“Nature and Environment: Ethics for An Ecomodernist Manifesto”

shutterstock_210318229di Alice Sieve

It seems inevitable to discuss climate change nowadays, since the human behavior toward nature carries along the evidence and responsibility of its effects. As a result, a group of scholars and intellectuals have recently proposed An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a document aiming to suggest some issues to develop a constructive debate and figure out possible outlines in order to avoid an ecological collapse. In order to argue for their positions, they indirectly take inspiration from different ethical speculations, making their reasoning more rhetorically persuasive. The contribution proposed in this paper is meant to investigate the difference between the theoretical concepts of nature and environment, as far as humans are concerned; moreover, it concentrates on the ethical behavior ought to be adopted to improve the current situation according to this proposal.

This document was released in 2015, year in which the UN Climate Summit has raised up attentiveness on the costs of natural disasters caused by an improper conduct and climate inaction. As reported by the Oxfam international confederation (OXFAM), some exceptional events like the severe drought in Russia of 2012 and the Typhoon Haiyan which affected 11.3 million people over the Philippines in 2013 have made clear that human actions get back reactions from nature, even on a much more larger extent than ever before. Consequently, the context that has led to the creation of this paper is that of a conscious reconsideration of the climate’s problems, admitting that the majority of them is ultimately caused by humans. The signers of this document then are mostly professors and scientists from Universities all around the world, engaged in spreading the message of decoupling human well-being from the destruction of nature. The form of the manifesto is easily readable and may be directly downloaded from their website, so it is largely accessible by the internet; and the reason for this is probably that they want it to circulate as far as possible, not only in the restricted framework of higher education. Moreover, it is interesting to note that the signers of this manifesto present themselves also as “campaigners and citizens” (6), though they come from different continents and countries; so they recognize the fact of sharing the same problems and duties beyond the local political dimension.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto opens on the idea that we all live on a planet which is constantly modified by humans at the point that it is forced to adapt to the changes we impose on it. If this situation is undeniable, it is also true that it demands an aware management of the resources to stabilize and protect the natural world. Since this is the main assumption, it may be questioned what should be preserved and through what means. The theoretical basis upon which this text lies distinguish environment from nature, defining these two entities in a different way: for the purpose of the Manifesto, this philosophical premise allows the contrast between two visions of the natural world supporting their thesis about the measures that should be taken for the future.

Starting to consider the idea of environment, from the Greek root, literally means “the state of being surrounded or encircled”, so in its narrow sense it refers to the space being around. The environment is the primary subject of human impacts (6, 7, 11), also natural and nonhuman, however carrying a serious toll (7). There are different kinds of environments, according to which the growing population has adapted to live (7); and they have been transformed by humans starting from the Holocene period (16). The concept of environment is defined by a latent negative meaning, seen as a potential long-term “threat to human well-being” (10) or cause of local “health risks” (10). More significantly, it is the primary support to economic outputs (28), since they both entertain a tight and dependent relationship which each other. The guiding assumption is double faced: if the environment includes all the ecosystems that make life possible on Earth, we have to respect its dynamics in order to maintain our economic interests that depend on them. This definition is based on the idea that humans ‘fill in’ the environment in proportion to their needs, appealing to a philosophical tradition traced back to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. According to this vision, humans should get benefit from the surroundings with the aim of insuring a better life, explicitly for their good and happiness. Environment provides them the sources for developing a state of well-being; however, this Manifesto recognizes that there has been an imposed overcharge upon it increasingly through time that can only lead to destruction. Consequently, the theoretical notion of environment is connected with the concrete idea of a natural space which humans use, comprehending living and inanimate elements vulnerable to change.

Conversely, nature is distinguished upon a different argument, since it appeals to a more pathetic rhetoric. Looking at the definition provided by this document, it can be seen that nature is an entity which includes the environment, according to the analysis sustained above: “what we are here calling nature, or even wild nature, encompasses landscapes, seascapes, biomes and ecosystems that have, in more cases than not, been regularly altered by human influences over centuries and millennia” (26). Despite the fact that this description is objective, elsewhere in the text the argumentation follows another path. As a matter of fact, humans’ behavior must “spare nature” (7), suggesting that it has to be rescued; more explicitly, the beginning of Chapter 5 emphasizes the emotional feeling that the signers perceive toward nature. “We write this document out of deep love and emotional connection to the natural world. By appreciating, exploring, seeking to understand, and cultivating nature, many people get outside themselves” (25): excluding the emotive sphere, they implicitly admit its presence. The “psychological and spiritual well-being” depends on nature even for people who never experienced “wild natures directly” (25), so nature is presented as an affective shelter even though this document claims not to rely on this kind of argument. Compared to the concept of environment, it is clear that this idea of nature relates to another kind of philosophical thought, being inscribed in a different tradition. One key concept is that of ‘experiencing nature’, which goes back to the Romantic tradition of 19th century. This influence lies in the confrontation with the natural world as a formative encounter for liberating the soul, idealizing the relationship between (wo)men and their surroundings. Aesthetics and spiritual values are acknowledged for being the reasons which have helped to spare nature (19), arriving at the conclusion that “nature unused is nature spared” (19). However, this justification does not worth enough for a strong argument, and seems to be more a rhetorical device appealing to sympathy rather a convincing and logic topic. In regards to the ethical behavior recommended in the text, it is stated that “the continued dependence of humans on natural environments […] is the problem for [its] conservation” (17). This observation underlines the responsibility that humans owe to nature, and this seems to be confirmed also in other parts of the document. At the beginning of the Manifesto, it is rejected that “human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse(6): on one hand, there is a sense of obligation and moral respect toward nature, but on the other hand economics and environment are to be taken into account for their potential catastrophic effect.

The concepts of environment and nature appear to be different by virtue of their function from the humans’ point of view. This is not, ultimately, just a matter of utility, since this is not the main postulate; though it shows different ethics which underlie the discourse. As a matter of fact, speaking in terms of rights and responsibility, this document creates the impression of focusing not on what is good for nature, but what is good for humans who find themselves to live in nature. Actually, the word ‘right’ is never mentioned in the whole document, confirming how this text mostly presents an anthropocentric vision, still linked to the idea of the (wo)mankind in a position of dominion1. Reconsidering under a new light the chief proposal of “decoupling human development from environmental impacts” (7), it seems that the signers of this document suggest that (wo)men should draw apart from nature. Another allusion to the sense of alienation from the natural world is expressed in Chapter 3, speaking about the process of technological innovation: “the modernization processes […] have increasingly liberated humanity from nature” (17). This idea of ‘liberation’ from a dependent relationship wishes to separate the humans’ sustenance from the natural equilibrium, criticizing the interrelation between (wo)men’s needs and resources’ availability in absolute terms. The most evident disapproval about this point in the text concerns the well-known simulated model of growth: “despite frequent assertions starting in the 1970s of fundamental ‘limits to growth’, there is still remarkably little evidence that human population and economic expansion will outstrip the capacity to grow food or procure critical material resources in the foreseeable future” (9). The limits they are referring to are based upon the official research commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1972; however, they reject this theory asserting the necessity of a decoupling, “[which] can be driven by both technological and demographic trends” (11). Beyond the mere pragmatic solutions suggested in the document, as for example the use of clean energy sources and international cooperation (24), the ethical and philosophical responsibility for a new attitude towards nature should be guided by wisdom and knowledge (6). This idea melts the two conceptions of nature and environment mentioned above; as a matter of fact, the proposed alternative concerns material issues for the management of the environment as well as a more involved ethical behavior towards nature. Therefore, the conclusion they draw is that “along with decoupling humankind’s material needs from nature, establishing an enduring commitment to preserve wilderness, biodiversity, and a mosaic of beautiful landscapes will require a deeper emotional connection to them” (26).

In conclusion, the ethical definition of ‘Ecomodernism’ which can be drawn from this Manifesto is that of a modern and reliable disposition toward the ekos, the surrounding that makes life possible on Earth. The traditional point of view would consider ‘conservation’ as good for humans, instead of ‘environmentalism’ as good for nature, but here the ethical concern does not rely on this premise. The Ecomodernist Manifesto does not focus on rights, rather on the solutions to meet the demand for humans’ needs in an environment which is changing, using the means that put (wo)mankind in a position of dominion.


(OXFAM): Oxfam International. “Five Natural Disasters that Beg for Climate Action”, n.d. Web. <http://oxf.am/Ko2>. Last access: 7/24/2016.

Asafu-Adjaye John, Blomqvist Linus, et al. An Ecomodernist Manifesto. April 2015. Web. <www.ecomodernism.org>. Last access: 7/24/2016.

1 A very different theoretical position has been assumed in an another official document issued just a few years before: the Constitution of Ecuador (2008) established the juridical existence of nature as a tangible entity, recognizing its possession of rights.

Precedente BIOPHILIA – BJÖRK: autentica musica ambientale Successivo Discussing State’s Responsibility towards Nature in the Ecuadorean Constitution, Chapter VII, Article 72