Environmental aphorisms

Environmentalism is a response to crises of capitalism

By Greg Gabrellas

Environmentalism does not seem a propitious target for critique. It is too disparate—a loose genus uniting dissimilar species: green capitalism, green anarchism, green Marxism, green Christianity, deep ecology, thin ecology, Al Gore–style pressure politics, “Earth First!” style eco-terror. No single text, manifesto, or declaration motivated the whole field. Any possible statement about environmentalism (like “it has a concern for nature”) could be falsified by appeal to a divergent branch: green Christianity does not recognize ‘nature’ qua nature, only the earth as part of God’s dominion. Perhaps there is no environmentalism, only a family resemblance: a heterogeneous collection unified by no single quality.

But perhaps this divergence is, itself, a kind of unity. Environmentalism’s inbuilt incoherence ought not to be naturalized away.

Fragmentation itself could be historicized, taken as the result of unseen historical causes. We could show how pluralism emerges after the failure of unitary politics. Critical agency fails to master social development, finds itself helpless, and looks for reassurance. We didn’t really need to overthrow capitalism; the whole project was just the result of some Promethean hubris. Horizons get lowered, barricades abandoned, and community gardens planted. Red fades into green.

But such historicization will not be sufficient. We do not, as environmentalists, recognize ourselves in this history. It seems foreign and unrelated to our concerns and projects. Critique must come from the inside and take immanent form. We adopt the divergent perspectives and show, from within, the self-contradictory center of each. Instead of a linear analysis, we present a constellation of related critiques.

But the disconnected form of our argument arises only out of necessity. Environmentalists do not view themselves as belonging to a coherent, ideological movement. There is no Green International, no Ecologists Manifesto: only an assemblage, a network, a heap, or a rhizome. We urge another metaphor, environmentalism as a highly successful set of symptoms: response-formations to an invisible trauma.

These reflections mark the first, necessarily incomplete, step towards the recognition of this trauma.

“Teachable moments.” Each new environmental crisis, it seems, presents us with a fresh chance to learn from our mistakes. Al Gore insists that global warming “provides us with opportunities to do a lot of things we ought to be doing for other reasons anyway.” Leftists share Gore’s reasoning. A recent article in the Monthly Review opines, “The ecological crisis is an opportunity for socialists to reach wider layers of people because the environment affects everyone.” From this angle, crises appear as unexpected irruptions into the course of everyday life: “teachable moments.”

But what if these crises aren’t unexpected or unusual? Marx wrote that “Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty, and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.” Under capitalism, crises are normal. Expect the unexpected.

Adopt Marx’s perspective, and crisis appears differently. Not as an opportunity for correct politics, not as the teachable moment, but as the latest sign of failure. Understand crisis as a reminder of tasks incomplete and unaddressed. This time, we haven’t done things differently, because we’re still hoping to do things differently.

“The Wager.” Biologist Paul Ehrlich launched a career as a professional doomsdayist with the publication of his 1968 book The Population Bomb which claimed that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the ’70s because of unrestrained population. Economist Julian Simon thought such neo-Malthusian gloom-mongering inaccurate, and proposed a wager to Ehrlich. If overpopulation really was a problem, then the price of metals would necessarily rise, pressured by rising demand. In 1980, Simon bet a thousand dollars that technology would—counter to Ehrlich—drive prices down.

Although Simon’s techno-panglossianism and Ehrlich’s pessimism appear wholly dissimilar, they share a perspective. Simon sees history as moving upwards forever: Technology allows for the ever-expanding exploitation of the environment. Ehrlich sees it sloping downwards: Natural constraints will harshly limit the hubris of humanity.

But both sides put the future in the realm of necessity: Trends beyond our control will determine the future of humanity. Upwards or downwards, it’s out of our hands. There is a truth to such positions; the future is, currently, outside of our control. It will produce both great technological advances and awesome miseries. But this need not be taken as the result of ahistorical factors. It results, instead, from the particular mix of freedom and domination peculiar to modern life: capitalism.

“Environmental Justice.” In Chicago, “toxic tours” lead tourists around impoverished neighborhoods and explain how the nearby chemical factors cause incredible pollution and sickness. The organizers couch the tour in terms of community: formerly pristine neighborhoods spoiled by toxic waste. They insist that we need ‘environmental justice’ to right the wrongs done to the community, to ensure that the poor do not suffer unjustly.

To follow the logic of environmental justice: Pollution ought to be evenly spread across rich and the poor, whites and people of color. Spray the suburbs with pesticides. Leak chromium into their wells. Let them know how it feels. Few activists would urge such redistribution but it follows logically from the principles: The politics of justice quickly slide into resentment.

If we have a birthday cake to divide between us, we would hope to slice it fairly. Justice is an appropriate hope here, but not for all situations. If we’re stuck beneath an avalanche in a room with diminishing air, we don’t want to figure out how to justly divide our last breaths. We want to figure out how what is blocking us and how to escape.

Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in the social sciences.