Saturday, January 12, 2008

Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism and the Politics of Possibility

When 'The Death of Environmentalism' was released some time back, it caused a lot of heat in the environmental movement. The argument continues to this day and from this longevity the impression is created that there are substantial arguments made which have yet to be countered. Indeed i believe this to be the case, and the argument has more recently been expanded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenburger in a new book which i have just finished reading 'Break Through: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility'.

This book is problematic in several ways. Firstly, there is a lot of generalisation about environmentalism: there are many people working on issues that effect the environment that don't see themselves as environmentalists. Secondly, the attacks on existing movements do seem a bit to vicious to be simply constructive criticism. Indeed the references to Nietzsche and and defence of the poorly understood concept of will-to-power, and of hubris, may leave some questioning just how much arrogance they can stomach.
"But a certain hubris is always required of people, be they environmentalists or neoconservatives, who wish to change the world."

Having accepted that the book delivers an unpalatable message from some rather unlikable messengers i ask you to read this book and try to give the critique a fair shot. I must admit that although at times the language of sociology and psychology left me uncertain about the books direction, the argument was in general very tight and for me at least, persuasive. So if you don't see yourself in the one dimensional picture of environmentalists painted, accept that an underlying concept is under attack and that concept is followed as an ideology imperfectly. The important question is weather or not you accept not the criticism but the desirability of the alternatives proffered.

The key arguments as i see them are:

  1. Environmentalism has drawn a conceptual box around nature and has mobilised to protect this box. Human/Nature is only one way in which we can conceptually divide up the world. There are better ways , ways that will lead to better outcomes for interests as currently, and as more broadly defined.

  2. By including humans in our vision as post-environmentalists we can broaden our sights and increase success politically. This change involves taking on non-environmental ends as part of our mission, this is crucial for making an issue as vast as climate change politically sustainable. A focus along the lines of Hawkens, Lovins and McDonugh should act as a focus for this new politics.

  3. A society of economic uncertainty, inequality and poverty is not conducive to action on climate change or other issues that have similar results as climate change. We must build a movement to counter these issues, which are consistently at the top of opinion polls ans strongly relevant to elections. Part of this should be a huge state led programme of investment in energy research.
I agree with Nordhaus and Schellenburger on much of this. Point 1. is the nub of the essay. There is a call for, not a claim of, The Death of Environmentalism. The reasons being that the conceptual box 'environmentalism' is no longer the best one for serving our values. Point 2. is in my view an answer to the question of how we approach climate change, either as a technocratic or a systemic issue, the case made seems to be that a technocratic based approach would see the issue as pollution based, but that in order to make the requisite scale of change we need to activate people and businesses behind a positive vision that is more than simply against something bad, it is for something incredibly new and positive. Point 3. gives us some direction on a post-environmental movement. It relies on the case built throughout the early part of the book that environmentalim at its most successful was not counter cultural, but a part of generosity of heart that abounded at times of prosperity and optimism, a time when progressive politics was universally dominant in the US.
Nothing is more central to this book than our contention that for any politics to succeed , it must swim with, not against the currents of changing social values."

If there is a weakness to Nordhaus and Schellenburger's essay then in my mind there are two candidates. Firstly, the essay tries to disband the idea of limits. In terms of a limit to growth, three tools are used to through this of into the distance. First is the idea of growth defined not as GDP but as well being; we therefore can promote growth through equality, economic justice and security. It would seem to me that this broader definition is what we are being asked to fight for, but GDP is still there at the heart of development.
"The new vision of prosperity will not be the vision of economic growth held by those who worship at the altar of the market. It will define wealth not in terms of gdp but as overall well-being"

Then the ideas that William McDonugh and his cradle to cradle thinking encapsulate well. If goods are created to be reused or there materials reincorporated then production becomes part of a cycle not part of a destructive linear process.

"What is needed, in short, is not so much less as different consumption."
Finally these ideas are paired with reference to Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken; huge advocates, not of different consumptions so much as efficient consumption. But we are left with the quote above and the words i placed in italics. Can we really move to a stage where GDP is absolutely decoupled from net material throughput of our economy?

The second apparent weakness is a pragmatic rather than conceptual one. We are told that in claiming to speak for nature and for things as they stand, we are conservative, even reactionary. Is is claimed that such appeals to nature as a higher authority are authoritarian, in the same way that religions make appeals based on there access to god's word. This took some time for me to understand or accept. I would say that in principal i now do. The environment isn't above politics. This was part of an argument that they needed to wind in order to do away with the conceptual box of environmentalism; however, in practice, we don't understand the ecology that supports us. So in virtually all cased the process of building a vision for a place we value, rather than protecting it on the basis that conservation is always good, would leave much potential value unrecognised.

I`m going to read this again in a few months. I certainly recommend that you read the book, there are many novel ideas. It's provocative stuff.

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