Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Ecomodern contradictions

With a possible exception for its low density, our house would be the perfect ecomodern fantasy. Even under the most extreme Arctic conditions, an advanced heating system (powered by 100% certified zero-carbon nuclear electricity) ensures that the house has a stable and comfy indoor climate, all at an extremely affordable monthly cost. As such, the house highlights the possibilities that the right combination of technological innovation and forward-looking policy (Sweden has very high taxes for fuel oil) can unlock.

Now enter: the wood burning stove. Despite living in identical newly-built houses, several of our neighbours have decided to install wood burning stoves. To tell the truth, this was something that we too considered when buying the house as it would be the perfect “homestyling” trick if one would ever put the house back on the market. After all, the combination of a lake outside and a cosy fireplace is hard to beat in an ad. At the same time, for all the “hygge” it may generate, there are some rather serious environmental effects. For instance, the World Health Organisation has estimated that pollution from residential burning of mainly wood causes about 60,000 premature deaths in the EU every year. In Stockholm, wood burning has become a major source of soot and particle emissions comparable even to emissions from road traffic. What may surprise an outside observer, in particular one from a developing country, is that a significant portion of the residential wood burning in a place like Stockholm takes places in houses that already have perfectly adequate and environmentally benign heating. This may seem particularly confusing considering the money and time needed to both obtain and transport wood for burning.

For ecomodernists, all of this represents a challenge, one that also goes to the heart of the article that I am currently revising. From a technocratic utilitarian perspective, burning wood in a house like ours is simply incomprehensible. Yet, people are not rational machines. Like meat eating, burning wood makes people feel that they are doing something “natural”, however environmentally harmful that practice may be in reality. So far, ecomodernists have argued that publicly funded technological innovation will make it possible to preserve liberal freedom even in times of great environmental stress and that “faster, clean and cheaper” technologies will simply outcompete existing polluting ones. Yet, the success of that approach depends on to what extent people are willing to forego the “naturalness” of generational old practices. In the paper, my co-author and I are suggesting that “ecomodern citizenship” would entail a preference for the synthetic over the organic and a willingness to adopt a high-density lifestyle in order to make room for the rewilding of nature. The question of course becomes, how does such a notion of ecomodern citizenship resonate with existing cultural logics? Is it rather not the case that, as people become richer, they indulge in precisely the kind of disneyfication of reality that the wood burning stove above is a perfect example of? And if that is so, where does it leave the ecomodern agenda? One option would of course be an even more radical form of innovation, let’s say molecular assemblers that would produce wood directly in peoples’ homes without the need for forestry and then advanced filters that would capture all the emissions. Yet, such a level of innovation is clearly not on the immediate horizon and, more worryingly, it may fail to satisfy the voracious appetite for “naturalness” that created this problem in the first place. If so, the prospects of sparing nature through technology may be dim indeed.

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