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, because of their size, organization and means 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.

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