Why environmentalists’ fear of bigness dooms the developing world.
(star of hope international / flickr)
I come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism. This is not skepticism of the science, but of the politics and ideology of environmentalism.
Consider the difference between Hurricane Mitch, a Category 4 hurricane, and Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5.
1992’s Andrew was a more powerful storm than Mitch, but Andrew hit Florida, where it killed about 80 people and left about 125,000 temporarily homeless. Due to the wealth and social organization of the region, most people had a place to take refuge, and nearly everybody had found a new place to live within a year.
Mitch hit Central America – mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – in 1998. It was catastrophic, killing 11,000 people, with just as many missing, and it left 2.7 million people homeless. The economic devastation led to a cholera outbreak.
Why the difference?
The answer lies with Central America’s poverty and underdevelopment. Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are much less industrialized countries, with bad roads, poor communication networks, weak construction, and so on.
The lesson here is that our most urgent environmental priority should be helping Global South industrialize, so that it has more protection from the vicissitudes of nature. After all, there are always going to be these natural disasters. So better to redistribute resources to the South so that it can scale up its ability to control nature, rather than to roll back that project in the developed countries.
That, to me, is the radical position on the environment. It calls for a large-scale industrial development and a massive redistribution of wealth. And yet, it is almost entirely at odds with the politics and ideology of environmentalism. Environmentalists consistently tend to see the development of industry, and the wider attempt to dominate nature, as wrong, perverse, and the source of man’s domination over man.
The control and manipulation of nature is a good thing. It is potentially emancipatory. Such technological control is certainly a condition of possibility for any of the aims regarding the reduction of necessary labor and enjoyment of leisure time that the Left used to be committed to and which have been consistently defended in Jacobin’s pages.
I may be more pessimistic than others about the ability to transform environmentalism, especially its tendencies towards misanthropy and despair, into something more affirmative and humanistic. These pessimistic and conservative tendencies are rooted very deeply in environmentalism itself. To see the way these tendencies play out, let’s look at the ideological and political affinities between environmentalism and Occupy.
Ideologically, there is a shared view regarding the dangers of size. Throughout Occupy, there was a common argument against corporations on the grounds that they are large-scale human enterprises, which destroy communities and nature simply by virtue of their size.
That critique taps into the environmentalist tendency to be hostile to the industrial revolution and the aspiration to control nature for human purposes that lies at the heart of that revolution. A strain of antihumanism has been prominent in environmentalism for a long time. This antihumanism is rooted in that very premise – that it is wrong to control nature for human purposes, and that the attempt to control nature lies at the root of contemporary problems. The problem with large-scale human enterprises like corporations is not their size or relationship to nature, but who controls them. If anything, the hostility to controlling nature displaces a concern with the relations of production onto the forces of production. The most problematic thing about corporations is the way the distribution of ownership and control ends up socializing costs while privatizing benefits. But those benefits could be socialized and put into a more rational relationship to human needs.
The other ideological affinity is that while Occupy has been global in its perspective, it has been very local in its utopian vision and prefigurative politics. That’s also true of environmentalism, which has had trouble giving us an alternative social vision that could be international in scope. At least, it has not given us anything that would be more than a bunch of federated, small-scale self-sufficient production communities. I don’t think there is anything attractive in that vision, and it is not something that I identify with the forward-looking, universalistic aspirations of the Left.
On the political side, Occupy has been a kind of cipher for a number of movements that have had trouble connecting up with mass politics. It seemed to offer a mass political moment to which various groups could attach themselves. Environmentalism is one of those movements that have had trouble finding and establishing majoritarian connections.
There are a number of reasons why it has faced these obstacles. One is the social pessimism of environmentalism itself. Its narrative is one of despair. It is hard to convince many to sign on to a political project that is pessimistic and verges on misanthropy, or at least tends towards the view that, on the whole, human will and intention have largely led to destruction rather than production. After all, a basic premise running through much of environmentalism is that the past three hundred years teach us a particular lesson: when we try to control nature, the unintended consequences of human action are far more destructive than the intended ones.
The problem here is not merely that you are going to have trouble appealing to mass interests when you begin by telling people they should consume less – it is deeper than that. When you are trying to mobilize people to engage in large-scale political action, but the lesson is that whenever we engage in large scale international action there are even worse unintended consequences, it is hard to see why anyone would be willing to sign up. It’s no wonder environmentalists find themselves in a certain kind of political impasse vis-à-vis mass politics.
There are two other self-limiting aspects of environmentalism. One is the “crisis” mode of politics. This “we must act now, we don’t have time to reflect” that we find in much climate activism is deeply problematic. As I have written elsewhere, it is a politics of fear. Our existence is threatened (by natural catastrophe); we don’t have time to argue or disagree; we must act now; politics has been reduced to the quest for survival – this all sounds exactly like the War on Terror.
This appeal to fear will limit the appeal to mass politics. It is debilitating, not appealing. In the face of a crisis of this magnitude and immediacy, why act? Why would anyone think action can make a difference? Moreover, the appeal to fear is a way of supplanting rather than articulating more robust human aspirations. Survival alone is not much to aspire to.
Environmentalists have attempted to overcome these limitations by appealing to the authority of science. It is very common to hear that “the science is in,” as if that tells us what we ought to do. But even if the science is in, the science does not tell us how to act.
Scientists can tell us about the complex things happening in the natural world. But before we can act, we have to find agreement on a host of political, economic and ideological questions about which scientists have nothing to say. Scientists often know very little about political and economic questions.
Should we adapt to effects or mitigate the causes? Who should bear the burdens of adaptation or mitigation to climate change? Which economic and political institutions are the most desirable? Which risks and natural changes are acceptable? These are social questions, not scientific ones. But the appeal to science is an end run around trying to resolve them – it dresses up ideological concerns in the garb of unimpeachable scientific authority.
Even some of the more outlandish versions of “denialism” or rejection of the science, should be understood as a reaction to this authoritarian attempt to use science to force certain policies and projects down people’s throats. People can tell when science is being used as a stick to silence legitimate disagreement. And this holds not just for certain elements of right-wing populism, but even within and amongst lefties themselves.
This appeal to “the science” is a last-ditch reaction to the failure to convince the public of environmental aims. It is, moreover, where the background ideological and political issues – is environmentalism antihumanistic, does it really articulate progressive aspirations, can it do more than appeal to fear – matter. The turn to science registers these ideological problems and weaknesses.
In the talk on which this essay is based, someone made the observation that when Israelis destroyed a power generator in Gaza, Palestinians turned to bicycle generators. They produced their own energy in their own homes. The Palestinian bicycle generators were offered as an example of how carbon-free energy technology could also serve as a moment of resistance to domination. The sympathetic audience welcomed this example.
This kind of argument exemplifies a very dangerous and conservative tendency in environmentalism. There was nothing subversive about the Palestinian response. It was accommodation to necessity – a necessity imposed by Israeli occupation and the authoritarian destruction of cheaper, more efficient sources of energy.
The virtue of a power plant is that it frees all but the few who run it from having to dedicate labor to power generation, or having to rely on costlier energy sources. That Palestinians were forced to produce energy in their own homes was a further sign of their unfreedom, as they had to devote more of their labor to producing bare necessities than they had previously. Any celebration of bicycle generators ignores actual power relations by turning the radically unequal relations of power between Palestinians and Israelis into a question of the Palestinian relationship to nature.
If this were an aberrant and misguided example, it would mean little. But environmentalist arguments frequently rationalize conditions that the Left ought to criticize. I remember being in San Diego, where I grew up, during the California energy crisis of 2000–2001. I would be sitting at home in the middle of the summer and suddenly the lights would go out and the air conditioning shut off. This was the richest state in the richest country in the world and it couldn’t supply energy properly to its citizens.
As it turned out, this had to do with market manipulation by energy companies and traders, mainly Enron, who were creating artificial shortages to drive prices up and overcharge the public.
What I distinctly remember is that many California environmentalists argued that this was an opportunity to learn to conserve, and spent most of their time either recommending conservation strategies or arguing that this was further proof that we shouldn’t demand such cheap energy. Many people followed suit, and various conservation efforts sprang up across the state.
Now, I don’t think there was anything very positive about these efforts, and I think the environmental arguments were downright pernicious. Both in practice and in theory, environmentalist efforts were rationalizing a major market failure. Like the defenders of Palestinian bicycle generators, these environmentalists turned a situation that was the product of radically unfair and unfree social relations into a moral story about our relationship to nature.
Not only do is there a tendency to rationalize relations of political and economic irrationality, but this tendency steers debates in a dangerous direction. Cheap energy is a good thing. It frees people from all kinds of mundane tasks, allows for the production and use of machines that could eliminate necessary labor, and makes possible much better standards of living.
There seems to be a strong environmentalist impulse to reverse that trend, to get us to spend more, not less, of our day having to waste our time with mundane tasks, even generating our own power. There’s a better way.