Wednesday, 9 July 2008

The End of Green Politics?

If yesterday's lecture was about the possibility of green politics, then today's session was about its possible end. Ingolfur Bluhdorn's paper, 'The Politics of Unsustainability' was a pretty gloomy (Luhmann-inspired) account of socio-cultural barriers to progressive, environmentally sustainable social change. Therefore he argued that one cannot understand environmental politics without explaining the structures, cultures, patterns of identity construction etc. of advanced industrial societies. Environmental problems are simultaneously 'objective' facts and the outcome of the system's dialectical relationship with the natural world. You cannot get to grips with this without recourse to social theory.

Ingolfur returned to the previous day's discussion of the gap between green attitudes and green actions, but instead of putting forward a bridging strategy he was interested in questioning the notion of a gap. He asks if we are at an eco-political turning point, a point where green politics is not about to take off but where it could give way to a politics of unsustainability.

At first this seems like a bizarre claim. Environmental politics have never been more prominent. Climate change has become a free-floating symbol institutions, agencies, parties and corporations all evoke and address. It is at the centre of political debate and there is pretty much an attitudinal consensus around the need for sustainable policies for sustainable societies. And yet our collective ecological footprint continues to grow. Greater quantities of carbon are pumped into the atmosphere and so-called ecological modernisation is small scale and only has marginal positive impacts. Contributing to this state of affairs is the poverty of the politics of sustainability - it is completely inadequate as a vehicle for the thoroughgoing social change the scale of the crisis demands. It falls short because it is defined in terms of the imperatives of contemporary social systems. For the ruling class and capital, sustainability means continued economic growth, not measured regulation of the social-nature metabolism. It is a means of class pacification and a bulwark against the kinds of change that calls into question the limits of the system.

Ingolfur drew attention to how establishment sustainability politics have been playing out in the media recently. True to the definition above, environmental/ecological sustainability has fallen off the front pages and replaced by food and energy price hikes, the energy crisis and the credit crunch. Sustainability is firmly embedded in finding solutions to these problems, of sustaining the unsustainable social relations that are responsible for them in the first place. This in turn produces a bit of political climate change of its own, where political solutions to Earth system climate change are increasingly out of step with the concern for social imperatives.

This is obviously devastating from the point of view of green politics. The vision offered by sustainable development and political ecology talk about different lifestyles, re-engineered social-natural relations, new (post-capitalist) forms of economic life and a society animated by existential need, not the impoverished vision of acquisitive materialism. When this is pitted against the non-negotiable needs of capitalism - labour flexibility and capital mobility, information, improved transport, nuclear energy and bio-technology, the system wins out every time.

Therefore we are beginning to see the emergence of a post-ecological zeitgeist. But this is not a simple co-option and gutting of formerly radical ideas. As the market has extended its scope over social life with it it has brought more differentiation, complexity and specialisation. But it has also brought about a situation where society's (objective) problem-solving capacities have grown, as has the possibility of fulfilling more social needs. As this contradiction has matured the distinct lack of an equivalent growth in popular values and norms to harness this potential has meant it is constantly resolved in ways not consistent with environmental justice. These "resolutions" can be summed up in one word: uncertainties. Marketisation and complexification, in lieu of anything else, produces its opposing echo: complication reduction. Thus in the face of a bewildering social world individuals retreat into the pursuit of their immediate desires, with the further consequence of fuelling widespread depoliticisation. Our rulers are not immune to the process either. Complexity reduction encourages a managerialist culture where deliberative mechanisms built up in political life and through struggle in the workplace are increasingly bypassed in favour of more autocratic styles of decision making. As far as Ingolfur was concerned, because political ecology cannot deliver rapid innovation, job growth, etc. It is not a simple quick-fix solution but a long-term project with priorities running counter to the system's structural imperatives. In short political ecology is exhausted as a project. It is only listened to if it makes suggestions amenable to sustaining the unsustainable structures of global capital. Such as it exists as a going concern, political ecology is defined by this post-ecological problematic.

Where sociology is concerned this problem has barely made it onto the agenda. The social scientific efforts of environmental research inadvertently contribute toward strengthening post-ecology within the academy. Their work is interested in defining ecological concepts and quantifiable sustainability criteria at the expense of value judgements. There is a pretence of offering scientific certainties and solid accounts of climate change and believe the inarguable merits of their case will be enough to trigger a change in direction. Instead research should swim against the post-ecological current and show the social roots of the environmental crisis and how they are reconstituted through pseudo-scientific discourse into measures that apologise and obscure the social interests who'd prefer to see the world burn than give up their privileges.

Unfortunately I was unable to make the question and answer session afterwards, but there are a few things that can be said about this presentation. First is the level of abstraction. As is the case with systems theory generally theorisation takes place on such a level that political agency is put into question. It is no accident that Ingolfur decides to question the notion of a gap rather than the possibilities of propagating a radical green agenda. It is also telling the only place in this schema where agency is possible is through sociology. Yes, it is important to repeatedly expose how the system is responsible for the environmental crisis but at no point does he link it up to other political agents. The implication is he falls into the trap of post-ecological environmental sociologists, who just put the information out there in the hope someone will listen and act. Another difficulty - again shared with the rest of systems theory - is the lack of empirical evidence to back this account up, or rather his failure to deploy such evidence. From following how mainstream politics, institutions and businesses have adapted to and changed commonplace understandings of green politics and values, I believe his argument about a politics of unsustainability, of sustaining the unsustainable is correct. But that isn't enough to convince others who aren't committed to some form of radical politics.

These issues aside I think Ingolfur has identified a number of social processes that deserve more investigation, which can only serve to help the repoliticisation of sociology and produce work that can add even more indictments to the case against global capitalism.


Derek Wall said...

Interesting and worrying analysis.
I think Green Party people tend to retreat from or even ignore theory, which is a dangerous position to take.

The advances of the Latin American left give some cause for optimism, especially as there are green elements which influence some on the Latin American left

gwe said...

Bluhdorn states the obvious - what capitalism calls 'sustainability' is very different to what that means in ecological terms. But is the 'Politics of Unsustainability' a new phenomenon - surely the only reason we find ourselves in such dire straights today is because of the complicity of successive governments in feeding the rapacious nature of capitalism? Isn't capitalism itself the sustaining of the unsustainable?