Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Cowardice of Consumer-Bashing; or, Neoliberal Environmentalism

The environmental movement has taken numerous forms, and indeed, just about every conceivable form with regard to ideology, so much so that one must be careful in generalizing about it. But it seems safe to say that mainstream environmentalism, like mainstream everything else today, emerged in the neoliberal era, and accommodated itself to that era. Despite the unavoidable clash between the demands of environmentalism and the prerogatives of capitalism (not least, the impossibility of infinite economic expansion on the basis of a finite resource stock), it has been neurotic about appearing even mildly critical of the socioeconomic system, let alone engaging in radical critique and proposing large solutions to large problems.

Instead it has preferred to couch its criticism of society's thrust in terms of a vague "we"--as in "We failed to heed the warnings," or "We went on with our wasteful ways"--that blurs together all of humanity, drawing no distinction between the chief executive officers of ExxonMobil and BP, and starving children in the Sahel. This explicitly asserts the "sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility" that "we all possess equal powers to make history," making them accessories, often quite knowing accessories, to the irresponsibility of those who actually hold the levers of power.1 Only the most obtuse, ill-informed or shamelessly dishonest can claim that the key political decisions regarding energy and climate, for example, were made by the public, or even represented it--when these institutions went to such great lengths to lie to the public, to confuse and distract it, to combat even the principle of its having a say (what neoliberalism, after all, has been about in the end), and then when that public voted for sane policies, overrode it. (In 2008 Americans voted for a President who promised an end to fossil fuel subsidies, cap-and-trade, a Green Jobs Corps. Instead they got the "all-of-the-above" energy policy that put into practice his opponent's running mate's cry of "Drill, baby, drill!")

Indeed, where it has been more targeted in its criticisms, environmentalism has emphasized the subjective and individual--looking away from the fact that over seventy percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the operations of just one hundred corporations, thinking about which not only takes us far closer to the root of the problem given those corporations' practical control over what gets made and how, but because of their size, organization and resources generally are better able than anyone else to change all that, and in the small number of organizations involved an excellent focus for thought and action about solutions; in preference for talking up the carbon footprint of seven billion individuals. It is, they make very clear, incumbent on the individual consumer to sacrifice by choosing carefully, paying more--rather than incumbent on the manufacturer to provide the greenest products available at any given price (and the thought of regulation to that end, anathema), ignoring the realities of power, and equity. The consumer has already lost a major option when, the political system having failed them by refusing to provide adequate public transport, they are forced to buy a car and drive many, many miles in it just to have a job. When buying that car they are restricted to buying what they can afford from the models that an oligopolistic car industry is prepared to market--something it has done in line with its preference for selling not just old-fashioned gas-burners, but more vehicle per customer. But it is the consumer that it lambastes.

In it all one can see a retreat of environmentalism into an austere, misanthropic, religiosity which thunders against the consumer, "You have had it too good for too long!" (especially naked where it seems to positively gloat over the idea of civilization's crashing down and a Great Die-Off taking most of humanity with it and taking the rest back to the Dark Ages). The attack on the consumer, too, can appear a sort of compensation for their failure to influence the genuinely powerful--or shabbier still, their taking their frustrations out on those in no position to resist. It bespeaks real failure. Hopefully, rather than bespeaking it, it will admit it, abandon what has not worked, and think of what might--intellectual and moral courage rather than cowardice, in a readiness to admit that realizing its goals may make the ultra-rich unhappy, and a preparedness to think big. I, for one, am convinced that at this late stage, nothing less than a 100 percent-renewable-energy-and-large-scale-geoengineering moonshot can save us from catastrophe, and the sooner we see the obvious taken for granted, and properly acted upon, the better.

1. The words are from C. Wright Mill's The Power Elite.

Why I Am Sick of Hearing About Cowspiracies

It seems that today meat-eaters can hardly go a day without being subjected to a moral harangue about how their dietary preferences and nothing else is dooming the planet.

Anthropogenic climate change is an indisputable fact; so is the rapidity with which it has been unfolding; and the same goes for the necessity of serious action on it. Additionally, no reasonable person denies that meat production is a less efficient use of our resources than other forms of food production, or that it contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Yet, the actual scale of meat production's contribution to the problem, and the range of options for redressing that contribution, are wide open to question. Where the oft-cited documentary Cowspiracy claims that this alone is responsible for over half of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture altogether (of which meat-raising is but a component) is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as responsible for under a tenth of the total.

Someone is clearly wrong here. But surprisingly few people seem to be taking the trouble to work out who it is, critical assessments that might establish the validity or invalidity of the Cowspiracy analysis strangely lacking--as a Google search, and still more a Google Scholar search, will demonstrate. It appears there are only a handful of pieces from comparatively marginal sources out there, underlining the fact that outright climate change deniers have infinitely more media access than those who question the allegations of "Cowspiracy."

The result is that the intellectual basis for the assertions of Cowspiracy seems far from firm--even as those haranguing the meat-eaters automatically go to the most extreme solution. Virtually no one claims that we must respond to the problem raised by the greenhouse gas emissions transportation generates by abolishing the movement of people and things. Few even suggest doing very much to rationalize our use of transportation, most promoting alternative technologies that would permit people to more or less go on living as they do (like the electrification of vehicle fleets). However, abolition is exactly what those placing the stress on meat production, without preamble, insist upon--apparently uninterested in the reality that not all meat production is equally problematic (a substantial difference existing between, for example, the environmental impact of chicken and beef); and not all methods of meat production are equally problematic, either (evidence existing for grass-fed beef as actually a possible offset to other emissions). Indeed, where one might expect that those who are most insistent on the destructive effects of meat production would be champions of investment in, for example, the cellular agriculture methods beginning to show real promise, just as they champion renewable energy, they do not speak of it at all.

It is a remarkably categorical attitude, which can easily give the skeptic the impression that vegans have simply found outsized claims about meat production's contribution to climate change a useful addition to their list of arguments. That, perhaps, the fossil fuel industry that has fought so long, hard, dishonestly and successfully against curbs on its activity, or even the reduction of the colossal subsidies it enjoys ($5 trillion a year, if one counts externalities!), finds it convenient to have the heat turned on someone else . . .

And of course, that all this is simply another case of, in typically bourgeois fashion, trivializing every aspect of economic life into a "lifestyle choice," and what is more, casting aside any regard for equity, as mainstream environmentalism has too often and too long done. This sort of argument tells the well-off that it is not their mansions and Hummers and jet travel that is the problem (implying that they can go on indulging in all this without guilt), but the beleaguered prole who at the end of the day finds a burger more tempting than the plate of beans they want to hand him (not incidentally, in a country where it is the "elites" who turn up their noses at red meat meating as gauche); these lower class types they regard as so backward and reactionary as to justify any callousness or contempt.1

Rather than turning the fight against the real issue of climate change (and contemporary agriculture's genuine contribution to it) into an attack on the dietary choices of have-nots, one ought to acknowledge that our food production (of which meat production is a big part, but even there, still not the totality) is one of many dimensions to the problem, while as in other areas of life, the emphasis should be on meeting people's needs (I must admit that I am not convinced that a vegan diet really is best for each and all through the entirety of their life spans) in sustainable ways. Even if one accepts the extravagant claims about meat production's contribution to climate change (and as yet, there seems to me much room for doubt), the imposition of veganism on seven billion people in response is a last resort, not Plan A.

1. For a discussion of this sensibility, see Owen Jones' interesting book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

Review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones

London: Verso, 2011, pp. 352.

As the rather charged and frankly offensive title of Owen Jones' book, Chavs, implies, his concern is with the recent social history of the British working class, and the ways in which that class has been depicted and understood by British society at large. In particular Jones concerns himself with the alleged disappearance of the "respectable" working class--the image of working class people as gainfully employed, law-abiding, functional contributors to the society in which they lived--and its replacement by the image of working class Britons as "chavs"--vulgar, bigoted, anti-social louts, apt to be drunk, violent, criminal.

In considering this transformation Jones, to his credit, gives due to quite concrete facts of social history, with the catastrophe of Thatcherism playing its part in the story--for the neoliberal turn she pioneered and each and every one of her successors continued to promulgate (not least the "New Labor" she regarded as her greatest achievement) did in a manner of speaking wipe out the old working class. The collapse of the British industrial base amid the worldwide Volcker recession and homegrown monetarism, and the privatization of the housing stock, and all that accompanied and followed them, eliminated the enterprises and institutions that provided the working class with both steady, remunerative work and the benefits of a community--the factories and coal mines, the labor unions that organized those who worked in them, the council estates. What remained in their place, casual, temp, ill-paid--and atomized--work in the "service" economy, and at the same time fantasies of soaring to the top in a world where celebrities and the like are richer and more exalted than they ever were before (for instance, becoming a soccer player like superstar "chav" David Beckham), was no substitute in either monetary or social terms. All of this did undeniable, considerable damage to that class's members individually and collectively, as many were turned from, one might say, proletarian to lumpenproletarian.

However, as Jones declares in his extensive overview of the treatment of this strata by the typically reactionary British media, the image of these people as chavs was pure neoliberal propaganda, the declaration that "We are all middle class now" promoting the illusion that the worthier element of the working class had "moved on up," leaving outside that class only the incorrigibles who had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Underscoring this was the lavish, sensationalized attention paid to the evidences of the dysfunction of the non-respectable working class that remained. Much of this was superficial--whining about their dress. ("What ever happened to working class men wearing suits and ties?" right-wing social critics whined.) Some of it was more serious. (The alleged propensity of the working class to neglect its children is an obvious example.)1

As always, it is comforting for the privileged to think that the comfort they enjoy is wholly and unimpeachably earned and deserved by them and not enjoyed at the expense of anyone else; that those who are not so privileged are, when one cannot shrug off their deprivation so easily, the authors of their own miseries. It is more comforting still to think of them as not contributing at all, but as parasites, scrounging off the taxes of "respectable people," dragging down the economy, while debasing the quality of urban life with their anti-social behavior--for one can still less make claims on behalf of a parasite than they can of people who merely made a muck of their own lives.

In line with all this it is comforting for them to make much of working class bigotry. Comforting to say that the more affluent--enlightened--segments of society are "post-racial," and that the only reason society as a whole may not be so is the lower orders. It is convenient, additional proof of the crudity and backwardness that condemns them to their place at the bottom of the heap, that adds to their discomfort with their obvious and severe dysfunction--while being yet another excuse for deflecting any claim on their behalf. That they think they should be living better--why, that is mere "entitlement," and a racist entitlement at that. Besides, when they so clearly have no empathy for others, why should anyone care about them?

Reading it all I found Jones' case to be as robust and lucid as it was depressing. And as tends to be the case with worthwhile books, it left me thinking a good deal about its implications--not least, how a shallow and sanctimonious and commonly hypocritical parody of anti-racism becomes an excuse for a vicious classism that, ironically, has worsened the problem of racism. Because when right-wing populists (read: fascists) court the votes of the working people abused and exploited, snubbed and insulted, by the mainstream parties of the liberal/left as well as the right, they can say, no, their appeal has nothing to do with our abandonment of working class people and their interests in favor of catering to the super-rich, and everything to do with their racism. So that it is only right and fair that we continue along the path of woke neoliberalism--which only worsens the problem in a vicious cycle. In that, it strikes me, Jones' book offers insight into much more than just Britain's working class at the time, but the trends in British life generally since then (e.g. Brexit), and the destructive ascendancy across the Western world and beyond.

1. Altogether reading the criticisms of this strata I got the impression that those who traffic in the "chav" stereotype simply took an exhaustive list of racist stereotypes about inner city African-Americans in the United States, scratched out whatever epithet the list maker used for African-American and wrote in "English working class" instead.

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