The Allure of Selling Out

Published online 31 July 2012.

— Introduction —

The ruler no longer says: You must think as I do or die. He says: You are free not to think as I do; your life, your property, everything shall remain yours, but from this day on you are a stranger among us.” Not to conform means to be rendered powerless, economically and therefore spiritually – to be “self-employed.” (133)

from Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception” (from Dialectic of Enlightenment)One of the reasons so little of interest to the 99% actually happens in American politics anymore is the increasing skill of American capitalist society in assimilating social change tendencies to commercial enterprises, or mere campaigns for 1% candidates.  Most of what used to be Occupy, for instance, has become the Cherry-Pick Mitt Romney Movement  (if it hasn’t been arrested yet or otherwise suppressed).  The most egregious of co-optations in the age of accelerating greenhouse gas emissions and incipient full-scale global warming has got to be the assimilation of environmentalism to business environmentalism.  Global warming could destroy our planetary ecosystems, but to capitalism it has become a mere excuse for “carbon trading,” another mechanism for enriching those who already have too much.

The above quote from Horkheimer and Adorno is an illustration of what happens to those whose ideas cannot be incorporated into capitalism — they become “strangers” to the system, incapable of leading movements for social change.  The authors’ point is that consumers are so thoroughly integrated into the consumer society that someone who rejects that society is likely to be viewed, generally, as some sort of weirdo, writing diaries at that nobody reads, rather than as an agent of social change.  If they actually do something, maybe upon occasion the heads of powerless bodies will intercede on behalf of their human rights now and then.  I suppose there are also the teachers and authors, the folks who keep free speech rights warm for the eventual advocacy of a better world.  Joel Kovel, for instance, is an advocate of ecosocialism, but also a marginal academic who used to edit a marginal academic journal called Capitalism Nature Socialism.  And in his rejection of more capitalism as a solution to the environmental crisis he’s generally correct.  But is anyone listening?

In this short diary I will reflect upon “environmentalism” as an advertising jingle, as a cute privilege or a corporate sellout.  It’s a curious fit — given the dire proclamations of some environmentalists as to the consequences of not saving the Earth, it would seem that there would be more environmentalists who would embrace what I will call “authentic environmentalism,” or specifically an environmentalism which prioritizes saving the Earth ahead of making a buck.  But those people appear to be uncommon within consumer society.

— Hegemonic compromises —Now, I believe that there is a revolutionary idea at the core of environmentalism.  I conceive of it in this way: at the core of the capitalist system is the viewpoint that all nature and society are “free gifts,” and that the purpose of capitalism for the capitalists is to take these free gifts to accumulate property, and ultimately to join an elite of rich plutocrats.  Everyone else pretty much “plays along” with this process, working for wages while allowing the investor class to profit.  Nature plays along, being processed into commodities until it winds up on the global trash heap.

In this world-view, everything in the world is a commodity, typically in the form of “natural resources” or “raw materials,” and the idea is to proceed with manufacturing and sales until everything is in the hands of investors and the world is a piece of trash.  Trees do not merit consideration as the Earth’s respirators; rather, they are all eventually to be chopped down to provide exotic-wood furnishings for up-and-coming professional elites throughout the world.  (If you want this further dramatized, check out Derrick Jensen and George Draffan’s Strangely Like War.)  When the polar icecaps melt away, the capitalist Powers That Be don’t say “omg we better conserve energy so that Earth doesn’t become Venus,” rather it’s “omg we better get that Arctic oil before the other guys do.”  After all, the former option doesn’t have any profit attached to it.

The authentic environmentalist would stand against this, if such a creature existed in any quantity.  The authentic environmentalist would try to put the world beyond the reach of commodification, to say to the investors “no, you cannot have this, it can’t be fodder for whatever market processing you have in mind for mother Earth.”  Real-life environmentalists, of course, engage in impotent letter-writing campaigns to politicians who are completely owned by big oil companies.  Please, Mr. and Ms. Politician, do something serious about BP’s behavior in the Gulf of Mexico.  Obviously such behavior doesn’t get to the root of things.  You can see how well the real-life environmentalists did in stopping the Deepwater Horizon spill.  Authentic environmentalists might someday bring the capitalist system to a grinding halt before it renders planet Earth uninhabitable.  However, not many people, at least in the United States right now, have the courage to voice such a conviction.   Environmentalists are even further away from the distant prospect of thinking clearly about how capitalism is to be stopped or about what is to replace capitalism once it is stopped from bringing the biosphere and its dependent civilizations to ruin.  Real-life environmentalists offer themselves the consolation prize of thinking they can stop the Keystone XL project by threatening the President with bad publicity if he approves it before this year’s election.

The problem is not just that real-life environmentalists are pathetic — but rather also that philosophic authenticity does not amount to social existence all by itself.  Without any social traction for an authentic environmental movement (never mind the matter of having any real numbers of people behind it), unsustainable business rules the world unchallenged.

Of course, this is not to say that there isn’t a school of environmentalism that tells businesses how to be “sustainable.”  Schools of green management no doubt engage in hidden contracts with their business clients — the clients pretend to listen, and the environmentalists look the other way while their plans are ignored — at least this is what people in the green management business tell me.  The linguistics of sustainability advertising is explored in a short piece by Josee Johnston: “Who Cares About The Commons?”  “By speaking the language of sustainability, corporations and states could give lip service to the environment while actively pursuing growth, commodification, and profits.”  (8-9)

An important codification of the principle of “speaking sustainability” as such is the notion of the Triple Bottom Line.  As Norman and McDonald state, “The idea behind the 3BL paradigm is that a corporation’s ultimate success or health can and should be measured not just by the traditional financial bottom line, but also by its social/ethical and environmental performance.”  Of course, the problem with all this logic is that profits are meaningfully quantifiable, whereas social/ethical and environmental performance isn’t.

“The concept of a Triple Bottom Line in fact turns out to be a “Good old-fashioned Single Bottom Line plus Vague Commitments to Social and Environmental Concerns”. And it so happens that this is exceedingly easy for almost any firm to embrace. (13)

— Good Marginalized By Bad —Now, of course there are also genuinely green businesses.  What I am suggesting is that, in the overall picture of capitalism, destructive business trumps caring business because the purpose of business in a competitive market is profit.  One can be like Paul Hawken and parade lists of principles for green businesses if one’s purpose in business is to sell high-end garden implements to rich people in Pasadena until one sells out to an herbicide manufacturer who shuts one’s business down.  Green business, then, plays a marginal role within business as a whole.

One way of viewing the marginality of green business is to think about the activity of picking up the trash in historical perspective.  The hard work of this perspective is done in Heather Rogers’ book Gone Tomorrow.  Rogers argues that there isn’t always a profitable business in recycling, and so since the Golden Age of Trash, the 1950s, civilization has been afflicted by an ever-increasing trash problem that has only been partially mitigated by recycling.  Businesses, then, can do good, but the good they might do as individual businesses only partially outweighs the aggregate bad they do, and the recycling business can only overstep its marginal role when business is really good.

Rogers expands upon her case against capitalism in her (2010) book Green Gone Wrong, where she takes a look at how real-life green businesses are often in fact environmentally destructive.  Generally speaking, then, capitalist green business attempts to advertise a green principle, and then in pursuing this advertising dream violates a number of other green principles.  Biodiesel, for instance, offers an alternative to petroleum-burning, but is generally bad for agriculture and food provision.  Economic decisionmaking is almost always at fault, as Rogers reports.  Organic farming is typically not all that profitable, green living is often too expensive, and false promises abound throughout ostensibly green production and consumption.  Rogers establishes through research that, under capitalism, being authentically green is at best a privilege of people who live in eco-villages.  The allure of business environmentalism is in its superior marginality.

— Why Capitalism Just Isn’t The Solution These Days —Once upon a time, I suppose (perhaps in the decade followingRachel Carson‘s groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring), environmentalists could imagine themselves as belonging to a small-time security force, policing the worst aspects of capitalism into a new era in which technology could do so much more with so much less that it was all okay, that great profits could be made because technology would all be green and cheap and such.  This idea of environmentalism later became the hobby of solar and wind power enthusiasts when it turned out that the imagined future depicted in the cartoon series “The Jetsons” would not come to pass.

What actually happened between the Sixties and the present day was best described by Jason W. Moore, another great author read by barely anyone.  In past historical eras, Moore explains, capitalism avoided its ecosystems Armageddon through technosocial transformation, in which the organic component of capital was reduced and new eras of cheap resources were opened for business.  That isn’t what’s happening today — rather, technosocial transformation today isn’t making the capitalist system more robust today, as the system moves ever-closer to exhausting its planetary substrate.  Alternative energy will substitute for oil and coal, but not more cheaply.  Genetic engineering will not result in a new era of cheap food.  There will be no new era: the capitalist way out is now a mere cul-de-sac.  Authentic environmentalism is opposed to further capitalism now.

— Conclusion —So I think that in light of this general silence about the Big C, my topic of conversation for today should be the allure of selling out.  What is it about “capitalist environmentalism” that appeals to people?  How did environmentalism become a business plan or a career, instead of being an actual means of “saving the Earth”?  One can accept as given, as Johnathon Porritt does in Capitalism as if the World Matters, that “capitalism, in one form or another, is likely to provide the all-encompassing ideological framework for the foreseeable future” (84), but that would be to render preservation irrelevant in its battles against capitalist encroachment.  The capitalists simply rent out the services of government officials, and have the legislation changed so that “preserved” resources can be harvested.  No preaching about values will blunt the force of capitalist business as it is authorized to change the world, and not for the better.

The allure of selling out extends all the way to Bill McKibben, whose recent piece in Rolling Stone attracted some attention here.  Here is the passage in McKibben’s essay to which I object:

If you put a price on carbon, through a direct tax or other methods, it would enlist markets in the fight against global warming.

The problem with this concept is that markets are never going to fight global warming.  McKibben seems to be arguing that he can wave a magic wand, and reduce the world’s oil and coal reserves to a commodity value of zero.  Here’s what he says earlier in the essay:

If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn’t pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet.

Or they’d put all that oil on the black market.  Which capitalist government is going to stop Exxon?  Who is going to oblige Exxon to hold the economy hostage?  Unless you can get an agreement that nobody is going to buy that oil and coal, the oil and coal are going to be sold.  The market for harmful fossil fuels, in short, must be consciously abandoned, and this means empowering people to abandon market dependencies in general.  McKibben is really too open-minded to be playing this game.  He recognizes that we have to keep the grease in the ground, something I told him in a DKos livechat some time ago.Perhaps the sense of capitalism being the only game in town and of careers being the only thing to do with one’s life after college graduation has sufficed so far to establish the allure of selling out.  In a world without hope, not having money is even worse.  But does anyone still think that a government completely beholden to big business is going to restrain big business sufficiently to deal with global warming or overfishing or deforestation in some convincing, proactive way?  It seems to me that the core effort of authentic environmentalism in this era ought to be to bring some social plausibility to the notion of not selling out.  The world will change once we do that.


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