What is Ecomodernism? (with Helen Breewood)
Welcome to the Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE I’m Matthew Kessler. We’re trying out something new. This is mini-episode where we interview a TABLE staff about a recent publication. We’re going to jump right into the conversation as Feed co-host Samara Brock kicks us off.
So part of what we do at TABLE is tried to take complex and controversial topics and explain them in a straightforward manner, as straightforward as we can. Helen Breewood research and communications officer at TABLE has recently done a piece on eco modernism that she's here to talk with us about today.
When did you first come across the concept of ecomodernism?
So I was trying to think about it. And I can't actually remember the first time. But I think I probably came across it through the writings of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a think tank based in California that focuses on technological solutions to environmental problems. And I probably came across the Breakthrough Institute while writing the Fodder newsletter.
Can you give us a 30 second pitch of what ecomodernism is?
My understanding, which is mostly based on the Ecomodernist manifesto, and the Breakthrough Institute's writings is that ecomodernism is a way of thinking about environmentalism that focuses on both human welfare and on freeing up land to conserve ecosystems. And the method that you would use to free up areas of land for conservation is to intensify the production of resources, such as food and energy, so that we're using less land to make what we need and leave more room for nature. And it's a bit different to other forms of environmentalism in that it doesn't necessarily assume things are good if they are made in a natural way. And it doesn't assume we all need to be living rural lifestyles. So it's about using technology, and also government policy, in order to free up land for conservation and also meet human needs.
And what does it mean to make more room for nature?
It means using less land, although not necessarily in a completely clear cut, this is land that we use, and this is land that we don't. Because you can run this do recognize that most landscapes have been inhabited by humans for centuries, millennia, and many landscapes that we think of as natural are, in fact, managed by people and have been for a long time. It's about trying to rely less on natural ecosystems for the resources that we need to make. And if we can find a way of creating something that we need, such as food while using less land, then we should be doing that.
What are the specific implications for food and agriculture?
So the manifesto doesn't actually talk about food very much specifically, but looking at the writings of the Breakthrough Institute gives us a bit more of more of an idea about what an ecomodernist food system would look like. Some of the specific things are, instead of harvesting wild fish at unsustainable levels, that will be better to have agriculture, if that can be done in a sustainable way. Instead of hunting wild animals for meat, it would be better to raise livestock, if that is less harmful for the environment. There's less focus than certain other strands of environmentalism on changing diets. It's more about meeting demand for certain foods in a way that is more sustainable, in theory.
It's about increasing yields and intensifying the production of crops to avoid the expansion of agricultural land and the conversion of ecosystems into farmland. So for example, as far as I can tell, ecomodernists are generally okay with things like genetic modification or technology that could help monitor humidity levels or fertilizer application on farm to use resources more efficiently. But I was actually quite surprised that I found relatively little about something like cellular agriculture, which to me seems in line with principles of ecomodernists, but there's not as much out there about cellular agriculture as I would have expected.
Do you think that's because it's a new technology? Or is there another reason why they haven't widely adopted its development?
Probably is because it's a new technology and the environmental benefits are not yet proven.
So at TABLE when we write these explainers. We have them reviewed by multiple parties, people who usually fall on different sides of the debate or come at the issue from a different background. And interesting and unique to this piece is that you had to put up a disclaimer in the beginning of it talking about the review process. Can you talk about the review process?
It was difficult. So the aim of the TABLE review process is that we produce a piece of writing that people who hold differing views on the issue can agree at least represents what the disagreements are in the fairway and I found this actually very difficult to achieve with this piece. And part of the reason was whenever I was writing about, for example, a criticism of eco modernism, some reviewers felt that I was very biased in one way. But if I was writing a defense of any components talking point, then other reviewers felt I was biased in the other way. So actually coming up with a single piece of text that other reviewers critically was fair and impartial, didn't really happen this time.
So what did happen? How did the piece pan out?
There were some talking points that some of the reviewers thought were not really legitimate arguments. And that it might even be harmful to include them even while saying that this is just an argument that's made. But because the TABLE approach is to describe the arguments that are being made on both sides, we made the decision to keep in this description of critiques and counter critiques, in most cases.
And how did that affect the review process? Where are all the reviewers on board with that?
One reviewer decided not to back the piece and remains anonymous. The others were happy to be listed as reviewers. But I included in the disclaimer that it should be clear that the reviewers don't necessarily agree with everything in the piece. We use their feedback to improve and strengthen the piece as far as possible. But not every reviewer necessarily agrees with our descriptions of the debates that are happening.
It's interesting. So this is the first time it's happened with an explainer. Is there anything particular to ecomodernism that you think led to this kind of inability to come to consensus?
I think it's quite a contentious issue, partly because some of the critiques around it suggests that it's not - it's a movement that isn't being used in good faith. And the suggestion is that it's using a particular political and media framing to promote solutions that might be somewhat in line with the status quo of intensification. And that's a sort of argument that's difficult to describe without suggesting that it's true. It's quite politically charged. I think some of the authors of the manifesto had previously run as political candidates, they have backgrounds in PR and marketing. And I think there's a bit of distrust of the movement. But to even talk about that critique kind of implies that - an ecomodernist reading that critique might think that we're not treating the debate fairly or impartially.
I wonder if you could share a specific example of where an ecomodernist advocate makes a point and then a critic makes a counterpoint.
So I can talk about the example of planetary boundaries. Before I read a lot about ecomodernism, I pretty much took the concept of planetary boundaries for granted, because it's commonly used in a lot of environmental thinking. And it's the idea that there were certain limits within ecosystems that if we have enough of an impact, it might push them into a new state, for example, a climate tipping point. Where if we put enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then we might reach a temperature where feedback loops start kicking in, such as more methane being released at the poles and causing more warming, and so on, and so on. And we might actually move irreversibly to a new, much hotter state. So that's a climate tipping point. And the boundary would be a point of no return. But the same concept is applied to more than just climate. But what I found when I was writing this piece, was that not all ecomodernists actually agree with the planetary boundaries framework, they tend to acknowledge that there are tipping points in the climate system. But they argue that other impact categories don't necessarily have a clear tipping point. And therefore saying that there is a planetary boundary at a particular point is more of an arbitrary expression of what this system should be like. So it's not a clear cut limit.
Underlying this discussion about planetary boundaries is different ideas about limits. And you mentioned earlier that people in the Ecomodernist camp don't like the framing of planetary boundaries. What is their main critique?
I think the phrase that was used by some of the reviewers was ‘the planetary boundaries framework is scientifically invalid.’ And I believe this was referring to the idea that there were not clear cut boundaries in some of the impact categories. However, I think another issue is that the ecomodernist framing means that if we use technology, we can vastly increase the amount of material goods that we're able to produce from, say, a particular area of land or thinking about the entire planet level. And the argument is, if we have enough renewable energy to power a lot of material production, and recycling of materials, then arguably, there's not really much of a limit in terms of the level of material consumption that the planet can sustain.
I think that's really interesting. Because if you hear someone denying a climate tipping point, or planetary boundary, you might think of them as not caring so much about the environment. But that's not where ecomodernists are coming from, right?
No, I don't think that's where ecomodernism is coming from. I do think ecomodernism cares about protecting ecosystems, although it's more from the perspective of, we need ecosystems to carry on functioning in order to look after human wellbeing. It's not so much about there being an inherent value in ecosystems. Although there is some discussion about the different ways in which people might relate on a sort of spiritual or emotional level to ecosystems. Emma Marris, for example, has written about interwoven decoupling. And she's saying that even if we have a model of conservation that assumes there are areas that will be freed up for conservation and there are areas that will be more urban, people can still have a relationship with natural landscapes. They can go rock climbing, or foraging, or many other uses.
So having spent so much time looking at depth into ecomodernism, and critiques of ecomodernism, did you end up changing your mind about any beliefs or opinions you held dear?
I think I wasn't aware of how much debate there was around the validity of the planetary boundaries framework. I don't entirely agree with the critique that it's not valid. It seems that ecomodernists do think it's valid in the case of climate change. But I think personally, even if there isn't a clear tipping point, or a clearly defined boundary in other impact categories, that doesn't mean that there aren't some levels at which there's a dangerous level of change. That was something where my understanding changed.
Did any of my values change? I don't think so. Not particularly, it was an interesting topic to me because it's one where I can sympathize to some extent, with both sides. If we're thinking of it as both sides. I come from a background in chemical engineering, I've spent some time on a lab grown meat project, I don't see technology as something to be inherently afraid of. I think it can be incredibly useful and help us provide resources and more sustainable ways, in ways that can meet the needs of everyone around the world. But on the other hand, I do see that there are many dangers with technology. And I do think we need to think carefully about the extent to which we need lifestyle change as well, which is something that ecomodernism doesn't focus so much on. So in a way, I agreed with some ecomodernists points and some points from other strands of environmentalism. And I think I'm still somewhere in the middle.
And where can people read the piece and follow your work?
You can read the full piece at our website, which is www.TABLEdebates.org/explainers . You can find all of our explainers there, not just the ecomodernism one.
And where can people - I'm just trying to get you to plug the newsletter.
Yeah, you can get updates from TABLE via our mailing list where we send out our newsletter Fodder, and we also send out updates for this podcast and events that we run. And you can subscribe to that at: www.TABLEdebates.org/fodder
A big thank you to Helen Breewood, who is also the curator and author of Fodder sending it into your inboxes each week.
If you'd like to not only read the explainer, but listen Helen and two of the other reviewers talk about ecomodernism and degrowth on limits to growth, lifestyles and media narratives, you can join us for a TABLE hosted event on June 15th. The event is free and you can find a link to register in the episode show notes or on the TABLE home page.
This mini-episode was edited by me Matthew Kessler, with music from Blue Dot Sessions. TABLE is a collaboration of the University of Oxford, Swedish university of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University. We hope you read this and other explainers, which are all found on the TABLE website. And if you subscribe to the Fodder newsletter, you can stay up to date on TABLE activities.
Talk to you soon.