A Progressive Anthropocene? – A Rreview of The Breakthrough Institute’s Love Your Monsters

by RICHARD DOUGLAS

The Breakthrough Institute asserts that ecomodernism can give us a “Good Anthropocene”. But in aiming at a second naivety of progressive modernism, Richard Douglas finds, it mistakenly treats nature as though it were a human creation.

CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 :: Bo Insogna, TheLightningMan.com / Flickr

In 2007 Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus published a book entitled Break Through: Why We Can’t Leave Saving the Planet to Environmentalists.  In provocative tones they attacked what they saw as the environmentalist establishment for being too pessimistic.  Instead, they argued, environmentalism should work with the grain of the capitalist system.

The book received a generally unfavourable response among greens of various shades. What was remarkable was that such reactions united a spectrum of opinion including political pragmatists such as Jonathan Porritt, whose 2005 book Capitalism As If The World Matters had contained what were on the surface similar prescriptions. As far as Porritt was concerned, Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s modus operandi was to berate other environmentalists for their failings, while failing themselves to offer a distinctive alternative. Still, if Break Through was written to provoke, it certainly succeeded – “pure media gold”, as the environmental journalist Dave Roberts observed of its strategy.

Perhaps there was something more going on in Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s approach than simple controversialism, however, for since publishing Break Through they have won some intriguing allies.  One among these is Mark Lynas, whose environmentalist credentials are underlined by the sober grasp of climate science in his Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007).  In recent years he has become a supporter of the Breakthrough Institute, in keeping with his reaction against what he sees as a dogmatic aversion to technologies such as GMOs within the environmental movement.  Yet more intriguingly, Breakthrough fellows also include the philosophers and sociologists of science and social knowledge, Steve Fuller and Bruno Latour.

Latour’s favourable review of Break Through, an article entitled “Love Your Monsters”, gives its name to a 2011 collection of articles published by the Breakthrough Institute – and chosen for discussion recently by the CUSP Anthropocene Reading Group, hosted by Goldsmith’s PERC.  While disappointingly slight, the book reveals a distinctive position within environmental debate and hints at attempts to forge a grand project.  In seeking to instil hopes of a “Good Anthropocene” – to be achieved by bringing environmental threats back under social control, via technological development and state management – the editors seem to suggest we should not only be facing up to our collective fate, but trying to conquer it.  There is plenty of élan in this; but does it have any substance?

Regarding the core argumentative trope of this collection, the answer, unfortunately, is a clear no. Several contributors use an argument beloved of the “Green Backlash”, Andrew Rowell’s name for right-wing anti-environmentalist think tanks and self-styled “environmental sceptics”. The argument runs as follows: given numerous environmental trends have risen over several decades (think food consumption and energy supply, and forest cover in some countries), it is reasonable to assume they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

The correct name for the world-view which supports this argument is historicism: an attitude which, explicitly or implicitly, views social development as being determined by immanent material factors we may discern in our observations of history. As Karl Popper argued, in developing his critique of historicism in the 1950s, what this world-view does is to treat contingent trends as though they were immutable laws, in so doing turning predictions into prophecies. Such is the level on which the environmentalist assertion of the “limits to growth” is dismissed in this volume: growth has occurred in the (relatively recent) past, and we’ve never run into global eco-catastrophe yet, so why should we do so in the future?

Despite the similarities in argument, it would be wrong to place Breakthrough writers in the same camp as the Green Backlash; they never pretend that serious environmental challenges don’t exist, for instance. What are they, then? Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s preferred term is “ecomodernists”. While this term is clearly related to the field of “ecological modernisation”, dating back to the 1980s, the Breakthrough authors are typically keen to insist they have invented something new. Perhaps they have; or perhaps it’s a version that speaks to something stirring in our current times, a nascent movement that aims to defend progressive totems of modernity. We could see such stirrings in recent events such as the international March for Science, and a “Defending Progressivism” conference held in London. On a grander scale we might also view the election of President Macron in this light, his En Marche! party a self-conscious promise to the French nation to renew its sense of progressive mission. Indeed, there are strong echoes of Macron’s “neither left nor right” platform throughout Breakthrough’s writings.

This particular character comes through most clearly when Shellenberger and Nordhaus tell us: “We must abandon the faith that humankind’s powers can be abdicated in deference to higher ones, whether Nature or the Market.” This is an interesting, because unusual, perspective: critical of environmentalism, it is also critical of the Green Backlash prescription that we can leave it to the market to clean up its own environmental mess. Instead, Shellenberger and Nordhaus advocate state intervention on a grand scale, to wit a new Apollo Project of public investment in environmental technologies.

Not only this but, in opposing themselves to both, the Breakthrough authors suggest a link between idolatries of nature and of the market. Mark Sagoff’s contribution to Love Your Monsters is noteworthy in this respect. While Sagoff’s explicit focus is solely on an environmentalist view of nature, his analysis of this concept – as a system of self-generating order, created via a delicate balance of interconnected forces, which human intervention always threatens to fatally disrupt – has obvious echoes of Hayek’s catallaxy, the neoliberal concept of the market. This, too, is said to be a system of self-generating order, with an holistic logic that transcends the role played by any of its parts, and which in turn is at risk if interfered with by human intervention.

Tellingly, Sagoff’s contribution draws on the work of ecologists who, arguing against an holistic view of nature, see ecosystems more as discrete settings for contingent happenings. Thus his conclusion that a new environmentalism should quit worrying about upsetting the balance of nature, and straightforwardly intervene to “shape the natural environment of the future”. This is not something that would be said by speakers from the Green Backlash, deriving as that movement does from the neoliberal critique of state planning – itself based on an assertion of strong limits to human knowledge and capacity to intentionally shape the world. Rather, these ecomodernists are harking back to an earlier mindset, notably the Progressive Era and its self-confident ownership of the future.

This aiming for a second naivety of modernism, as it were, could make it seem somewhat curious to find Bruno Latour among the Breakthrough contributors. Latour is famous, after all, for being so sceptical of the mythos of progress as to have made the claim We Have Never Been Modern. Clearly, however, what Latour found attractive in Break Through was its ni l’un, ni l’autre position, its refusal to set up either nature or the market as a higher reality to the human and political. Though still wispily slight, his contribution operates on a deeper philosophical level to the rest of the book, and offers in return the most revealing insights.

The title “Love Your Monsters” is Latour’s conceit, based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: in the story, we are reminded, the creature only becomes a monster because its creator had abandoned it in horror at what he had done. For Latour, the monster is our collective technological powers, including their unintended consequences. Environmentalists are wrong, he thinks, to attempt to abandon this baggage of modernity and “get back to nature”: it is this which fuels the fear and guilt which turns technology into a monster. Latour tells us this is the modernist fallacy, this belief that through science we emancipate ourselves from nature and gain mastery over it. On the contrary, we become ever more attached to, responsible for, the things on which we act. His prescription is to stop worrying and embrace our already-existing condition of entanglement. We must go forwards, not back, with more technology, more interventions, but now in a spirit of nurturing and sustaining nature as our own creation, quite in the spirit of God Himself.

What are we to make of this? To begin with, we could note the analogy Latour chooses does not quite work. This is so because he erroneously treats technology and nature as being jointly our creation; as he writes: “we have taken the whole of Creation on our shoulders and have become coextensive with the Earth.” The logic of his argument is that climate change and other environmental threats are only monsters because we shy away from the technologies which have created them; embrace them and we shall lose our fear. But it is not as though the world as a whole has turned its back on technics; industrial production and consumption are proceeding apace, and in terms of the encroachment on crucial planetary boundaries that is just the problem. Meanwhile, the environmental dynamics which we have set in motion are not themselves our creation or in our gift to control: if we had the power to “set the global thermostat”, there would be nothing to fear in the first place.

That Latour’s analogy does not work is not that interesting; what is, is the way that it fails. For this makes profound sense of his analogy, and restores it to its original literary meaning. Where do we see a monster but in this claim that we have become coextensive with the Earth, that we are the creators of nature? This is the Anthropocene: we are responsible for changing the natural world, but we did not create, nor do we control, it. It is a mirror in which we see the hubris of the modern, the fatal chasm between our ambitions and our powers. We have played at being the Creator, and our creation cannot but horrify us because we are not ourselves divine. Instead our mortal condition is starkly revealed to us. Having embraced the prometheanism of progress we now find ourselves, never more in need of a divine protector, alone.

In a somewhat comic postcript, having seen how Shellenberger and Nordhaus were trumpeting it, bathing their entire project in his intellectual glow, Latour clearly decided he needed to distance himself from the rhetorical excesses of his article. True to his own philosophy, this process of disentangling himself from the Breakthrough Institute led him to an even closer attachment to it – as in flying all the way to Sausalito, California, to address a 2015 Breakthrough dialogue. There, he described ecomodernism as the monster, and one, moreover, that did not deserve to be loved. Ecomodernists were wrong, he said, to act “as if humans were still alone on stage, the only being who out of its own free will is in charge of apportioning space, land, money and value to the old Mother Nature.” Instead, they needed to wake up: the “enchanted dream of futurism” is dead. In this way, he condemned as vacuous Breakthrough’s attempt to create a Good Anthropocene through sheer optimistic will-power.

To return to his article, Latour’s rhetoric should not be taken literally, as this would result in a perversity of his intended meaning. This I take to be that we are inescapably in the world, not transcendent to it; and that we should apply ourselves to the limits of human potential in our love of it. Or in other words, all we can do is all we can do.

Richard Douglas is a PhD candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is working on CUSP’s M theme, on meanings and moral framings of the good life.

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