The Case Against Ecomodernism: An Ideological Turing Test

How well do we really understand the position of our opponents in a debate? My friend and fellow ecomodernist Simon Friederich, with whom I just published an academic paper in defense of nuclear energy, suggested that we put this to the test: each of us tried to write a piece against ecomodernism, offering what we consider to be the best counterarguments. The pieces were written independently of each other, and we decided not to share them before both of us were finished writing. The rules of the game? We agreed that we would not resort to outright lying or disinformation, but that misleading the reader by omitting important information or “bending” the truth a little was to be allowed. The goal was not just to channel the thoughts of our critics, but also to come up with original arguments or strategies that they might not have thought of yet.

This project was inspired by what the economist Bryan Caplan calls an Ideological Turing Test, after the famous test proposed by the mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing, in which an AI machine tries to impersonate a human being. In the ideological version, you try to represent the position of your opponents at least as good as they could, so that a naive observer won’t be able to tell the difference. This is similar to what philosophers call “steel-manning” as opposed to “straw-manning”: constructing the strongest possible version of your opponent’s view rather than making a caricature that is easy to knock down. Below you can find both of our pieces. Did we succeed in making a good case against ecomodernism, the view we truly believe in? You’ll be the judge! We launched a Twitter poll here.

If you want to read more about the Ideological Turing Test, you can also check Julia Galef’s wonderful book The Scout Mindset.

DISCLAIMER: We do NOT agree with the views expressed below. 😉

(1) The rational case against ecomodernism (An Ideological Turing Test)

Simon Friederich

Ecomodernism is a novel version of environmentalism that advocates technological progress as a solution to our most pressing problems. Ecomodernists celebrate gains in welfare that are driven by technology – like longer and healthier lives – and expect that these will continue if progress continues. But they also acknowledge that we have some of our deepest and most authentic experiences in settings that are not mediated by technology. Technological progress, ecomodernists hope, will allow us to simultaneously increase human welfare, concentrating human activities in cities and industrial areas, while at the same time maximizing spaces where nature is “left to itself.” Controversially, ecomodernists advocate technologies that traditional environmentalists reject, such as nuclear energy and genetic modification.

Ecomodernism is currently fashionable, but it lacks the wisdom of traditional environmentalism. You may expect that my criticism of ecomodernism starts with a romantic vision of how “small is beautiful” or about how we should harmonize with nature. Instead, it starts with the hard-nosed analysis of “rationalists” and “effective altruists” such as Oxford philosophers Hillary Greaves, Nick Bostrom, and Toby Ord. Humanity, according to these thinkers, runs the risk of causing its own extinction or, alternatively, the permanent lock-in of some sort of dystopia like a totalitarian world government or a world run by malevolent robots, all as a consequence of unbridled technological progress. Ord has made a persuasive attempt to quantify the total risk of existential catastrophe: He ascribes a probability of 1/6 (!) to some type of existential catastrophe hitting us during the next 100 years and sees humanity at a “precipice”. His colleagues make similar estimates.

Almost all that ris­k comes from technological progress and the economic development enabled by such progress: Nuclear war, artificial pandemics, runaway global warming, environmental damage, and unaligned artificial intelligence are the main currently known risk-drivers. There is no reason to assume that those risks will somehow be reduced if technological progress continues. As Nick Bostrom persuasively argues, there may well be even more dangerous “black ball technologies” that are almost certain to cause our extinction if we ever discover them. Even if Ord is too pessimistic, the cumulative existential risk from a few more centuries of technological progress, if it continues in the way it currently does, is equal to 1.

But not all hope is lost. Extinction and/or dystopia are not destiny.

The key insight needed to turn things around, hiding in plain daylight, is that we must make our societies sustainable. A sustainable society is one in which all practices are sustainable. And sustainable practices, by definition, are practices that can be performed indefinitely and do not undermine our very existence or other sustainable practices.

Sustainability is often used as a buzzword. In reality, it is a serious affair. The radical consequences of the – urgently necessary – move to sustainable society are not widely appreciated. This move is not just about recycling, cycling to work, or growing organic food. It is also about channeling and ultimately stopping the research and development of technologies that might turn into what Bostrom calls “black balls.” And it is about radically restricting the use of technologies that we already have and that can cause extinction or a locked-in dystopia. (Here I leave aside the observation that this programme, taken seriously, actually means kicking ordinary people from land that they cherish and cultivate to make room for members of privileged elites to have pseudo-spiritual deep “nature experiences.”)

What ecomodernists fail to see is that spreading the know-how and infrastructure that is necessary to use their favorite technologies will sooner or later lead to an existential catastrophe. Take the example of nuclear power. Ecomodernists rightly prioritize ending extreme poverty in developing countries. But their vision to achieve this with massive deployment of nuclear energy is insane. If civilian nuclear technology were to become accessible and cheap for everyone, access to nuclear bombs would also become easier than now. The knowhow and infrastructure for enrichment of nuclear fuel can also be used to make nuclear bombs. Both require either the enrichment of uranium or the breeding of plutonium to have enough fissile material. The facilities for either of them can be used to create the material for a bomb. There is only one way to avoid proliferation of nuclear bombs and get rid of those that we have: a global ban on such facilities. First of all, we should stop using civilian nuclear energy ourselves, and then dissuade others from doing so.

Traditional environmentalists usually focus more on the risks from nuclear accidents and nuclear waste when they criticize the technology than on the risks from weapons proliferation. Apparently, these concerns speak more directly to people. Ecomodernists and other advocates of nuclear energy, in turn, often dismiss the worries about accidents risks and the waste that we leave to future generations as irrational, arguing that these dangers are no larger than those from other energy sources. They may be technically correct, but they also entirely miss the point. The worries about nuclear accidents and nuclear waste do not arise from any mistaken risk calculation. They flow from the healthy and natural horror that people have – rationally – about a technology that can be exploited to cause the deaths of billions in blasts and fire – in a war between major nuclear powers even nuclear winter. Fear of nuclear accidents and nuclear waste should not be seen as an irrational quirk but rather as an opportunity to create a future in which humanity has said goodbye to the monsters it has created itself, before those monsters destroy us.

The same applies to genetic engineering and its actual and perceived risks. Yes, current GMO seem to be safe, but seemingly naïve fears of “unnatural” technology carry more wisdom than the triumphalism of the ecomodernist and other techno-optimists. In his book on ecomodernism, Jonathan Symons aptly compares the current situation of humanity to that of Thelma and Louise at the end of the famous movie. The two are surrounded by state troopers and their only options are to surrender or to commit suicide by arcing into the Grand Canyon. Even though Symons sympathizes with ecomodernism, he acknowledges that the ecomodernist answer amounts to “flooring the accelerator.” We know what this means for Thelma and Louise, and we should be under no illusions about what it means in our predicament.

Heading for certain disaster is not our only option. We have the alternative of aiming for a truly sustainable society and creating it as soon as possible. Such as society may have lower GDP and thus be superficially “poorer”, but it will be far safer and far more humane. The clearest vision of such a “sustainable” society that I am aware of can be found in Peter Kalmus’ book “Being the Change.” Kalmus outlines a low-energy mode of living that we can hope to collectively maintain for 1000 to 10000 years.

My call for a universal turn to sustainable and authentic lifestyles in harmony in nature may sound romantic and anti-rational. But it actually follows from a cool-headed weighing of risks and benefits. Who’s really being irrational here?

(2) Don’t listen to the siren song of ecomodernism (An Ideological Turing Test)

Maarten Boudry

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, humanity (or rather, western civilization) has had a devastating and ever-growing impact on nature. We have driven countless species to extinction, we have deforested half the planet and overfished the oceans, our industries have polluted water and air with countless toxic chemicals, we have almost destroyed our planetary ozone layer protecting us from deadly UV radiation, and most ominously, we are still burning billions of tons of coal, oil and gas every year, all of which is dangerously heating our planet. In a mere two centuries – a breakneck speed to which nature cannot possibly adapt – we have been upsetting and disturbing natural balances that have existed for thousands or even millions of years. We are exceeding or approaching several crucial “planetary boundaries”, and there may be others still that scientists have not even identified yet.

How do we retreat from the brink before it is too late? According to ecomodernism, a movement that has been gaining influence in recent years, it is not necessary for rich westerners to lower their levels of consumption or to radically adapt their lifestyle, despite all the damage that we have already caused and are still causing. In fact, ecomodernists believe that we need even more economic growth and that this will somehow solve all our environmental worries.

The appeal of ecomodernism is hardly a mystery: it promises us that we in the West do not need to sacrifice anything, that we can continue our decadent and wasteful lifestyles, that the status quo is just fine and radical system change is unnecessary, and that despite all of this we can still somehow solve all of our environmental troubles. In a nutshell: that we can have our cake and eat it too.

At bottom, however, ecomodernists are engaging in magical thinking. They are counting on the development of future technologies that have yet to be invented, and they are counting on the invisible hand of market forces to deliver them in time. Even if you grant that we may get lucky in some areas and that some technologies will arrive in time to solve some problems, ecomodernists are just kicking the can down the road. As long as we cling to the dogma of economic growth, any victory against environmental problems can only be partial and temporary at best.

Yes, the hole in the ozone layer is now shrinking, because we have found a technological substitute for the propellants in spray cans. But how many people are aware that these chemical substitutes are greenhouse gases in their own right that are further contributing to global warming? By ‘solving’ one problem, all we are doing is conjuring up others, all the while lulling us into an false sense of complacency and nurturing our human arrogance. Because smart scientists will eventually find a solution to all of our problems, right?

The truth is that economic growth always demands material resources and energy, and that the amount of resources on our planet is by definition finite. Ecomodernists and techno-optimists have often declared victory because this or that predicted deadline has failed to materialize, such as the warning of the Club of Rome in 1972 about resource depletion, but this argument is extremely short-sighted and complacent. The ecomodernist is like the man who jumps off the top of a skyscraper and, noticing that the building was higher than he expected, congratulates himself in mid-air: “This is going quite well!” Ecomodernists believe in science, right? Well, it is a mathematical fact that nothing can grow forever on a finite planet. If we listen to the siren song of techno-optimists today, relying on technofixes like nuclear reactors or super-batteries to solve our climate worries, this will only postpone the inevitable day of reckoning.

It is true that science and technology have improved the human condition over the past two centuries. But two centuries is a blink in the eye of geological time. What makes us so confident that such progress can continue indefinitely? Nature should not be romanticized, but we should bear in mind that it is a self-regulating system that has thrived for millions of years, long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. It is abundantly clear that modern humans are upsetting this natural balance in a way that no other species has ever done before. Not only are we increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere at a rate that is at least ten times higher than at any previous time in history, but we are unleashing all sort of novel dangers that nature has had no time to adapt to.

Take the thousands forms of plastics we have invented, none of which even existed until 120 years ago. Living organisms cannot break down plastic, and have had no time to evolve any defenses against it. As a result, enormous plastic soups are drifting in every ocean, and microplastics can be found in the dead bodies of animals all across the globe. Or take nuclear fission, beloved by ecomodernists and other techno-optimists. Nuclear reactors unleash a source of energy that no organism on earth has ever harvested, and that is completely alien to the living world. As a result, nuclear reactors are creating uniquely dangerous waste products that nature has no way of dealing with, and that will remain toxic to all living beings for thousands of years. Genetic manipulation in the lab, which according to ecomodernists will cure hunger and save the planet, is nothing but a radical break from the slow and gradual mechanisms of natural selection that have produced the diversity of the living world. Who knows what unexpected consequences bio-engineers may bequeath to future generations? Should we really trust their glib assurances that GMO organisms are perfectly safe and healthy?

Human intelligence may be unrivaled in the animal kingdom, but we are not infallible, and we have proven again and again that our intelligence is not commensurate to our powers. Ecomodernists themselves like to point out that it is impossible to predict what will be the technological innovations of the future (even though they firmly believe that they will arrive in time). How then can we ever expect to know the unintended side-effects of those technologies, especially the ones that have no precedents in the natural world? In a typical feat of hubris, ecomodernists now want to harness the energy of nuclear fusion, a process which requires physical conditions that are so extreme that they have never occurred anywhere on our planet in its 4.6 billion year history (more extreme even that the fusion reactions taking place in our sun). It is the height of arrogance to presume that we can know beforehand that such a radical technological innovation will have no unintended long-term consequences.

Consider that the chemists who invented the hydrofluorocarbons used in spray cans – another substance that doesn’t occur anywhere in nature – had no idea that they were unwittingly destroying an indispensable layer of protection high in the stratosphere. Yes, the ozone hole is shrinking, but we just got incredibly lucky, because we woke up to the problem before it was too late. Likewise, when James Watt designed the steam engine, he had no idea that, apart from toxic and noxious fumes, this machine was also emitting an invisible and odorless gas that is now slowly roasting our planet. Perhaps these engineers were only thinking of the progress and prosperity of humankind, or more likely, their own profits.

Inventing clever new technofixes to save us from the ravages caused by the last ones is not ‘rational’ or ‘scientific’. It is just doubling down against our better judgement, increasing the stakes when we are already losing big time. If humanity is to have any chance at surviving the unfolding catastrophe we are causing, we should retrace our steps and revert to older and safer technologies that have never caused any planetary harm. Indigenous communities may be “poorer” than our western societies, but at least they have developed sustainable ways of living that do not destroy whole ecosystems. Instead of violently splitting or fusing atoms – the building block of all life – we would be better advised to harvesting natural energy flows like solar radiation and wind power. Many generations before us – and indeed many other organisms – have done so for thousands of years. The biologist Leslie Orgel famously cautioned that “Nature is cleverer than you are”. Rather than trying to outsmart nature and inventing clever techniques to tamper with DNA in the lab, we should revert to the tried-and-tested ways that Mother Nature herself has relied on for billions of years, without ever triggering a global catastrophe.

Above all, we should resist the lure of growthism, the dogma that our human civilization can keep growing and growing forever, perhaps even colonizing other planets. If we have come this far without wiping ourselves out, that doesn’t prove we are smart; it just shows that we’ve been lucky. But we will run out of luck sooner or later. Ecomodernism is an alluring but dangerous siren that beckons us ever closer to the abyss. Don’t listen to its serenade.