Critique on “An Ecomodernist Manifesto”

Earlier this year, a consortium of 18 authors consisting of professors, founders and supervisors in the areas of climate change, ecology, history and economics have published the “Econodernist Manifesto”. Nearly all of the authors are connected to the Breakthrough Institute, a California-based think tank running policy programs in the areas Energy & Climate, Economic Growth & Innovation and Conservation & Development. The Breakthrough Institute is well-known for its supportive attitude towards genetic engineering and nuclear energy – which may make you very suspicious when the start talking “eco”. So let us have a closer look at an eco manifesto from an institute like that.


The manifesto – altogether 32 pages long – already starts with the statement “…we reject […], that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse” (p.6) which makes the general position of the authors pretty clear: we, the human race, are not a part of the nature, wanting to live peacefully together with all the other living creatures – we are superior and we are in charge.

The manifesto is continued by asking the question on “…how is it possible that people are doing so much damage to natural systems without doing more harm to themselves?” which is then answered by “the role that technology plays in reducing humanity’s dependence on nature [which] explains this paradox” (p.9). So according to the authors, it is obvious that the damage we cause doesn `t do us any harm, as long as technological innovation keeps going. But how can we be sure that our technological innovation will always keep pace with the destruction we cause? What if our bees are gone before we have mini-drones for the pollination or if our soils are infertile before we come up with a solution?

In the following, it is stated that “there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future”(p.9).  The authors regard the “fixed physical boundaries to human consumption” to be “so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant”. These statements completely reject the scientific evidence, published by several authors, which found some of our planetary boundaries, as for instance biodiversity loss, already to be exceeded as I have described in an earlier post.

The planetary boundary concept of Rockström et al., published in 2009. Source:
The planetary boundary concept of Rockström et al., published in 2009. Source:

Another aspect of this manifesto – which goes hand in hand with the technocratic attitude, is the pro-nuclear power attitude. “[…] agricultural intensification, nuclear power, […] are processes with a demonstrated potential to reduce human demands on the environment” (p.18).

And even though the authors admit the existence of “environmental threats to human well-being, such as anthropogenic climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and ocean acidification”(p.10), their solution is again an technological one: decoupling. According to the Manifesto, “decoupling occurs in both relative and absolute terms.” (p.11)  – but even if a slight relative decoupling may be ongoing at the moment,  there is absolutely no scientific evidence for an absolute decoupling. In addition, it is stated that “in contradiction to the ofen-expressed fear of infinite growth colliding with a finite planet, demand for many material goods may be saturating as societies grow wealthier “(p.14) – are you really sure about that?!

Not to forget another aspect: shouldn ´t the question also be “Do we really need endless economic growth?” and “Does endless economic growth make us any happier or healthier?” The truth is – it dosn `t. And it will never. Research has shown that after a certain level which is required for the satisfying the basic needs, further economic growth does not lead to a further increase in either happieness or health, as shown below and also explained in this nice TED talk. It is said that “more productive economies are wealthier economies, capable of better meeting human needs while committing more of their economic surplus to non-economic amenities, including better human health, greater human freedom and opportunity, arts, culture, and the conservation of nature.” – thinking of all our western world physical and psychological problems, of overweight, isolation, depression, burnouts and the destruction of more and more landscape by more and more buildings – that is simply untrue!


While the authors state that “cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts.”(p.12)

At the same time they say that people in modern societies may  ” never experience these wild natures directly, they affirm their existence as important for their psychological and spiritual
well-being.”  (p.25) – but why can `t they? And what is a world in which people are caged in cities in tiny apartments and children who hardly know anything about trees or animals worth living in?

As one of the central solutions to our climate change problem is geoengineering: “…modern energy may allow the capture of carbon from the atmosphere to reduce the accumulated carbon” (p.20), and “meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge”(p.22), strengthened by “fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage can likewise provide substantial environmental benefits over current fossil or biomass energies” (p.24) – which basically means that we should go on doing business as usual and someone will come and take all the “dirt”, such as CO2, out of the air and put it somewhere else. Like throwing some waste in the dustbin. Sounds easy and simple. Except that it `s not. Even the natural underground or underwater CO2 storages pose a high risk to our health and safety – as one could for instance exhibit in Cameroon in 1986 at the lake Nyos: An enormous amount of 1.7 million tonnes CO2 which were naturally stored under the lake Nyos were released and everything within a distance of 20 km died without any prewarning. So do we think we could store the CO2 more reliably than nature can?!


Description of the CO2 disaster at lake Nyos in 1986, taken from



Nuclear energy – or how to destroy the nature by pretending to preserve it.

The authors also state that “the ethical and pragmatic path toward a just and sustainable global energy economy requires that human beings transition as rapidly as possible to energy sources that are cheap, clean, dense, and abundant”. But none of their solutions such as nuclear fission or fusion, correlated to problems such as safety, nuclear waste, uranium resources and so on are neither one of it.


Own image.

It is stated that “transitioning to a world powered by zero-carbon energy sources will require energy technologies that are power dense and capable of scaling to many tens of terawatts to power a growing human economy. Most forms of renewable energy are, unfortunately, incapable of doing so.” (p.22p) and that  “nuclear fission today represents the only present-day zero-carbon technology with the demonstrated ability to meet most, if not all, of the energy demands of a modern economy”(p.22) and “a variety of social, economic, and institutional challenges” to be the problems in implementing larger amounts of nuclear energy in order to “to meet its full potential as a critical climate mitigation technology.” (p.23)

But in contrast, they regard “many forms of renewable energy production […] generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature.” (p.18) – but what about nuclear waste – both in terms of pristine environment required for storage and in terms of the immense costs associated?

While I fully agree with their statement of “Technological solutions to environmental problems must also be considered within a broader social, economic, and political context.” , it is an outrageous defamation to say that it is counterproductive how “nations like Germany and Japan, and states like California, to shutter nuclear power plants, recarbonize their energy sectors, and recouple their economies to fossil fuels and biomass.” In nations which were fit very hard by nuclear disasteres like Fukushima and Tschernobyl or in areas which are highly at risk of earth quakes like California, it is the only the most sensible decision but the only possible when applying just a little bit of common sense.

Even though they state that “too often, modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies”, they do not at all say what their opinion actually IS about capitalism, corporate power and economic politics – these very important areas are completely left blank and we must assume…

The authors sometimes also twist the reality around: “Explicit efforts to preserve landscapes for their non-utilitarian value are inevitably anthropogenic choices. For this reason, all conservation efforts are fundamentally anthropogenic.” (p.26) – but isn `t prevention of ecosystems the exact opposite, the absence of human impact and what do they actually mean by “non-utilitarian value”? they mean the part of the nature which does not directly contribute to our economic system has no worth for us and thus should not be preserved.

It is especially the positive tone of this manifesto which makes it very plesant and nice to read, giving you the impression that everything will be fine and that we are already on the right track – we just have to wait until the end of this century. Of course such a positive message is much easier to accept compared to the usual “we destroy our planet” wording.

And when the authors describe that they aim for  “fully synthetic world” (p.25), a cold shiver runs down my spine. Is a fully synthetic world something we want? Thinking of all the beauty and geniality which we can find in nature – why would we want that? The manifesto states that “modernization processes have increasingly liberated humanity from nature” – but do we really need or want or should be liberated from the nature- why would that be a goal? Are we not a part of the nature rather than something superior?

This so-called Ecomodernist Manifesto is a beautifully designed booklet, written in pleasant words – but it is very dangerous because it wants to stop us from changing our lifestyles in order to be more sustainable, it wants to stop us from questioning capitalism, economic growth, corporate power, globalisation, high-risk technologies which are related to high profits…it wants us to think that we can just go on shopping and flying – and someone else will clean everything up after us. But that will most certainly not lead us out of our mess…


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