Ecoluxury

John Gray

  • 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 implications for policy of this conventional view are clear. The enforcement of Western environmental standards on developing countries expresses the self-indulgent romanticism of late-modern consumer cultures. It is both self-deceiving and inequitable. Developing countries cannot hope to protect their environments by curtailing economic growth. On the contrary, only further and faster growth can enable them to deal with the noxious side-effects of the growth they have so far achieved. They – and perhaps we – need more growth, if only to cope with the ills inherited from previous growth.

This conventional wisdom is seriously flawed; but it has a specious plausibility which makes it dangerous. If it comes to prevail, it will be in part by virtue of the work of Anna Bramwell, who, first in Ecology in the 20th Century: A History, and now in The Fading of the Greens, has developed a critique of environmental thought and movements that is sometimes thoroughly perverse but which brilliantly illuminates their contradictions and failures. Bramwell’s earlier book was important for giving the first systematic account of the role of distinctively environmentalist ideas and values in political movements of the radical Right, most particularly in Nazism. There she interpreted what she called ‘ecologism’ as a doctrine arising out of late 19th century science.

As the political expression of ecological theorisings which claimed the authority of science while articulating a revulsion against the mechanistic worldview that science embodied, ecologism invoked the organic, holistic character of both ecosystems and human societies, in support of a critique of modern urban and industrial life. Bamwell was criticised for focusing on the political ambivalences of ecologism, in particular on the presence of ecological themes in Fascism and Nazism, but her critics were often parochial in their response, treating her historical interpretation as a calumny on contemporary Green parties.

In fact, Bramwell’s thesis was not that ecological ideas have any inherent affinity with right-wing movements of blood and soil, but rather that they are politically indeterminate, being appropriated by very different political movements under varying historical circumstances. This was a historical thesis which tells us nothing about the merits or otherwise of ecological ideas.

In The Fading of the Greens, however, Bramwell gives an account of ‘the end of the brief era of dedicated Green national politics’ which cannot be read primarily as an exercise in historical explanation. Instead, it is a sharp polemic against Green parties and movements, developed by way of a genealogical history. Bramwell deploys a wide knowledge of contemporary thought and political life to give a fascinating tour d’horizon of ecological thought and practice; and her powerful, unconventional intelligence plays pitilessly on the ironies and paradoxes of Green movements. The result is an intriguing and absorbing, and, at the same time, a wrong-headed book, whose effect can only be to strengthen the conventional wisdom on growth and development. With characteristic provocativeness, Bramwell concludes with a rhetorical question:

We should salute the integrity and courage of the Green activists this century ... But if one could return to earth a hundred years from now, would the result of their efforts be an idyllic and conserved nature? Or would it be a West further impoverished by the demands to share burdens with the developing world? If the latter, then the environmentalist will have failed. Because only the maligned Western world has the money and the will to conserve its environment.

This is a profoundly misconceived statement of the historical alternatives open to both Western and developing countries, belied even by the exemplars Bramwell uses. Her book treats environmental concern as a function of affluence, and endorses the view, well entrenched among mainstream economists and international development organisations, that further rapid economic growth is the cure for the environmental degradation that growth has caused. Taken in the context of much else in the book, it suggests that Green movements are symptoms of the malaise of urban consumer cultures rather than responses to genuine and deep difficulties faced by modern industrial societies. This is at once to underestimate the political importance that Green movements and parties have sometimes possessed and to exaggerate the stability of affluent Western societies.

It is far from being true that Green movements have functioned everywhere as the political expression of urban nostalgism: as Bramwell herself notes, environmentalism was a focus of intellectual and popular dissent in the Soviet Union – indeed, environmental movements played a significant role in triggering its collapse. Popular movements of protest against dams and logging have been politically significant also in several developing countries, including India, while in Mexico a new revolutionary movement has arisen in Chiapas in response to the social costs of neo-liberalism. In Bulgaria, as well as some other parts of the post-Communist world, Green movements are now seeking to repair the damage inflicted on the environment and on traditional culture by industrial development during the Soviet period. These are all politically significant movements, animated by environmentalist ideas, and evoked by real and urgent social and economic problems. They are of potentially large significance, not only for the countries in which they have arisen, but also for developed societies. For they all express a rejection of the Western model of economic development propagated by the major aid agencies and financial institutions. These new movements harbour the suspicion that development on the Western model often creates poverty where it did not exist before, and produces patterns of economic activity in which the independence and integrity of local cultures is compromised or lost. Moreover, the development of local economies on Western lines often does not yield economic forms that are as sustainable as the indigenous ones they displace.

Bramwell’s book does not address the argument of Green thinkers that the pursuit of economic growth in the West has not yielded the benefits which might warrant its adoption as a model for development. It is as if she believes that, whereas our own pursuit of growth may have had unfortunate environmental consequences, it has broadly achieved what was expected of it, and whatever social problems Western societies may have come from other causes. It is difficult to see what supports this belief. The massive economic growth achieved throughout Western Europe over the past several decades has not in recent times gone with full employment and shows few signs of doing so in future. On the contrary, long-term unemployment has risen steadily, and stands around 12 per cent of the workforce across much of the European Union. Further, those fortunate enough to be in work now experience a sense of job insecurity unknown in living memory. Along with many commentators – J. K. Galbraith, for one, with his conception of a ‘culture of contentment’ made up of an affluent majority and a submerged and abandoned underclass – Bramwell does not take adequate account of the new insecurity of the middle classes, which is already a potent factor in political life throughout Western Europe. Where, as in the United States, large-scale structural unemployment has been avoided by policies aiming at maximum flexibility in the labour market, it has been at the cost of declining incomes for many, and levels of community breakdown and endemic criminality that have no parallel in any other advanced country. The thought that the constant mobility demanded by unfettered market institutions might – through its tendency to dissolve local communities – be implicated in the growth of crime receives no consideration from Bramwell. Nor does she seriously discuss the idea that, impracticable as they now appear, Green proposals for relocalising a significant proportion of economic activity may over the longer run be the only way in which we can hope to assure livelihood for many people and avoid long-term unemployment. In this Bramwell is faithful to the conventional wisdom of the mainstream parties in all Western countries, for whom globalisation is an unavoidable necessity to which there are no realistic alternatives.

In recent years we have witnessed a re-emergence of biological and Darwinian ideas in social thought, perhaps most notably in the vogue for sociobiology among elements of the American Right. This is something of a paradox, in that the preferred mode of explanation for American neo-liberalism has always previously been economic. It is to the surprising, and perhaps ominous, recrudescence of biologism that Andrew Ross devotes some of the most interesting chapters of The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life. Ross makes some shrewd and witty criticisms of recent exclusions by natural scientists into sociobiology, such as those of Richard Dawkins, the behaviour of whose selfish gene is compared with that of a successful Chicago gangster. Ross’s book is marred, however, by its advocacy of the least compelling of all forms of ecological thought – the ‘post-scarcity’ tradition of anarchist ecology most commonly associated with Murray Brookchin – and by his consequent neglect of those major social conflicts over resource-scarcity that are not created by bad or unjust institutions. Like Maoism, fundamentalist Islam, conservative Catholicism, the free-market libertarianism of Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek, and the technological optimism of Herman Kahn or Julian Simon, post-scarcity anarchism asserts that, given existing and prospective technologies, there are no insuperable natural limitations to the growth of human population, and no forms of scarcity that cannot be overcome by scientific innovation and institutional change.

This Promethean conception of the human species’s relations with the natural world is endorsed by Martin Lewis in Green Delusions. While recognising that natural scarcities constrain social and political aspirations, and that the control of population is a necessary condition of any sustainable and tolerable future, Lewis defends a Prometheanism distinguished from Ross’s only by its moderate, anti-utopian tone. His argument is throughout pragmatic, resourceful and empirical, yet Lewis nonetheless embraces the most radical doctrines of scientific humanism, including the idea that biological diversity and ecological stability are to be achieved, not – as a less hubristic perspective might suppose – by moderating human claims on the earth, but by ‘active management of the planet’. Like most writers on environmental questions, Lewis has not accepted the humbling of human pretensions and hopes that is the chief lesson of Green thought in its deepest and most challenging forms.

The principal threats to the human and natural environments that we face at present are addressed by none of these books. They arise, first, from the project of transforming the world’s diverse societies and cultures into a single market, as expressed in the Gatt accords on global free trade. By removing trade from any possibility of political control or social accountability, the Gatt project effectively makes the survival of local and regional cultures, insofar as they are embodied in distinctive ways of life and forms of economic activity, contingent on the fortunes of unconstrained global market institutions. The second threat arises from the transformation of war by new technologies and new forms of state fragmentation. In the past generation, war has been turned by new technologies from a conflict between states into one between whole populations, in the course of which entire environments may be destroyed. Further, these technologies are available in an increasingly anarchic world, in much of which states have been fractured or destroyed by ethnic and religious conflict.

It is this combination of uncontrolled global markets with the disintegration of states that poses the greatest threat to the integrity of the environment. We had a glimpse of what may be in store in the Gulf War, with its computerised slaughter and ecological terrorism. The prospect we may face is that of wars, often occasioned by conflicts over scarce natural resources, assuming an unparalleled destructiveness, as burgeoning human populations lay waste the earth and local cultures are desolated.