By Dan Cass.
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Here is a book review about social theory and the environment in 1998, in which I quote The Pixies. Originally published in Arena Magazine and reproduced with thanks.
Social Theory and the Environment
David Goldblatt, Social Theory and the Environment, Polity, Cambridge, 1996.
George Robertson et al. (eds), Future-Natural: nature, science, culture, Routledge, London, 1996.
Tom Athanasiou, Slow Reckoning: the ecology of a divided planet, Secker & Warburg, London, 1997.
And if the Earth’s not cold, Well everything is gonna burn
We’ll all take turns … `Monkey gone to heaven', The Pixies
How are we to understand the causes of ecological tragedies such as the devastating South-East Asian fires of 1997? According to American Tom Athanasiou in Slow Reckoning, environmental disasters are inevitable in our current system; it is structurally incapable of being ecologically sustainable or socially equitable. Athanasiou makes a compelling argument that, after thirty years of effort, contemporary environmentalism has utterly failed to change how our society uses the planet. Indeed, it is true that no basic trends to ecocide have been reversed, with the possible exception of ozone layer depletion. Athanasiou’s prescription for change is to merge ecological and `traditional' Leftist concerns, to create new values for a global society.
The premise of Slow Reckoning is that the world needs a massive wave of democratisation if it is to survive. The challenge to the environment movement, then, is to stop worrying about wilderness and look at the `ecology of a divided planet'. Athanasiou’s argument is that if development was made subservient to democracy then we could care for people and nature. Unfortunately however, Athanasiou does not explain how this would work. His hope is that economic alternatives will emerge out of interaction between new and old social movements, at a distinctively global level of community.
Despite Athanasiou’s passionate invitations to get active, his book does not make encouraging reading. After confronting his extensive documentation of destruction and political cant, we are left anxious, trapped, with little understanding of why environmentalism fails. We need to clarify why the society he describes is so good at ecocide. David Goldblatt confronts this question in Social Theory and the Environment, through the male European theorists Anthony Giddens, Andre Gorz, Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck.
Ecology and economy
Goldblatt begins by using the work of Anthony Giddens to determine the structural causes of ecocide. Giddens' thesis is that capitalism is to blame, because it fosters a particularly frenetic version of industrial progress. The analysis here, as with the rest of Goldblatt’s book, though dense is extremely useful to anyone grappling with social theory. Essentially, Giddens proposes that ecocide has several ultimate causes, including the expansion of monetary systems, ideology of limitless growth, private capital wealth, consumerism, corporate-driven technology and complex division of labour. No matter how concerned we are, in the end we all just work here.
In answer to the question about the fires of tropical Asia, Giddens would agree with political commentators who say that until Indonesia develops a free civil society government will never heed the ecologists' alarm bells. Yet as Athanasiou shows, despite having relatively little power in the public sphere Southern ecologists are often more astute than their Western counterparts. In fact, the intellectual leadership of the environmental movement has shifted away from preservationists like the World Wildlife Fund towards the political ecologists of the South.
While Anthony Giddens provides credible understandings of the economy’s destructiveness, like Athanasiou he does not present alternatives by which we could live. Accordingly, Goldblatt segues to Andre Gorz, an ecologically-savvy, French `post-socialist'. mn is notable for having retained an extravagant faith in social progress long after many in the French Left turned to language, self and the impossibility of cooperation.
According to Gorz, the emerging post-industrial society generates inter-linked ecological, social and economic crises. Yet while in many respects it makes social and environmental conditions worse, there is no point trying to replace it in toto. Rather, we should be working with the flexibilities of the post-industrial scene to build an improvised `ecological utopia' by reclaiming work.
Gorz’s post-industrial critique has influenced the French Greens, who are presently in a coalition government with the Socialists. While the Socialists want to shorten the working week to thirty-six hours in order to reduce unemployment, the Greens are pushing for a thirty hour maximum. The hope is that the `wage-slave' will disappear, or at least become a part-time employee. If Gorz is right, then people will have time for autonomous, self-generating work. This will shift the power balance towards a more ecological and community-centered society, and also lower the intensity of industrial production, directly lessening pollution and destruction of nature. This experiment in applied social theory is an exciting alternative to the barren vistas portrayed in Athanasiou’s Slow Reckoning.
Mad, bad modernity
Green responses to ecotraumas such as deforestation or global warming often stumble on the question of why decision-making fails. Environmentalists dig themselves into a hole reiterating the same naive questions. How could the authorities let things get so bad? Why don’t they heed the facts? David Goldblatt uses the work of Germans Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck to explain why public debates never seem to solve environmental problems, and how this makes us feel. It is worth noting that in contrast to our own culture, with its deadening lack of interest in ideas, in Germany Beck and Habermas are frequent public commentators.
Habermas says that the modern world is composed of two competing, parallel universes: system and lifeworld. The lifeworld is the moral context in which self-formation and democracy take place. It traverses both the public sphere and the private self. When you feel agonies over the stolen generation or the loss of Sarawak’s forests, you are thinking through the lifeworld. However, when you go to work, buy 30+ sunscreen or vote, you are participating in the systems of money and politics. Money and power are the media of meaning within systems, and abstract actors out of the normative values of the lifeworld. Put differently, they allow those who make up corporations and governments to disregard people and the environment.
For Habermas, greens should stop restating the fact that modernisation is irrational; money and power can never value nature and will always act to `colonise' the lifeworld. Habermas’s solution is to have a public sphere which allows the synthesis of system and lifeworld.
These speculations about the split experience of modernity are taken to baroque heights in Ulrich Beck’s image of a
risk society'. According to Beck, we live in aspeculative age' dominated by the fear of invisible ecological and political risks that are defined by experts in continual disagreement. The archetypal `modern risk' is nuclear radiation—created by technology, perceptible only through science, global and catastrophic. However experts define safe exposure, radiation will always be perceived as a menace.
The risk society also describes social threats, which are heightened by individualisation. What were previously seen as social issues—poverty, health and employment for example are increasingly laid at the feet of all of us, as individuals. According to Beck, technical and cultural alternatives have become decisions about how to reduce personal risk. We ask ourselves: should I donate to Greenpeace to abate global warming? Can I risk McDonalds, or are Big Macs made from mad cows?
For this writer, Beck captures some essential experiences of life at the end of the century. Our
risk society' is indeed neurotic and explosive--public opinion swings from contentment to hysteria and back. People feel the whole world bearing upon them, but blamethe system' for everything and so justify their apathy.
Cool ideas to turn down the heat
FutureNatural is a relieving counterpoint to these discussions, because it introduces new starting points. Aside from the banal introduction, this cultural studies collection includes solid essays from all the luminaries (Trinh T. Minh-ha, Slavoj Zizek, Mark Poster, Tiziana Terranova and Andrew Ross) and has a really cool cover to boot. The gems, however, are from lesser-knowns, such as Frank Dexter’s quixotic
An interview with Satan', in which the Prince of Darkness claims to have invented modernity. Dexter-Lucifer argues that the role of the Western intellectual, andultimate meaning of enlightenment, is … to make everything problematic'. Technology is this enlightenment in practice and is `a kind of mania for short-cuts which leads to enormous and irreversible detours', such as nuclear energy.
The serious aim of this collection is to link culture and ecology, in order to develop a broader understanding of environmental politics. Kate Soper is an English philosopher who tackles the epistemological question of Nature head on. She contrasts ecology and postmodernism on the basis that they have both
denounced the technocratic Promethianism of the Enlightenment project', and that theirpolitical prescriptions … are in some ways complementary'. Soper argues that both ecologists and postmodernists have got it wrong. She says ecologists tend to disregard the ways in which power produces the meanings of bodies, environments and activities natural to these spheres. In doing this, Northern ecologists can easily forget that they live on a divided planet, where two billion people barely survive. Postmodernists, meanwhile, over-emphasise the discursive nature of Nature, and so dismiss ecological realities and obscure our dealings with them.
Soper treads delicately around these debates and suggests that our goal should be `human flourishing'. This concept is biological and cultural, natural and constructed. A response to the Asian fires which followed Soper’s lead would necessarily integrate native title, democracy and ecology, because in some essential way these are all preconditions for the kind of flourishing to which she refers.
Another of the more novel essays is by Karl Figlio, a psychoanalyst and academic from England. In the way that Goldblatt seeks structural political causes of ecocide, Figlio searches for psychological structures which hinder our efforts to deal sensibly with environmental issues. Figlio’s premise is that, like all knowledge, ecology has a known or conscious component and an unconscious substructure. As a result, the meanings environmentalists produce will always split into these two realms, possibly confounding their conscious intentions.
Figlio proposes that the more scientifically we know nature, the more we perceive it to be inanimate, which in phantasy means killed. In this phantasy, killed nature is
in a vengeful mood' andfuels apocalyptic forebodings' which sound reminiscent of Beck’s risk society. For those who tie the fortunes of environmentalism to scientific ecology, Figlio’s argument may have profound consequences. What if Wilderness Society-style descriptions of nature-in-crisis make nature seem already dead? Conversely, what if the expansion of science `against' animism fuels unconscious investment in a nature with human feelings and needs?
Taken overall, Slow Reckoning, FutureNatural and Social Theory and the Environment give excellent insights into the ecological crisis and our responses to it. Each book raises interesting issues to do with science, culture and power. Most importantly, they demonstrate how provocative it can be trying to think beyond the constraints of one or another academic discipline.
Also available at The Free Library.
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