A few months ago, 7.6 million people joined a week-long global coordinated strike to protest government and business inaction on climate change. Millions of schoolchildren around the world continue to walk out of their classrooms every Friday in solidarity with sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg. This movement is on fire, says the left-wing journalist and author Naomi Klein. For Klein (2019), there has never been a more obvious appetite for abandoning incremental moves away from fossil fuels, in favor of a radical decarbonization of society, redistributing wealth to fund a just, zero-carbon energy transition.
According to Symons in Ecomodernism, these fear-based appeals to drum up public support for frugality are turning people away, rather than attracting them toward taking effective action on climate change. The book requests more faith in government and corporations and underscores the value of individual aspiration and technological innovation to provide a more hopeful response. In doing so, Symons promotes the capability of a global capitalist economy to solve social and environmental issues. The book’s recurring metaphor of the US HIV/AIDS epidemic attempts to exemplify how state-funded innovation should engage with such crises. In the early 1980s, the costly (yet profitable) pharmaceutical development of retroviral drugs was thwarted by ideologically conservative arguments promoting celibacy and heteronormativity. The ecomodernist innovations required to address the contemporary climate crises include nuclear energy; natural gas fracking; more sustainable (yet highly industrial) agriculture; GMO experimentation; and, once a global democratic consensus is achieved, a permanent global program of geoengineering.
Ecomodernism is critically engaged, but instead of squaring up to the usual international corporations and neoliberal governments, its critique is aimed at the “Greens,” whose emotive fearmongering Symons blames for historical inaction on climate change. The Greens in question are a “bizarre” and “beguiling” (7) group of popular left-leaning journalists, such as Naomi Klein and George Monbiot, lumped together with the conservative author of The Population Bomb, Paul Erlich, and other “globaphobic” thinkers. Distancing itself from fearmongering rhetoric, the book adopts a cold algorithmic utilitarianism. Nuclear power, genetic engineering, and other options are all considered through their climate mitigation potentials, often ignoring other social and environmental risks and contemporary ethical debates. Symons seems to reject a precautionary principle with these innovations so long as net emissions are reduced. Geoengineering, despite its severe risks from unforeseen outcomes, including global “termination shock” (179), is considered tolerable, as it would efficiently decrease emissions while helping poor people in the tropics whose day-to-day lives are already blighted by heat.
Ecomodernism opposes scholars who assume that global market forces are the culprit for accelerating ecological decline. Globalization, for Symons, is held up as the necessary solution to reduce poverty and the associated drivers of environmental degradation. He maintains an enduring faith in regulated global markets and carbon pricing regimes. The book omits discussions concerning already existing global carbon market mechanisms, payments for ecosystem services projects, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).
The concept of ecomodernism is loosely conceptualized in the book’s introduction, which also functions as a manifesto for nuclear energy as much as for an entrepreneurial state. The definition of ecomodernism gains coherence in the following two chapters. The concept attempts to marry competitive markets with globally egalitarian social outcomes. In this spirit, action on climate change is technical, rather than emancipatory. Symons engages alternative theoretical frameworks for assessing the technological challenge, such as political ecology, more-than-human thinking, and degrowth, but not enough to allow the reader much room to explore.
Proponents of growth-based development discourses, nuclear energy, and already-existing agricultural technologies may find this book useful. The book describes these technologies as “zero-carbon” (78), but proponents of Green New Deal thinking, advocated for by Klein and others (see Pettifor 2019; Rifkin 2019), are likely to question the conservative decarbonization visions described by the book. The book’s brief conclusions do not mention pioneering disruptive technologies, for example, tackling climate change with blockchain, artificial intelligence for conservation, or the Internet of Things (IoT) for natural resource management (see Howson 2019). Such technologies could provide emancipatory outcomes without having to wait for the author’s proposed formal system of “global social democracy” or other political settlement. In the 1980s, HIV/AIDS sufferers from around the world mobilized a mass movement against neoliberal government and corporate interests, using peaceful disobedience to promote a more socially just response to crises. Similarly, while we wait for a system of global social democracy to end the climate crisis, shouldn’t today’s activists do the same?