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.