Effective environmentalism and ecomodernism

This Earth Day is a good opportunity to answer a question that some people asked me: what is the difference between my environmentalist views and ecomodernism? We can generate new insights by looking at the correspondences and differences.

What is ecomodernism?

As defined on Wikipedia, ecomodernism is “an environmental philosophy which argues that humans can protect nature by using technology to decouple anthropogenic impacts from the natural world.” We can analyze the ecomodernist philosophy from the perspective of a rational ethicist, by focusing on its means and ends. These means and ends are summarized in the two parts of the word ‘ecomodernism’, respectively ‘modernism’ (the means of technological advancement) and ‘eco’ (the ends of ecological improvements).

Based on the Ecomodernist manifesto, the ends or goals of ecomodernism are: environmental protection (less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions), nature conservation (less land and resource use) and economic growth (reducing poverty and increasing wealth). This combination of economic growth with reduced environmental impact is called ‘decoupling’. Ecomodernists want more room for nature, a kind of re-wilding the Earth. This preference for more nature is based on an aesthetic preference, because ecomodernists acknowledge that humans could survive and prosper materially on a planet with much less biodiversity and wild nature.

The means of ecomodernism are clear: technological advancements that intensify human activities so that they require less land and resource and are less polluting. Examples are urbanization (more skyscrapers in cities), agricultural intensification (more GMOs and less organic agriculture), advanced solar energy and new generations of nuclear power technologies. From the manifesto: “Suburbanization, low-yield farming [such as organic farming, sb], and many forms of renewable energy production [especially biofuels, sb], in contrast, generally require more land and resources and leave less room for nature.”

What is effective environmentalism?

So how does this relate to my view? I am an effective altruist, which means I use critical thinking and scientific evidence to do the most good. Within effective altruism, there is the philosophy of effective environmentalism, where ‘doing the most good’ means environmental protection and nature conservation. Therefore, effective environmentalism and ecomodernism share the same goals.

What are effective means to reach those ends? There are a lot of ineffective campaigns in the environmental movement: promotion of organic food and resistance against nuclear power, genetically modified foods, some pesticides or synthetic materials (plastics). In contrast, promoting technological development can be very effective. In this sense, there is a strong overlap between effective environmentalism and ecomodernism.

But is technological advancement sufficient to solve the environmental crisis? If we strongly value biodiversity, wild nature or environmental sustainability, technology will not be enough, because we are not able to very quickly develop technology that is ethically, physically, biologically, financially or economically feasible. Some energy sources are too expensive, some technologies are too dangerous, and plants cannot grow infinitely fast. And species are going extinct today, so an environmentalist is impatient.

We can look at the ImPACT equation: the environmental Impact (Im) equals the product of the Population factor (the number of people P), the Activity factor (the Amount of useful consumption units consumed per person, A), the Coefficient of environmental impact (the average impact per unit of primary Consumption, C), and the Transfer efficiency or Technology efficiency factor (the average amount of primary consumption units per useful consumption unit). These four factors indicate four different strategies to lower the environmental impact of a group of people. The ImPACT equation says that People can ACT, where ACT refers to three different kinds of actions that individuals can take (reducing the three factors A, C and T, which correspond to the Trias Energetica). The fourth possible strategy is the reduction of the population size P: stopping overpopulation by e.g. investing in fair conditions for voluntary pregnancy limitation (education, access to means of family planning, women rights,…).

The effectiveness of ecomodernism

Ecomodernism primarily focuses on the reduction of the factors C and T: using technology to reduce the environmental impact per unit of consumption. A major criticism of ecomodernism is that it neglects reductions of the factor P, through the promotion of family planning, and the factor A, through environmentally friendly behavioral change and the promotion of a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity and less consumerism.

If you believe that the environmental challenges are very big, it is better to be open to all possible strategies, reducing all factors P, A, C and T. But the effective environmentalist asks the question: which strategies are most effective. Consider the strategy of reducing A. As an individual, you can decide for yourself to change your behavior, consume less and live in voluntary simplicity. You can decide to do that immediately, at no financial cost. So this is very cost-effective for you personally. Hence, as an individual you may have a duty to change your consumption behavior.

However, what about trying to persuade other people to do the same? What about starting a behavioral change campaign? Such a campaign requires resources (money and time), and it may be very difficult to convince others to change their behavior. It is not guaranteed that such a campaign will be more cost-effective than a campaign that promotes environmentally friendly technological development. It might be better to invest your money in technological development than to invest it in behavioral change campaigns. If technological development is more cost-effective, ecomodernists are right to focus on technology instead of individual behavioral change.

The effectiveness of different campaigns needs to be studied scientifically. We cannot say in advance what kind of campaigns or strategies will be most effective. The ecomodernists might be right that a focus on technology is most cost-effective, but that is not guaranteed. Some behavioral change campaigns, in particular the promotion of vegan food, may also be very effective. But again, even when it comes to the environmental impact of livestock farming, ecomodernists might prefer a technology driven approach that is perhaps more effective: the development of clean meat.

Apart from veganism, other measures that are to some degree neglected by ecomodernists are family planning and a green tax shift (environmental taxation or a cap-and-trade system).  The latter is important in order to avoid a rebound effect, where technological efficiency improvements are counteracted by an increase in consumption levels (e.g. driving more distances with more efficient cars). Technological innovations without economic measures such as carbon taxation does not yet guarantee an absolute decoupling where the total environmental impact decreases. Mere technological innovations might result in nothing more than a relative decoupling, where the environmental impact per unit of consumption decreases but the total impact increases because the level of consumption increases.


The goal of ecomodernism

Next from the effectiveness of its means, we have to take a deeper look at the goal of ecomodernism. For a rational ethicist, our ends should be consistent in the sense that our moral values or ethical principles should not contain contradictions, vagueness or unwanted arbitrariness. Here the environmental ethic of nature conservation raises a problem, as noted in the ecomodernist manifesto: “In most cases, there is no single baseline prior to human modification to which nature might be returned. For example, efforts to restore landscapes to more closely resemble earlier states (“indigeneity”) may involve removing recently arrived species (“invasives”) and thus require a net reduction in local biodiversity. In other circumstances, communities may decide to sacrifice indigeneity for novelty and biodiversity.”

The concept of nature is vague and a preference for a certain (historical or pristine) state of nature is arbitrary. Furthermore, as the manifesto acknowledges: “Explicit efforts to preserve landscapes for their non-utilitarian value are inevitably anthropogenic choices. For this reason, all conservation efforts are fundamentally anthropogenic. The setting aside of wild nature is no less a human choice, in service of human preferences, than bulldozing it. Humans will save wild places and landscapes by convincing our fellow citizens that these places, and the creatures that occupy them, are worth protecting. People may choose to have some services — like water purification and flood protection — provided for by natural systems, such as forested watersheds, reefs, marshes, and wetlands, even if those natural systems are more expensive than simply building water treatment plants, seawalls, and levees.”

On this matter, my personal view shifted over the past few years. We can give a value to nature or biodiversity, but this value originates from us. It is an anthropogenic value, comparable to the value of a beautiful painting. The painting itself doesn’t care about beauty, and neither does wild nature care about biodiversity or wildness. However, in wild nature, there are sentient beings, who do care about their well-being. So we can value the well-being of wild animals, but this value is not anthropogenic, because the animals themselves prefer their own well-being.

Here we face the problem of wild animal suffering. Preserving wild nature at the cost of animal welfare, for my own aesthetic preference, was probably my biggest moral mistake. In that sense, my more recent view deviates from effective environmentalism and ecomodernism: instead of merely conserving nature, we should do scientific research to find safe and effective means to intervene in nature to improve wild animal well-being.


A rational ethicist prefers effectiveness in means and consistency in ends.

When it comes to the effectiveness of means, a focus on technology (instead of individual behavior change) may be very effective for environmental protection and nature conservation. But the promotion of vegan food, family planning and a green tax shift (or a cap-and-trade system) are three effective win-win-win measures that are to some degree neglected by ecomodernists.

When it comes to the consistency of ends, the goal of ecomodernism (more wild nature) is vague, to some degree arbitrary and might result in more animal suffering. Preferring wildness (pureness, naturalness) of nature above well-being of animals is a kind of arrogance, where our weaker preferences are considered as more important than the more fundamental preferences of others.

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3 reacties op Effective environmentalism and ecomodernism

  1. Kristof zegt:

    I agree that preserving wild nature is an anthropogenic choice, but isn’t the comparison with the preservation value of a painting too exaggerated? (Wild) nature still holds many secrets and through study and observation we can learn and discover many things about life and ourselves, ecosystems, medicines, bio-technology and -engineering, among many other things. I would say that the preservation of (wild) nature also implies the preservation of an untapped potential for various (scientific) advancements which can have a direct and/or indirect impact on the ImPACT equation, something which you completely remove by bulldozing everything. With simple and straightforward reasoning, I would say that the larger the area with wild nature and the larger the degree of biodiversity, the bigger this untapped potential. This being said, it should not necessarily prevent us from reducing wild animal suffering through (minimal) interventions.

  2. Pingback: Opposing cell-based meat: a serious irrationality in the animal rights movement | Stijn Bruers, the rational ethicist

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