Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts based on an essay with this title that I wrote earlier this year as part of the requirements for my MA in Environmental Politics. Introduction There are two possible ways of understanding the question; as to require a critique of Ecological Modernisation (EM) as a school of environmental thought or perhaps, far more demandingly, a critique of modernity itself. Although the main intention of this essay is to do the latter; it will inevitably do the former as well. Definitions In order to answer this question, it is essential to define what is meant by ‘ecological’; ‘modernisation’; and the theory of EM to which it has given rise: — In the context of the question, ‘ecological’ is taken to mean thinking, behaviour, and policy that are ‘environmentally-friendly’; rather than merely or predominantly anthropocentric (i.e. concerned with human needs and interests). — To understand what is implied by the term ‘modernisation’, it is necessary to define what is meant by the word ‘modernity’ because people often conflate the term with industrialisation or even capitalism. However, whereas both of the latter were forged in the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, modernity has its roots in the scientific revolution of “the Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century. — The theory – if not the practice – of EM emerged from Germany in the early 1980s. Whereas the social scientists Joseph Huber and Martin Jänicke are most-commonly credited with having originated the term, it is probably Arthur Mol that brought it to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1996, when he quoted Huber as having (somewhat enigmatically) said, ‘…all ways out of the environmental crisis lead us further into modernity.’ Thankfully, Mol then went on to explain that EM theory therefore seeks to repair “…a structural design fault of modernity: the institutionalised destruction of nature.” (Mol 1996: 305). In addition to the above, it is important to differentiate the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘civilisation’: Civilisation pre-dates the Enlightenment by several millennia; and is often equated with the development of agriculture, settled communities, and cities. However, since past civilisations have come and gone, is there any reason to think that our modern civilisation will be any different? This should not be seen as the question of a wannabe anarchist; as it is merely an acknowledgement of human history. According to John Dryzek, the rhetoric of the EM discourse is reassuringly optimistic; and would have us believe that we can retain a healthy environment without having to sacrifice the benefits of progress (Dryzek 2005: 171). More recently, echoing both Mol and Dryzek, Neil Carter has defined EM as a “…policy strategy that aims to restructure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines based on the assumption that economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled.” (Carter 2007: 7). It is in this context that Carter used the term “decoupling” to refer the idea of breaking any direct causal link between economic growth and environmental degradation; but also suggested that “dematerialisation” of manufacturing processes (i.e. the reduction of environmental resources consumed per unit of production) would be essential (2007: 227). However, if we take the manufacturing of motor cars as an example, the rate of fossil fuel consumption will always accelerate unless the percentage increase in engine fuel efficiency is greater than the percentage increase in the number of cars. Therefore, since the former must exponentially decline towards zero, the logical conclusion is that we must control the demand for the latter. ————— References: Carter, N. (2007), The Politics of the Environment (2nd ed), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Earth (2nd ed), Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mol, A. (1996), ‘Ecological Modernisation and Institutional Reflexivity: Environmental Reform in the Late Modern Age’, Environmental Politics, 5(2), pp.302-23.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Civilisation, Climate Science, Consumerism, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Limits to Growth, Modernity and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 1

  1. Donald says:

    As an inventor I would say that modernization is part of my field, I find that progress although, market force driven, is also being held back by governments and industry for the sake of not profits but actually ….. progress…… progress of any kind that is, including environmental. Sound a rather self defeating argument but it is remarkably accurate. As an example take NIkola Tesla, the perfect example for your blog, who having invented the electric motor and then having designed the entire energy grid around it that we used today … immediately came forward with what he believed to be a much better idea … that of giving the people free energy …( That’s what his Colorado experiments were all about) Needless to say that the powers that be who had just invested an enormous fortune in his last idea, decided to ruin his life rather than give up on all the things they had planned for the future.


    • Rick_Altman says:

      Can you humour my ignorance for a moment longer; and explain what Tesla’s second big idea was? The only Colorado experiments I know about are those undertaken on Aliens from crashed UFOs (in between filming Moon Landings) 🙂


  2. Donald says:

    Not long after he sold his motor to Westinghouse, the man came back and told Tesla that he had paid him so much for the invention that now there was no money to make it all happen, Westinghouse had paid him, back in the 1800’s the equivalent of almost $1 Billion Dollars. Tesla promptly tore up the as yet uncashed cheque and told Westinhouse to use the money to get his invention out into the world, as a favour Tesla was then introduced to whom was at the time the richest man in the world H.P.Morgan. Morgan paid for Tesla to erect a huge tower in the Colorado area, reknown for lighting strikes and here Tesla began experiments to draw electricity from the air ( he was wrong but that doesn’t matter here) He did make it happen, althought not as he realized at the time, but when the day came that he took a bunch of reporters 30 Kms away from the tower, stuck a rod with a lightbulb in it into the ground and …. the rod lit up 🙂 Didn’t take long before Morgan was convinced by the powers that be to remove all funding from Tesla, he died a poor man, living in a hotel, a pigeon his only friend. A true story, well documented. The man has always been one of my heroes, when I made my first magnetic engine I followed all his examples in selling it … I made half a million dollars out of that one thanks to him 🙂


  3. Donald says:

    I’ve tried to post you some pictures but for some reason this site won’t accept them in comments 😦


  4. Rick_Altman says:

    Thanks Donald. Very en-lightening (groan) 🙂 However, unless or until we invent food replicators like they had in Star Trek, and unless or until global population stabilises (at anything between 10 and 15 billion according to the UN), trying to grow more food on less land is only going to drive food prices higher… Limits to Growth “doomsters” were never wrong; it’s just that, until now, they had not been shown to be right. 😦


  5. Donald says:

    I don’t think we have a problem with food growing as such, Rick, I think the problem is entirely on “how” we grow it. As an example we use thousands of acres to breed cattle for the human consumption of perhaps a few millions when we could use the same land to grow all sorts of other foods and feed many, many more. I’m not a vegetarian but I’m smart enough to know that sooner or later we’ll all have to go that way. also I note that here in the west we tend to store our food where everywhere else people only grow what they have to because they have no money to build storage places for their food. Perhaps we could start there … “Build them a food silo” should perhaps become an international project; cheap but with magnificent repercussions 🙂


    • pendantry says:

      Agreed that the problem is in the way we grow food — All our current techniques mean that we’re effectively mining topsoil to turn it into food; and we’re losing topsoil at the rate of 1% pa (which would mean total loss in 70 years). Not to mention that current farming techniques currently require oil, which we’re using up at a rate that means it’ll probably run out before we’ve destroyed all the soil… Re: your comment that sooner or later we’ll all have to become vegetarians — that seems a tad ironic since it was the high protein meat diet that enabled us to grow bigger brains in the first place. I also suspect that the proverbial 1% will never voluntarily give up eating prime rump (though they might be obliged to start using long pig for their steaks).


      • Rick_Altman says:

        Thanks for popping back here (from this) to check one of my older posts out. I have not come across the idea of topsoil mining either. Recent programmes on the the TV have highlighted the amount of crops lost due to natural disasters: For example, the extreme drought suffered in Russia in 2010 (when the rain fell in Pakistan instead causing unprecedented flooding). This Russian drought was one of the main causes of the rapid increase in commodity prices that led to the Arab Spring in 2011. Just think what could have happened if the USA cereal harvest had failed at the same time… In fact, the situation is exactly as (the Limits to Growth team of) Meadows et al warned us in 2005: The world will run out of the ability to cope with all the environmental problems we are causing before it actually runs out of any resources. [To put this into context, see my ‘What are the roots of this financial crisis?’ (21 September 2011) post.]


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