want to know more about the differences between the land sparing and land sharing, I wrote about it last October. Just click on the image below.
They are also proponents of efficiency (which means they don’t support small-scale agriculture, which, to them is labour-intensive and therefore inefficient), nuclear power, and urbanisation. They believe we can both have economic growth and stop climate change, and place less importance on individual behavioural change, like shifting to planet-friendly diets and reducing consumption.
Where does it come from?
This term has been used at least as far back as 1934, but has gained prominence since the 2015 publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto by a group of 19 “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens”. The authors include co-founders of the Californian think tank The Breakthrough Institute.
What does the manifesto say?
You can read the whole manifesto here but I’ve taken out the first few paras that I thought encapsulates this ideology.
Things that make you go, “hmmm…”
As per TABLE’s explainer, ecomodernists advocate for a food system that:
“Intensifies meat and dairy production to meet rising demand on existing pasture to spare further land from conversion, and possibly even free up land for nature conservation.”
It said Nature Unbound, a report by three Manifesto co-authors, “cites a study that finds conventional beef feedlot systems in the United States produce considerably lower environmental impacts across several categories when compared to grass-fed beef systems.”
Why is it controversial?
Critics call them techno-optimists whose faith in large-scale, intensive technologies will benefit and keep the current status quo, where corporations have outsized power on our food systems, because these are the folks who have the resources to implement these tech-driven solutions.
Many have also pointed out that the Manifesto has little to say about issues around systemic racism and sexism, or economic class, which are a result of long-standing power imbalances. They also said just because a country gets richer doesn’t mean it becomes more socially equitable.
Environmentalists and rights groups worry that women, indigenous folks, small scale farmers and the general population may lose out under this system which prefers efficiency, while entrenching the interests of the powerful private sector.
They’ve also been criticised for focusing on modern, urban, high consumption way of life at the exclusion of others, but according to TABLE’s explainer, defenders say the concept “merely seeks to give people greater choice in how they live, work, and consume”.
There is also the contention on ecomodernism’s seeming disinterest in individual behavioural change particularly in terms of living a greener lifestyle. But ecomodernists believe material prosperity for all is an essential component of social justice and think everyone should have the same access to wealth and infrastructure.
On the other hand, free market thinkers might be equally concerned about ecomodernists’ support for government interventions such as subsidies and environmental regulations.
The debate is so heated that TABLE said one reviewer of the explainer “felt unable to endorse the final piece, and wishes to remain anonymous”, even though reviewing doesn’t mean agreeing or siding with the concept.
“Through TABLE’s peer review process, we had hoped to produce a description of the disagreements that “both sides” can agree accurately reflects the state of the debate. We have failed to do this. Some reviewers felt that the piece was strongly biased against ecomodernism, while other felt it was strongly biased in favour of it.”
Who are they up against?
“It is not surprising that ecomodernism might attract criticism from both left- and right-wing thinkers, since it does not fall neatly at either end of the traditional political spectrum and instead contains elements of both camps.” - TABLE
As you can see above, they’ve managed to piss off a lot of people, but it seems the big alternative is the degrowthers, who are against our obsession with never-ending growth. They advocate for less production, less consumption, less corporate profits and more environmental justice.
While the terms sounds negative, its backers say the origin in Latin languages - “la décroissance” in French or “la decrescita” in Italian - refer to a river going back to its normal flow after a disastrous flood.
What does Thin think?
I really like the pragmatism espoused by ecomodernism as well as its optimism. But I find the concept to be quite self-centered and I just don’t have the same confidence that technology will save us.
I also think many of us need to consume less and question their condescending attitude to small scale farming. I have no illusions about how hard subsistence farming is - I grew up in an agrarian country and I’ve met enough farmers throughout Asia and many parts of Africa to know this is back-breaking work.
But I’ve also met former farmers who at least used to own some land, but became employees to corporations who bought their farms and then having to endure terrible working conditions. I’ve also met former farmers who migrated and became part of the urban poor, living precarious lives on the margins of megacities.
So if we are going to turn farmers into workers and consolidate farmland, there had better be very strong checks and balances to ensure people have dignified lives and a handful of folks or companies don’t control everything.
I pretty much agree with the conclusions of Helen Breewood, co-author of the explainer, who you can hear on this short podcast.
And if you have 90 minutes to spare, I urge you to watch this debate between Linus Blomqvist, a co-author of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, and Sam Bliss, president of DegrowUS. If you’re used to shouty, snappy discussions, you’ll think this one is slow, but to me, it’s an example of how we can have adult conversations with people whose ideas we may not agree with.
What is ecomodernism? by TABLE
A short podcast with co-author Helen Breewood
A 2015 article in The New Yorker by Michelle Nijhuis about manifesto’s launch
Guardian Columnist George Monbiot’s critique of ecomodernism, also from 2015
How ecomodernism is a new way to think about climate change and human progress by Matthew Nisbet, published in 2018 and updated in 2021
Rescuing Utopianism in a Climate-Changed World by Mathias Thaler in the Los Angeles Review of Books, published in 2022
Why degrowth shouldn’t scare businesses by Thomas Roulet and Joel Bothello in the Harvard Business Review, published in 2020
Talking food and climate on Twitter Spaces
Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative founded three years ago by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation but now has 500+ media partners, has been running a ‘Food & Water’ joint coverage week over the past seven days.
There have been press conferences, exclusive stories and interviews, and also Twitter Spaces. On Wednesday I joined Jenny Splitter, Managing Editor of Sentient Media, and Eve Abrams, writer and host of Hot Farm podcast, to talk about farming and food production in the midst of climate change. Link to the conversation below.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail email@example.com.