- The Fading of the Greens: The Decline of Environmental Politics in the West by Anna Bramwell
Yale, 224 pp, £18.95, September 1994, ISBN 0 300 06040 8
- The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society by Andrew Ross
Verso, 308 pp, £18.95, October 1994, ISBN 0 86091 429 1
- Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism by Martin Lewis
Duke, 288 pp, $12.95, February 1994, ISBN 0 8223 1474 6
The new conventional wisdom has it that environmentalist movements emerge in post-materialist cultures, along with a sense of economic satiety. They are creatures of economic growth, conceived in urban environments in the wake of consumer affluence; in peasant economies, or in the newly industrialising countries, we don’t find anything resembling Western concern with the integrity of the environment. On this view, environmental concern is akin to a ‘positional good’, dependent for its existence on the prosperity generated by long periods of economic growth, and so cannot be expected to flourish in times of economic uncertainty or hardship. It is the ultimate luxury of rich societies. Western governments which attempt to impose it on developing countries only reveal its positional character. The effect of policies which inhibit economic growth in poor countries in the name of environmental concern will in no sense be to improve the protection of the environment, since that depends on a level of wealth which such policies will prevent ever being reached. If they achieve anything, it will only be to shelter the environments of the rich countries that are the beneiciaries of generations of industrialism and economic growth.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 17 No. 10 · 25 May 1995
Half the fun with John Gray is never quite knowing where he’ll pop up next. Fighting the green corner rather than the blue one these days, he makes some odd comments on world development (LRB, 20 April). What Gray calls ‘the Gatt project’ is surely rather a process – and one that’s been going on at least since the famous passage in the Communist Manifesto (1848) about capitalism battering down barbarian walls and compelling all nations ‘on pain of extinction’ to join in. One may not like it, but what to do? The only serious counter-project was the Communist one, whose failure is obvious. Gray’s answer is to endorse Green proposals for ‘relocalising a significant proportion of economic activity’. As a fellow in politics, has he thought through the politics of such economics? Nothing could be more calculated to cause the wars over resources which he rightly fears. While the sorrow and anger of individuals and communities that lose jobs and industries are understandable, a politics that mobilises around this can only be that of, how shall I say, national socialism. The way some American writers, who should know better, whip up indignation against Japan gives just a hint of the ugliness to come if we take that road.
Like many before him. Gray also worries about ‘the survival of local and regional cultures’. Such concern is either utopian or overdone. No society can now be kept in a museum or game reserve, and there is little evidence that these cultures want to be pickled in aspic. Though world history has long since become one big linked story, rather than lots of little separate ones, cultural difference seems alive and well. The country on which I mostly work, Korea, remains culturally distinct despite massive and rapid social change. Indeed, it’s almost a cliché (but one that Gray, ever undialectical, misses) to observe that one effect of globalisation is paradoxically to strengthen people’s attachment to what makes them different.
John Gray enunciates critically the ‘conventional wisdom’ that environmentalism is a result of Post-Modern satiety, of economic sufficiency. He says that this view has a ‘specious plausibility’ which my work may help come to prevail. This gives the impression that I support this interpretation of the arrival of environmentalism. But I do not; and I devote about seven pages in The Fading of the Greens to saying why I think such an explanation is thoroughly unsatisfactory and does not conform to the facts; indeed, I mildly parody this form of explanation as the ‘Holy Grail’ theory of ecologism: the knights had all they wanted and decided to gallop away after new ideas. (Maybe I was bending over backwards to be fair to these ideas.) And as he himself says, I link deep ecology in Central Europe with all kinds of cultural factors, and expressly say that deep ecology is not problem-related or economy-related. I try to return to a more old-fashioned mode of historical investigation, looking at the cultural roots in each country that coloured each variety of ecologism.
Where the misunderstanding may have arisen is that I do link ecologism to the West, the ‘Protestant triangle’. But that is not to link ecologism to economic factors, or find a causal explanation in them. It is a cultural issue. The dynamic developing economies of the Far East are on the verge of overtaking us in prosperity; their approach to natural resources and environmental values is not the same as that in the West, and I doubt if it ever will be. Anyone involved in international environmental policies will have seen that pressure for serious environmentalism comes from a small but influential group of North-Western countries; there may be the odd tree-hugger in the Himalayas or Chile, but strip away the Western foundations’ grants, and they would not, I fear, be very active.
Task Force for the Implementation of the Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe Paris