The Darling (Cotton) Buds of May
There’s a growing problem of farce and surrealism in the green movement and in wider society, I call it Lifestyle v the Apocalypse. It goes like this: the more severe and urgent the multifaceted ecological and climate change crisis becomes, the less we do. Faced with the deluge of information that our Plastic Society has (surprisingly) created Plastic Seas, Rivers and Food our response is to threaten to banish Cotton Buds. It’s a bit like the morbidly obese eschewing a wafer-thin mint or the rampant alcoholic deciding to imbibe a thimble-less of rocket-fuel. This obsession with the ameliorative easy low-hanging fruit is understandable. Why do nothing at all when you can do something useless but catchy? The fact that it is clearly meaningless is not as compelling as the fact that it is politically expedient.
Theresa May this week called her Bud Plans “Drastic action”.
People kept a straight face.
The case has been made this week that the Commonwealth, as well a being a handy instant replacement for the EU trading bloc, will also be a global force for environmental transformation with our newly-appointed Chief Charles and his well-known penchant for all things Green heading the movement.
So how does Canada – one of the Commonwealth’s largest and most progressive entities fare if we reflect on their environmental progress and commitments over, say, a twenty-five year period?
Here’s Canada’s track-record of pledging to – and then failing to abide by summits and protocols since 1992. I can return to this with comparative studies of other Commonwealth countries but that’s a heap of work.
So the stark and tragic reality is that the vast amount of policy measures we take to ‘solve’ the environmental crisis are meaningless in the face of relentless expansion, growth and consumption and that (probably) both us and the wonks and politicians dishing this out know this.
Even on issues when you think you have made definitive progress there is retreat and failure.
As Karl Mathiesen of Climate Home reported this week: “US coal exports rose 61% in 2017 after Asian exports double”.
So is this is a relentlessly bleak outlook of failure?
Kind of yeah.
But there are other options.
The New Green Technocrats
As Kate Aronoff writes in The Intercept this week (‘Denial by a Different Name: It’s Time to Admit that Half-Measures Can’t Stop Climate Change’)
“The problem with this new denialism, then, isn’t only the kinds of policies that Davos environmentalists are prescribing from on high in the Swiss Alps. It’s also about optics. Any climate politics so closely identified with the global elite in 2018 is dead on arrival. Piecemeal, market-based climate policies might win over the support of economics department and a handful of centrist Republicans, but they won’t either get the job done or inspire the support of any critical mass of the population. The scale of changes science demands requires doing something the neoliberals recognized as crucial early: taking state power, then using it to radically rethink the relationship between the state and the economy — in this case, toward building a more equal, low-carbon world.
With precious few years left to course-correct away from catastrophe, political theorist Fredric Jameson’s most famous quote has taken on a more literal meaning: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Aronoff argues convincingly that the gap between the likes of the climate denying far-right Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, and the batty European Institute for Climate and Energy (EIKE) a German “climate skeptic” organisation; the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others – and some of the climate policymaking groups in Bonn is far smaller than you think. The message (in variant form) from both climate denialists and the New Green Technocrats is the same:
“Relax, everything will be OK”.
With pie-charts that worship spraying particulates, and fossil fuel companies proselytizing carbon capture, the New Green Technocrats: “peddle in a set of easy fixes: a market signal here, an industrial-grade aerosol there, and the crisis will be an artifact of history, with corporate shareholders better off for it.”
As the myths of Geoengineering looms large and the great island of plastic shit floats nearer to home, it’s time for some home truths.
Beyond Green Guilt
We need to give up the comforting models that suggest that nothing really needs to change and that the deep-seated crisis can be wished away in a lab.
1. Yes technology and mass innovation has a role to play but techno-fixes and delusional policy-making are a form of denial as much as Nigel Lawson and Co.
2. The myths of a green capitalist economy need to be smashed again and again, action needs to be strategic, unprecedented, scaleable and urgent.
3. Change needs to be structural systemic and long-term – not peripheral marginal and micro-short termist.
4. Mass collective action is vital but not if it is contained within a useless lifestyle-ism.
5. Yes we need leadership models and inspiration but endless celebrity politics is demeaning and disempowering.
In short we need to re-politicise the movement, and replace green guilt with collective action. This will also require a complete realignment of political forces that magian that ‘social’ movements and ‘ecological’ movements are separate distinct things. As Martin Lukacs has written recently (“Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals“):
“At the very moment when climate change demands an unprecedented collective public response, neoliberal ideology stands in the way. Which is why, if we want to bring down emissions fast, we will need to overcome all of its free-market mantras: take railways and utilities and energy grids back into public control; regulate corporations to phase out fossil fuels; and raise taxes to pay for massive investment in climate-ready infrastructure and renewable energy — so that solar panels can go on everyone’s rooftop, not just on those who can afford it.
Neoliberalism has not merely ensured this agenda is politically unrealistic: it has also tried to make it culturally unthinkable. Its celebration of competitive self-interest and hyper-individualism, its stigmatization of compassion and solidarity, has frayed our collective bonds. It has spread, like an insidious anti-social toxin, what Margaret Thatcher preached: “there is no such thing as society.”
Studies show that people who have grown up under this era have indeed become more individualistic and consumerist. Steeped in a culture telling us to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, as self-reliant instead of interdependent, is it any wonder we deal with a systemic issue by turning in droves to ineffectual, individual efforts? We are all Thatcher’s children. Even before the advent of neoliberalism, the capitalist economy had thrived on people believing that being afflicted by the structural problems of an exploitative system – poverty, joblessness, poor health, lack of fulfillment – was in fact a personal deficiency. Neoliberalism has taken this internalized self-blame and turbocharged it.”
This is not to acknowledge complicity or eschew individual action, but it’s to see that action in a new light and to develop a new politics that rejects the new denialism and moves beyond Cotton Buds.