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A Green Political Economy for the Anthropocene

by Anne Fremaux on October 23, 2019
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The mainstream environmental economics agenda (loosely called ‘green economy’), which was formalised in the late 1980s and early 1990s, has failed to bring about, not only in economics but also in social sciences and humanities, the much-needed paradigm shift necessary to address the ecological predicament. Environmental economics is today dominated by a reformist agenda according to which regulations, market corrections (incentives, subsidies to energy transition, eco-labelling, product certifications, carbon pricing mechanisms), incentivised (mega)technologies and treaty-making processes are supposed to offer a ‘sustainable’ growth. This view believes in the efficacy, to solve ecological problems, of the same economic tools and concepts that have created them. Green capitalism maintains a negative spin and offers an illusionary response to the ecological crisis: thanks to it, increased economic rates of activity are regarded as the solution to problems caused by rising levels of production and consumption in countries already characterised by unsustainable levels of consumption and waste production. The sustainability crisis is being exacerbated by the very patterns that are promoted as its solution.

If the fraud involved in the concept of “green capitalism” has been largely uncovered, in my new book After The Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World, I argue it is today taken up by a revival of ecological modernisation theory, dressed up in the new clothes of ‘ecomomanagerialism’, ‘ecopragmatism’ or ‘post-natural environmentalism’. This new approach, loosely known as ‘ecomodernism’ embraces the new Anthropocene narrative as the opportunity for humanity to claim its legitimate power over the planet and pursue what Luke calls its ‘sustainable degradation’; that is a system which measures, monitors and manipulates ecological degradation and offers new opportunities and justification for the present institutions to prolong the ecocide. The ecomodernist standpoint is characterised by ‘utopian presumptions, including technological mastery of nature [and the use of] key concepts such as post-carbon society, decarbonisation, low-carbon transition’. By using the traditional green political economy core ideas, ecomodernists seek to defend an optimistic and wishful thinking for societies ‘that have locked themselves into carbon-based infrastructures where default options are fossil fuels leading to an emerging path-dependent hypercarbon world’. Although their conclusions are very close to those of traditional sustainable development (that is a call for high-tech ‘clean’ products, economic growth, technological fixes, etc.), they differentiate themselves by the shift from fearful predictions to a ‘dreams and opportunities’ discourse: offsetting the ‘dark side’ of climate change, they have captured the word ‘Anthropocene’, or rather the expression ‘good Anthropocene’ to show that we now live on a domesticated, humanised planet that calls for more human managerial action, rationalised domination and active technological stewardship. In this line of thought, recent market-driven technological innovations to extract oil and natural gas from shale and bituminous sands, as well as deep-water drilling, seemingly corroborate the renewability or substitutability of even non-renewable resources, validating the utopian premise of eternal energy abundance. The ecomodernist vision seeks to ‘enlarge’ planetary boundaries thanks to the acceptance of the role that science and (mega)technology have to play in the rearrangement of socio-natural relationships. For ecomodernist thinkers, the programme is enunciated as follows: hybridisation, fungible capital, artificial restoration, technological interventions, climate engineering. Those are the instruments that the control of socio-natural relations in the Anthropocene seem to call for.

One of the main misleading ecomodernist core idea that we need to address – an idea also shared by orthodox economists – is the belief in the ‘strong substitutability’ of natural capital (or ‘weak sustainability’), that is a concept according to which human-made capital is a substitute for natural capital. Sustainability after the end of nature (or the ‘post-natural sustainability’) is said to overcome the conflict between strong and weak sustainability, between the advocacy of fixed natural limits and the belief in the (infinite?) substitutability of natural capital. Thanks to the innovative ecomodernist theorist, the concept of ‘sustainability’ mostly rejected by environmentalists after its failure, finds here a new momentum, and that despite the fact that ‘the overwhelming body of scientific evidence documenting anthropogenic climate change, mass biodiversity loss, profound air and water pollution problems has unsettled many who have previously argued…that all resources are infinitely substitutable’.

According to the ecomodernist technological optimism and wishful thinking, it is mainly through technological innovations that ecological impacts on human societies can be diminished and further hybridisation accomplished. Concerning the side effects of technology, the circle is also closed: future technology will solve the problems created by previous technologies. Ecomodernists in particular and ecological modernisers in general assume ‘that the world can get along without natural resources’. However, the productivity of human-made capital is more and more limited by the decreasing availability of natural resources. Natural capital is becoming more and more a limiting factor. For instance, high-tech technologies depend heavily on little quantities of ‘mineral resources’, notably rare earth metals which are extremely scarce. Human-created capital and natural capital are indeed rather complements as the concept of strong sustainability supports than perfect substitutes insofar as human capital itself needs natural resources to become valuable. There is little chance that plastic trees replace biological trees as far as the whole cycle of life is concerned. ‘Strong sustainability’ theorists, for instance, argue for the protection of natural capital in its own right on behalf that it cannot be substituted for human-made capital.

‘Ecological boundaries’ for ecomodernists are always transitory and provisional: science and technology will be able to push the limits of what is possible. By promoting increasing economic growth and the role of new technologies (cf. ‘decoupling myth’) in the mitigation of the crisis, they associate themselves with the doom and gloom scenario of ‘business as usual’ supported by sustainable development proponents. Can we create a sustainable society via deregulated financial institutions, new innovative green markets or the creation of speculative negative emission technologies? The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario will most likely entail a continuing inequality in the sharing of resources, a rapid growth of carbon dioxide emissions, the loss of forests because of the expansion of agriculture, bio-energy-crops and human settlements, and the chemical pollution of rivers and aquifers as a consequence of unsustainable agro-industrial farming practices. The danger of reaching critical crossing thresholds would probably trigger events that could tremendously affect and transform the planet’s climate and ecosystems. The increasing pressure on natural resources and the persistence of poverty, inequality among and within nations will most likely cause conflicts and upheavals on the world scene. Such a scenario constitutes a very precarious basis for a transition to a sustainable environmental future and offers rather a grim prospect to our descendants. The ‘business-as-usual scenario’ might also be self-contradictory and inconsistent from the economic point of view since the social dislocation and the environmental degradation it entails could undermine its fundamental premise: that is perpetual economic growth. Those grim prospects are associated, in the ecomodernist optimistic vision, with the catastrophist scenario promoted by grumpy out-moded environmentalists. Ecomodernists would probably urge the latter not to bother too much and, borrowing a Latour’s article title, answer them that ‘[t]his is development, stupid!’.

Anne Fremaux
Anne Fremaux is a French philosophy teacher. She has completed her doctoral thesis entitled ’Towards a Critical theory of the Anthropocene: A Post-growth Green Republican Analysis’ at Queen’s university Belfast, UK under the supervision of Prof. John Barry. Her publications include: (2019) After The Anthropocene: Green Republicanism in a Post-Capitalist World. New York: Palgrave ; a science-fiction novel on the ecological crisis and transhumanism entitled L’ère du Levant (The Era of the Levantine) (Rroyzz, 2016) and a political-philosophical essay on the ecological predicament, La nécessité d’une écologie radicale, (Sang de la terre, 2011). She is currently looking for a post-doc or assistant-position.

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