The Rise of the Neo-Greens

Wired May 2006 cover

I’ve not read Wired for a while. When I read it relatively regularly at the turn of the millennium—before the dot-com crash hit, before the gloomy wake of 9/11, and before I started learning more about the nuts-and-bolts of our energy insecurity situation—I was highly forgiving of its unashamed cheer-leading for high-tech capitalism. These days my anti-shiny-bullshit radar is a little more sensitized.

Failed U.S. presidential candidate Al Gore looks out at you from the cover of the May 2006 issue, his irises digitally enhanced (presumably in Photoshop rather than in the flesh) to crown his confident facial expression with an iridescent resolve. The article follows his recent comeback as a non-partisan environmental campaigner trying to get some 11th hour attention for our burgeoning climate crisis. It speaks of “his messianic faith in the power of technology to stop global warming”, referring specifically to his “eco-friendly investment firm”.

We’re entering, it seems, a new phase of “eco-capitalism”. The ethic is best, if rather simplistically, expressed by DJ Zane Lowe in an interview in the recent Independent edited by Bono:

The only thing people who are trying to make a difference can do is work alongside corporations. We’re not going to abolish big business, people aren’t going to stop drinking Starbucks and buying Nike, but you can say to them, ‘There’s a big difference you can make and if we find a way to make it easier for you, would you contribute?’

The Wired cover trumpets the “pro-growth, pro-tech fight to stop global warming”. Alex Steffen’s piece, leading the brace of articles on this theme, is subtitled “How technology is leading environmentalism out of the anti-business, anti-consumer wilderness”.

You can sense my critique coming, can’t you? Rumbling over the horizon like a ten-ton rhinoceros. Well, let me be clear before a stampede clouds the air… I don’t think business per se is a bad thing (I just think the economy it’s structured with is at least partially psychotic). I think technology’s probably worth sticking with and improving (I just don’t think the course of its projected development should be an article of faith). And I like consuming things—especially pasta (I just think some people consume too much—in general, that is, not just pasta).

Wow, sounds kind of obvious when you say it out loud, doesn’t it? Indeed. Rather than put their messianic faith out there to stand on its own two feet, Wired felt the need to fall back on the ol’ straw man. The target audience need a shiny sense of newness to animate them, and nothing bolsters the feeling of novelty like trashing something.

I’m not writing this to stand in the way of green technology, or to scupper efforts to genuinely bring corporations’ activities in line with sustainability. I rate, a prime force in Neo-Green thinking (or “Bright Green” as they term it), as one of the most essential blogs around. Certainly the writing there is much more sophisticated than that in Wired. (Presumably because of the reduction in commercial pressures—who’d’ve thunk it?) I’m just (1) amazed at the wrongheadedness of much of this new wave of ecological thinking, (2) suspicious of its often sweeping embrace of consumer capitalism and the dogma of perpetual growth, and (3) just dying to vent my spleen.

Tucked in one of the info-bubbles accompanying the Al Gore piece are Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of the controversial essay ‘The Death of Environmentalism’ (October 2004). They’ve refused accusations of provocation, despite the title. They are, it seems, committed environmentalists trying to constructively criticize their own movement. The title (although obviously provocative) isn’t gratuitous: their key argument is that environmentalism has to dissolve itself into the wider world, to stop shoring itself up as a separate “issue”, so that people in general start realizing this “environment” stuff is actually about their whole lives.

I found myself surprised to be in strong agreement with many of their premises. It has to be said, the “environmentalism” they build a coffin for is pretty specific: U.S. mainstream NGOs that base their activities on lobbying for more restrictive policies. My main experience is with English grassroots activism, so I missed some of their logic until I realised “environmentalism” was a different thing for them.

To their credit, they begin with the kind of basic politeness that Wired is far too smug for:

Those of us who are children of the environmental movement must never forget that we are standing on the shoulders of all those who came before us.

They do proceed to crap on the heads of many who came before them, but that’s natural.

They quickly trash any simplistic faith in technology:

In the face of perhaps the greatest calamity in modern history, environmental leaders are sanguine that selling technical solutions like florescent light bulbs, more efficient appliances, and hybrid cars will be sufficient to […] overcome the alliance of neoconservative ideologues and industry interests in Washington, D.C.

Immediately I saw the curious situation. The approach described above—basically, tweaking the system with practically cosmetic technical fixes—has long been ridiculed by what would commonly be described as “radical” environmentalism. That is, people who think there need to be large-scale structural changes in the global economy in order to balance our relationship to the environment. The above quote could be taken from an Earth First! pamphlet. Why is it here in a document lauded by those who now want to get into bed with big business?

The argument is that both mainstream and radical environmentalism have failed. The former are too lightweight, blinded to current difficulties by the significant policy reforms they won in the sixties. The latter are too impractical, still railing against corporate juggernauts that—as that intellectual heavyweight, Zane Lowe pointed out—are here to stay.

Actually, Shellenberger and Nordhaus don’t really discuss radical environmentalists—maybe they see this approach as too discredited to mention. And many Bright Green advocates do envision the end of business-as-usual—through the type of business-embracing evolutionary approach that many radicals will find far too compromising.

To my eye, it seems that mainstream environmentalism is indeed dead; or at least, should be killed. And any debate about whether the “Neo-Greens” or “old radicals” should now lead the way is probably worthless. Make no mistake, there’s plenty for people who fall into these simplistic categories to disagree on. But without avoiding these differences, I want to look at how Wired’s features exemplify the kind of shallow, misleading attitudes that both categories could do without.

If anyone uses the “hair shirt” metaphor to describe people who love nature and think we should consume less again… I’ll either go on a shooting spree in a rage or fall asleep from boredom.

It’s strange. The accusation that people who like living in forests and rail against consumerism are actually psychologically compelled to mortify themselves, that their political position derives from some deep, twisted need for denying themselves pleasure, usually comes from—where? From people in the mainstream of society. That’s right; people who drag themselves out of bed at 7am every day, sit in traffic jams in order to slave away behind a desk while the sun shines outside, and slump home too tired and distracted to play with the kids or screw their spouse.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe. But really, who’s wearing the hair shirt? The most sense-literate, pleasure-positive people I know are all dedicated environmental activists. Their capacity for sensual indulgence is matched by their refusal to allow this to be exploited by a consumer society predicated on perpetual growth. Many times they suffer greatly “in the line of duty”, weathering tree-top vigils or flurries of intense organizational stress. But I’ve been to far too many wonderful parties with them, spent far too many lazy days in the countryside with them, too begin to think there was anything motivating their sacrifices other than their belief that the things they do do good.

Everyone I know who could even remotely be described as “wearing a hair shirt” channels that negativity through the most handy thing around for the purpose: a regular job. But I shouldn’t mention that truth: it’s “anti-business”.

Another Wired feature on eco-friendly fashion emphasizes that these new “green aesthetes” aren’t just rebelling against the polluting habits of the fashion industry:

They’re also taking aim at what Brown [of Stewart + Brown] calls “hippie conservatism,” the hand-wringing gloom and doom that equates virtue with a conspicuous lack of style. Brown and his peers are willing to utter the unspeakable truth: Hemp ponchos and vegan sandals are butt-ugly, and most people who wear them look ridiculous. […] “The hippies have been the backbone of the alt-environmental movement,” [Graham] Hill says. “But aesthetics matter. We’re trying to show that you can be cool and hip and still give a fuck about the environment.” The green aesthetes take their ideology bright, not dark. “We try to be super-optimistic,” Hill says. “We’re pro-business, pro-solution. The space we’re trying to fill is motivation by hope, not fear.”

Such vacuous rhetoric masks the fact that it isn’t literal hemp ponchos that are being objected to; it’s the belief they symbolize in the Neo-Green imagination—that perpetual growth isn’t possible—that is the real enemy. It doesn’t matter if you propose positive ideas for embracing a shrinking economy; anything but growth is “dark”, “pessimistic”.

This is our economic psychosis at work.

Of course aesthetics are important. But we all have different tastes. I could remark that the “Neo-Greens” in evidence in Wired look like painfully smug patients of an IKEA asylum for the terminally optimistic, all their interesting edges polished into nothingness. But I won’t, because it’s entirely possible that they’re cool people doing good. They just have bad taste.

In my experience, the activists I know and love who would commonly get called “hippies” are more aesthetically enthused than most people I’ve met. But it also happens that they’re not concerned with images in glossy magazines, and more interested in being personally, practically involved in their aesthetics than having it all done for them and handed down from on high.

Maybe the people quoted above would qualify their slapdash opinions if pressed on the matter. But while I applaud their efforts to bring more ethical, sustainably-manufactured clothes to the market, I’m suspicious of the rhetoric, the Manichean picture that’s being painted. This form of Neo-Green aesthetics separates light, smoothness, novelty, wholeness and sanguinity from dark, roughness, age, fragmentation and melancholy—ignoring entirely the complexity of reality, best expressed in Taoism, or Leonard Cohen’s line, “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”.

Surface aesthetics trumps good taste in supermarkets the world over. The desire for aesthetically pleasing fresh fruit and vegetables—pleasing, that is, to the shallow eye of the gloss-obsessed consumer—wastes technical resources and leads to less flavoursome food, as discussed in an Observer article:

‘I do think this quest for perfection has gone too far,’ says David Johnson, a fruit specialist who works for Horticulture Research International. Though his job is to develop storage technology for apples—largely in a bid to satisfy the supermarkets—he recognises the pressure put on growers by the obsession with appearance. ‘It drives some of our producers mad,’ he concedes, ‘and when you look at carrots, which have to be tapered with no cracks, and cucumbers that must be a certain shape and perfectly straight, you have to ask, “Do these things really matter?” If the product is wholesome and physically sound, how important is it? I think flavour is making a comeback and perhaps, in the fullness of time, people will accept a slightly different quality to get that flavour. But right now, appearance has a higher priority than it should.’

The Neo-Green ethic believes this cosmetic obsession can be hijacked in the cause of sustainability; that we can have our symmetrical, spotless cake, and eat it, too.

This aesthetic issue with basics like food isn’t discussed in Wired. But in discussing the social values of appearances, they report that Ken Kurani, an engineer at UC Davis, studied the reasons for people buying hybrid gas-electric cars in 2004 and 2005.

“We had a hard time explaining why people bought hybrids,” Kurani says. If consumers calculated the cost of the car and how much gas money a newfangled engine would save, the numbers wouldn’t add up. But few actually did the math—and those who did didn’t care. […] For most buyers, the goal wasn’t fuel economy. It was to produce fewer emissions, to minimize external harm—and to let everyone else know they’ve made a deliberate choice to do so.

The theory is that the wealthy early adopters will bootstrap eco-industries towards economies of scale that will proliferate green technologies throughout society.

Well, if the practical upshot is good—less destructive industries—then it’s hard to oppose these tactics. There is a nagging sense that the idea that the vanity of the rich will lead us forward to good things might prove a little naive in the long run. But this does seem like a pragmatic solution to the double-bind that prompted Tony Blair to be uncharacteristically straight-speaking last year at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum:

My view is that if we put forward, as a solution to climate change, something which involves drastic cuts in growth or standards of living, it matters not how justified it is, it simply won’t be agreed to. [my emphasis]

In the face of this dispiriting truth, there only seem to be two options.

First is the Neo-Green response: that not only can we solve climate change, we can solve it without cuts in growth or living standards—indeed, we can keep on growing ad infinitum. This is the belief we’ve cherished at least since the Sumerian culture hero and god of light, Marduk, slew the dark primordial dragon, Tiamat: the belief that we humans are special, apart from nature, beyond the blind instincts of animals. Religion thought that we were just plain different—even if natural ecological constraints were perceived, it wouldn’t matter anyway as the kingdom of heaven awaited us. When science stumbled on the idea that we are actually just smart monkeys, our distinct status was maintained in the belief that our superior technological intelligence will forever bail us out from submitting to ecological constraints. We are animals, but we are the animals that will forever change the rules of the game of nature. There is no God; but we are gods.

The other approach is to accept that we are limited, constrained animals, big brains notwithstanding. And while humanity almost certainly has a future, whatever future there is, is on the other side of an extremely narrow evolutionary bottleneck. Our rationalizations for our base instincts—all the froth of justification that actually ends up believing our desire for comfort and convenience can be our saviour from ecological catastrophe—will cushion our descent into the population crash that must inevitably follow our overshooting of sustainable resource use. But crash we will, all the harder for our having buried our heads in our cushions at the beginning of the end.

I haven’t a fucking clue what’s going to happen. None of us have. Even though I don’t own a car, fly relatively infrequently, do my best to shop ethically and sustainably, and recycle where possible, I’m not doing nearly enough to help to “consciously redesign the entire material basis of our civilization” (as Alex Steffen accurately describes our task in an essay much more balanced and in-depth than his brief Wired piece). None of us are doing enough.

In order to turn things around, I think we need a sharp awareness of the dire possibilities implied in the second approach above. Panic is counter-productive fear, and to be avoided. (Though as William Burroughs noted, subtle tactics are necessary: “That rot about pulling yourself together, and the harder you pull the worse it gets. Let it in and look at it. What shape is it? What color? Let it wash through you.”) Fear itself is with us for a reason. It can act as a powerful catalyst to action. Would the Neo-Greens even be bothering if they hadn’t gone through one or more bouts of fear?

But overdosing on fear or building a high tolerance to it are both counter-productive. The glowing hopes for a bountiful future also need to be treasured. They may seem fragile; but perhaps they are more like diamonds, near-indestructible nuggets of beauty formed amidst the intense pressures deep in the dark earth. Alex Steffen’s ‘Winning the Great Wager‘ presents a vision that seems at once hopelessly outlandish, and—in the terms he presents, in the face of the facts he presents—necessary.

I have doubts. I think the best bet is to combine all approaches; or rather, what will happen is that all approaches will have to be used.

We should learn from the past wherever possible, whether it be from the mistakes or from the things that we got right in the Stone Age but suddenly screwed up in the past few centuries. As Hakim Bey noted, a return to the Palaeolithic is impossible and undesirable; a return of the Palaeolithic is necessary. It’s the mega-Renaissance that Terence McKenna spoke of: as the Italians in the middle of the last millennium looked back to Classical civilization for inspiration to build the modern world, our need for an even greater leap forward entails casting our nets even further back, to find inspiration at this critical juncture in the roots of our species.

We need to shed the infantile idea that the coming transition to a sustainable culture is not only possible, but will be easy. “I guess it is easy being green,” Kermit is forced to say in a Ford hybrid SUV advert in Wired—no doubt with Ford’s CEO pointing a gun at his head.

More will never be enough, and we need to revise our prejudices against “less”. We need to foster a true materialism, a deeper engagement with the sensual world, to replace the jittery false materialism we’re currently mired in. The monotheist detachment, the split from matter, was not healed by scientific materialism; it merely transformed it into Cartesian alienation. The seeds are there in current science for a further transformation: evolutionary theory, the neurosciences, the kinds of cognitive approaches championed by George Lakoff, biomimicry… All point to the quite heathen possibilities of reconnecting consciousness to the material world.

Max Weber, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), argued that even though it no longer applies, the origins of modern industrial capitalism lay in the intense puritanical restraint of Calvinists and other Protestants, together with their belief in tireless work in your “calling”. It was only through such ascetic industriousness, together with their strict avoidance of the “indulgence” of the peasant’s hand-to-mouth existence, that the basis for modern rationalized industry could be formed. I think the ghosts of the religious postponement of pleasure haunt even our apparently indulgent society. Exorcizing these spooks, and encouraging more genuine enjoyment of simple material pleasures, will help us break the law of diminishing returns that our addiction to more, more, more has lead us to.

Part of this has to involve resisting the current wave of Neo-Green rationalizations for the dogma of growth. In the comments on a recent article on the fascinating but debatable proposition that we may evolve lives that have “no net negative ecological impact at all”, discussion of birth control and energy use reduction was met with a violently jerking knee: “It makes me sick when the only solution people come up with is to kill.” And further: “This is a repulsive argument. It’s a classic example of ‘There’s No One So Green As the Dead.'” The hysteria underlying these responses is emphasized by the fact that they’re responses to something that wasn’t there at all. There was no mention of killing; just birth control. Well, I know some other people partial to equating birth control with murder. “Be fruitful and multiply” has been secularized and strengthened in the runaway irrationalism of the modern free market, to the point where it is skewing even the most ostensibly informed debates on reducing population and/or energy use. We shouldn’t let our inherited values distort our view of what is most important.

And yes, at the same time—even tempered with an awareness that “progress” might not be as linear or assured as we hope—we need to develop new technologies, and new techniques, that will ameliorate the problems we face, and eventually build new foundations for sustainable societies.

This post has become much longer than I intended. There are plenty of other issues spinning off from this. Hopefully now I’m regularly on the web again I can start posting my thoughts on them in more digestible portions!

I’ll close by returning to my original point—which certainly seems very petty after that grandiose climax, and should certainly be seen as a footnote rather than the ultimate point of all this. Basically, I’m just alternately angry and bemused at how Neo-Green rhetoric often trashes the tireless efforts of many good eco-activist friends of mine using shallow arguments and shoddy logic. It just shows how skin-deep much of their ecological thinking is.

If you wander out to any tree in a field or park, you’ll see the beautiful bright green leaves shimmering in the wind, speaking of new life and growth, and reaching towards the light. But you’ll be a fool if you think they exist independently. Out of sight, the tree’s roots reach down into the soil, drawing up moisture and nutrients every bit as essential as the light harvested by the leaves. The roots have the dirtier job, but the tree depends on them as much it relies on the leaves.

Having said that, go read It’s doing the best job I’ve so far seen of integrating the less palatable realities into its generally admirable work towards a “bright green future”; reaching for the light without uprooting itself out of distaste for the messy, dank realities below.

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