Environmentalism will not save the environment

Published online 29 December 2006.

Here I will try to explain, oh so briefly, why “environmentalism” will not deal with the current crop of global “environmental problems,” and why a restructuring of our society will instead be necessary.  This is just the opening statement: I am not finished with it.


Abstract: Here I will try to explain, oh so briefly, why “environmentalism” will not deal with the current crop of global “environmental problems,” and why a restructuring of our society will instead be necessary.  This is just the opening statement: I am not finished with it.

In political discussion (in the present-day US context) there is a tendency to break all matters up into “issues” (defined as discussions where various sides disagree) and to make “the environment” into a name for only one of these “issues.”  And that issue, “the environment,” is supposed to be handled by “environmentalism.”

This becomes problematic, but the problem with “environmentalism” has little to do with popularized George Lakoff rhetoric about “framing.”  The problem with “Democratic talking points” is not their “frames,” but rather that political action in this stage of capitalist development does not favor “government of, by, and for the people,” traditionally one of the more saleable of “Democratic talking points.”  Now, here, I don’t mean “government of, by, and for the people” as expressed in political speeches, but rather the real thing, which has been placed out of reach by the machinations of political economy.  Instead, in the Age of Financial Capital, we get government as a “prize” for ascendant, predatory, corporate interests such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and the various other corporate interests represented by Washington lobbyists.

Thus “environmentalism,” under the pressures of business-as-usual, has become a way of dispensing with “the environment.”  One can see this in the form of an “environmentalism” that has been “tacked on” after what little substance it contains has been assimilated to the prime directives of corporate profit.  This form of environmentalism runs by the names of “sustainable development” and “ecological modernization” and comes across as cosmetic recommendations meant to “clean up” the corporate relation to the natural world.  This is “environmentalism” in the form of top-down mandate by “resource managers” on corporate and corporate-government payrolls.

For instance, one of the main aspects of the Kyoto Protocol, a product of corporate environmentalism, is that corporations are encouraged to buy carbon sinks, by preserving forested land.  This forested land is often to be found in areas of the global South, where marginal rural groups which have made peace with the Earth live.  The end result is that large numbers of native users of this land are thrown off, requiring them to live in the world’s slums.

The point is that “environmentalism,” as such, creates new environmental problems with the “solutions” it implements.  This is because “environmentalists” take for granted the existing capitalist system, with its logic of capital accumulation.  As Paul Prew points out, capital accumulation necessarily involves the division of the world into centers of accumulation and zones of extraction, with the latter being inevitably depleted to nothing if the accumulation process is to keep going at its current, hyper-accelerated rate.

The Earth faces unprecedented ecological stress in this period of history.  I’ll try to be brief here and name the most onerous stresses; there are indeed many more.  Species are vanishing at an incredible rate as forests are chopped down and as global warming transforms their habitats.  Our ecological basis for existence becomes thinner with each major loss in biodiversity.  The coral reefs are dying as their waters are becoming too warm for coral reproduction.  Corporate agriculture is stripping away the topsoil and sending it (via rivers) to places such as the Gulf of Mexico, where a New Jersey-sized dead zone has been found.  Overfishing collapses fisheries and destroys oceanic ecosystems and is the result of corporate mismanagement of the oceans.

All of this is a natural outcome of a world-system where each individual is obliged, for reasons of survival, to adopt an ideology of possessive individualism.  In Garrett Hardin’s essay The Tragedy of the Commons, the actual origin of the tragedy of the commons is discussed as follows:

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?”

Well, those who live life according to the principle of “maximizing his gain,” according to the principle of “more for me is better,” are living lives according to the principle of possessive individualism.  The world, in this view, is a piece of property to be exploited by individuals.  This common way of thinking is indeed one origin of the tragedy of the commons.  Our obligation to think in this way is one thing we will need to replace if we are to survive as a species.

We cannot blame eco-disasters on mere “overpopulation,” for the matter at hand is one of what the population of human beings is doing.  Certainly it would be self-serving for us rich computer-users to blame that half of the world-society that lives on less that $2/day, for certainly our ecological footprint is much much larger than theirs.  This is not a real approach to eco-crisis either.

A real approach to eco-crisis, on the other hand, abides by what John Dryzek (in his book Rational Ecology) calls “ecological reason,” which looks at human decisions to see first what environmental effects they will have.  It is promoted by philosophies such as agroecology and permaculture.  Such a real approach to eco-crisis would promote “living off the land” at its most direct level.  I am not promoting primitivism here, mind you; I merely demand that our civilization’s repertoire of technologies be made subservient to principles of ecological sustainability.  What we are getting instead, unfortunately, is “environmentalism” as justification for the existing system, which needs to be dismantled.

And I am not recommending “50 ineffective things you can do to save the world.”  Turning lights off and buying Toyota hybrids is something we do to salve our wounded consciences.  If we really wish to “save energy” and “cool the Earth,” we have to get off of the grid altogether.  See, they burn the fossil fuels in advance so you can turn the lights on if you wanted to.  They build the freeways and open the gas stations so you can fuel your hybrids, too.

The problem, as Teresa Brennan pointed out before she died, is that the existing economic system has, because of its own dynamic, sped up past the point where the natural world could recover from its predations.  We need to reorganize the very mode of human existence, so that we can actually follow Brennan’s “prime directive” – we shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished.  Until we have re-established our connection with the land and its cycles of growth and regeneration, we will continue to face eco-disasters.

Mainstream environmentalism cannot do this all by itself – there needs to be a fundamental revolution in human affairs before we can proceed further.


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