Well that was interesting. Last week I and a few other people attempted to launch a new environmental political movement here in the UK. If you count alienating most of your potential supporters on the very first day as a sign of success, I think things went rather well. If not … well, I’ll get to that in a minute.
The movement is “ecomodernism”, an attempt to transcend some of the political polarisation in current environment debates with a recognition that human ingenuity and technological innovation offer immense promise in tackling ecological challenges, even as poverty in developing countries is reduced and – hopefully – eradicated altogether.
At the risk of seriously oversimplifying, traditional environmentalism has for decades advocated that human societies need to be reintegrated into natural systems, using renewable energy, organic farming, natural products and the like. Ecomodernism proposes instead that “decoupling” from natural systems using powerful technologies such as nuclear power and plant genetic engineering is a better way to feed and support billions of people in cities while still leaving more room for nature elsewhere.
We already have an Ecomodernist manifesto, and with two of its co-authors Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the San Francisco-based Breakthrough Institute visiting London, we were hopeful for an exciting, movement-building week. Our aim was to appeal to a broader constituency of people who feel that traditional green politics is too negative and moralising, and yet who are not comfortable either with the right wing’s dismissiveness of environmental problems and insistence that the free market will solve everything.
Even before their plane had touched down at Heathrow, problems began to emerge. As the UK’s original paid-up ecomodernist (I’m also a co-author of the manifesto) I had the responsibility of playing host. The first event I booked in – after some friendly initial meetings – was with former environment minister Owen Paterson’s thinktank UK2020, with science writer and House of Lords grandee Matt Ridley joining us on the panel.
This plan did not meet with the approval of George Monbiot. “It surprises me not at all that Owen Paterson is hosting an #ecomodernism (take no political action to protect the natural world) event”, he tweeted. At the risk of stretching understatement, it is safe to say that Monbiot is not a big fan of either Paterson or Ridley.
Paterson himself didn’t help by writing a typically bombastic piece in the Sunday Telegraph using ecomodernism as a platform for excoriating the “reactionary tendencies” and “relentless pessimism” of what he calls the “green blob” (ie environmentalists in general). Battle lines were beginning to be drawn, with ecomodernism – which I feel belongs if anywhere on the centre left – apparently already co-opted to fight the war against greens for the Tory right.
I’ll admit that I strongly considered cancelling the event, but Shellenberger talked me out of it. His reason owed more to bloody-minded principle than any kind of political acumen. “Ever since eighth grade I’ve had the rule that I will talk and listen to who I want, and not to who other people say I should,” he told me over the phone. Fair enough. But then the Today programme rang – not me, or Shellenberger, but Paterson, and on the morning of the event set him up against Doug Parr from Greenpeace. Facepalm.
The two sparred (2:43) predictably about GM crops and climate change, which I found entirely frustrating – because both Paterson and Greenpeace are wrong on each issue. Greenpeace ignores the overwhelming scientific consensus that GM crops are safe to eat, while Paterson downplays an even stronger scientific consensus that climate change is real, human-caused and a serious threat to humanity and the planet.
I tried to engage in some kind of damage limitation at the actual UK2020 event by strongly criticising Paterson for ideological selectivity in his use of science, and by stating clearly that I find the term green blob “polarising and divisive”. (Paterson looked entirely unperturbed throughout.) The point of ecomodernism is to build in the successes of the environmental movement, not to try to destroy it.
At the actual ecomodernism launch event that evening, hosted by Tracey Brown from the pro-science campaign group Sense About Science, the spectre of Paterson continued to overshadow proceedings. Journalists from the BBC and the Guardian both publicly and privately lambasted our obstinate naivety in being seen to represent ecomodernism on the same stage with a man who Monbiot has called “the worst environment secretary this country has ever suffered”. It doesn’t matter what you said, the hacks told me. Perceptions matter most.
Fine – so call me naive. But I do believe there has to be some way to depolarise this debate in the interests of moving forward. (Call me a hypocrite too: hell, only a few months back I was myself accusing Ridley of outright “climate change denial”.) Having spent some time now with both opposing “sides” I keep being surprised by how much they actually have in common, if only they would see it.
Take rewilding, Monbiot’s current campaign – both Paterson and Ridley are enthusiastic about it to a fault. There’s a broad consensus too on the need to get coal off the grid, and for the large role that both solar and next-generation nuclear power must play in this energy transition. The divisions may be wide on climate change science, but on solutions they are far less profound. (Just don’t mention windfarms or fracking.)
Wildlife conservation is something that clearly motivates all of us too: Paterson spent much of his time at the event bemoaning the loss of rhinos and elephants in Africa, while Monbiot has made biodiversity a central part of his life’s work. Ecomodernism takes this as a central organising principle in fact: the whole point of intensifying agriculture and switching to more energy-dense sources of power such as nuclear is to protect as much of the natural world as possible from direct human exploitation.
The realist in me reluctantly agrees that our ecomodernism launch last week was a political screw-up of impressive proportions. But the idealist in me refuses to be quieted: is it possible that in some small way by refusing to respect the tribal rules of the game we can start to find ways to transcend them? Perhaps not – from Corbyn to Trump, polarisation seems to be the political zeitgeist of our time.
Our small attempt at ideological depolarisation was certainly ill-timed. But that does not mean it is necessarily doomed. I hope.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010