Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why Is Green Politics a Virtual Oxymoron?

These thoughts are occasioned by reading Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, this year’s mandatory all-campus reading at my college.  (I had nominated Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but common readings aren’t allowed to be downers.)

In many ways this is an admirable book.  It’s rather well-written.  I learned a lot about crows, which is important because I probably see them more often than any other animal except humans.  It also reminds us that nature is not some exotic place we have to travel to get to, but is all around us—and within us—all the time.  Good!

But it is also suffused with a sort of pop environmental psychology that is the bane of green politics, or more precisely, makes rational green politics a non-possibility.  Here is my caricature of this view of the world:

Modern people are surrounded by artificiality—artificial goods, artificial jobs, artificial needs—that make it difficult to realize our place in nature.  This is why we have screwed up our environment.  The solution is for each individual to cultivate a true appreciation for the natural world.  We should learn about the environment, beginning with our local ecoregion, and how each of our actions affects it.  We should develop a consciousness, or even a spirituality, based on the intricate web of interconnections that tie us to all of nature.  In doing this we will obtain wisdom for ourselves and become agents for the social change that’s needed to halt ecological destruction.

Sound familiar?

The insidious thing is that it’s not all wrong.  It is a good idea to learn more about your surroundings and your place in them.  Paying attention to other living things, individually and collectively, can be deeply satisfying.  There is probably truth to the notion that it’s not enough to just have an intellectual understanding of a problem, whether social or environmental; there also needs to be a passion that turns understanding into action.

But there are also two enormous problems with pop ecopsychology.

First, by exalting the select few with advanced ecological consciousness, it implicitly denigrates everyone else.  If acquiring personal ecological wisdom is the path to solving environmental problems, those not undertaking this journey must be the ones making the problem worse.  And who are these despoilers?  You know, the people who drive big cars or eat fast food or live in suburban housing developments.  They have a bad lifestyle, and the good, ecologically aware people need to either enlighten them so that their consciousness changes or force them to live more in harmony with the Earth.

My advice: if you want to make political change, you don’t start out by defining everyone who is not part of your movement—a substantial majority of the population in fact—as evil or benighted.  It’s not a great strategy for outreach.  In addition, there is something to be said for observing your fellow humans with the same open-mindedness you should bring to crows and spiders.  You might just find that there are plausible reasons why people drive big cars or eat fast food or live in the burbs.  That doesn’t mean their consumption patterns don’t have broader effects or are even in the best interest of those that engage in them, but they are not products of pure ignorance either.
The second problem is that, by passing immediately from individual consciousness to collective problems (like climate change), pop ecopsychology simply eliminates any role for the things that social scientists study, like social norms, economic interests, political structures, etc.  The notion that environmental problems stem from shortcomings of consciousness and that solutions depend on individual transformation is essentially religious.  In fact, the crow book makes repeated comparisons between the acquisition of eco-consciousness and the monastic discipline of the Benedictines.

Preaching to others that they might acquire the elevated level of consciousness you have already attained is not a political strategy.  At least since Aristotle, the terrain of politics has been understood as the “we”, the networks, structures, and interests that we jointly create and that create us.  Yes, the personal is political, but the opposite is not true: the political is not just the personal added up.  It’s something we do together, finding common interests across our myriad differences.


Sandwichman said...

Question, though, Peter: do "the people who drive big cars, eat fast food and live in suburban housing developments" sometimes overtly define people who are different from themselves as evil or benighted? So people who by acquiring ecological wisdom implicitly denigrate everyone else are the problem? Is this like a "reverse racism" thing?

Not sure I follow the logic.

Peter Dorman said...

Well, there is certainly an element of tribalism involved, and you're right to point out that it cuts in all directions. Nevertheless, based on my observation (and reading), much of the green movement has a "principled" hostility to those it sees as the eco-unaware.

Example: The author of Crow Planet writes that she wanted to vomit when she was passed by a hummer on I-5 between Seattle and Olympia. Presumably the many Priuses that passed her had no such effect. But surely the real problem is not that there is the wrong mix of cars but that there's essentially no mass transit along this corridor, and everyone has to drive. The solution is not to denounce drivers of big cars or even to "enlighten" them about their ecological responsibility to drive a car like yours, but to work together for more transit options. Hell, I would support a special target practice car on every commuter train supervised by the NRA if that's what it takes to get a coalition. This is what I mean about focusing on collective action and not personal virtue (as if I always know what that means anyway).

Sandwichman said...

"Hell, I would support a special target practice car on every commuter train supervised by the NRA if that's what it takes to get a coalition."

They could shoot at the Hummers on the freeway! Two birds. One stone.

Sandwichman said...

(not to say that I don't also find the ecologically self-righteous exasperating at times.)

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I am not against moral suasion on environmental issues, but it does need to be done right, which means not alienating people by coming on too strong about relatively minor stuff.

At a much higher level, and I am not sure what the ultimate line in this crow book is, it is a fundamental mistake to make too much of some idealized "pure nature." For better or worse, there is no such thing. Vladimir Vernadsky had it back in 1945 when he coined the concept of the "noosphere," which implies an unavoidably mutually linked system between humans and nature. The idea of a nature that is not or has not been linked with humans is simply a fantasy. We must face and deal with this profound interconnectedness, which indeed is a basis for moral suasion.

Peter Dorman said...

To its credit, this is also a major point of the crow book. Insofar as it has a plot, it goes like this: nature-loving mom abandons dream of rural living because of her husband's career, has a sort of breakdown, then pulls herself together as she realizes that nature is everywhere, even in West Seattle. Observing crows becomes her urban nature-immersion.

Incidentally, she seems to be unaware that the greatest land use disaster of our times (in the US) is exurban sprawl due to too many people wanting a few acres of "real" nature and having the money to afford it. This is connected to her inability to see the social mediations that lie between individual consciousness and collective outcomes.

Sandwichman said...

"This is connected to her inability to see the social mediations that lie between individual consciousness and collective outcomes."

Unlike Hummer drivers and NRA members who intuitively grasp the social mediations the lie between individual consciousness and collective outcomes. Rollin' Coal!

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

I have always found it sort of funny that the most "utopian" of the planks in the "platform" at the end of the Communist Manifesto is the call by Marx and Engels for overcoming the division between the city and the countryside. So, we have done it today, and the solution is the suburbs!

Sandwichman said...

"So, we have done it today, and the solution is the suburbs!"

Sure, if you define "overcoming" as meaning "confounding."

Here's a question for you, though: if I call a tail a leg, how many legs does a cow have?

john c. halasz said...

Admittedly, greenies are a diverse lot and there are a lot of irrationalist/romanticist strains among them, and not enough economic understanding and political acumen.

But aren't economists a far worse lot, if you want to wax philosophical, in pretending that there is little problem environmentally, and ecologically, and not just with respect to GHG and AGW, and that the solutions will come at little cost, via the magic of the market and some small measures such as a carbon tax, while there will be exponentially infinite "growth" which will easily absorb those costs.

Philosophically speaking, I think the economic discourse is the more deluded and politically corrupt.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Yes indeed, john, irrationalist and corrupt. That is what comes from living in the suburbs so much, :-).

Sandwichman said...

Are you suggesting, John, that people who dwell in glass houses should not indiscriminately hurl brickbats?

Sandwichman said...

Nothing to worry about as long as Cobb-Douglas holds and those isoquants don't hit the axes.

"A Neoclassical Analysis of the Economics of Natural Resources"

"If the elasticity of substitution is not constant, what is crucial is what happens to the elasticity asymptotically as resource input goes to zero. In these cases the produced input is sufficiently substitutable for the natural resource that the decrease in supply of the natural resource can be compensated for by an increased supply of capital. Of the two cases, the Cobb—Douglas case is clearly the most interesting for there natural resources are essential in the sense that some input of the natural resource is required for production (the isoquants never do hit the axes). But a small input of natural resource can be compensated for by a sufficiently large input of capital, and whether that is feasible for the economy depends simply on the relative shares of the two."

john c. halasz said...



Sandwichman said...

"a small input of natural resource can be compensated for by a sufficiently large input of capital"

Provided, of course, that we remain sufficiently vague about what we mean by "capital". Humpty-Dumpty had the right idea:

"'When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'I always pay it extra.'"