An interview with environmental philosopher Bernice Bovenkerk (Wageningen University), BY SANNE BLOEMINK
Ecomodernism or old-school conservation? Two different responses to the Anthropocene
Conservationists have always tried to restore ecosystems to a certain historic state. The real question here is: which historic state do you pick, and how far will you go back in time? There are various possible responses to this question. One very extreme example can be found in Siberia, where a father and a son are trying to go back to the Pleistocene era, the time when mammoths roamed the Siberian tundra. The founders of this ‘Pleistocene Park’ consider themselves geo-engineers. By trying to recreate the situation from that era, including a genetic ‘de-extinction’ of woolly mammoths, they hope to keep the tundra frozen, thus preventing a massive release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere.
I think this line of reasoning is characteristic of the ecomodernist perspective on the Anthropocene, a perspective that is proposing new forms of environmentalism. Ecomodernists believe that old-school conservationists view nature as fragile, while it is in fact not fragile at all. They argue that human influences on nature are no problem. Nature is robust, they say, and we have to find ways to make nature work even more in our favour. We have always done so, but now we just have to try to do it better. This school of thinking believes that we are not just one species among many; from this perspective, we are in fact the ‘God species’ and everything revolves around humans. The Anthropocene is an opportunity for humanity to grab the wheel and bend nature to fit our own human goals. In fact, we have an obligation to shape our environment and technology plays a big role in this.
The ecomodernists present themselves as former environmentalists, members of Greenpeace and so on, but now, they claim, the world has changed fundamentally. We now live in the Anthropocene, a new geological era, and everything is different. According to this perspective, we have to involve corporations as our allies. The goal is to increase human wellbeing, and nature should be used for that purpose. Even if we’re saving animals, in the end it is all for the good of humans.
The opposing group, a group which can be described as old-school conservationists, claims the complete opposite. They interpret the Anthropocene as a disaster, arguing that we have to work very hard to mitigate its terrible consequences. The fact that humans have always influenced nature does not make it right, and certainly in no way implies that we should continue doing so in future. That kind of thinking is actually what got us here in the first place.
Ecomodernists view old-school conservationists as alarmist, technophobic, and unable to come up with solutions. People do not respond to negative news, they argue; they respond to positive and optimistic messages. I think the ecomodernists are right in that respect, in any case. Speaking of human motivation: why are we doing so little to stop climate change? We are constantly being bombarded with news about the dire state of affairs in nature, what with all these disasters that are coming our way – and people simply respond with complete apathy. If geo-engineers propose a course of action that they claim is supposed to fix everything, then we can just continue with what we were doing. This seems to be a much easier message to swallow.
Interestingly, there are a lot of science journalists among the ecomodernists, and they all seem to have a relativist view on nature. Their reasoning is, since we have already influenced nature, and real wilderness no longer exists, we are allowed to do with the Earth whatever we think is good for humans. We have lots of novel ecosystems, ecosystems that are created by humans, and it would be impossible to restore those to any kind of original state. And they are correct, too: 35% of our current ecosystems are in fact these novel ecosystems. They call this ‘new nature’.
The old-school conservationists find ‘new nature’ extremely disappointing, but ecomodernists point out that novel ecosystems often exhibit significant biodiversity and offer humans important ecosystem services and resources. They believe that, if you want to protect an ecosystem, you have to put a price tag on it; you have to calculate what the ecosystem service is worth for humans. Only then will people want to protect it. It’s a very economics-driven model.
And what do I think, personally? I think that on the one hand, the old-school conservationists have to realise that we live in different times; they have to become more realistic. On the other hand, the ecomodernists are going way too far in the other direction, in my opinion. And they all base their principles on this relativist perspective that nature does not in fact exist, as such.
Nature is a confusing concept; I see this when I talk to my students in Wageningen. Initially, they think it’s very clear what nature is, but when I prod them to think about it more, they realise that we are part of nature. However, the next step they take is that the whole concept of nature is meaningless – which I think is incorrect. If you claim that nature is everything outside of yourself, you’re wrong, but if you claim that everything inside and outside of yourself, including everything you make, is nature, then you’re also wrong.
The question is: what criteria do you use for ‘naturalness’? I see nature as something that can be more present or less present. If humans’ influence on land increases, then the land becomes less ‘natural’. There is a difference between having your own internal goals or having external goals imposed on you. Take the example of the artefact versus a natural entity. An artefact has a goal that is completely determined by us humans. An artefact doesn’t create itself independently. We can arrange for an artefact to make independent decisions, for example a computer that has AI capabilities and so on, but we have still originally imposed our own external goals. Nature is different. In your garden, you can mow the lawn and plant trees and flowers, but the grass will still follow its own internal goals. Natural entities exhibit autonomous processes that are not put in there by humans. They may be influenced by us, but the fact that we influence nature doesn’t mean that it is not nature anymore. The fact that we are part of nature ourselves doesn’t imply that everything we make is also natural. That is the problem I have with the ecomodernist view: this relativist stance towards the concept of nature.
Moreover, we can attach value to biodiversity, apart from the financial or economic value it has to us humans. This is what ecomodernists often forget. Biodiversity is usually more beautiful than anything humans can make. We may see ourselves as the ‘God species’, but there are so many things that possess extreme beauty that humans are completely unable to create.
Land sharing or land sparing? Finding a balance between agriculture and nature
Land use is another relevant debate. Do we have to structure agriculture in such a way that we can make room for nature and animals, for biodiversity? Yes, according to the proponents of land sharing. Or should we go the other direction and set aside land for nature and animals in one place, while at the same time intensifying agriculture (including GMO farming) in another place? This approach is called land sparing. Sparing and sharing seem to be complete opposites, which makes the debate very difficult. However, I do feel that we are looking at a false dichotomy.
In my opinion, it’s not going to work to spare land for nature and then make the rest of the land into one big monoculture. Nature gets too fragmented that way. Nature needs corridors to connect different areas. You can take a certain area, close it off and call it a national park, but this is much more complicated in practice than you might think. Sparing land and ‘giving it back to nature’ actually involves serious management in order to let nature take its course. Look at the nature reserves in Africa. Wild animals do not respect any borders of the national park. They trample houses in surrounding villages, and the people get upset. Poachers try to enter the park to kill wild animals. It’s all much harder in practice than in theory.
And what about humans? They would all have to go and live in one big city. There would be a ring of monocultures and livestock situated around the city, pig factories and so on, to provide us with food. And then the outer ring would be destined for wild nature and we would have to stay out completely. This picture does not make me very happy. And I wonder: you want to use nature for the wellbeing of humans, but you do so in such a structured, fundamental way that people can’t really enjoy nature anymore. I think that most people really need to be in touch with nature. Not everybody wants to live in a city. We do see more urbanisation, but that is also because people can’t find work outside the city.
The second problem is that creating monocultures based on GMOs is a short-sighted perspective. In the long term, this exhausts the soil and causes all kinds of potential problems, such as hybridisation of crops; that’s when genetically modified crops jump over to wild crops and create new hybrids, so you don’t really know what you’re growing. In any event, exhausting the soil is not sustainable in the long term.
I am much more in favour of forms of land sharing, such as food forests. You see food forests popping up now in diverse places, which produce food in several layers of the soil. First you have trees with nuts and fruits, then there are certain crops in the soil and other crops above ground, and various animals living in the forest. The advantage of a food forest is that less management is needed: no pesticides, for example, and the soil does not need to be tilled, etc. The disadvantage is that harvesting is more work, because you have to do it by hand. However, the funny thing is that the yield is not even less in the long term! Looking at GMOs, there are not a lot of examples of GMOs actually producing produced much more than conventional agriculture.
There are several experiments with food forests currently taking place. We see that it doesn’t work very well in the first few years, but it works better in the long term than what happens in the monocultures surrounding them. I think we should experiment with different forms, because we don’t know in advance what is going to work.
Individual animals or collective ecosystems? Animal rights vs environmental protection
The animal rights movement has been in conflict with the environmental protection movement since the 1970s – and both sides actually have good arguments. The environmentalists would like to preserve the landscape as a whole, protect the collective, whereas the animal rights activists focus on saving individual animals. Let’s call them the ‘nature people’ and the ‘animal people’. The ‘nature people’ see the value in the collective, in the relationships that are more than the sum of any individual parts. In their opinion, we have to preserve the ecosystem above all; and if it’s necessary to shoot a couple of individual animals to do so, then they don’t see this as a problem. Or if the long-term preservation of a certain species involves keeping a few individual animals in a zoo for breeding purposes, then they’re okay with that.
Animal rights activists don’t agree. The ‘animal people’ think that we can only assign moral status to individuals, since only individuals are capable of experiencing things. Many animals can experience pain and pleasure, so why would we withhold moral status from them? A collective cannot have an experience; an ecosystem doesn’t feel pain or pleasure. Rather, an ecosystem is a category that we humans impose on nature. The same argument applies to the concept of a species – another human label.
So if you grant moral status to individual animals, the question arises of where we should draw the line. Who is part of the moral community and who is not? Different lines have been drawn. For example, Peter Singer drew the line somewhere between a shrimp and an oyster, but others have drawn the line at vertebrates, or organisms that have a central nervous system. I originally belonged to the ‘animal people’, but I think this view has become more and more limited. Drawing the line at ‘pain’ seems increasingly arbitrary. Why is pain important? Pain is an expression of something else. Your body is in pain when your body is damaged, and the pain makes sure you will avoid injury. But is it about pain, or is it about the bodily harm? Maybe only conscious pain is a problem? There are all sorts of dilemmas that cannot be resolved based on this perspective.
If you can save two street dogs or one panda, who should you save? Three rats or one elephant? The ‘animal people’ would vote for the dogs and the rats, because it’s a higher number and you have to save as many individual animals as you can. But we all feel how counter-intuitive this consequence becomes. Where should we draw the line? The question is very hard to answer.
I did some research on insects, and I find this aspect fascinating. The whole idea has always been that an animal can have an experience as long as it has a central nervous system and a spine; when impulses are transported through nerves, then you can have an experience. If animals show flexible learning behaviour, this can also indicate consciousness. Lots of animals do not have central nervous systems, which is why you can do tests on invertebrates without an animal testing permit. The exception is squid, which show behaviour that indicates consciousness, so they are protected.
Insects have no central nervous system and show no flexible learning behaviour, so they are not protected at all. But if you research insects, then maybe they do have feelings or cognition, but they find ways to achieve that without a central nervous system, ways that we don’t know or understand yet. Fish, for example, communicate with each other by drumming their maws. We are used to think about these issues from a human-centric perspective. The tests we subject animals to in order to find out if they have consciousness are all tailored to the human model. As long as an animal is similar to a human, then they are allowed to be considered conscious and aware. I think we have to get rid of that model, but doing so means investing a lot of imagination.
I found insect burgers in the vegetarian section of the supermarket, which surprised me. So we don’t view insects as animals? My university is pushing very hard to promote insect consumption. At all these academic receptions, we get insects as hors d’oeuvres. No, I don’t eat them; I give them the benefit of the doubt. Also: I don’t feel like it. If there are proper alternatives, like a lentil burger or a tofu burger, why would you choose the insect burger? In Bolivia, instead of popcorn in the movie theatre, they eat fried grasshoppers, but for dinner they still want a piece of meat.
That’s the whole problem at the university. They are trying to introduce insects as a substitute for meat, in what they call the ‘protein transition’. We have to move away from too much animal protein (meat, fish, eggs), and one way to do this is by pushing people towards eating insects. I think it’s not going to work the way they’re intending. Most people might be open to snacking on a grasshopper at a party, but transitioning towards insects as the main source of protein in their daily lives? Not likely. Before we start a new bio-industry of mini-cattle, let’s first do more research into these questions. I would love to do research with insects, but I haven’t been able to get funding for it. These days, we also have to obtain funding from the corporate sector, but which company would be willing to fund a critique of eating insects?
Individual insects may not be able to experience anything; they don’t show flexible learning behaviour. But maybe as a collective, as a hive or nest, they are more than the sum of individuals. Maybe they have a collective intelligence. Again, this is about the distinction that is made between the ‘animal people’ and the ‘nature people’. One group focuses on the individual and the other focuses on the collective, but I think there are degrees of collectiveness or of individuality. We can actually say the same thing about humans. We always say that we are so unique because we can build mobile telephones and roads. Well, I can’t build a mobile telephone or a road as an individual. In the end, humans are also part of a herd and we follow others. Our choices are not as unique as we think they are.
Individualists might say that the collective interest doesn’t exist – like Thatcher did, for example. Animal rights activists don’t see that there is something that supersedes the individual. I wrote an article in which I argue that the ‘animal people’ have to include collective dimensions, even from the individual animal perspective. I compared this to public health ethics. Getting vaccinated is not by definition in the interest of the individual, but ensuring that everyone gets their shots does serve the collective interest. The same concept can be applied to animals. If ‘animal people’ say we have to supplement food to the overpopulated, starving animals at Oostvaarderplassen, they are forgetting that a species as a whole can become more robust when weaker individuals die. In the end, that is also in the interest of the individuals. Distinctions between individual and collective shouldn’t be sharply drawn all the time. Both parties have made a far too sharp distinction between the collective and the individual. And me? I always try to look for the middle ground.