Ecomodernism: debating our future

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The CAG Project’s Peter Lefort attended The Ecomodernism Debate at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment on Friday 15 January.

In 2015 The Ecomodernism Manifesto was launched by a diverse collection of academics, authors and other environmental authorities. Their message was radical, but also hopeful:

Speaking at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, co-author of the manifesto and controversial nuclear power proponent Mark Lynas introduced the idea to a packed lecture theatre before responding to comments from resident academics and questions from the audience.

Lynas was quick to admit that the reaction to the manifesto has been largely negative, including a number of criticisms seemingly interpreting quite different messages to those intended (one of which was an accusation of climate denial, which he dismissed as “bizarre”). He conceded that the nature of a manifesto, while certainly gaining attention, requires an amount of broad language and compromise. Indeed, the main opposition from the gathered academics was to the notion of a ‘decoupling’ from nature, interpreted and reacted to as a separation from the natural world so central to the values of the vast majority of anyone who identifies with the environmental movement. Lynas, however, admitted that he was not fond of the language, and saw the notion as a move away from a dependence on nature, not from an interaction with it.

A large portion of Lynas’ argument centred around a positive view of the start of a new Anthropocene, a term coined to describe our current time period in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. In this new age, human rights are more upheld, child mortality rates are lower, absolute poverty is down and wellbeing is up. This was demonstrated by a series of graphs, questioned as suspiciously selective by one audience member, as evidence that modern life is not, in fact, rubbish. The science suggests that things are getting better, argued Lynas, and that opposition to technological developments, including nuclear power and GMOs, are motivated by a fear of change rather than a firmly held idealism.

Ultimately, ecomodernism is framed as an urgent call to action, a divergence from a supposed passive avoidance of modernity, an attempt to create a positive and explicit political agenda. It is provocative by necessity, but still frustratingly broad thanks to its diverse authors. Lynas spoke of the potential for a “Manifesto 2.0,” and the importance of it being a flexible and responsive document. This will be crucial to its impact, if any. The only common ground in the debate was found not in specifics, but in the aspirational desire for change, and Lynas’ softly-spoken sincerity seemed to be the main dampener of outright hostility from the audience.

Whether or not the entering of a new Anthropocene is good or bad, and it seems to be unavoidable, ecomodernism is a firm argument that we should embrace our current direction and make a virtue of it. Such a controversial idea is bound to attract passionate criticism, but two opposing ideas are surely better than none at all. Hopefully, somewhere in the debate created by this manifesto, new ideas will arise, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.

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Download the Ecomodernism Manifesto

Read the (often heavily critical) responses to the Manifesto

Find out about future events at Agile-Ox