Beyond the Life of the Sun: Ecomodernism and its Discontents

Book Review:
Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff
by Leigh Phillips

Part I: Introduction

Retreat from our predicament is not an option. We must push through the Anthropocene, indeed accelerate our modernity, and accept our species’ dominion over the Earth.
— Leigh Phillips (186)

Though imperceptible to the human primate body, the sun is growing hotter. It is predicted that in about a thousand million years, its temperature will increase to such an extent that the oceans will evaporate, plate tectonics will stop and, in a further two or three billion years, the earth will become uninhabitable for all but the most extreme of extremophiles, those microscopic creatures which can survive anywhere from close to absolute zero to above 100 degrees Celsius. Eventually, this space rock we call Earth will be engulfed by a dying sun. This is progress.

Entropy rules the day. There is an arrow to time. Under one likely scenario, when entropy reaches its maximum, resulting in the heat death of the universe, or the ‘big chill’, time will stop. The arrow will stop. Matter will stop. Everything in the universe will come to a whimpering end. Maybe. At least for an instant. And then there is nothing. This is progress.

Taking a timescale slightly more relatable to the lifespan of humans, the first agricultural revolution occurred roughly 10,000 years ago, at the beginning of what has been designated the Holocene, our current geological epoch. The Holocene, aptly translating as ‘entirely new’, from the Greek holos (whole or entire) and kainos (new), provides the stable and mild climate in which we can grow our delicate and dependent staple crops – corn, rice, and wheat – and is likely to be a mere interglacial. This means that it’s a temporary interstice in the much less hospitable Pleistocene in which vast areas of the earth’s surface were covered in ice. Thankfully, for many billions of civilised humans dependent on the harvests of agricultural systems, its mild hospitality continues to this day. Sooner or later, though, whether through anthropogenic climate change or a ‘natural’ climate fluctuation, it will come to an end and our fields will not be covered in domesticated species, but most likely in ice. No amount of genetic engineering will allow our crops to then grow on the vast majority of the earth’s surface. This is progress.

Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff (henceforth Austerity Ecology), the latest work in a long and monotonous string of ‘eco-pragmatist’, ‘eco-modernist’ and ‘post-environmentalist’ literature, posits a very different vision of progress. But first, caveat emptor: though Phillips doesn’t acknowledge it, there is almost nothing new in this book – ‘at base a defence of industrial civilisation, scientific and technological progress, and economic growth’ (6) – that you won’t find in Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline, Mark Lynas’ The God Species, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through, or a plethora of other paeans to ‘modernity’.

Like these works, Austerity Ecology comes from a white, educated male concerned that the ‘anti-consumerist, back-to-the-land, small-is-beautiful, civilisation-hating, progress-questioning ideology of degrowth, limits and retreat is hegemonic not just on the green left, but across the political spectrum’ (12). Phillips, a science and EU affairs journalist who has contributed to the prestigious science journal Nature, and the Guardian, therefore endeavours to make the case for why such thinking ‘must be thoroughly excised’ from the ‘ranks’ of the Left.

‘You have to acknowledge’, he continues, that ‘anti-technology, anti-science and anti-industrial stances are actually pretty mainstream these days.’ This assertion of green hegemony causes one to pause in confusion. We have to acknowledge this? ‘Where is this dominance to be seen?’ the reader may rightly ask, for it is not obviously evident in the halls of any global power centre. It’s not clear amongst the economic titans who gather annually at the World Economic Forum at Davos, or amongst the titans of the IMF or World Bank. The economic crisis of 2008 was not met with cries of joy from across the political spectrum, a call to use this occasion of economic slowdown to put an end to mass society and industrialisation, to focus on good lives which might not cost the earth, but rather was greeted by political elites across the board with a clamouring for a return to growth at all costs. Ah, says Phillips earnestly, but anti-civilisation philosopher Derrick Jensen’s work is for sale at Walmart! And Dark Mountain co-founder Paul Kingsnorth writes in the London Review of Books! (This really is the evidence presented).

Despite Phillips consistently lumping Naomi Klein, Jensen and Kingsnorth as one in this hegemonic movement – ‘Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben, Derrick Jensen, Paul Kingsnorth and their anarcho-liberal epigones’ bear the brunt of his focus on the book’s cover – he fails to mention the inconvenient truth that this very article by Kingsnorth in the London Review of Books was actually a critique of Klein by Kingsnorth, criticising her book This Changes Everything as ‘an American liberal wishlist, and a fantastical one’. There is far more heterogeneity in whatever the ‘green’ movement consists of than Phillips wishes to acknowledge, perhaps because acknowledging it would be an uncomfortable fit for his Manichaeism, not to mention an impediment to the writing of a typo-riddled book filled with innumerable straw men.

The ability to buy Jensen’s oeuvre from Walmart is equally unremarkable. They also currently offer a substantial discount on controversial rightwing firebrand Glenn Beck’s latest book It IS About Islam, not to mention selling numerous editions and interpretations of Phillips’ beloved Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. The truth is that the Walton family, owners of Walmart, have a total wealth equivalent to almost half of the population of the US not because they’re in thrall to what Phillips calls ‘the anti-packaging jihadi’ hegemony, but rather because they’re willing to try to make a profit on anything. At the time of writing, Jensen’s most well-known work, Endgame, was ranked 172,000th on Amazon’s seller list, while the millionaire footballer Steven Gerrard’s imaginatively-titled autobiography, My Story, had cracked the top 20. There is no hegemony except for the continued dominance of rapacious consumer capitalism.

The falsities and wishful thinking mount at an alarming rate throughout this book, the specifics of which I started to debunk earlier this year in a short blog piece entitled The Ecomodernist Myth. It is not my goal here to tackle them all, an uphill struggle. However, some inconvenient truths for Phillips’ Panglossian outlook include that the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) whereby environmental impact gradually falls as societies get richer has been disproven extensively in the academic literature, as having a ‘very flimsy statistical foundation’. Relatedly, Phillips, along with Brand and others, argue for the confinement of populations to cities, where their per capita impact is lower, ignoring the paradox that it is precisely the most urbanised societies which share the bulk of the blame for global environmental degradation. In an act of wishful thinking, Austerity Ecology glosses over the Jevons Paradox or rebound effect, whereby increases in technologically-induced efficiency often actually result in increased use of resources. Further, the idea that peasant populations leave rural areas only due to the pull of a wonderful urban existence is an insult to many millions of migrants crammed into filthy, overcrowded slums, and ignores the role of any larger economic necessities in displacement. Strangely, for a self-avowed socialist, in this he acts as an effective apologist for capitalism and the destruction of rural livelihoods, from enclosure forward.

To cherrypick in a way that would do Phillips proud, similar question marks could be placed over his assertion that technological substitution saved the whales, or the certainty of human centrality in the so-called Pleistocene Overkill. But I don’t want to dwell on each of these issues here. Others have done an admirable job of pulling apart the faith-based ideology of ecomodernism in the past (including Chris Smaje on this blog), and I would point readers to those sources.

Equally, though these hardly begin to redeem the heart of Phillips’ techno-romanticism, I should note before continuing that there is a very small number of things that the book gets right. The historic focus of many in the green ‘movement’ on the smokescreen of overpopulation, often shifting the blame onto the poor masses, for example, does nothing to help the environmental cause. Similarly, Phillips does a decent job of highlighting just how ‘extractivist’ supposedly green energy sources such as wind and solar really are, when rolled out on the scale needed to keep industrial society ticking over.

Part II: Ape or Angel?

Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new fanged theories.
— British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on evolutionary theory

Minor redeeming factors aside, the really significant action is going on in the theological underbelly of jeremiads like Austerity Ecology, starting when Phillips claims a ‘shift from animal ethology (animal behaviour) to behavioural modernity around 50,000 years ago’ (41). The assertion of a clean break from animal to human, a break which no anthropologist, evolutionary biologist, or archaeologist would strictly endorse, exemplifies the author’s firm anthropocentrism, and Phillips takes his place in a centuries-old genealogy of individuals grasping desperately to find something unique, angelic even, about this clever primate species we call Homo sapiens. Rather than admit this, Phillips merely shifts the focus, castigating environmentalists as misanthropes, ‘openly favouring other organisms’ (37) over ‘wicked’ (253) humans. Of course, few environmentalists could ever despise humanity per se – they might even love their children! – but most do express a discomfort about displacing vast numbers of other species just so that a lucky minority can have access to the joys of the Kardashians, self-driving cars, anti-depressants and Peruvian avocados. Degrowthers, and whoever else Phillips might have in mind when he speaks of austerity ecology, are certainly right to retort that they too envision a world of human flourishing, not austerity, drudgery and mindless toil, not to mention that this doesn’t have to be in a zero-sum battle with other beings. Humbling our species’ dominance, however, is not a concern in the theology of Phillips, where the only valuable metric is that of the human:

We should care when a species go extinct not because of their intrinsic worth … but because the loss of species means a decline in the effectiveness of the services that living systems provide to humans (76).

gulfspill

In one of the great statements of species chauvinism, the author holds that an oil spill is unwanted not because of the devastation it can cause to beings who would prefer not to choke to death, but ‘because it diminishes human uses of that ecosystem’ (78). The vision that we get is a species apartheid in which ‘humans are radically different from all other organisms’ (84), as ‘no other animal has our level of cognition, our self-awareness, our capacity for language, technology, art, abstract reasoning or, of course, fire’. Of course, many species demonstrate their own qualitatively-unique cognition, self-awareness, capacity for language, technology, art and ‘abstract reasoning’, radically different from all other organisms – some even capitalise on wildfires to cook their prey – but this fails to count for much in the dualistic modernist playbook, so determined to value humans above all else.

Humanity’s unique attributes of ‘rationality’ and ‘self-awareness’ have long been known to be something of an empty claim by those ‘postmodern’ scholars whom Phillips decries throughout the book as undermining his universal project of rationality and progress. Rationality, of course, is itself little more than a hollow signifier, rolled out when needed as a bludgeon used to subdue those who disagree with our Cartesian overlords. Let us forget the beauty and efficacy of the technologies, art, and languages of other species, and let us forget the inconvenient truth that we too are animals – confused, irrational, habitual and embodied animals – as explored by authors such as Timothy Wilson (Strangers to Ourselves), Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking, Fast and Slow), Nigel Thrift (Non-Representational Theory) and many others in the ‘postmodern’ academy.

But now, heaven forbid, I’m sounding like I support the ‘anti-universalism, anti-positivism, relativism and science-skepticism of the postmodern academy’, an eye-watering straw man, ‘with its slander of Enlightenment as imperialist and Eurocentric, opposition to ‘grand narratives’, and imprisoning the word truth in scare quotes’ (251). Well, yes, thankfully, scientistic claims of abstract truth, after ground-breaking and painstaking work in the philosophy, sociology and history of science by Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, and Bruno Latour amongst others, have softened. It’s unfortunate that Phillips fails to familiarise himself with such revolutions in a more reflexive understanding of science, before attempting to ‘excise’ from his ‘ranks’ anything that smacks of irrationality or unreason; that is, anything which fails to conform to his faith-based worldview of human dominion. As Paul Feyerabend put it in his last work, Conquest of Abundance:

A look at history shows that this world is not a static world populated by thinking (and publishing) ants who, crawling all over its crevices, gradually discover its features without affecting them in any way. It is a dynamical and multifaceted Being which influences and reflects the activity of its explorers. It was once full of Gods; it then became a drab and material world and it can be changed again, if its inhabitants have the determination, the intelligence, and the heart to take the necessary steps. (146)

The idea of a single, value-free scientific method leading to an accurate view of a world ‘out there’ has been debunked as being ahistorical, and the scientific enterprise has been relegated to what it always was underneath the hyperbole, merely another fallible means for humans to try to cope in the world. Apparently unbeknown to Phillips, since the scientific revolution, Enlightenment scientism has also lent itself, all-too-often, to cruelty, violence and misogyny, as many feminist philosophers of science such as Carolyn Merchant and Sandra Harding have outlined in great depth.

The superiority of the Western way of life, exported brutally all around the world under the guise of universal progress, is thankfully open to question, and positivism – a complex position often used as shorthand for the argument that the only valuable knowledge comes from objectivity, distance, quantification, and the methods of natural science – has rightly become something of a dirty word in some parts of the world, veiling, as it always has, a monolithic scientism and closure of worldviews. Of course, given Phillips’ desire for ‘a UN Parliament from which a global prime minister and cabinet were drawn’ (215) claims to epistemological universalism are necessary, though for this (post-)anarchist reader, the idea that ‘the true revolutionary today is one who speaks of optimism, big, bold ideas, universal values and ambitious, globe-straddling, liberatory projects’ (154) sends a chill down my spine. Such clamouring for universal values and globe-straddling projects, symptomatic of Phillips’ dangerous state socialism, simply sounds anachronistic and should be left in the dark shadow of the bloody, totalitarian 20th century.

Phillips’ naïve philosophy of science is paralleled by his simplistic interpretation of the philosophy of technology, which fails to stray past the weak social constructionist view of ‘technology’ as a neutral set of tools to be used however we wish. His example, in an inadequately brief treatment, holds that ‘there is nothing intrinsically malign about any particular technology outside of the context in which it is used. Knives can be used to chop cauliflower or to murder Tutsis and Hutus’ (156). Obfuscating, he conflates the use of tools, which we are free to use in a plethora of ways, with the evolution of the technological system, whose ends advance in ways which we are never merely free to pick up or put down. Instead, as the techno-romanticist Phillips would know if he spent time exploring the work of Langdon Winner or Jacques Ellul, technological systems embody and perpetuate a certain logic of their own, often independently of their human subjects, and can radically violate any true sense of democratic, convivial engagement. Perhaps he would even like to read the latest Dark Mountain book, Technê, which explored the complex, evolving relationships between technology, skill, embodiment and (un)freedom.

Part III: The Ultimate Vision

And man, a stranger to the world, sets himself up as its master.
— Nobel-prize winning Chemist, Ilya Prigogine, with Isabelle Stengers in ‘Order Out of Chaos’

Throughout Austerity Ecology Phillips rightly criticises any reification of a ‘Nature’ separate from humanity – with some environmentalists having indeed overstepped the mark by putting an abstract Mother Nature up on a pedestal in their discourse. In this, the Dark Mountain Project has the honour of being a target for much of the author’s ire. Yet it is precisely within the Dark Mountain Manifesto that we read of the ‘Myth of Nature’; that ‘the very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it’. We are, of course, part of the universe we operate in and wish to understand.

It’s clear that this accusation can itself be turned around, with the techno-romantics clearly underscoring the separation of humans from the rest of creation. Under the programme of global rationality and progress, outlined in this book, the imperative for ‘those who favour an improvement in the human condition’ is to ‘rehabilitate Prometheanism – the idea that there are no limits other than the laws of physics to how we can re-engineer ourselves and the world around us.’ Alone in nature, we have ‘near infinite malleability’ to ‘condition that which conditions us’ (254).

Paradoxically, it is Phillips himself who endeavours to establish dualisms, to set us apart from the rest of the universe, creating an artificial otherness, and worshipping some ‘rational’ knowledge only accessible to this exceptional primate which has transcended its animality. It is Phillips who fails to see that the concern of many environmentalists – the concern to protect the agency of the nonhuman, of other species and of ecosystems – is a longing from within a part of the universe, not a cry of separation.

Let us return to the tales of universal death and climatic change, progress even, with which I opened this essay. Irrational, misguided, small-is-beautiful, primitivist Greens, Phillips asserts, condemn us all ‘to a hair-shirted existence and refusal of further human development due to a romantic unscientific belief in a static, unchanging balance of nature’ (69). Citing the ‘little-known’ (70) story of the Great Oxygenation Event (or what he calls ‘The Great Primordial Flatulence of Doom’) in which most of the planet’s then-anaerobic organisms were wiped out 2.3 billion years ago by oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, he notes that without this catastrophic extinction event, ‘humans and most other complex life on the planet wouldn’t exist’.

‘Life cares not a jot which species live and which species die,’ we are told, and ‘concerns about biodiversity are in fact anthropocentric concerns’. That great othering term ‘Nature’, which Phillips so despises, comes in through the back door here, disguised under the equally veiling word ‘life’. Phillips’ Nature may not care which species live and die, but those species operate under their own telos, strive for their own existence, and we primates can reserve the right to mourn, and perhaps even work to prevent their anthropogenic loss.

Unfortunately, for his tale of myopic romantic greens who are wedded to a vision of static ecosystems, the evidently cursory research done for this book failed to turn up the fact that his bête noire, Paul Kingsnorth, has indeed written about precisely this ‘little-known’ great oxygenation extinction event, concluding that:

The nature of nature has always been change, which means that death – and rebirth – will always be with us, and that rebirth may take forms we do not recognize and did not expect. You are part of this process, and so am I, and this time around we are the cause of it, too. The future offers chaos, uncertainty, loss. To deny this is to deny reality. To pretend we have more control than we have, to cling to glib ‘solutions’ as if the world were a math puzzle we could solve with the right equations, is a similar form of denial. There is an abyss opening up before us. It challenges everything we thought we knew about our culture and about nature. We need to look into it and concentrate on what we can see.

If anyone is wedded to an inadequate, static vision, it is Phillips himself, failing to think through the implications of his own writing, whereby ‘rich, dynamic variation, not ‘balance of nature’, seems to be the force that guides nature’. ‘The survival of our species beyond the life of the sun’ (258) is apparently the author’s ultimate aim. Technology, science and a programme of control, the taking of dominion over an irreducibly complex planet, are this species’ salvation from change, from progress, from the end of our sun billions of years hence. And presumably, to avoid the end of the universe, we will magic a way to travel to other universes, and cling to our lonely mote of brilliance.

Here we see the basic incommensurability between Phillips’ vision of human dominion, his ‘conquest of abundance’ and my own, which perhaps more resembles the acceptance of Daoism. I am here, on Earth, in the company of an infinitely complex meshwork of beings, human and nonhuman, who can never be reduced to the abstract logic of anthropocentric control which underpins the faith of techno-romantics. It is an incommensurability which renders visible the futility of engaging on the Prometheans’ level of scientism and faith in a future civilisation-saving, transcendent technology. For this is not where the action happens. The action happens in the stories we tell, the earthly experiences we share, and how we adapt with humility and compassion to a greater unknown. We are primates existing in our own contingent way on our shared contingent planet. None of us will outlive the universe. And I’m sorry Leigh, but that’s fine. Stop fighting it. That’s just the way, as the Daoists would say.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). http://st-andrews.academia.edu/TSmith

Images:

‘Ranger Uranium Mine’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
‘Gulf Oil Spill’ by Sam Churchill

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7 thoughts on “Beyond the Life of the Sun: Ecomodernism and its Discontents

  1. Another book that won’t be on my Christmas list. To judge by other reviews I’ve read, though, it hardly seems to merit this thorough a response… The words “shooting”, “fish” and “barrel” come to mind.

    • Of course, that’s the kind of response you’d expect from an anarcho-liberal epigone like me. (I had to look that one up. Apparently it means “A second-rate imitator or follower, especially of an artist or a philosopher.” In other words, a nameless sherpa humbly carrying the baggage for the Dark Mountain summit party of Klein, McKibben, Jensen, Kingsnorth and co. It’s a fair cop, guv.)

  2. Population is not a “smokescreen.”
    WTF is wrong with YOU, ecomodernist overpopulation denier? If nothing else, it’s a quality of life issue that is HUGE, hugely consequential, and by diminishing its importance you’re betraying and contradicting all else you’re saying/rebutting. We ARE a scourge. There ARE too many of us, and because no one will take up this unpopular cause, we’re doomed no matter what else we get “right.”

  3. Thanks for ‘species chauvinism’ – I’ve been looking for a nice, pithy way of summing up that sense of entitlement to the +/- 30% global photosynthetic capacity which civilised humans have currently appropriated into their systems (see: http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153031/ ) with a sixth great mass extinction event the predictable outcome.

    Otherwise a welcome tone to this critique. Not a ‘demolishing’ or ‘destroying’ of the other’s argument, but mischievously letting the air out of its puffed-up grandiosity. Very Daoist ;)

    cheers,
    I

  4. This sounds like a pretty rubbish book!

    I was really curious about this, where you said: “many species demonstrate their own qualitatively-unique cognition, self-awareness, capacity for language, technology, art and ‘abstract reasoning’, radically different from all other organisms – some even capitalise on wildfires to cook their prey”

    Where did you read about animals learning to cook on wildfires? I’ve searched around the web but all I could find was this article about chimpanzees looking for seeds … http://www.earthtouchnews.com/natural-world/animal-behaviour/chimp-cooks-help-researchers-trace-the-origins-of-the-kitchen

    Sam

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