Dueling Manifestos: Responses to an Ecological Crisis

“The miracle of the real world is that in it sense and existence are one.”

— Maurice Merleau-Ponty

2015 is manifesto season for the environmental movement. The Ecomodernist Manifesto, a project of the Breakthrough Institute, and the Leap Manifesto, spearheaded by journalist Naomi Klein, have been generating vociferous debate about how to address the ecological crisis we are living through. By “ecological crisis” I mean the many social and environmental ills of climate change: a warming world, unstable weather patterns, human-caused mass extinction, and the burdens borne by the poor and people of color often living in the most vulnerable and exploited places. Both documents start from the claim that the crisis demands major shifts in how we live on earth, but then they sharply diverge. The Leap Manifesto weaves social and ecological justice together, arguing that in order to effectively address climate change we must also take on issues like indigenous rights and gender discrimination. The Ecomodernist Manifesto advocates a technocractic approach, embracing nuclear energy, intensification of industrial agriculture, and rewilding as the route to a “great Anthropocene.” Two roads diverge in a postmodern dystopia.

I am curious about the philosophical stakes of these strikingly different plans. Each manifesto, if implemented, would shape our philosophical and experiential worlds as well as our biophysical one. This is to say, the ecological crisis is an existential challenge as well as a technical one. How we live as humans forms the horizons, the limits of possibility, for what our world can be. I’ll argue here that our sympathies should lie with the Leap Manifesto because it challenges us to live in and through earth, not upon it, while I understand the Ecomodernist Manifesto as doubling down on the modern bet that humans and nature exist as fundamentally different sorts of stuff. But first, I’ll say a bit about the pieces themselves.

The Leap Manifesto is a collaborative production of nearly sixty social justice and environmental groups that was published as an intervention in the run-up to Canada’s October 2015 national elections. It calls for addressing issues of ecological and social violence simultaneously, asserting that “caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sectors.” The Leap Manifesto envisions a rapid transition to a renewable energy economy that positions “those most affected by extractive industries—as the first to receive investment in a low carbon economy.” According to the document, a low-carbon economy would not just be powered by renewable energy, but would also emphasize “the sectors of our economy that are already low-carbon: caregiving, teaching, social work, the arts and public-interest media.” The Leap Manifesto is a sweeping call to restructure Canada’s economy around an ethic of care.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto, released in April 2015, could hardly be more different. It is a product of the Breakthrough Institute headed by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of “Death of Environmentalism” fame. The manifesto states that it is written “out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world,” but it rejects the “long-standing environmental ideal … that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.” Instead, the authors suggest that we can “decouple” economic growth and environmental impact by intensifying our reliance on nuclear power, large-scale industrial agriculture, and public policies that accelerate urbanization. This would result in largely depopulated rural landscapes, shrinking the amount of land under cultivation through technical innovations that would increase crop yields. The manifesto calls for rewilding this uncultivated land, creating room for nature to flourish on its own. The plan is a high-tech version of what conservationists call “land sparing”: intensifying environmental impacts in some places in order to minimize environmental harm in others.

Soybean plantation in Brazil. Photo by Tiago Fioreze, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Soybean plantation in Brazil. Photo by Tiago Fioreze, CC BY-SA 3.0.

What sets the Ecomodernist Manifesto apart from other ecological visions is its insistence on decoupling humans and nature, some variation of which appears at least twenty-six times throughout the document. Read generously, decoupling is about using technological interventions to further economic growth while cutting the associated environmental impacts. Read more critically, decoupling is the fantasy that somehow humans and nature exist in separate realms and that a relationship with nature is a choice rather than a basic condition of life.

Western traditions have tended to cleave the world in two: inner and outer, subject and object, and human and nature are assumed to sit on opposite sides of an increasingly indefensible metaphysical border fence. Our just-so stories say that while human bodies are one object among many in the world, human selves are something different. What makes us essentially human is an ephemeral self, understood to be made up of something quite different than the stuff of the physical world. Meaning and materiality are left staring suspiciously at one another through gaps in the fence.

The problem with that view is that the separation of meaning and materiality diverges from our everyday experience of the world. When I walk through a landscape, I perceive a meaningful scene, not the world as a container filled with discrete objects. Prominent features like trees or buildings may stand out, but I also take in the terrain underfoot, the hills undulating towards the horizon, the movement of the winds, the sun, or perhaps a cold drizzle on my face. This experience is filled with meaning. Many of us know the sense of possibility that arises when the sun peeks through after days of rain. Likewise, we know the brooding or contemplative inwards movement that accompanies the soft light, falling temperatures, and warm colors of fall.

What I notice in the landscape also depends on who I am and how I move through it. Roots and rocks in the trail stand out to me as obstacles to avoid, while the thermals ridden by the hawks above remain invisible to me. A forester is likely to notice details about species distribution that the rest of us would miss, while the photographer attunes herself to the subtle play of light on the landscape. These meanings are contingent in an endless number of ways. The woods meant something quite different to John Muir than they did to Little Red Riding Hood. But the point remains: meaning is not layered on top of an objective empirical landscape, it is immanent to our perception of the world.

As we conceptually fracture meaning and materiality, our world breaks into ever-smaller fragments. The enchanted forest becomes so many millions of board feet, the Colorado River becomes acre-feet of water, and the sky reduces to parts per million of carbon dioxide. Monetizing these bits pushes the issue one step further, reducing both beings and processes to capital. This fracturing is a practice of distancing. It allows us to know the world through quantification, which can be quite useful. Getting to know a tree as so many tons of fixed carbon or as a quantity of two-by-fours makes a lot of sense if you want to set up a carbon trading scheme or build a house. The error comes when we forget the practice of distancing and assume that this fractured, quantified world is fundamental.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger refers to the building of this erroneous foundation as “enframing,” what he called a “technological worldview.” If so many of our practices assume that the world is made up of interchangeable and manipulable pieces, then that’s all we’ll find. We’ve come to think that stock market indices, Fit Bits, and Likert scales can offer a true and full description of the world. Enframing is an iterative process: we make it true by repeating it. The practice of living through our knowledge traditions and engaging with the world through certain technical practices leads us to the assumption of a disenchanted world here for the taking. And it also narrows our capacity to understand the world differently.

Enframing reveals a key contradiction in the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Its authors expect us to act as if the world were a production floor filled with raw materials while somehow still expecting us to develop a respect for wild places as emotionally significant landscapes that will nourish our souls. By calling for interventions like the intensification of large-scale monocropping or the substituting of human-built dikes and levees for functional ecosystems, the Ecomodernist Manifesto would have us continue to treat the world as manipulable stuff, devoid of meaning—yet at the same time, it claims that a “deeper emotional connection” to nature is crucial to stemming climate change. The contradiction derives from the false assumption that meaning can simply be imposed on the landscape after the fact. Meaning is cultivated through both our technical practices and our knowledge traditions. The Ecomodernist Manifesto forgets this intertwining.

The experiential intertwining of meaning and materiality is why the Leap Manifesto’s emphasis on care is so compelling. Beyond making the undervalued care industry more legible to economic indices, the manifesto’s commitment to care offers us a chance to cultivate a way of being in our world premised more on an ethic than on technical management. A care ethic is a posture, a choice to act as if the world is filled with others, both human and non-, who are worthy of moral consideration. An emphasis on care would help to initiate a shift away from living with our world in terms of extraction or transaction—what can it do for us?—to a focus on what we put in, on cultivation.

To consider care in a more-than-human world, one place we can turn is to indigenous knowledge. Over and over again, indigenous peoples around the world have condemned the physical and metaphysical violence that accompanies the sharp dualisms of Western traditions. By placing the redress of colonial violence at the front and center of the Leap Manifesto, its authors create a space to challenge the assumptions that justify both colonial and ecological violence.

Many indigenous philosophies across the Americas understand the material and existential realms as continuous with one another. Further, they assert that meaning and subjectivity are not limited to humans but live in all kinds of creatures and places. While glib, the aphorism that says “the world is full of many types of persons, only some of whom are human” points to an important difference in how ethics are approached in the two manifestos. This adage shifts who counts in the stakes of ecological politics. “Person” as an ethical category stops being synonymous with the human species, and is instead a recognition that many others—those whom we recognize as human and otherwise—have a point of view that deserves both a voice and our listening ears as we seek to address the ecological crisis.

The diverging visions of the Leap and Ecomodernist manifestos should be read as evidence of how malleable our world is, and how open our future remains. Climate change demands action, and the kind of action we take has implications well beyond the crucial reduction of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. In knowledge production, technical practice, and their continual intertwining, we have the opportunity to come back down to earth, to live in and through a meaning-filled world.

Charles Carlin is a PhD candidate in the department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also works as a wilderness guide. Charles studies the use of wilderness spaces in education, psychotherapy, and spirituality. He holds an M.A. in Counseling & Psychology from Prescott College. Contact.

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