Modernization of ecology [by Md. Saidul Islam]

Modernization of ecology: a provocative twist on traditional analysis of socioecological dynamics

by Md. Saidul Islam*

[Islam, Md Saidul. 2022. “Certification regimes in the global agro-food system and the transformation of nature-society relationship: Ecological modernization or modernization of ecology?” Nature and Culture 17(1): 87-110. DOI:]

Although Ecological Modernization approach offers some great possibilities for a greener world, it’s often used as a semantic cover or ideological guise to displace environmental politics as well as to obscure exploitative relations of production and poor environmental performance. Taking certification regimes in the global aquaculture, Md Saidul Islam has delved into the central dynamics of capitalism and proposed a theoretical renewal which he calls the “Modernization of Ecology.” It offers a provocative twist on traditional analysis of socioecological dynamics.

Following the Green Revolution, the global aquacultural sector embraced a similar shift, known as the Blue Revolution, aiming to “feed the hungry” in the tropical developing nations. It was in fact a major part of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) introduced by neoliberal global managers basically to promote the opening of national resource pools to transnational corporations in the interest of rapid national revenue generation to facilitate debt repayment. While the Blue Revolution was largely driven by neoliberalism to quench the appetite of wealthy consumers in the North, it came with a price: the transformation of agrarian landscapes in the South, large farms in few hands, ecological devastation, the displacement of rural subsistence farmers, rural tension and violence, peasant movements and resistance, and exploitative labor relations. This Blue Revolution is blamed for a loss of about 60% of mangrove forests in Asia. Certification regimes emerged to address these troubles social and environmental legacies of the Blue Revolution.

Recent years have witnessed a proliferation of environmental certification regimes in the global agro-food system. Emerged largely due to the rise of consumer sovereignty and neoliberal push for environmental and social ‘quality’ in food production and processing, this trend has been heralded as an example of ecological modernization approach. Based on a robust analysis of the global aquaculture, the author argues that the environmental certification regimes privilege some actors, species, and cultures while marginalizing others. The fundamental tenet of the ecological modernization approach is to shape capitalism by ecological principles; however, as the author argues, through environmental certification, ecology or nature itself is largely shaped, transformed and restructured to fit into and thereby serve neoliberal global governance and accumulation in a normalized manner. The example of certification regimes is therefore a ‘modernization of ecology’ rather than ecological modernization.

Modernization theory evolved from two ideas about social change developed in the nineteenth century: the conception of traditional vs. modern societies (gemeinschaft vs. gesellschaft), and positivism, which viewed development as societal evolution in progressive stages of growth. In modernization theory, problems that held back the industrialization of poor countries were related to the “irrational” way that resources were allocated in a traditional society. Traditional societies became modern by rationalizing resource allocation, and by eliminating cultural, institutional, and organizational roadblocks that prevented countries from developing. In the last eight decades, modernization theory has embraced various paradigm shifts and transformations, one of which is ecological modernization. The common doctrines shared by modernization and ecological modernization include the fundamental belief that free markets are the best mechanism to achieve important societal goals, such as development, eradication of poverty, and environmental sustainability. What makes ecological modernization distinct is its emphasis on “further modernization” (also known as “super-industrialization”) through “greening” technology to solve the ecological problems created by modernization itself.

In the author’s analysis of the global aquaculture, certification regimes, as an example of ecological modernization, present a dilemma: the regimes emerged to protect communities affected by environmental externalities and ensure human rights and community participation; however, as their technical measures move towards industry consolidation, they leave practically no space for communities to participate. In certification regimes, locals’ connection to the global commodity chain is achieved by disconnecting them from nature and the environment. The profound web of the society-nature relationship has been torn apart, affecting their daily lives, food systems, consumption patterns, land tenure, labor relations, and landscapes; perhaps for the first time in history, money dictates their livelihoods. They produce food (shrimp, for example) that they do not usually consume, and they abandon their centuries-old production processes (rice-paddies, for example) for foods that they still consume.

Ecological modernization claims that capitalism is flexible enough to embrace a transformation along ecological lines; however, what the author found in case of environmental certification regimes is that capitalism is both powerful and flexible enough to transform the society-nature relationship, rather than transforming itself. It is flexible enough to try different avenues and approaches to mobilize public support in ways that look rational and normal, but whose internal dynamics are hard to maintain. There is no essential capitalism, as it has diverse origins and evolves in diverse ways, but the necessity of continuous accumulation still lies at its core. Accumulation can perhaps be dematerialized, but to date that has clearly not happened or even started to happen, despite endless promises from quarters such as ecological modernization. The valorisation of economic logic over ecological principles remains monolithic and intact in ecological modernization. This theory also claims that the “greening” approach will eventually solve the ecological problems facing the planet. While environmental certification regimes, as seen, draw popular attention to environmental issues and sustainability, the orientations and mechanisms by which certification is implemented are largely technical, limiting, and exclusionary due to normalizing principles. The regimes are in practice exclusionary but are seen as participatory, transparent, and plural due to multiple stakeholders’ participation.

While aquaculture certification regimes offer some avenues for “sustainable” aquaculture, the technically defined “sustainability” is realized through environmental managerialism, to control and transform nature and society in an efficient manner. The regimes therefore generate a “green governmentality” that disciplines people to think and behave in certain ways. They consolidate power over nature and society not only by transforming them along what ecological modernization claims are “ecological lines,” but also through knowledge production and institutionalization. The regimes, although apparently participatory and inclusive, in practice dictate and define who speaks, what they can speak, with what objectives, from what point of view, and with what effects.

Although the regimes talk about environmental sustainability and reshaping capitalism through ecological principles, they allow this transformation on only a limited scale and only if that transformation further enhances, or at least does not compromise, neoliberal power and governance. Under certification regimes, nature and society remain not only “secondary” in the face of the powerful economic logic of neoliberal governance, but are reshaped, reformed, and reconstituted in a very efficient manner. While the regimes privilege the fortunate few, they marginalize other actors and spaces. Nature gradually loses its natural form in a natural manner; however, the dominant logic of neoliberal accumulation remains unchanged and uncontested. It is therefore not “ecological modernization,” but a “modernization of ecology” (Figure). The segregation/taxonomy in this figure may be blurred, arbitrary, and overlapping. For example, there is tradition in modernity and vice versa. According to the author, while we recognize the overlapping nature of this taxonomy, we cannot deny the overarching power of “modern society” that drives and shapes social choice and human life.

Figure 1. Modernization of Ecology

In the case of environmental certification regimes in global aquaculture, ecological modernization largely works as a “legitimate guise” or an “ideological device” for neoliberal global governance to conquer nature and society in the distant terrains of tropical developing nations. This “technologized conquest of nature” by markets through certification regimes can best be characterized as consolidated and technologized institutional managerialism that leaves little room for others to participate, even as their participation is presented as fundamental in the politics of nature. This neoliberal technical governance operates through opaquely transforming not its profit-driven philosophy but both nature and society. Growth and accumulation remain uncontested while the society-nature relationship is transformed, remade, and reconstituted in a “rational” and “normalized” manner. Nature in certification regimes is not left in its natural form; rather, it is transformed, altered, and subjected to exploitation through techno-scientific calculation and rationalization, a process at times legitimized through the selective participation.

Regardless of capitalism or socialism, as long as economic logic reigns over ecological and social logics, humanity and the environment will continue to suffer. For a vulnerable planet wrecked by environmental and social catastrophes caused by neoliberal accumulation, we need to rethink our social structure. Roy Rappaport (1993) has characterized this structure as the “subordination of the fundamental to the contingent”; the fundamental (environment and society) has been subordinated to the contingent (the economy). This relation, monolithically maintained by neoliberal governance, needs to be altered if we want to envision a sustainable earth.

*) Md. Saidul Islam is Associate Professor of Sociology and a Coordinator of the Environment and Sustainability Research Cluster in the School of Social Sciences and Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU)

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