Is environmentalism a capitalist project?
A new essay shows how big business has been won round to the idea of a 'green economy' - but it's wrong to suggest they were always so keen.
This review is republished from the February 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here
Possibly the single most important development within Western societies in the past quarter of a century has been the rise and rise of environmentalism.
It’s worth recalling that back in the 1970s, earnest, Malthusian, ‘small is beautiful’ advocates lived on the margins of everyday life. As with so many other post-Second World War cultural developments, environmentalism was seen and experienced by many as yet another California-invented fad. Even after the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis, the miserabilist report Limits To Growth by the Club of Rome was strongly criticised by serious commentators from both the left and right. The idea of sustainable development had not yet been invented. Classical ‘small is beautiful’ or ‘let’s get back to our roots’ romantic sentiments competed with numerous other critiques of modern life.
Today, environmentalism dominates Western cultural sensibilities – even though its most avid crusaders keep up the pretence that environmentalism is a brave radical movement, a David forced to contend with an army of powerful Goliaths. Although greens continually moralise about society’s hypocrisy and irresponsibility towards the planet, the fact is that environmentalism dominates the cultural imagination, directly shapes contemporary lifestyle, and has emerged as a powerful moralising project. To be green is to be virtuous, responsible, if not yet holy. Public discourse is underpinned by green values, and for politicians ‘helping to save the planet’ has become a point-scoring apple-pie issue.
Most importantly, capitalist society appears to be restructuring according to an environmentalist imperative. Even hard-headed capitalist entrepreneurs have opted for business plans underpinned by an environmentalist ethos. Of course, some entrepreneurs have a healthy cynicism about the merits of fashionable envirobabble, but nevertheless they understand that they cannot thrive unless they talk the talk.
British commentator James Heartfield has written a thought-provoking essay that attempts to make sense of what drives the ascendancy of Green Capitalism. The main merit of the essay is that it endeavours to explain what appears to be a new phase in the cultural and economic life of capitalism. In particular, Heartfield is rightly preoccupied with trying to find an answer to one of the key questions of our time: why has capitalism come to embrace restraint and the ethos of sustainability, when as an economic system it has always been characterised by its commitment to raise productivity and expand production?
The strength of Heartfield’s Green Capitalism is its critique of green consumerism. In a well-argued section, Heartfield argues that the outward expression of anti-consumerism tends to coexist with a new obsessive fixation on the act of consumption. So although green consumerism appears to represent a rejection of materialism, in practice it is no less preoccupied with buying things than are those brand junkies chasing the latest fashionable product. Arguably, as Heartfield implies, shopping means more to green consumers than it does to the shallow brand-fixated consumers they so despise. For a start, green consumers imagine that their purchases are meaningful ethical acts. ‘Ethical shopping flatters us that our everyday buying is doing good’, argues Heartfield.
Such ethical transactions represent a form of ‘status affirmation’. And as is the case with all forms of status affirmation, these green shopping habits are acts of social demarcation. Through adopting the identity of an ethical shopper, someone who cares and who reflects on what they purchase, green consumers are self-consciously marking themselves off from their moral, and incidentally their social, inferiors. Their denunciation of their fellow human beings who wear trashy throwaway cheap clothes and eat cheap food is a modern-day version of the paternalistic lectures made by Victorian do-gooders.
Ironically, green protest against consumerism doesn’t represent the rejection of consumption, but rather its moralisation. From a sociological perspective, green consumption can be seen as a new form of conspicuous consumption. This is consumption for effect. Consumption apparently must no longer be an impulsive act of buying – rather it has become a massively over-examined experience, and both a moral statement and an affirmation of status and identity. In the nineteenth century, theories of commodity fetishism noted the growing tendency for people to live through things – commodities appeared to acquire a life of their own through the working of the market. In the world of green consumerism, the fetish of commodities acquires an unprecedented significance. Things are assigned human and ethical significance. Thus we have the stigmatisation of certain foods as ‘evil’ and the rendering of other products as ‘ethical’.
Green Capitalism also makes some interesting observations about the growing valuation of scarcity in twenty-first century Western culture. Heartfield writes of an ‘economy of wasting time’, where resources are devoted to initiatives that make little sense except as rituals of ethical intent, such as recycling. He discusses an apparent trend towards reversing the division of labour through the idealisation of subsistence, small-scale and decentralised activities. Heartfield believes that these trends are the outcome of a process that he calls ‘manufactured scarcity’, and that capitalism has become reoriented around reaping benefits from deindustrialisation. It appears that ‘the cannier green capitalists worked out’ that ‘scarcity increases price’ and ‘manufacturing scarcity can increase returns’, he argues. Yet while this analysis of scarcity provides some interesting insights into the workings of the market, it is also the weak link in Green Capitalism.
It is always tempting to interpret contemporary reality as an inevitable outcome of purposeful forces. Often when examining the present, we feel tempted to read history backwards and place far too much emphasis on the element of subjective intent. To some extent, Green Capitalism moves in this direction and discusses today’s green economy as the outcome of a project initiated by capitalism itself.
In an attempt to substantiate this point, Heartfield claims that it was the ‘elite industrialists of the Club of Rome’ who commissioned the report The Limits to Growth and who were also responsible for encouraging the rise of the modern environmental movement. Furthermore, he claims that the conversion of the children of many of these industrialists to environmentalism demonstrates that this was a project initiated by Big Business. Of course, few would question that the modern environmentalist movement has elitist origins. But the business world should not be endowed with the foresight and the power to launch a project in the 1970s whose objectives would only be realised decades later. Back in the 1970s, the Club of Rome reflected a general sense of malaise, but it did not express the agenda of Western capitalism. After the Club of Rome, the vast majority of business leaders continued to be devoted to growth and regarded environmental issues as being of marginal significance. The greening of capitalism occurred later, and it was the product of complex cultural and social interactions in a world where defenders of the market economy found it difficult to give meaning to their activities.
Heartfield’s focus on intentionally engineered scarcity may prove to be misplaced. It is based upon the premise that the rationing of goods is a principal feature of capitalism. Heartfield argues that ‘capitalism was from the outset a system of rationing’ and that it ‘cannot exist without scarcity’, for ‘scarcity is capitalism’s system of control’. This association of scarcity with capitalism is not very helpful. Every society so far has been in part a system of rationing, and arguably rationing is one of the least distinctive features of capitalism. Similarly, every society so far has been associated with scarcity, too, so in one sense it seems obvious that none of these societies could have existed without scarcity.
But can the engineering of scarcity, as Heartfield suggests, become the driver of contemporary economic life? Individual entrepreneurs have often attempted to corner markets, create artificial shortages and enjoy the benefits of monopoly prices. However, what works for a relatively short period of time for the individual capitalist cannot overcome the force of competition. On occasion, competitors can make agreements to divide up the market, but in the end such attempts soon tend to break down under pressure of market forces.
What Green Capitalism characterises as the ‘engineering of scarcity’ could be more usefully described as the creation of new demands. Indeed, what is most striking today is not simply the rise of the celebration of scarcity, but the growing tendency to marketise every aspect of life. Under the banner of green capitalism, more and more features of economic life are being reorganised and restructured. Everything from the emission of carbon to the air we breathe to the water we drink has been transformed into a commodity. Arguments for protecting nature are really a demand for the gradual securitisation of the environment. Powerful forces insist on transforming every object of possible use into a value, in an attempt to subject them all to the influence of market transactions. Yes, resources are wasted on ‘sustainable technology’ and on rituals of green morality – but communities have always ‘wasted’ resources on building pyramids, palaces, temples and a variety of white elephant projects.
James Heartfield does an excellent job of alerting us to the importance of the economic reorganisation that is taking place under the environmentalist imperative. But it is far from clear to what extent this process represents a new dynamic towards the construction of scarcity. It is useful to recall that capitalism is continually reorganising its method of production and the way it relates to the market. Frequently it undermines what it achieved in the past, but through an act of ‘creative destruction’ it tries to restore profitability and guarantee itself a new phase of accumulation. Paradoxically, it may well be that green ethics will provide the market with unprecedented opportunities to expand consumption through the creation of new demands that are harmonious with the status-conscious but very conspicuous and ethically-addicted consumer. Green Capitalism provides an important point of departure for thinking about the future.
Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity by James Heartfield. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
This review is republished from the February 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here
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