Can modernisation be “ecological”?

Three guest posts from Martin Lack of Lack of Environment, today Part One

Martin came to the attention of Learning from Dogs when making a comment to the second part of my Sceptical Voices essay.  Since then, he and I have exchanged a number of emails.  Over the next few days, I would like to re-publish an essay that Martin wrote that is worthy of deep consideration.  Here is Part One.  Part Two will be on Friday and Part Three next Monday, the 10th.


Can modernisation be “ecological”? – Part 1

This is the first of a series of posts based on an essay with this title that I wrote earlier this year as part of the requirements for my MA in Environmental Politics.

There are two possible ways of understanding the question; as to require a critique ofEcological Modernisation (EM) as a school of environmental thought or perhaps, far more demandingly, a critique of modernity itself. Although the main intention of this essay is to do the latter; it will inevitably do the former as well.

In order to answer this question, it is essential to define what is meant by ‘ecological’; ‘modernisation’; and the theory of EM to which it has given rise:
– In the context of the question, ‘ecological’ is taken to mean thinking, behaviour, and policy that are ‘environmentally-friendly’; rather than merely or predominantly anthropocentric (i.e. concerned with human needs and interests).
– To understand what is implied by the term ‘modernisation’, it is necessary to define what is meant by the word ‘modernity’ because people often conflate the term with industrialisation or even capitalism. However, whereas both of the latter were forged in the industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, modernity has its roots in the scientific revolution of “the Enlightenment” in the eighteenth century.
– The theory – if not the practice – of EM emerged from Germany in the early 1980s. Whereas the social scientists Joseph Huber and Martin Jänicke are most-commonly credited with having originated the term, it is probably Arthur Mol that brought it to the attention of the English-speaking world in 1996, when he quoted Huber as having (somewhat enigmatically) said, ‘…all ways out of the environmental crisis lead us further into modernity.’ Thankfully, Mol then went on to explain that EM theory therefore seeks to repair “…a structural design fault of modernity: the institutionalised destruction of nature.” (Mol 1996: 305).

In addition to the above, it is important to differentiate the terms ‘modernity’ and ‘civilisation’: Civilisation pre-dates the Enlightenment by several millennia; and is often equated with the development of agriculture, settled communities, and cities. However, since past civilisations have come and gone, is there any reason to think that our modern civilisation will be any different? This should not be seen as the question of a wannabe anarchist; as it is merely an acknowledgement of human history.

According to John Dryzek, the rhetoric of the EM discourse is reassuringly optimistic; and would have us believe that we can retain a healthy environment without having to sacrifice the benefits of progress (Dryzek 2005: 171). More recently, echoing both Mol and Dryzek, Neil Carter has defined EM as a “…policy strategy that aims to restructure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines based on the assumption that economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled.” (Carter 2007: 7).

It is in this context that Carter used the term “decoupling” to refer the idea of breaking any direct causal link between economic growth and environmental degradation; but also suggested that “dematerialisation” of manufacturing processes (i.e. the reduction of environmental resources consumed per unit of production) would be essential (2007: 227). However, if we take the manufacturing of motor cars as an example, the rate of fossil fuel consumption will always accelerate unless the percentage increases engine fuel efficiency is greater than the percentage increases in the number of cars. Therefore, since the former must exponentially decline towards zero, the logical conclusion is that we must control the demand for the latter.
Carter, N. (2007), The Politics of the Environment (2nd ed), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Earth (2nd ed), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mol, A. (1996), ‘Ecological Modernisation and Institutional Reflexivity: Environmental Reform in the Late Modern Age’, Environmental Politics, 5(2), pp.302-23.

4 thoughts on “Can modernisation be “ecological”?

  1. Thanks for posting this Paul. If any readers are intrigued by where this subject may be going in – and/or cannot wait for – parts 2 and 3, I have recently come accross the WordPress blog of Dr Benjamin Habib (of LaTrobe University in Victoria, Australia), who treats the Limits to Growth idea in much more detail and with more professionalism than I could ever achieve:
    Visit: (if you dare)!


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