This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in
Citizenship Studies on 13 August 2018, available online:
Rethinking political obligations in a climate-changed world
* Jonathan Symons, PhD
Department of Modern History
Politics & International Relations
** Rasmus Karlsson, PhD
Department of Political Science
Umeå University, Sweden
Green accounts of environmental citizenship typically seek to promote environmental
sustainability and justice. However, some green theorists have argued that liberal
freedoms are incompatible with preserving a planetary environment capable of meeting
basic human needs and must be wound back. More recently, ‘ecomodernists’ have
proposed that liberalism might be reconciled with environmental challenges through
state-directed innovation focused on the provision of global public goods. Yet, they have
not articulated an account of ecomodernist citizenship. This article seeks to advance the
normative theory of ecomodernism by specifying an account of ecomodernist citizenship
and subjecting the theory’s core claims to sympathetic critique. We argue that state-
directed innovation has the potential to reconcile ambitious mitigation with liberal
freedoms. However, full implementation of ecomodernist ideals would require
widespread embrace of ecophilic values, high-trust societies and acceptance of thick
political obligations within both national and global communities. Ecomodernism’s
wider commitments to cosmopolitan egalitarianism and separation from nature thus
amount to a non-liberal comprehensive public conception of the good. Furthermore,
ecomodernism currently lacks an adequate account of how a society that successfully
‘separates’ from nature can nurture green values, or how vulnerable people’s substantive
freedoms will be protected during an era of worsening climate harms.
Were every country to fulfil pledges made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, global
warming this century would still likely reach 3°C.
Such planetary conditions, which
would be unprecedented in human history, would be disastrous for biodiversity and
human welfare. To date, states have proven almost entirely incapable of formulating an
effective response. This systemic crisis raises multiple challenges for political theory. Not
least is the question of what forms of citizenship – what pattern of rights, duties,
subjectivities and practices – might best reconcile human societies with their biophysical
environment. Recognizing the severity of the challenge, many green theorists have argued
that liberal freedoms and respect for value-pluralism are now incompatible with an
ambitious global climate response; some call for a transition to a post-liberal society
(Eckersley 2004, Crist 2015). In this view, ecological imperatives justify severe
constraints on human freedoms, especially concerning consumption and reproduction.
Since liberal citizenship is currently embroiled in political crisis, long-term
environmental threats tend not to be citizenship scholars’ primary concern. Across many
established democracies, populist forces are urging restoration of ethno-nationalist
citizenship models, erecting new barriers to migration, and using political techniques of
‘securitization’ to justify new forms of surveillance and state control (Ben-Porat and
Ghanem 2017). It is not difficult to imagine how these two narratives – of exclusionary,
nationalist citizenship and of climate-linked conflict, famine & migration – might
eventually converge into a system of deepening global apartheid, in which inviolable
barriers separate zones of affluence and impoverishment. In this scenario, arguments for
voluntary ‘simplicity’ and ‘sufficiency’, which have been developed by well-meaning
advocates of ecological justice, might eventually be repurposed to justify life-boat ethics,
enforced austerity and militarized exclusion.
‘Ecomodernism’ has been proposed as an alternative liberal-humanist response. Its
central argument holds that radically different technologies will be needed if 7-10 billion
people are to enjoy freedom, equality and prosperity in a carbon-constrained world, and
that states are the only actors with both the political and technical capacity to facilitate
necessary innovations. While sharing many concerns with traditional environmentalism,
ecomodernism rejects the conventional green goal of harmonising with nature (see
Gabrielson 2008; Scerri 2013); instead, ecomodernists advocate further separation from
nature via technological innovation that shrinks our ‘ecological footprint’ (Blomqvist et
Furthermore, ecomodernists advocate intensification of production,
UNFCCC. 2015. Synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the intended nationally
determined contributions. FCCC/CP/2015/7 (30 October, 2015),
Andrew Dobson (116) argues that space of ecological citizenship refers to the “political
community” created by the “ecological footprint”; while an ‘ecological footprint’ represents an
particularly in energy, agriculture, and urban form as strategies through which to cut
greenhouse gas emissions and spare room for nature (Lewis 1992; Proctor 2013).
How is ‘citizenship’ relevant to this project? One prominent critique of ecomodernism
asserts that its abstract, technocratic solutions are both non-democratic and irrelevant to
ordinary people (Meyer, 2015, 169; Eckersley 2017). Ecomodernists, although rejecting
the idea that individual action offers an effective path to sustainability, have failed to
articulate an alternative identity-linked appeal to action. Without a theory of citizenship
serious questions will surround ecomodernism’s political feasibility (Scerri 2012, 18).
Consider the political fragility of the Obama Administration’s most ecomodernist
policies: low-carbon innovation policies such as (ARPA-E) domestically and
internationally through creation of Mission Innovation (MI) – a 22-country pledge to
double clean energy research and development over five years. These initiatives have
been repudiated by the Trump Administration, and – despite the E.U.’s decision to join –
MI has enjoyed only modest international support in the post-Obama era.
policies will only enjoy lasting success when they enjoy much deeper political support.
This article’s central goal is to develop an account of ‘ecomodernist citizenship’
understood as a distribution ‘of moral and political rights and responsibilities among
humans, as well as between humans and nature’ (Light 2005, 176). This achieves three
purposes. First, deriving ecomodernism’s implications for the distribution of citizenship
rights and duties is itself a method of normative conceptual analysis; it allows us to
develop a sympathetic critique of ecomodernism through which we identify several of
the ideology’s conceptual limitations and internal contradictions (Badersten 2006, 43).
Despite its growing public prominence, ecomodernism has received only limited
scholarly attention (see Buck 2013; Crist 2015; Eckersley 2017). Second, it allows us to
situate ecomodernism within wider traditions of political thought; we primarily focus on
liberal environmental-citizenship because the Manifesto advances explicitly liberal
values. Third, since we see some promise in ecomodernist ideas, we hope that our account
of citizenship helps to advance ecomodernist political thought. Although there is some
diversity in ecomodernist thinking, here we base our analysis on core ecomodernist ideas
as expressed in the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which was written as a deliberate effort to
forge a consensus statement among eighteen leading ecomodernist thinkers (Asafu-
Adjaye et al. 2015).
estimate of “the resource consumption and waste assimilation requirements of a defined human
population or economy in terms of a corresponding productive land area’. See (Wackernagel &
Rybski et al. 2017 find scale and density of cities only achieves significant carbon efficiencies
in the developed world.
Although President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal defunded ARPA-E, it received a modest
increase in the spending bill that passed Congress.
The paper proceeds in four parts. While the first explains ecomodernism’s core
commitments, part 2 details how climate change challenges existing conceptions of
liberal environmental citizenship. Part 3 outlines an account of national ecomodernist
citizenship which emphasises citizens’ rights to a habitable environment, specific rights
of habitation consistent with intensification of urban form, and duties to promote (just)
institutional arrangements capable of accelerating both low-carbon innovation and
intensification, and practices of viewing participation in innovation and intensification as
virtuous and worthy of particular social esteem. We argue this account of ecomodernist
citizenship, which seeks to avert climate catastrophe through state-directed innovation
rather than individual behaviour-change, might potentially reconcile liberalism with
Anthropocene conditions (the term Anthropocene is widely, if controversially, used to
refer to the era in which human activities have become a dominant force shaping our
planetary environment). However, we label this exclusively national account ‘weak
ecomodernism’, as it would not secure ecomodernism’s wider commitments to ecological
vibrancy and universal human flourishing.
In Part 4 we extend and critique ecomodernism by examining its commitments to
cosmopolitan egalitarianism and separation from nature. Although the Manifesto
advocates ‘universal human dignity’, we argue that its analysis of how to protect the
substantive freedoms of developing world people, who will be most vulnerable to
worsening climate harms, is underdeveloped. Preoccupation with climate change
mitigation has seen ecomodernists neglect climate impacts and developing world
adaptation. We outline an account of ‘strong ecomodernist citizenship’ that seeks to
address this shortcoming by universalising rights to basic services. Since ecomodernism’s
wider commitments comprise a public conception of the good, it seems inconsistent with
liberal value-neutrality. Moreover, since our account of strong ecomodernist citizenship
suggests a global social-democratic compact, it would also entail movement beyond
nationally-bound political obligations toward cosmopolitan moral duties. Here we follow
theorists who have argued environmental citizenship “must burst the containers of the
nation-state” (Latta 2013, 566). Unfortunately, the current rise of populist localism, even
if only a temporary backlash provoked by how inadequately progressive political parties
have responded to rapid globalization, suggests that there is no easy path to global social
democracy or ecophilic separation from nature.
What is ecomodernism?
In The Death of Environmentalism (2004), Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus
argued that not only are the strategies and tactics acquired during the 1970’s historic
victories for environmental protection incapable of addressing planetary challenges such
as climate change, they also fail to offer an attractive vision of the future. The increasing
dispersion of actions and environmental consequences across both time and space has
created a paralysing fragmentation of agency. In combination with rising global demand
for energy and goods as billions of people move to cities, these characteristics create
challenges for environmental protection and, according to ecomodernists, highlight the
need for globally scalable solutions.
While ecomodernism responds to environmental challenges, it also articulates a
progressive cosmopolitan agenda. The Ecomodernist Manifesto (Asafu-Adjaye et al.
2015) outlines a commitment to a democratically governed global future in which 7-10
billion people enjoy prosperous lives. Unlike traditional green thinking, which holds that
it is ecologically impossible for all humanity to imitate Western patterns of production
and consumption, ecomodernism takes global economic convergence as its starting point.
Instead of trying to impose a global ethic of restraint, ecomodernism aims to use
technology consciously to reorganise the material basis of society so that human freedoms
no longer cause ecological harm. Here, ecomodernism follows in a long tradition of
progressive thought that recognizes the universality of human desires for material
comfort, freedom from coercion, respect and creative expression (Chibber 2014, 179).
In seeking a social theory and mitigation strategy that reconcile this universal human
desire for material well-being with both political pluralism and ecological constraints,
ecomodernists begin by recognising that developing world peoples will seek their equal
share of the high-energy lifestyles most associated with ‘modernity’. Ecomodernists have
drawn on just such an Enlightenment vision of universally equal political rights when
arguing, for example, that international financing of energy projects should not include
environmental conditionalities (Moss et al. 2014). However, as prosperity spreads
globally, the aggregate impact of individual human agency will make humans an even
more destructive geological force unless the technologies utilised have minimal
ecological impacts. Against those who view unequal capitalist economic relations as the
root cause of climate impacts, ecomodernists argue that radically improved technologies
are needed to make universal human flourishing ecologically viable under any economic
Ecomodernism may appear little different from older theories of ecological
modernisation (e.g. Jänicke, 2008), given their shared emphasis on systematic eco-
innovation. However, ecomodernism makes two significant shifts. First is its theory of
change, which identifies the state as the only actor with both the technological and
political resources to drive needed technological innovation. Second, is a shift from
management to liberation of nature. Ecological modernisation theories seek to manage
the evolution of coupled human-nature systems. By contrast, ecomodernists envision that
disruptive innovation (for example replacing organic products with synthetic ones) can
support separation of humanity from the environment and planetary-scale rewilding.
They claim humans have historically only spared nature for which they have little
practical use (Blomqvist, Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2015). In 1993, writing two
decades before the emergence of ecomodernism as a self-conscious movement, Martin
Lewis suggested that ‘when one considers concrete issues regarding the provisioning of
our basic material needs, the separation of the human economy from natural systems turns
out to offer profound environmental benefits, while the continued immersion of our
apparatus of production into the intricate webs of nature is itself highly threatening to the
natural world of nonhuman species’ (1993:779). While post-ecological thinking, which
aims to deconstruct the nature-human divide, has found some resonance among
ecomodernists (Shellenberger & Nordhaus 2007, 133; Marris, 2013; see also Arias-
Maldonado 2013), the Manifesto resolves this uncertainty in favour of ‘decoupling of
humanity from nature’ (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015).
Ecomodernists argue that a ‘high-energy’ future is a fundamental prerequisite for
universal human development. Recognising that energy sprawl is currently the largest
driver of land use change in the United States (Fizaine & Court, 2016; Trainor, McDonald
& Fargione 2016), ecomodernists envision concentrated forms of energy, advanced
nuclear technologies in particular, replacing both fossil fuels and land-intensive forms of
renewable power (Weißbach et al. 2013).
In part, this argument responds to the sheer
magnitude of the energy and climate challenge (Arto et al., 2016). If opposing trends
toward increasing energy access in the developing world and increased energy efficiency
in the rich world were to see consumption eventually converge around, say, current
Swedish per capita levels, global primary energy consumption would roughly quintuple
(assuming world population stabilises at 10 billion).
Again, reversing much environmental thinking, ecomodernists do not view access to
abundant energy as inherently destructive but rather as a key to achieving broader socio-
ecological objectives (Karlsson, 2018). For nature, this would mean sparing aquifers and
rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems through advanced water treatment plants or
desalination. For humans, access to abundant, clean energy would unlock tremendous
welfare gains from electrifying cooking, laundry, heating, and refrigeration while
enabling global personal mobility, telecommunications, computing and industrialization.
The algebra of averting dangerous climate change provides a stark illustration of the
challenges facing energy-sector innovation (Victor 2011, 117). Global electricity demand
could be supplied by a combination of nuclear, hydroelectricity, wind and solar, and this
transition could theoretically be completed within under three decades (Qvist and Brook,
2015). However, since each existing low-carbon electricity source faces significant
barriers, the carbon intensity of global electricity production has scarcely improved since
1990 (IPCC 2014, SPM3). Outside the electricity and heat sectors, which produce 25%
of global emissions, the need for innovation is even more obvious. Consider industrial
applications (roughly 21% of global emissions, e.g. steel and aluminium production),
transport (roughly 14% of global emissions, e.g. shipping and aviation) or agriculture and
land use (roughly 24%, e.g. methane from rice and farming of ruminant animals) (IPCC
Some ecomodernists also see a significant role for advanced solar technologies, despite their
spatial requirements; see Sivaram 2018.
In 2016, Sweden (population 9.8 million) consumed 52 million tonnes oil equivalent of
primary energy (= 2.217 exajoules; see British Petroleum, 2017. BP Statistical Review of World
Energy, p. 7).
2014, SPM3). Here, decarbonisation would require either commercialization of entirely
new technologies (such as direct air capture of carbon dioxide or solar fuels), plant
varieties and agricultural processes – or prohibition of products like meat, steel and air
travel. This cursory outline of global greenhouse gas emissions sources suggests why
many, including the IPCC, find the case for an innovation-led climate response persuasive
(IPCC 2014, 15.6.3).
How much investment is needed in low-carbon innovation? Economist Ross Garnaut has
estimated global annual expenditure of US $100 billion would be economically ideal
(2011). While this sum is roughly ten times current global expenditure on energy research
and development, it is also less than 3 percent of the US Federal Budget, less than 20
percent of the US’s annual military expenditure or, if spread through a cooperative
international agreement (Brook et al., 2016), less than 1 percent of major economies’
GDP. Innovation-led mitigation would thus require a vast, but conceivable, shift.
Implementation would require wide political support and the active (paid) participation
of professionals capable of researching, developing and deploying new technologies.
Ecomodernists argue that state-driven mission-oriented innovation will be needed to
promote ecological flourishing, human progress and other global public goods.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus draw on Ronald Inglehart’s (1997) ‘postmaterialist values
thesis’ to critique both inequality and Malthusian environmentalism. They argue that
ecological values rest ‘upon a foundation of affluence and material consumption that
would be considerably threatened by any serious effort to address the ecological crises
through substantially downscaling economic activity’ (2011, 10). Yet, the ‘insecure
affluence’ of post-industrial neoliberal economies also threatens ecological values. If
people feel insecure while earning high incomes, the result may be elevated material
consumption without moderation by postmaterialist values. Christopher Buck (2013) has
argued this problem is better rectified through work-sharing programmes that provide
both universal economic security and increased leisure time for all. While Buck may be
correct concerning affluent communities, ecomodernists argue most of the world lacks
levels of material prosperity that are consistent with either postmaterialist values or high
reported life-satisfaction (Deaton 2013).
In all this, ecomodernists seek to use technology reflexively to overcome environmental
and geographical determinism and to achieve a more equal global distribution of
opportunities. Rather than trying to contain or limit modernity’s transformative energy,
ecomodernists claim they wish to amplify and expand our collective global imagination
in pursuit of more open borders and accelerating flows of people and ideas (Karlsson
2017). Ecomodernists hold up vast historical improvements in human welfare,
particularly in the post WWII era, as evidence that social progress is possible (DeFries
2014); even as they recognise that benefits have remained unequally distributed. Thus,
ecomodernism occupies an unfamiliar political position, in that it combines globalist
progressive politics with Promethean and biophilic values; in the decades following the
1960s ‘Promethean’ thinking has primarily been located on the political right (Meyer
In summary, ecomodernism follows in a humanist tradition that aspires to universal
‘human dignity and the realisation of human potential’ (Crist 2015, 245). As such,
ecomodernism opposes blind faith in economic globalisation or autonomous markets.
Instead, it ascribes a central role to publicly funded innovation in steering technological
change towards socially desirable objectives. Rejecting any ‘forced choice between
poverty and environmental ruin’ ecomodernists argue that creating a ‘Good
Anthropocene’ will require that clean technologies become significantly cheaper and, as
such, attractive to people everywhere regardless of their acceptance of green values
(Shellenberger et al., 2008, 118). Perhaps this focus on technological change explains
why ecomodernists have not developed an account of citizenship. However, this failure
is surprising given that leading ecomodernists have long recognised that progressive
movements must offer supporters ‘meaning and transcendence’ (Shellenberger and
Nordhaus 2007, 193) that public support is built on a sense of personal obligation to act
in support of movement goals (Stern 1999) and that participation and practices shape
attitudes (Quintelier and Van Deth 2014).
Challenges to Liberal Environmental Citizenship in the Anthropocene
Will Kymlicka argues that political theory’s turn toward ‘citizenship’ reflects a desire to
reconcile liberal and communitarian concerns for individual rights and attachment to
community (2002:284). Similarly, green theorists have embraced the potential for focus
on citizenship practices and socialisation to reconcile green policy objectives with
democratic commitments by prompting individuals to voluntarily choose environmental
change (Dobson 2003). This burgeoning interest is reflected in proliferating accounts of
‘ecological’ and ‘environmental citizenship’ (e.g. Smith 1998; Christoff 1996; Dobson
2003; Light 2005; Latta 2013, Gabrielson 2008; MacGregor 2011, Scerri 2012, 2013) and
in empirical research into specific citizenship behaviours such as recycling,
vegetarianism, or forgoing air travel (e.g. Wolf et al. 2009; Higham et al. 2014). While
public concern about environmental threats is clearly growing, this research offers little
support for the idea that individual behaviour change can resolve most environmental
challenges. For example, research shows that those individuals who are most committed
to green lifestyle change tend to produce unusually high carbon emissions; since this
group are atypically affluent, emission reductions in their daily lives are offset by higher
aviation emissions (Higham et al., 2014).
Since the Ecomodernist Manifesto articulates an explicitly liberal philosophy, in this
section we examine how ecomodernism might contribute to liberal environmental
citizenship. Nevertheless, in places we note connections with radical democratic ideas
that might reconcile Ecomodernism’s universalizing aspirations with its origins, like most
green theory, in Western political thought. As Teena Gabrielson and Katelyn Parady
observe, ‘environmental citizenship’ has too often reflected an ‘epistemological
privilege’ that ‘empowers those positioned to know or imagine a particular conception of
what a green ‘good life’ would entail’, which excludes those not so positioned, and which
relies on ‘traditionally Western understandings and prioritisations of human relations to
the natural world’ (2010, 375 & 378). While liberals have typically advanced less
prescriptive accounts than have republican green theorists (Barry 2012), they too have
frequently ignored citizenship’s cultural and gendered baggage (MacGregor 2011). If our
account of ‘ecomodernist citizenship’ is to offer an ‘attractive’ vision it may need to draw
on ideas from outside the liberal tradition that promote participation, deliberation, and
collective action (Gabrielson 2008: 440).
The key challenge facing green liberals is this: If liberalism recognizes the environment
as the ultimate provider of human needs, and views provision of these needs as a
citizenship right, then it is also committed to at least a thin version
of environmental sustainability (Bell 2005). But how can liberal theory reconcile
pluralism (which suggests acceptance of ecologically destructive cultures), provision of
basic needs and observation of ecological limits? If averting 'dangerous' warming is a
prerequisite for future provision of basic needs, there are plausible arguments that
ambitious mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions may be inconsistent with liberal
freedoms (Eckersley 2004, Crist 2015). Moreover, since no national citizenry can
singlehandedly resolve global environmental threats such as climate change, liberal
conceptions of national citizenship face a second obvious challenge. Citizenship
traditionally refers to membership in an extant political community. So, despite the
Kantian tradition’s account of obligations owed within a global moral community
(Linklater 1998), many scholars maintain that linking universal moral obligations with
citizenship is incoherent (see Hayward 2006) unless universalist social contractualism
can be grounded in a national community (Scerri 2012, 166-170).
Andrew Dobson’s (2003) account of ecological citizenship – which calls for constrained
consumption, underpinned by a universally shared epistemology – is possibly the most
prominent work interrogating the link between ‘ecological citizenship’ and liberalism.
For Dobson, universal acceptance of ecological values is crucially important because
individual consumption choices (to live within a just ecological footprint) drive
environmental protection. However, Dobson asks, ‘does the pursuit of a sustainable
society necessarily involve the endorsement of a determinate view of the right way to
live?’ (2003:163). In other words, can a society remain liberal while achieving the
necessary constraint? Dobson answers yes. He points to liberalism’s commitment to
neutrality among comprehensive doctrines to argue such neutrality must apply across
generations and must avoid ‘foreclosure of opportunities…through which people come
to choose…their preferred version of the good life’ (2003, 162). In this view, all
environments must be preserved in their current state as they might inspire future
Dobson’s work echoes Marcel Wissenburg’s (1988, 123) ‘restraint principle’ which focuses on
the distribution of scarce environmental goods through time.
generations’ conceptions of the good life. This logic leads Dobson to argue (2003,
Chapter 5) that universal citizenship education inculcating green values and behaviour is
indeed consistent with liberalism.
Unfortunately, Dobson’s account fails to address the problem of non-compliance – of
people’s failure to fulfil citizenship duties to limit their ecological footprints. Here
ecomodernism offers a clear alternative: our ecological footprints should be reduced via
societal action rather than individual behaviour-change and sacrifice. Ecomodernism
promotes state-directed public-good focused innovation. This argument builds on earlier
liberal environmental citizenship. For example, in 1998 Marcel Wissenburg identified
‘ecological modernization’ – a precursor to ecomodernism that also focused on eco-
innovation, but which did not identify the state as the key driver of change – as uniquely
compatible with liberal values:
‘Ecological modernization conceives of the environmental problem as a matter of
fact rather than morals. It is a means-oriented approach, built around the
assumption that given preferences and desires ought to be and can be answered in
a different, ecologically responsible way.’ (1998, 65)’
We argue later that ecomodernist citizens should view democratic participation in
intensification and innovation as virtues that warrant special esteem, similar to that
currently accorded to fire fighters or cancer-researchers (see Light 2005, 177). However,
ecomodernism does not insist on universal participation. Moreover, whereas Dobson
seeks to preserve existing lifeworlds (164), ecomodernists hope that advanced
technologies can enhance future generations’ life-prospects and choices. This difference
reflects fundamentally opposed orientations to the possibility of progress.
In response to
the twin crises of inequality and climate change, ecomodernists seek to double down on
an Enlightenment trajectory of democratically controlled scientific progress.
Here ecomodernism might find common cause with radical democrats. Consider Alex
Latta’s call to move beyond describing what ‘ecological citizenship should look like’ to
consider a wider ‘range of struggles’ and to ask ‘more open-ended questions of how
nature can be politicised as part of the politics of citizenship’ (2013, 382). Where Latta
draws examples from the environmental justice literature, ecomodernists might also
consider examples that are inconvenient for green politics. For example, promises to
expand electricity access have been central to recent electoral victories by figures as
diverse as democratic reformer Joko Widodo and Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi
(Warburton 2017); meanwhile, mass protest has erupted in many countries, recently
including Iran, Egypt and Mexico, in response to state efforts to reduce fossil fuel
subsidies. Ecomodernism proposes that technological solutions can minimise the
environmental impacts of popular demands for high-energy lifestyles.
This debate echoes those between ‘accelerationists’ and ‘localists’ in critical theory (Noys
In summary, ecomodernists share liberals’ goal of respecting value pluralism,
ecologism’s goal of creating space for nature and critical scholars’ goal of addressing
intersectional inequalities through radical democratisation. However, ecomodernists
judge that simultaneous achievement of these goals is only feasible via a strategy of
publicly-financed, public-good oriented innovation (likely coupled with intensification
including a move to high-density cities, nuclear power and capital-intensive precision
farming). Ecomodernism’s vision of decoupling from nature might seem a dangerous
delusion given the present state of technology. Yet, ecomodernists argue that there is no
more feasible path to radically reduced greenhouse gas emissions, either now or in a more
democratic global system. The physical and temporal distance between consumption,
emissions and environmental consequences, means individual people have limited
incentives to reduce their ecological footprints, and receive little feedback suggesting
such a choice would be just. Rather than rely on change in individual consumption
choices, ecomodernists seek to create technological and social conditions that make
beneficial choices inherently attractive.
Weak ecomodernist citizenship
In the next two sections, we conduct a thought experiment by attempting to construct a
theory of ecomodernist citizenship (we outline a distribution of citizenship rights and
duties and accompanying subjectivities and practices, (see Scerri 2012, 17-18) that could
support accelerated innovation and intensification (this section) and universal human and
ecological flourishing (the next section). Ecomodernists argue that technological
innovation is an urgent priority because there is currently no politically feasible path to
averting dangerous climate change (excepting perhaps via solar radiation management)
(Victor 2011). As the IPCC’s fifth assessment report explains, development of ‘new
technologies is crucial for the ability to realistically implement stringent carbon policies’
(2014, 15.6.3). Nevertheless, mission-oriented innovation can seem both elitist (what role
for ordinary citizens in a technocratic project?) and impractical (can silver bullets resolve
As we have seen, one dilemma confronting liberal citizenship is how to secure the right
to a habitable environment alongside other liberal values. The incidence of wild-fires,
floods and extreme weather events is already increasing as a consequence of climate
change (Otto, 2017). However, in affluent, resilient, first-world societies, health and
emergency services are generally outpacing the advance of climate harms. Thus, whereas
heatwave deaths are increasing in India, they are decreasing in the United States (Bobb
et al. 2014; Mazdiyasni et al. 2017). Securing rights to a habitable environment in the first
world will only require continued investments in public services, such as collective health
and housing service in the short term. However, a form of ‘ecomodernist citizenship’ that
can preserve a habitable environment in the longer term will need to describe a society
capable of achieving aggressive mitigation and adaptation. According to ecomodernists,
these goals will be achieved through intensification and accelerated innovation.
Ecomodernist citizens will thus also require a distribution of rights that makes dense
urban living and intensification of production universally appealing and emancipatory.
Although ecomodernism is a 21
century ideology, arguments for intensification have a
longer provenance. For example, Le Corbusier’s architectural proposals for a Ville
Contemporaine composed of ‘towers in a park’ sought to achieve the social benefits of
urban density alongside proximity to nature, in the 1920s. Debate over urban
intensification is centuries older. Today, economic inequalities (that frequently pit
property owners’ interests against more recent arrivals) and electoral systems that
empower property owners and ratepayers threaten urban amenity and limit access to the
benefits of urbanisation. Consider China’s ‘hukou’ household registration system, which,
despite some recent reforms, continues to impose a ‘differentiated citizenship structure’
that discriminates against new migrants to cities creating something of a permanent
underclass (Guo and Liang 2017). Such conflicts are common wherever rapid
urbanisation occurs, and a successful model of ecomodernist citizenship would need to
support urbanisation and urban amenity. Although scholars such as Lefebre and Iris
Marion Young would likely be bewildered to see their ideas recruited in the service of
ecomodermism, their concepts of a ‘right to the city’ (Gilbert and Phillips 2003) and of
an ‘ideal of city life as a vision of social relations affirming group difference’ (Young
1990, 227) illustrate possible approaches to democratic access and control over urban
space. An ecomodernist society would require some similar rights allocation that
supported equality and urban amenity amid density.
Duties and practices
Since ecomodernism seeks to transform society’s technological metabolism, rather than
shape individual behaviours, we argue that ecomodernist citizens’ primary duties are to
support beneficial institutional reform. Here, we echo arguments that environmentalism
should engage individuals as citizens rather than as consumers. For example, Aaron
Maltais proposes that ‘individuals have moral obligations to invest heavily in political
advocacy’ promoting emissions reduction, but only ‘indirect political reasons to reduce
their own emissions in support of this advocacy’, since personal emissions are
individually inconsequential (2013, 602). Nevertheless, ecomodernist institutional
reforms will have a distinctive focus: to accelerate the pace of low-carbon innovation,
promote intensification and bring both processes under democratic control. While any
liberal theory anticipates disagreement about collective purposes, and acceptable means,
ecomodernism elevates the priority of climate mitigation. Further, ecomodernist citizens
would view participation in mission-oriented innovation as one important way of
fulfilling obligations of citizenship. Thus, ecomodernist citizens will accord social esteem
to participation in industries that are key to mitigation – nuclear energy, agricultural
research, energy storage etc.
If citizenship responsibilities are primarily political, is ecomodernism unconcerned with
citizens’ private consumption choices? Not quite. First, some activities (for example, big-
game hunting or inhumane animal farming) might be intrinsically inconsistent with
ecomodernist values. Second, if ecomodernists are motivated as citizens to promote
intensification through their political action, this political motivation might also prompt
certain patterns of consumption. This is because individual choices (for example,
residential, transport and consumption) have political consequences in that they
collectively influence the pace of intensification. Consider genetically modified crops,
which typically achieve higher yields than conventional alternatives. In many places,
retailers do not stock GM foods purely because of consumer resistance. Consequently,
GMOs are only widely used in products that are processed prior to public sale (cotton,
feed-crops, oils etc.) and biotechnological research is primarily motivated by private
profit rather than public benefit. Genetically modified foods, such as low-methane or
beta-carotene enhanced rice crops, could contribute to the global response to climate
change and malnutrition. However, accessing these benefits will require public-interest
innovation, supportive regulation and greater consumer support. In sum, since private
consumption choices have political impacts, ecomodernist citizens will have some
reasons to adopt practices that support desirable change, but not a duty to do so.
Since capitalist market forces frequently produce ‘intensification’, ecomodernists are
sometimes derided as apologists for laissez-faire capitalism. However, since
ecomodernism seeks to ensure that democratic governments work to accentuate
intensification’s positive impacts, while minimizing adverse impacts perhaps
ecomodernism should instead be viewed as a social democratic response to climate
change. Ecomodernists would argue that the state should ensure the benefits of innovation
and intensification are widely distributed. For example, intensification associated with
the green revolution has been very controversial. However, the green revolution
benefitted communities in which land ownership was comparatively egalitarian but
amplified existing inequalities where it was not (Pingali 2012). Ecomodernist institutional
reform might encompass both economic incentives and regulations (such as progressive
land zoning reforms and comprehensive social services) to minimize land use
and promote equality. Of course, if ecomodernism is a social democratic project then it
will need to navigate the same challenges to political mobilisation, such as the decline of
trade union and party membership, that currently confront all social democracies (this
topic deserves separate, fuller consideration elsewhere).
Against those who believe the state’s sole legitimate role is protecting national security
and correcting ‘market failures’, ecomodernists argue that states must also attend to
global public goods and promote transformational objectives. We suggest three ways in
which ecomodernist citizens’ subjectivities should reflect this enlarged understanding of
democratic life. First, if the state is a change-agent rather than a night-watchman, citizens
must view their shared political life as a transformational project. Second, if the nation-
state is to pursue universal humanist objectives, this must be connected to some politically
effective source of identity. This exacerbates an endemic challenge facing all
democracies: how to establish practices of citizen-identification that perform the
integrative function of promoting generalized trust, abstract solidarity and an expanded
sense of collective interest, without also generating intolerance towards those who are
excluded from group-membership (Hayward 2007). Moreover, there is an additional risk
that any national community that nurtures a sense of universal obligation will confuse its
own interests with the universal and use the rhetoric of universal obligation to justify new
forms of domination (Morefield 2014). We cannot pretend to propose a confident solution
to this problem, other than to specify that some sense of collective national commitment
to resolution of global challenges seems necessary for ecomodernism’s success, and that
nurturing inclusive forms of social trust and humanism will be a continuing project.
Third, if technological change is to be a key focus of collective action, then citizens must
expect to both play an active role in debating the trajectory of change, and to maintain
support for state-directed innovation even through periods of failure. Ecomodernist
scholars have described a variety of institutional reforms that would enable mission-
oriented innovation – domestically, the state must play a strategic role through some mix
of increased research and development funding, provision of patient capital,
establishment of state investment banks; internationally, a permanent Mission Innovation
secretariat might coordinate international research efforts and report on actual RD&D
expenditure (Sivaram & Norris 2016, 154-5). However, sympathetic public engagement
is a precondition for the long-term success of any such institutional reform.
Reforms to accelerate innovation must also reflect our knowledge concerning both (1)
effective national innovation policies and (2) effective global governance of innovation.
Taking a historical view, Mariana Mazzucato has shown that in the U.S. especially, most
‘fundamental technological advances of the past half century […] were funded by
government agencies, with private businesses moving into the game only once the returns
were in clear sight’ (2016, 104). Contrary to neoclassical economic thinking, the
‘Entrepreneurial State’ has largely steered the direction of technological change and has
often created entirely new technologies and sectors that set the stage for later long-run
economic growth (examples include jet engines and radar). However, in most cases, state-
directed innovation has been linked to military competition (medical and agricultural
research are also significant) and has been nurtured by a deep public acceptance that
technological leadership is vital to national security. Ecomodernism asks that the same
sensibility of pride in public innovation be extended from the competitive realm of
military security to the cooperative space of low-carbon mitigation and other global
Unfortunately, narrowly self-interested states can be expected to underinvest in energy
research; and civil society demand seems to be the key variable (other than a new energy
supply crisis) that is likely to drive the necessary increase in low-carbon research and
development. Underinvestment arises because low-carbon energy innovation has many
qualities of a ‘global public good’. It is difficult for investors to capture the full economic
benefits of either new energy technologies or of emissions reductions. The IPCC’s
observation that public energy-related research and development (R&D) expenditures
among IEA member-states are in long-term decline (now accounting for about 5% of total
government R&D as against 11% in 1980 in the wake of two energy crises: IPCC, 2014,
7.12.4) supports this analysis. Presumably it was an understanding of these factors that
led President Obama to propose Mission Innovation. However, MI’s post-Obama neglect
(despite some hopeful signs such as gaining the EU’s formal commitment) illustrates why
elite technocratic projects, however enlightened, are likely to fail. Without civil society
activism, national innovation pledges are likely to founder.
Ideally, an ecomodernist sensibility of viewing political life as a transformative project
would also apply in other areas, of which urban development is the most obvious. Here,
the challenge is to ensure that urban intensification drives shared improvements in quality
of life. The experience of market-based ‘inclusionary zoning’ and ‘density bonus
Mukhija et al. 2015) or of successful public housing schemes (e.g. Bloom
2014) should ground optimism that this is possible. Nevertheless, ‘Locational conflict’,
once termed NIMBY, over construction of high-density housing, has a long history
(DeVerteuil 2013) as does resistance to new agricultural practices (it is 500 years since
Thomas More warned that enclosures produced sheep so ‘wylde that they eat up, and
swallow down the very men themselves’). The inevitability of opposition raises the
question of how an ecomodernist citizenry would respond. As liberals, ecomodernist
citizens will recognise that democratic institutions can only slowly resolve the inevitable
tensions generated by rapid change, and that majoritarian decision-making mechanisms
will be needed. Nevertheless, as against those who view opposition to development as a
form of progressive collective struggle, an ecomodernist subjectivity would seek ways
promote urban development that also advanced wider social goals.
In contrast to those who distrust large-scale social systems or seek intentional
localization (as exemplified by the Transition Town movement), ecomodernism
requires high levels of generalised social trust as made possible by abstract, impartial
and transparent political institutions founded on universal norms (Rothstein & Stolle
2008). In fact, effective governance of many of the technologies at the heart of the
ecomodernist project, nuclear power in particular, depends on the existence of such
strong social trust (Giddens 1990, 33). Unlike notions of ecological citizenship which
seek to ensure stability and permanence, for instance through the virtues of green
republicanism, ecomodernists seek to capitalise on the ‘opportunity side’ of an ever
more liquid modernity even as they recognise that its destructive forces can only be
fully countered through institutional arrangements that promote increasing global
Strong Ecomodernist Citizenship
The account of citizenship sketched so far might reconcile liberalism with ambitious
climate action; however, it seems unlikely to realise ecomodernism’s goals of universal
human and ecological flourishing. In this final section, we outline two challenges – of
protecting substantive human freedoms and implementing a radical separation from
nature - that should push ecomodernism toward an explicit account of global social
democracy. Moreover, while strong ecomodernism is predominantly consistent with
liberal aspirations, it departs from conventional liberalism by advancing a comprehensive
public conception of the good.
Implementing ecomodernism’s vision of universal human flourishing will, in an era of
worsening climate harms, necessitate some form of global social democratic compact.
This is primarily because climate-linked water shortages, crop failures and extreme
weather events are already imposing severe hardship on vulnerable populations. As
climate harms intensify, those people whose access to food and shelter is most tenuous
are at greatest risk. Liberal recognition of universal ‘environmental rights’ suggests that
social welfare discourse must also be universalized (Christoff 1996, 161). Given that the
richest 20% of humanity account for most carbon emissions (Chancel and Piketty 2015),
such practical restitution is consistent with widely accepted standards of justice. In the
language of normative theory, climate change is creating a ‘global community of fate’
that generates obligations of justice toward vulnerable people. If ecomodernists’
commitment to human freedom is substantive then an account of ecomodernist
citizenship must address, not just mitigation challenges, but also climate harms. If
communities are to adapt successfully to climate impacts they will need to secure access
to social services, such as health care and education (Victor 2018). In some least
developed countries, securing rights to basic services will likely require international
assistance. In our account of strong ecomodernism, citizens will view themselves as equal
members in an emerging global political community.
Concern for climate harms also requires justice in access to the benefits of innovation.
Different challenges confront different people and regions, so ecomodernist reform must
also enhance the innovation capacity of less developed nations (Buchanan, Cole, and
Keohane 2011). Some differences relate to geography (resource availability, distribution
of vector-borne illnesses etc.), some to levels of development, and some to cultural
differences (e.g. new wheat varieties will not assist communities where sorghum is a
staple). Both national and global institutional reforms are needed. Innovation needs to
address both specific local needs (e.g. meeting the adaptation needs of local agricultural
production) and to address global public goods (e.g. development of new energy sources,
fuels and storage technologies). If an innovation-focused strategy is to win popular
legitimacy, innovation must also be brought under democratic control.
The second challenge for an account of ‘strong ecomodernist citizenship’ is to identify
what model of citizenship can ensure that habitat preservation is prioritised. Even if
ecomodernist intensification reduces demand for marginal land, there is no guarantee this
will be spared for nature. If decoupling through resource substitution minimises human
contact with non-human natures, on what basis would societies value ecological
flourishing? On the one hand – at least since the historical development of ‘game laws’
as a means for protecting the gentry’s hunting rights – affluent people have often been
leading defenders of ‘wilderness’, often against the interests of the land’s traditional users
(Duffy 2014, 828-30). On the other hand, people living in high-density dwellings
typically express less environmental concern than do those in freestanding houses or rural
areas (Ambrosius and Gilderbloom 2015). Moreover, affluent people who are able to
pursue high-status, low-density alternatives (hobby-farms, wood fires heaters, organic
food etc.) seem unlikely to pursue land-sparing ‘intensification’.
It is beyond this paper’s scope to identify how a society could decouple from nature while
nurturing environmental subjectivities. Nevertheless, we make three preliminary
observations. First, postmaterialist values research confirms that ecological concern is
most likely to arise within communities whose basic material needs are satisfied, so there
is some potential for urban ecologism (Inglehart 1997). Second, intensification and
innovation may succeed – and be defensible – as a program advancing human welfare
without achieving ecological preservation. But will dense cities successfully reproduce
the high-trust citizenry capable of sustaining ecomodernist practices? Encouragingly,
available survey evidence suggests that exposure to diverse neighbours via dense urban
living inculcates progressive values and builds social trust over time (Bhatia 2017). Third,
attitudes toward the natural world seem unlikely to stabilise in any fixed pattern. For
example, many environmentalists now accept critique of the North American wilderness
tradition’s ‘genocidal’ colonialist origins (Nash 2014). However, successful
implementation of strong ecomodernism would require widespread acceptance of a duty
to separate from nature in a way that enables deep rewilding.
Through the innovation of technologies that are ‘faster, cleaner and cheaper’
(Shellenberger et al. 2008), ecomodernists hope that sustainability can be achieved, not
because everyone voluntarily acts upon the same understanding of environmental risk,
but because clean technologies become universally attractive. Moreover, rather than
accept a future of either deep inequality or enforced sufficiency or sacrifice,
ecomodernists aspire to an egalitarian future of universal human and ecological
flourishing. Seductive as such technological determinism may seem, one aim of this
article has been to point to areas where ecomodernist thought requires further elaboration.
Most significantly, we have sought to sketch an ecomodernist theory of citizenship
because, despite the fact ecomodernism seeks to promote institutional change rather than
individual behaviour change, ecomodernism can only be successful if it can enhance its
appeal to individual citizens.
First, we have sketched how an ecomodernist citizenry should enjoy rights to a habitable
environment, duties to support institutional reforms supporting public-good focused
technological innovation, and practices and sensibilities that reflect this universalist
humanitarian vision. However, we have also argued that it is unclear if a more complete
separation from nature is compatible with cultivating ecological values. If not, there is
every risk that intensification will lead, not to ecologically beneficial land-sparing, but
rather to new and potentially more destructive forms of domination (Crist 2015).
As an ethic of the future, ecomodernism is surely guilty of fabulism; full realisation of its
ideals would require not only game-changing technologies such as integral fast reactors,
scalable negative emissions technologies and molecular assemblers (i.e. innovations that
may still require decades of research), but also the widespread adoption of behaviours
that run counter to core cultural values, in particular ecomodernism’s preference for
rewilding, separation from nature, high density living and synthetic products. Evidence
concerning the pace of urbanisation (Seto et al. 2011), energy transitions (Smil 2010) and
agricultural yield increase (DeFries 2014) shows that intensification of the global
economy proceeds very slowly, with a few rare exceptions such as Asia’s ‘Green
Revolution’ (Pingali 2012) or the Swedish/French light water reactor programs of the
1960s to 1990s (Qvist and Brook, 2015). Sometimes, as in the case of ozone layer
depleting substances, innovation achieves rapid ecological benefits (Victor 2011, 38).
However, the rarity of such rapid advances raises the question: is ecomodernism
irredeemably impractical? Unfortunately, any model of citizenship, whether
‘ecomodernist’, ‘ecological’ or otherwise, will confront profound feasibility constraints
in a world of 7-10 billion people, most of whom aspire to land- and energy-intensive
lifestyles. However, ecomodernists argue that their solutions are more feasible than
traditional green alternatives.
A second challenge is, how to promote substantive equality globally during the coming
era of worsening climate impacts? Universalizing positive freedom arguably requires that
the ecomodernist agenda broaden to address all forms of domination – whether gender,
class, nationality or even species-based (Gabrielson, 2008). Yet current momentum
toward populist ethno-nationalism threatens to deepen these inequalities. Further, since
climate harms will primarily befall communities who are already vulnerable, global
warming commits humanists to a deepening of cosmopolitan political obligations.
Despite this, ecomodernist literature has focused almost exclusively on addressing the
technological challenges of mitigation. The rights, duties, sensibilities and practices of
citizenship sketched in part three reflect this focus. However, a more thoroughgoing
‘strong ecomodernism’ must also protect human flourishing amid climate impacts. This
is a daunting challenge
Ultimately, the ecomodernist project’s coherence seems to hinge on it acknowledging this
wider transformation of political obligations. On the one hand a ‘Good Anthropocene’
will only be possible if the benefits of accelerated innovation are fairly distributed and if
vulnerable communities are protected from extreme weather, crop failures and rising seas.
On the other hand, a humanist response must ensure that people everywhere are included
in the democratic governance of our planetary future.
The authors thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their generous comments and
advice, and the Lars Hierta Memorial Foundation for a travel grant
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