How to be Green

Mary Douglas

  • A Green Manifesto for the 1990s by Penny Kemp and Derek Wall
    Penguin, 212 pp, £4.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 14 013272 4
  • Social Philosophy and Ecological Scarcity by Keekok Lee
    Routledge, 425 pp, £40.00, September 1989, ISBN 0 415 03220 2
  • Mother Country by Marilynne Robinson
    Faber, 261 pp, £12.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 571 15453 0
  • Blueprint for a Green Economy by David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward Barbier
    Earthscan, 192 pp, £6.95, September 1989, ISBN 1 85383 066 6
  • The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers and Defenders of the Amazon by Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn
    Verso, 366 pp, £16.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 86091 261 2
  • Thinking Green: An Anthology of Essential Ecological Writing edited by Michael Allaby
    Barrie and Jenkins, 250 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7126 3489 4

If the crisis for the environment were a purely physical problem it could be resolved by protective legislation. Because markets are arraigned as responsible for the disastrous state of the environment, profound paradoxes arise for Western political thought. Much Green writing implies that in addition to a change of heart, the remedy would require strong political and economic controls. Herein lies the dilemma, for the idea of moving to a command economy is repugnant to a tradition committed to liberty, equality, free enterprise and consumer choice.

A Green Manifesto for the 1990s is by two leading members of the Green Party, Penny Kemp, Green Party Co-Chair 1988-89, and Derek Wall, an active spokesman for Green politics. The Green political platform upon which it is based has already been spelt out in The Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (1974, now updated). To the question, ‘How to be green?’ a frontispiece note summarises the simple, cheery answer: ‘Consume less. Share more. Enjoy life.’ And the authors do present a simple, cheery political platform. They urge consumers to use less energy, and to demand Green products; they urge government to stop dependence on nuclear power, remove additives from food, develop eco-friendly technology, legislate against poisonous chemicals, and search for alternative energy sources. Decentralisation and good public transport are high priorities. In a diversified countryside with local jobs and cultural opportunities, we will be less tempted to travel at all. The attractive vision explicitly recalls William Morris’s Utopia.

With a good laugh at the well-known weaknesses of economic indicators, the authors call for new indicators of economic success and failure. Green policy will abolish unemployment, by allowing work-sharing. The Greens will restore pride in creative work; they will end the alienation of the factory-worker at the conveyor belt, at the same time they will restore British manufacturing to the place of importance it has lost to the service industries. They will control inflation, which they consider to be caused by greed. As to the workforce, they will encourage the unions, at the same time as clamping down on incomes inequality, and giving workers more share in decisions. A basic income and housing benefit for everybody will get rid of poverty. To ask how all this is to be paid for is an irrelevant question from the old framework of accounting, and the Greens will introduce new conceptions of cost and new indices of economic success. But the short answer is to save on nuclear weapons and nuclear power and reduce the bureaucracy. Pollution of the environment is itself very costly; the Green Party will generate income from reducing pollution. To ask what coercion will be used is also irrelevant, for none will be required. Political support will come from introducing a real democracy in which every citizen’s vote counts.

It would be wrong to dwell on the book’s inconsistencies and tired borrowings from old political platforms, for that would trivialise an important, grass-roots movement. Admiring the Green Manifesto’s desire for a thoroughly radical new synthesis of our political and economic categories, one can sigh sympathetically that the Green synthesis is not yet ready. If the Greens really reject the profit motive and the conception of economic rationality, they need to pay more attention to the connection between economic behaviour and culture. The dominant model of political theory and economic thought, which they wish to reject, treats the individual as a single, sovereign source of preferences. Cultural theory would help the argument by showing individuals to be responding to their social environment. The evangelical call for a change of heart could be rephrased as a call for a different social environment. Greens see a direct connection between absent local community and present exorbitant travel needs, entailing cars, second homes, inflation and pollution. If people were running their own affairs in local self-sufficient communities, they would not need to commute long distances between home and work. Where everyone bicycles to work, who would need a second home? They would make a stronger case for their programme if, instead of blaming human greed, they were to blame consumerist values on a mode of production which they want to dismantle anyway. The local community, secure in its local self-governing region, places a ceiling on private ambition and imposes informal equivalents of sumptuary laws to control conspicuous spending. If Greens succeeded in stopping the pressure that sucks individual talent out of local communities, trains it for action on distant stages, and generates all those needs for transport and commodities, they certainly might control consumer demand. But they would have problems with free choice. Some individuals would prefer to be liberated from the local community and its coercive traditions. The choice is not one between individual righteousness and greed, but between different kinds of cultural constraint, which create different patterns of needs.

The simplistic idea that there are a few universal human needs bedevils the discussion of pollution. Keekok Lee thinks that a social philosophy based on needs would have a solution for ecological problems. Social Philosophy and Ecological Scarcity does not admit the crude political implications of telling the public what it does and does not need. Defining needs out of their social context is on a level with telling the public not to be greedy. The idea that the needs of individuals can be identified without reference to any system of relations with other people is a common fallacy. However much it inveighs against commoditised thinking, a political philosophy that itemises needs is stuck within the market framework which it seeks to escape. There are no basic human needs that are not part of basic human cultures, and cultures are always ways of dealing with other persons. If you know what needs people ought to satisfy, you know what culture they ought to like, in which case you are – again – up against the problem of free choice.

The Green pulpit can descend to quite low levels of abuse, but Marilynne Robinson’s Mother Country is witty as well as vicious. It combines ghoulish glee over the horrors of plutonium manufactured in Sellafield and dispersed along the Cumbrian coast, with satire against the quaint insincerities of the British. Her comic touch is so good that it is difficult to take the investigative journalism seriously. The moral indignation which inspires the diatribe has no particular target: it is directed at a kind of Mad Hatter’s Tea Party which she has conjured up in a series of lampoons and comic strips. The arguments are supported by evidence from the daily press, but we would like to think that the author of an honest account of British hypocrisy had read the official reports herself, and of this there is no sign. The conclusion of the book exhorts us to look clearly at the grosser forms of evil, ‘to walk away from this road-show, consult with our souls, and find the courage, in ourselves, to see, and perceive, and hear, and understand’. The author has walked away, and now lives safely in New England.

When the moralising and the comedy are set aside, we are still left with politics and justice. Within the framework of a democracy the problem that cannot be shirked is choice. How can restraint be imposed on a public which wants to spend, how can a public decide to postpone its satisfactions, become patient and make room for the future? Blueprint for a Green Economy, by David Pearce, Anil Markandya and Edward Barbier, is a report drawn up by the London Environment Centre for the UK Department of the Environment. It is a state-of-the-art review of ‘Sustainable Development, Resource Accounting and Project Development’. Starting with the idea of sustainable development as a bequest to the future, it confronts the question of economic development in a more abstract way than the Green Manifesto, which is content to catalogue the retrograde effects of particular changes. The Pearce Report does not count changes which impair the welfare of future generations as development. Only sustainable development counts. The programme for sustainable development is not against economic growth, for it does not regard the depletion of reserves as growth. This definitional standpoint cuts the cackle and goes straight to the claims of future generations.

Heavily discounting the claims of the future amounts to ‘impatience’, or the sin denounced elsewhere as ‘greed’. But how much should the future be discounted? After summarising the arguments, the authors come down in favour of no time discounting at all. Let the future count as now, and let us now examine the damage. They introduce us to the technical considerations and the various methods already adopted for assessing the value of the environment in Europe and in America. In the only book in this set which squarely confronts the costs of environmental protection, the authors advocate PPP, or the Polluter Pays Policy, to correct for market failures. This means legislating to make the producers bear the costs of clean processes. The producers will pass the cost on to the consumers as higher prices. The consumers who have hitherto been choosing the environmentally destructive products will be encouraged by the manipulated market mechanism to choose in a more environmentally friendly way.

The great attraction of PPP is that it does not depend on a transformation of human nature. Nor does it usher in dictatorship. Its further benefit in a democracy is that it does not do away with consumer choice. While a profoundly radical reconception of society eludes us still, it can be used at once within the existing framework of government. It involves bringing into market calculations the costs to the environment that are not reflected in market prices. The Green Manifesto rejects this policy, on the grounds that it would be regressive, but the fact is that any radical control of pollution is going to cost the consumer more. The consumers are going to bear the cost whatever happens, but it is not necessarily the poorest who will be most adversely affected, since they are not the ones with the second homes, fast cars, electric gadgets and the insatiable demand for travel. How well PPP works would depend on the finesse with which it is applied. It would not work at all without effective, honest government for it requires an elaborate technical infrastructure of measurement and comparison, as well as sustained monitoring and enforcement, which would be beyond the capacity of many nations.

In a beautifully produced book, The Fate of the Forest, Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn describe the political background to the ecological disaster in the Amazonian jungle. They start with the conquistadores, the blighting of their hopes, the displacement of the Indians, the wars between land barons and settlers. The crux for the present is the inability of former forest land to support the cattle husbandry for which the trees are being cut down – a hard ecological fact. Furthermore, the country faces obstacles to prosperity from violence, debt enslavement and arbitrary rule. PPP could hardly be contemplated here.

The book also gives a salutary description of the common pitfalls of Green movements: the worst is to ignore the importance of political economy and property relations. Critical of superficial solutions, the authors are dubious about the value of agro-ecological zoning, where one zone is set aside for ecological respect and the rest of the area exposed to despoliation. They deplore the tendency to treat long-term structural problems (a polite term for inequitable access to land) as merely the result of poor planning. They do not think fundamental political imbalances should be treated as if technocratic solutions are going to be enough to solve them. The developers are not the only ones to exhibit destructive impatience: the charitable First World foundations interested in the forest’s fate also tend to look for short-term results from their benefactions. The book is not environmental evangelism so much as an environmental version of Liberation Theology. Though they have documented much that could be called greed and impatience, the authors identify the central problem now as solidarity: how can people who have always hated each other move towards co-operation?

There is also a genre of ecological literature. Michael Allaby, former editor of the Ecologist, has collected a set of golden quotables from ancient and modern thinkers. In Thinking Green: An Anthology of Essential Ecological Writing, quotes from doomsayers such as Malthus and Paul Ehrlich are sprinkled in among moderates, who find themselves side by side with the extreme optimism of Herman Kahn. Garrett Hardin and Barry Commoner point to the problems of co-operation and solidarity, Alvin Toffler calls desperately for responsibility, while others, pointing the finger of blame, use vitriol to stir up hostility. As well as being a delightful collection of classics, the volume is instructive: 19th-century political anxieties are poised against extracts from famous reports of recent years: the Blueprint for Survival, 1972, the Club of Rome, 1975, the Brandt Report, Global 2000. It is invigorating to read the history of the problem encapsulated, and a jolt to find how well the destruction of the environment was understood a century and a half ago. Malthus and J. S. Mill are there, and William Morris of course, writing in 1891, Kropotkin writing in 1898.

Is anyone missing? William Blake is absent, and Ivan Illich, both of whom have said classic words on the horrors of industrialism. Despair and exhortation for a change of heart are weakly represented, in tune with the inclusion of Charles Dickens’s ironic comment in Hard Times on the difficulties of converting people to religion against their will. There is less moralising and more information on agriculture and technology. Though the lions have been made to lie down with the lambs, the apocalyptic strain in the debate on the environment has been avoided. If anything has changed since William Morris it is the global closing-in of options, the squeezed-balloon effect: protect the environment here and the bad symptoms will quickly bulge out somewhere else. As to solutions, an anthology is a clever contribution to the debate, for anthology is the stage we are at: synthesis still eludes.