“[The crisis]. . has released
forces of flexibility on the part of the 'system’ which amount
to overhauling and restructuring the productive apparatus and
the social organization of society.
we all have to be more productive and to consume more in order to at least maintain a given standard of living. . . environmental concern is a foremost source of legitimation for rising new industries and elites.”
— “The Future Changes Its Color” by Wolfgang Sachs in Raise the Stakes #11
Not a day goes by anymore without another environmental disaster appearing in the news. Even while I was working on this article, a Shell Oil refinery not far from San Francisco dumped several hundred thousand gallons of oil into the S.F. Bay. Ironically, the site of this dumping was an ecologically restored wetland, an abatement project for the years of destruction wrought by Shell and other oil companies in the north bay marshes.
This incident puts in stark relief the typical relationship between environmental restoration and its destruction: token efforts are wiped out in just a few hours of careless “business as usual.”
In March 1988 the news broke that atmospheric ozone loss is already much worse than was projected. Dupont Corporation, producer of over half of US chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), followed the news with the announcement that it would phase out production of the “most ozone-damaging” CFCs over a ten-year period.
This followed a U.N-sponsored agreement last September to freeze and then cut CFC production by one-third to one-half by 1998. (This treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, has only been ratified by the US and Mexico— it needs 11 signatories of the 24 agreeing countries to take effect.) Instead of stopping CFC production right now, the Montreal Protocol amounts to an international agreement to continue depleting ozone. The Protocol tacitly acknowledges that the investments in CFC production can only gradually be recycled into new areas—protecting business is, after all, a higher priority than protecting the biosphere. Behind this sordid arrangement, multinational chemical companies are scrambling to find alternatives. Dupont has already spent $30 million on CFC replacements. Not surprisingly, one of several workable alternatives is a “green” product. A derivative of citrus rinds that works well as a solvent, it replaces CFCs in one of their prime roles.
Dupont’s decision to eliminate “most” CFC production over ten years (still protecting their capital before the planet) was made primarily to avoid future liability. In spite of evidence of ozone depletion since the early seventies, Dupont has ignored the evidence until now: finally, a NASA panel had the necessary legitimacy and clarity to provide the basis for future charges of criminal negligence if Dupont failed to respond. Still, the chemical companies are going to take ten years to stop! The Dupont case, cited in a New York Times article as “responsible corporate citizenship,” is an important example of what can be expected from existing businesses when they adorn their ongoing profitable activities with ecological green. Environmentalists pressuring business and government to respond to the environmental crisis by “restoring the earth” are in trouble if they don’t see capitalism as an obstacle to their aspirations.
In contrast to “deep ecology’s” philosophical premise of”biocentrism,” which argues against human primacy in favor of a quasi-democracy for all living things in the biosphere, a new sub-movement within the ecology camp, “Restoring the Earth” (RTE) is premised on human planning to create new ecological harmonies. While the biocentrists have a religious reverence for “natural” species and habitats, RTE values natural variation, but recognizes that “natural” doesn’t really exist anymore. Restoring ecological niches requires human intervention and active management (stewardship).
At a January ‘88 “Restoring the Earth” symposium held at UC Berkeley, two of the stated objectives were to:
• Document the ways investments in environmental restoration can stimulate economic development and provide new employment opportunities.
• Contribute to a consensus on strategies for creating the educational, organizational, financial, and political structures necessary for building a major restoration movement.
Not many people would argue against restoring environmentally devastated places. But when it comes to achieving a social consensus to halt hazardous production, the issue mutates to one of survival— the economic survival of the polluting business, and the jobs it provides. To appear realistic, restorationists argue according to the twisted logic imposed by The Economy. Instead of a public discussion on the direct human and ecological benefits of various green city schemes, restoration projects for wetlands and forests, and so forth, restorationists are forced to discuss profits, wages, jobs, costs and benefits, and most significantly "growth.” By seeking strategies that allow profits to accumulate and growth to continue being measured in the bizarre way it is, restorationists obscure the more daunting— but more essential—goal of eradicating the rape of the earth’s underlying causes.
A movement of social opposition is a prerequisite for transforming society, which is exactly what environmentalism represents at first glance. Clearly, there are revolutionary implications in halting hazardous production to protect and restore the environment, and in advocating popular evaluation of the risks and benefits of different technologies and production methods. These goals imply a form of social planning which does not yet exist, and could not exist under current conditions.
Purer eco-activists prefer to avoid the dirty realities implied by planning. By posing an opposition between things “natural” and “unnatural,” and seeing the latter as the creation of humans, this type of “deep” ecologism implies that the problem is humans in general, not specific purposes decided by particular types of human organization, within a logical web also of human creation. So while they might advocate the rehabitation of grizzly hears in wilderness areas where they have been wiped out, they tend to define such advocacy as “speaking for Mother Earth” or ecological balance, rather than as a social plan for a specific piece of land. Whatever its justification, such a plan remains in the realm of human intention and control.
Accepting human intervention and facing up to the responsibility of managing the environment is crucial: with a global population soaring towards 6 billion, human society cannot go on without some form of self-conscious relation to the biosphere. Even the bottom-line world of capitalism will have to adapt to the new imperative of biological sanity. This implies a new round of capitalist planning—after the last decade or so of deregulation and restructuring, which in turn followed four decades of Keynesian quasi-planning.
The last time society faced the kind of global crisis we face now (economically, if not ecologically) was in the 1930s. A common solution to that epoch’s “anarchy of the marketplace” was massive state intervention in the economy. From Hitler to Stalin to Roosevelt to the Popular Front in France, each country found a way to stabilize the economy through guarantees backed up by the national government. The generally unspoken premise of most of these guarantees was preparation for war, in which the victors would dominate the world economy. Popular support was crucial to the state’s ability to execute these changes. In fact, the popular energy channeled by these politicians contained more radical impulses that might have led to different outcomes were it less skillfully directed at the time.
We are in a parallel situation today, where the self-serving rhetoric of politicians and large companies pitch ecological concern, regardless of their underlying contempt for environmental sanity. A case in point is the current Chevron Oil TV campaign about what they’ve done to ensure survivable habitats for foxes and birds of prey. After showing a dramatic 20-second slice on how a device the company puts in place around its oil-fields or power-lines helps an animal to lead a normal life, Chevron rhetorically asks, “Do people go to all this trouble just for this little animal?” and answer with their logo and the big words ‘PEOPLE DO.” Meanwhile, Chevron has been repeatedly cited as the single largest polluter of the S.F. Bay.
Before too long we can expect elaborate marketing campaigns to ‘Buy Green,’ as biotechnology companies begin to trot out various “healthy” (for the biosphere) products. (Remember how easily the “natural foods revolution” was co-opted by granola manufacturers and supermarkets?) More importantly, existing blocks of capital in chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, and energy are all pouring research and development funds into the “greening” of their own products and markets. At moments like these the system shows its resilience; it can turn a radical popular impulse to its own advantage.
I can already hear a chorus of ecologists, passionately concerned with the biosphere above all else, welcoming any developments in this direction as better than more of what we have already. Of course it would be— but isn’t it more likely that biotech environmentalism will be in the same boat as the restorationists (in fact, I foresee a growing harmony of interests between the two), namely trying to avoid falling farther behind the eco-disasters waiting to happen?
Capitalism is always changing. Change represents opportunity, new needs, new products, new ways to profit.
One could even say that no force in world history has depended on change so much, or used it as effectively, as has the globalzation of capitalist social relations. Through nearly two centuries of econmic and political crises, the day-to-day logic of buying and selling has consolidated itself so thoroughly that it is considered hopelessly romantic and utopian to propose a world not based on market rationality. Supposedly ‘socialist” countries share with the rest of the ‘free” world similar enslaving social relations, and the twisted logic of wages, profits, and accumulation, even though capital there accumulates directly under state control.
How will global capitalism mutate its way through the myriad late 20th century crises of debt, starvation, war, ecocollapse? How can it reform itself and rationalize production to serve the twin goals of social stability and continued growth in accumulation?
It’s hard to imagine how the existing social-economic system could ‘naturally” or peacefully evolve into a thoroughly “green ified” post-industrialism. The most likely and unappealing way would be through depression. If enough existing US capital were written off after a crash, and wages were lowered sufficiently to make ‘green” production competitive on the world market, investment in biotechnology would be massive. At that po.int a new biologically-sound infrastructure would not seem such a pipedream. Another possibility is for a new round of aggressive state intervention in the economy, which would pump billions into new forms of biotechnological production; but this, too, is unlikely in the absence of a dire economic emergency.
More plausible is a scenario wherein restoration projects become sources of civic pride (much like the revitalized downtowns throughout the U.S.), but remain cosmetic. As such, they would be jobs programs foremost for the scientists and technicians specializing in restoration. There are a number of talented and well-intentioned people occupying this niche already.
EXPERTISE AND SOCIAL POWER
The environmental movement has always depended on the information and advice of “counter-experts,’ usually scientists with a social conscience. People in this role are in an odd position. Either they look for a relatively low-paying job with an “oppositional” organization, or else they work in corporate or academic slots, and provide expert services to ecological campaigns as concerned citizens. In either case they depend on their expertise to make a living, and hence have a hard time seeing the outside of the box they’re in. Rarely do such experts find time or inclination to develop a thoroughgoing critique of the logic of social life that produces environmental abuse and then as a stop-gap, people with skills like theirs. Moreover, the enormity of the ecological abuse and the relative insignificance of the brakes on it make it difficult to imagine life without eco-disasters.
The increase in environmental awareness represents a growth industry and has been quite dependent on the expansion and wide availability of scientific knowledge. Its dissemination depends on new technologies: sensortng, testing, and information processing. Environmental technicians, involved with hi-tech gadgetry and a culture of expertise, often present technological fixes as solutions, and frequently ignore the social side to environmental problems.
Deep ecologists and greens put grassroots democracy squarely on their agenda as a solution to the environmental crisis. But grassroots democracy implies more than just town meetings. Such a social transformation would involve a logical break with the social power of expertise, which while conceivable, is at best a complicated process.
Unequal distribution of technical knowledge represents one of the thorniest obstacles for any radical change in social systems. People will never be equally capable, but there must be a way for all us non-experts to evaluate technological and scientific choices, given their social results. Advocating the stopping of science or technology does not address the problem. Expertise is a form of social power. From craft guilds to industrial unions, workers have used their own expertise to control labor processes and thus to better their own economic conditions. It is precisely this power which many new technologies have been deployed to break. As Marx pointed out, the history of industrial innovation since the end of the eighteenth century has been a history of capital’s attempts to establish a more complete domination over the worker.
But before technologies could erode workers’ skills, workers largely lost their voice in consciously deciding “what’s worth doing.” By generally acceding to the logic of the wage contract (and, one might argue, because of the difficulty of democratic planning as an alternative mode of social organization), workers have lost all say over the purpose of their work. From military contracting to banking to toothpaste production, workers don’t decide what to do, they just go to work and get paid. To imagine a social movement concerned with the purposes of arcane scientific research seems farfetched if people aren’t even particularly concerned with the purpose of what they do themselves day in and day out.
A movement restricted to calling for democratic participation in science fails to recognize the larger, more fundamental social relation of which scientific expertise is only a small, though powerful, branch. Wage labor and the logic of the marketplace impose a dualism on all human endeavor between what is useful or pleasurable and what makes money. As long as an activity generates money, its social results are of little consequence.
The environmental movement is vacillating now between two contradictory pulls: On one side are certain radical impulses implied by really restoring the earth (and transforming science, expertise and work itself). On the other side, mere reformism is insufficient. In this instance, it legitimates a new wave of accumulation based on a state-capitalist “greening” of the economy’s infrastructure, and a vibrant biotechnology sector which could invade large areas of the economy, from agriculture to energy to pharmaceuticals with new, cheaper ways of producing. If we reject the notion that intervention in the ecosphere is inherently wrong, the problem becomes one of good management and planning. Accepting this basic premise means that another, much larger issue is ignored, namely all the work involved in implementing any social plan. The Restoring the Earth campaign fits in nicely with the continuing social pressure to create more jobs, no matter what kind.
Instead of stepping back to analyze how the wage-labor relation crucially disengages people from the consequences of their own work, eco-activists seem to prefer the role of capitalist planners, setting up new companies and government programs that will ostensibly provide meaningful, well-paid work. Rather than freeing the subjective sensibilities and knowledge of average people, urging a new form of radical direct democracy in social and economic life, large parts of the still-evolving eco-program treat people as passive cogs to be fitted into the new Green Machine. The uncommitted citizen is confronted by the contending programs of incipient elites and existing elites. But as long as the logic of the market remains unchallenged, the business and propaganda organizations in power now will remain there, as will their methods of production/destruction.
The ecology movement is at the forefront of imagining and sketching out alternative urban and rural arrangements. At first sight, it is exciting to find concrete visions of alternatives. One example is Richard Register’s Ecocity Berkeley, which is a primer on the greening of cities. He is quite explicit about the principles around which life should be organized, the shape urban landscape should take (denser, more three-dimensional— up rather than out— less sprawl, new transit systems, solar energy, and so on), and goes on to offer a 150-year conversion plan for Berkeley, California. He shares other eco-activists’ abhorrence of consumerism, though he tempers his moral impulse with a certain pragmatism:
“If cities are built for maximum profit for the powerful and financially clever, or to confer maximum material wealth on all citizens equally, or to find some midpoint on the materialistic continuum between those extremes, the ecocity will wither at its inception. Nonetheless, making a living and seeking personal material security are major motivations to all of us who live in and help to build and run cities. So both kinds of reasons — those that provide a healthy, adventuresome, beautiful environment, and those that support the needs and desires of the individual, singly and collectively — must be accommodated. “[emphasis added]
Much later, under “Notes on Strategy,” he encourages ecocity activists to “appeal to people’s interests, all kinds, both selfish and generous,” to forge political constituencies for green city programs. But his earlier principles have already provided the crucial argument against most people’s selfish interests and for perpetual austerity:
“Given the climate and soils of an environment, the resident plants, and animals can extract only so much water, minerals, and energy in creating their bodies: the collective ‘biomass. ‘ Another limit to carrying capacity is the rate at which the total population can reprocess that biological material into usable biological resources through decomposition and soil building.”
At first, this sounds like a pretty irrefutable scientific statement. But “carrying capacity” is full of assumptions about human needs and capabilities, including prospects for more scientific and technological breakthroughs. Used this way it’s a moralistic argument, and one typical of a large part of the green movement: we’ve had it too good; we’ve been living on borrowed time; we must give up a lot of what we have.
Green moralism is actually a potent force among the grassroots of the movement, where “green-ism” takes on the qualities of a religion. A good example, not particularly extreme in the subculture, is San Francisco’s Planet Drum Foundation founder, Peter Berg. Berg’s article “Growing A Life-Place Politics’ in Raise the Stakes #11 lays out his views on the bioregional social movement. His vision is strikingly similar to the anarchosyndicalist system of bottom-up workers’ assemblies, but he replaces “workers” with “bioregionalists,” a new political subject organized more on the basis of where one lives rather than what one does. Berg’s argument, broadly stated, is that political power can devolve to new “watershed councils,’ and up through a “naturally-scaled” system of larger coordinating councils, to encompass all of North America and perhaps even the globe! The key to this transformation is a “paradigm shift” in people’s views toward natural processes, and a concomitant adoption of a new purpose to life: sustainability.
Although sustainability is a helpful criterion, it is not a goal. As a means of defining whether our activities are worthwhile, it could challenge The Economy. Bioregionalists are on to something important with the concept of planning cities within the natural systems of the locale, but such a public works program is hardly worthy of being the primary purpose of human existence. Such a purpose sounds suspiciously like the monk’s commitment to live life to serve God, in this case God being the local bioregion... Moreover, this very idea of “natural processes is a socially constructed concept; to reconstruct natural processes now requires work, which in turn requires a specific human design for the natural process.
Bioregionalism traps itself in a narrow subculture by defining sustainability as the goal of life. Placing its hope in a mass “paradigm shift” (this could be read uncharitably as a “religious conversion”) to transform people’s activities, the movement restricts its participants to those who not only intellectually perceive the merits of the bioregional arguments, but who also proselytize for them with a passionate fervor. A casual glance at the literature of bioregionalism and deep ecology reveals a profoundly spiritual bent centered around Gaia the Mother, and various goddess ideologies.
The merging of political movements with religious or spiritual conviction is common at this point in history. Green politics is no exception. Rather than depend solely on Christian or Islamic myths and icons, however, green spiritualism prefers pagan, animistic forms of mysticism. Hence, Planet Drum’s symbol is Same Shaman, an incarnation from Nordic mythology, while eco-activists in myriad affinity groups practice rituals around solstices, adopt the trappings of
Native American rituals, argue from “biocentric” philosophical premises that every living thing deserves to be treated with reverence, and so on. These are at best harmless pastimes, but in positions of social power might take on intolerant qualities, leading to a new social hierarchy with Ecology perched at the top instead of the Dollar (Ecocracy). (Imagine being labeled non- or anti-Green spiritualist in a green-dominant society — not being Mormon in Utah comes to mind!)\
FOR FREEDOM, NOT AUSTERITY
The idea of alternate living scenarios is very appealing. Certainly, we need to imagine how else to live, how to better resolve the classic dichotomy between city and country. But why circumscribe such visions with less-is-more ideology? If life were really transformed along eco-city lines, which could only be accomplished by a movement of workers bent on transforming their work, I think we would live a much wealthier life than we do now. Eco-activists shouldn’t be in such a rush to argue for the lower living standards that they all seem sure (and a little glad) will accompany their visions. Why not debate the nature of wealth and how to organize its acquisition in a society freed from the distorting imperatives of The Economy?
One of the first steps toward a wealthy life would be the abolition of a great deal of the work done in this society. Eliminating banking, insurance, and similar “services” would free hundreds of thousands of human hours to contribute to a richer life texture, both physically and socially. Taking resources away from the military and insane industrial projects like automobiles would make them available for people’s actual needs and desires. Everyone would then be more likely to have all the things they want. The new constraints would be based on what we can coax safely from the environment, how much work is needed, and whether anyone is willing to do that work. Instead of a consumer culture, imagine an enriching culture where the obsession with material goods diminishes in direct proportion to the lack of scarcity—where people are more concerned with living than with merely surviving. The constraints imposed by concerns for “growth,” “economic health,” “business survival,” or even “job creation,” all militate against radical breaks with polluting forms of production. Those who are passionately concerned with the health of the planet must reject the underlying logic of The Economy as much as they reject its products. A sustainable, enjoyable, healthy environment requires free human beings no less than non-polluting ones.
— by Lucius Cabins
ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READING
RAISE THE STAKES (a bi-annual rnagazine lull of information, debate, analysis on bioregionalism and green city programs.) From Planet Drum Foundation, P.O. Box 31251, San Francisco, CA 94131
SYNTHESIS (a newsletter and journal for social ecology, deep ecology, and bioregionalism) P.O. Box 1858, San Pedro, CA 90733
GREEN PERSPECTIVES (the newsletter of Vermont Greens and social ecologists like Murray Bookchin.) P.O. Box 111, Burlington. VT 05402.
THE GREEN ALTERNATIVE by Brian Tokar,
R&E Miles, POB 1916, San Pedro, CA 90733
ECOLOGICAL IMPERIALISM: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 by Alfred W. Crosby, Cambridge University Press (New York: 1986)
TO GOVERN EVOLUTION by Walter Truett Anderson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego: 1987)
THE GENE BUSINESS by Edward Yoxen, Harper & Row (New York: 1983)
THE GREEN MACHINES by Nigel Calder G.P. Putnams&Sons (New York: 1986)
ECOCITYBERKELEY by Richard Register North Atlantic Books (Berkeley: 1987)