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Misreading Environmentalism

[ 24 ] October 12, 2012 |

Like Chris Bertram, I have to take exception to Alex Gourevitch’s characterization of the environmental movement as a bunch of Debbie Downers who dismiss the concerns of the developing world.

As someone whose professional work critiques the history of environmentalism’s interaction with working-class people, I read a lot of criticism of the movement. While I don’t disagree with it necessarily, I find that Gourevitch and others assume a lot of power by environmentalists to set an agenda, a power they don’t have.

Sure, helping the global South to “industrialize” might be a good idea. Gourevitch argues that it should be environmentalists’ top priority. That is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, he somehow assumes that environmentalists have this magical power that would make this happen. Second, he seem to assume that the powers that will make that happen, i.e., industrial capitalism, aren’t already making it happen and aren’t a big part of the reason why Guatemala and Honduras are underdeveloped. Third, he shows a surprising lapse of logic in understanding the costs of industrialization to both people and nature. That’s why I put “industrialize” in quotation marks above. Is Gourevitch really calling for industrialization? Wouldn’t a call to build a green economy while skipping the heavy industry side of an industrial revolution make a lot more sense from an environmentalist’s perspective?

I’d also like to see Gourevitch think a bit deeper on the skepticism of size that he says both environmentalists and Occupy share. Looking at James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, one can understand why big centralized projects might cause skepticism, especially when wrapped in calls to “dominate nature,” a term Gourevitch uses. You mean like turning German forests into monocultures that become disease-ridden simplified spaces? Like giving government agencies tremendous power to build dams, projects that rhetorically are about flood control and giving people better lives but in reality usually turn out to serve the industries of huge corporations and destroy ecosystems? Shouldn’t we be skeptical of this? I say this as someone who is actually a lot more comfortable with centralized control than a lot of people on the left today. But talking about dominating nature through big centralized projects is way problematic on a lot of levels.

I also think Gourevitch misreads the history of environmentalism. While one can certainly identify antihumanist strains in the movement, those get played up time and time again by those who also ignore how environmentalists have reshaped cities to be clean, healthy spaces; organized to stop industrial pollution, and focused a great deal of attention on public health. The reason, I think, that environmentalism has had a hard time connecting to the larger political discourse in the last 20 years is precisely that the movement has been too successful in that side of its mission. Environmentalism’s popularity in the 1960s and 1970s was multifaceted, but a lot of it had to do that the air people breathed made them sick, the rivers in their communities were full of gunk, and they could see industrial factories pollute every day. That is all a thing of the past, partially through legal victories and partially through the globalization of heavy industry as capitalists looked to move to places where they could continue to pollute and to exploit labor. These successes by environmentalism lead to the more difficult tasks–enforcing the Endangered Species Act in local communities, working with international agencies to force governments to act responsibility, talking about huge and somewhat abstract issues like climate change.

As for the crying wolf nature of environmentalism, it might not make good politics. People don’t want to hear that climate change is going to radically change life on earth. But so what. The problem with criticizing environmentalists for this is that climate change is indeed going to radically change life on earth, and almost entirely for the worse. There is virtually nothing within human existence that is sustainable over a long period of time and very little that is sustainable for the next century. We waste resources with abandon, poor farming practices slowly erode away the breadbaskets of the earth, we have a petroleum based economy with declining petroleum reserves, etc. All of these things are true. It may be against human nature to respond to apocalyptic calls, but when the apocalypse is upon us, what are environmentalists supposed to do? Not tell the truth?

Plus, Gourevitch, as he does when conveniently ignoring how industrialization actually works on the ground, also elides how elites create public opinion. He talks about environmentalist authoritarianism forcing science down our throats, turning people off, etc. Not only do I not think this is accurate, it also is not the reason environmentalists have had problems convincing people about climate change. That has to do with a vast right-wing corporate media machine propagandizing for polluters whose interests it is to see that no meaningful climate regulations are enacted. I don’t think you can critique environmentalism’s media message without first demonstrating how media coverage of this issue actually works.

  • so i clicked through and read about 8 paragraphs, long enough to conclude that erik was being too generous, that all gourevitch appeared to be doing was showing off that he has a beautiful mind.

    so i spent a few minutes googling him, and people do appear to be impressed with him, so who knows? maybe this is an exception.

    but what i read was pathetic word salad, not insight at all.

  • Njorl

    His essay is ridiculous.

    …this authoritarian attempt to use science to force certain policies and projects down people’s throats.

    He’s conflating the quality of “authority” as in expertise with political authoritarianism. It’s nonsense. Climatologists don’t have goons. They can’t ram policies down people’s throats. To the contrary, it is easier for corporate powers to forcibly separate climatologists from a public who would wish to swallow such policies voluntarily. Who does he think has power?

  • Jameson Quinn

    Here actually inside Guatemala, the foremost environmental organization is Madre Selva (disclosure: my father-in-law works for them) . And their most successful strategy is helping local communities mobilize (and get attention for their existing mobilization) against megaprojects like gold mines, cement plants, and, yes, dams. And while I think renewable energy is key to the future of our species in general and my daughter in particular, I absolutely support Madre Selva in fighting alongside local communities for control of their own land and against mega-hydropower. If it were clear to everyone that communities have the power to say no, then planners would design dams that don’t destroy rivers and displace communities. The communities literally massacred and displaced by the Rio Negro dam 30 years ago didn’t start to get electrical power until last year! (And it wasn’t without a struggle).

    Just talking about “industrialization” totally erases those questions of the just or unjust terms under which it happens.

  • Bloix

    Gourevitch’s argument, if you can call it that, is that people who are trying to do something about global warming are bad people. They believe that poverty (for others) is virtuous. They verge on misanthropy and they delight in the suffering of the poor. It’s the usual “Al Gore lives in a big house” argument, dressed up for more educated readers.

    He doesn’t deny that global warming exists. But he never admits that it has any bad effects.

    And he says that nothing can be done about global warming now – not because the science isn’t available, but because the political and economic issues are overwhelmingly complex.

    On the other hand, the causes of global warming are actually good. “Cheap energy is a good thing.” Full stop. Not one admission about the harm caused, not to the “environment,” but to the human beings who live in environment, by the effects of global warming.

    This isn’t genuine argument. It’s op-ed propaganda, written in bad faith, and it’s not worth debating.

    • Marc

      The hard left does have an awful record of environmental stewardship, and the evidence is still on display in the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. We’re so used to dealing with right-wing anti-environmentalism that it’s possible to forget that they do share some common ground with those on the far end of the spectrum.

      • Jameson Quinn

        Commies were horrible for the environment. So environmentalists are all hypocrites.


        • Marc

          No – it’s not surprising to see a residual contingent on the left (e.g. Gourevitch) who adopt the same attitude towards the environment that the communists did

          • Jameson Quinn

            Ah, OK, that makes sense now.

      • Bloix

        When Al Gore ran for president in 1988, I thought that his environmental message was a distraction from more important issues. That was 24 years ago. Most people on the lefter end of the political spectrum have managed to learn something over the last couple of decades.

        • Njorl

          When Gore ran for president in 1988, I thought it was odd that a moderate conservative would be so interested in environmentalism.

      • The Pale Scot

        Sovietism has no connection to western liberalism. Industrialization at the point of a gun, if anything, has more in common with capitalism as practiced by the IMF. As they said in Poland, “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”.

    • Heron

      Exactly. How has environment-ignoring industrialization worked out for the people of China? The answer to that question shows more eloquently than any 30 paragraph essay ever could why the concerns of environmentalists are vital to any responsible industrialization, and how those concerns, contra Gourevitch, have been widely ignored.

      The biggest western cheerleaders of third-world industrialization, the neo-liberals, always sold it as the poorer world catching up to us by not making the same mistakes we did, but in the end it’s been the same old song and dance; the same waste, the same inefficiency, the same plundering of humans, cattle and land for quick profits with the long-term costs left for the people living there to deal with. Far from being martinets, meticulously insisting upon best practices developed from decades of western experience in this new ear of Industrialization, the very same neo-libs have used it as a reason to argue for a return to early-industrial employment, safety, and pollution abuses.

      Development undoubtedly brings vast improvements in quality of life and efficiency (assuming it isn’t directed entirely by the whims of the wealthy, which is more often the case than not), but development which ignores environmental concerns, ignores the immediate needs of the people for food, housing, security and sanitation, is destructive in its own way.

  • DrDick

    In addition to the critiques you and others here have given, this treats the environmental movement as a monolithic entity, when in fact it is highly diverse and multifaceted. There are many different groups and multiple agendas, many of which conflict with one another. There are in fact a large number of environmentalist groups working very hard on sustainable development in the third world and elsewhere (whose rewards are not as immediate or large necessarily, but have greater chances of creating stable growth and prosperity and have smaller downsides). Tarring the entire movement with the actions of a few or only some segments is classic nutpicking.

    • Treating environmentalism as a monolith is an all too frequent problem with those who attempt to critique it.

      • DrDick

        I think it is because that is how they actually perceive it. I am not an environmental activist in any sense (though vaguely a greenish shade of red), there are enough groups around here in the interior northwest to recognize the diversity of approaches.

      • Treating environmentalism as a monolith

        You mean looking at it, touching it briefly, then running back to the other australopithecines and bashing bones together?

        • Jameson Quinn

          Why yes. Precisely.

  • Heron

    Yet another typical technocrat trying to kill opposition to corporate interests by cloaking his message as a criticism of privilege. See also whichever elite consensus pundit you care to name and almost every article touching on developing world ecology written in the Economist, ever.

    • Linnaeus

      It’s funny, but you see a similar tendency sometimes in critiques of labor movements in Western nations, i.e., being pro-labor in the West (or the global North, if you prefer) means that you want workers in less-developed nations to be impoverished.

  • Bertie

    I think that the OP and the commentators so far misread what the article is saying about science.

    What Gourevitch is saying is that arguments of the form, “the science says X, therefore we must do Y” are invalid. And they’re especially true when Y is a grand, sweeping social change without precedent in human history. And he’s right because you can’t just elide law and politics and economics and history and everything else no matter how important the science is. And he’s not making a strawman on this point; some environmentalists really do think this way.

    • Jameson Quinn

      Arguments of the form “axiom, therefore conclusion” are invalid. Because you’re leaving out the middle part and replacing it with straw.

      • Jameson Quinn

        And yes, sometimes environmentalists put in a middle part or a conclusion that’s wrong. So argue specifically… and you’ll find that there’s probably a smart environmentalist who’s beaten you to it.

    • You’re right: clearing a burning building of its inhabitants might interrupt their activities, so we must not attempt it. Any moves toward such an attempt are grand and sweeping, so we must embrace the burn.

    • Bloix

      What Gourevitch is saying is, “Okay, now that that the Artic ice sheet is gone I guess we have to admit that you’re right on the science. But nothing can be done because politics. Now shut up shut up shut up you misanthropic hypocritical haters of the poors.”