NB: This is an updated version of an old article titled ‘it ain’t easy being green’.
Few people now deny that many of the essential natural systems that sustain all life on Earth are profoundly threatened by human activity. Among countless other horrors, vast expanses of richly biodiverse rainforest have been decimated to make way for crops planted for livestock feed and biofuel, the use of fossil fuels is at an all time high, the world’s oceans are fast being depleted of fish, water shortages are imminent in many parts of the world, the global food supply is threatened by GMOs and the atmosphere itself is thick with pollutants, affecting the climactic stability of our entire planet.
Even if we ignore the troubling fact that some ecologists are calling this intersection of catastrophes the Sixth Great Extinction Crisis, the effects on just our species are alarming, and include global political instability and conflict, displacement, famine, an increase in exploitation in so-called ‘developing’ countries, epidemic levels of psychological illness and vast economic inequalities.
It is no exaggeration to say that the next decade will offer humanity both its greatest opportunity and its greatest challenge; how we choose to respond as a global community to these and other pressing issues will have immense consequences for our shared future and what kinds of lives – if any – we are able to lead on this planet. In the face of all this, however, it seems as though our defining moment of global solidarity currently amounts to little more than ineffective posturing.
We all care about these issues. We all want to do something to slow down the ecological crisis and we’ve all – those of us who are privileged enough to be able to – tried hard to make at least some of the changes advocated by mainstream environmentalists: we’ve installed low wattage lightbulbs in our homes, we buy less plastic bags, we try to eat ‘organic’, we recycle, and some of us have even sought out fuel efficient cars.
Should we then feel guilty when we’re told that, collectively, these measures will not make a substantial impact, not even if every last one of us drove a Prius and had a solar geyser?
The problem is threefold: first, capitalists have seen a new gap in the market and have attached all sorts of dubious green rhetoric, aka ‘greenwash’ to their products; second, most of the spokespeople for green ‘activism’ are married to the idea that market forces alone will suffice to save us, strengthening the drive of the green marketers and illegitimating any more radical actions; third, some of our habits are so deeply entrenched that few have actually realised that they can and should be changed. All these factors combine to give us an entirely false sense of how we can really make a difference.
So what can we do if we are serious about living ethically and reversing the tide of ecological devastation? The environmental movement has several different answers to this question.
Light Green Environmentalism
So-called ‘light green environmentalists’ (‘LG’s’ for short) see environmental protection as a personal consumer responsibility and thus ask us to simply make responsible consumption choices.
For instance, given the fact that the global livestock industry is the single largest cause of human-made global warming (more significant than the entire global transport industry according to the 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation report ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’), the LG’s advocate a shift away from an animal product based diet and towards locally produced, organic / permacultural production of plant-based foods. According to the UN and similar institutions, the global move towards a plant-based diet could result in as much as a 90% reduction in our food production footprint and would reduce our ecological footprint even more than giving up our cars for bicycles.
LG’s also advise us to use our consumer power to boycott environmentally irresponsible companies, to support mainstream environmental organisations, to participate in a ‘politics of demand’ via petitions and protests and to preference local or ‘eco-friendly’ industries whenever possible. In many ways, however, the LG movement is nothing more than a legitimation of the very same economic and political structures that got us into this mess in the first place and their proposals for change often amount to a belief in the idea that we can solve problems with the same kind of thinking that caused the problems – that we can solve carbon emission problems, for example, by allowing market trades of ‘pollution credits’.
Bright Green Environmentalism
Going one step further, BG’s ask how we produce. They tend to be enthusiastic about renewable energy, hybrid cars, nanotechnology and other ‘small footprint’ technologies. More often than not, this results in misplaced exuberance and the fetishisation of novelty for its own sake. In BG melting pots, the popular ‘TED Talks’, for instance, one encounters this regularly: machines that are connected to livestock in order to capture their methane emissions for use as clean energy is just one of the countless hare-brained schemes enthusiastically promoted by TED speakers.
While BG’s assert that technological innovation will allow us slow or even reverse the tide of ecological devastation, in practice this usually amounts to the kind of anachronistic belief in ‘the future’ that characterised such moments in our naively technotopic past as the 1939 World’s Fair or the Italian Futurist Movement (whose 1910 manifesto on the future is well worth reading as a symptomatology of terminal Enlightenment humanist faith in the myth of progress if nothing else). The aesthetics of this ‘retro-futurism’ are also core to BG’s: permaculture, for example, is not deemed as ‘sexy’ as massive vertical farming projects and natural building methods are pushed to the side as old fashioned, in favour of ’60s sci-fi style curved white buildings or mass-produced geodesic domes.
Dark Green Environmentalism
DG’s take both the LG and the BG positions one step further by questioning why consumerism has so fully permeated our lives and our values. In doing so they pose a challenge to two forms of irrational faith: the belief in the ability of ‘consumer’ activism to create market ‘solutions’ and the even more problematic belief in in the ability of ‘science’ to produce innovative solutions to any and all problems we encounter along the way.
DG’s believe that ecological devastation is being caused not just by what we buy and how it is made, but also by how we live and function as a society. They see the dominant political and economic ideology of globalised (post-)industrial capitalism as inherently flawed in its promotion of shallow and unsustainable relations with each other and the natural world, relations based on acquisitiveness, competition, mindless consumerism, homogeneity and reductionist atomization.
Not content to leave the analysis there, DG’s go on to state that the basis of all this is a misplaced emphasis on perpetual growth and progress at the expense of all else; the roots of this transcend market logic and also the development-centrism of a great deal of Leftist thought, and are in esssence simply a continuation of the myopic Industrial Revolution mindset that seeks to endlessly exploit the whole of nature for human benefit without recognising the unsustainability and arbitrariness of this approach.
Distinct from both LG’s and BG’s, DG’s encourage social activism and direct action – DG’s like philosopher and activist Dr Steven Best and writer and ecologist Derrick Jensen eloquently defend the use of any and all effective tactics in working towards ecological justice, including illegal activities like sabotaging logging operations, burning down Monsanto research laboratories or sinking whaling ships. While these are often described by mainstream media as ‘extremist’ or ‘terroristic’ forms of action, Dr Best’s recent anthology ‘Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth’ asks us to consider them in their full context, comparing the environmental struggle to historical justice movements and supplying countless historical examples of where revolutionary direct action proved effective once reformist ‘light green’ measures had failed.
Even Darker Green Environmentalism
At the most extreme end of the DG spectrum is the ‘primitivist’ or ‘post-civ’ movement, the most recent outgrowth of which is the UK-based Dark Mountain Project, a group working towards the complete abolition of industrial society and the creation of grassroots alternatives. While there is penchant for the hyperbolic in their publications (their 2009 manifesto being a case in point), and while ‘primitivism’ is sometimes rightly seen as an escapist approach to the problems we face as a technologically enmeshed society, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on what exactly it is that we do want and what really does make us truly happy before we dismiss the idea of living more simply – or in more ‘primitive’ fashion – as absurd right off the bat.
After all, psychology tells us us that for all our flashy gadgets and cheap sweatshop clothes we’re no happier now than we were several decades ago; on the contrary, we’re becoming more anxious, more depressed, more self-absorbed and less capable of meaningful and fulfilling interpersonal relationships. And surely even those of us who are relatively ‘successful’ in our forced participation in the capitalist economy must resent the mundane and often meaningless slog of our five days of ‘immaterial labour’ a week, the long and congested daily commutes in our lonely cars, the mad rush to gorge ourselves on shiny but ultimately unsatisfying trinkets and the mediation of our interpersonal relations by impersonal mass communications technologies…
…instead we enjoy, almost every single one of us, leisurely time spent with family and friends, long walks through green expanse where we can marvel at the majesty and complexity of the natural world and simple time spent engaging our creative impulses – not as a means to some fiscal end but as an entirely satisfying ends in itself. These truly basic, really meaningful parts of human experience are not enabled by technological advancement – they are mediated, debased, virtualised, distanced and increasingly unequally apportioned by it, while the very social and material bases necessary for exploring and expanding on them are progressively destroyed.
So even though we have sent camera equipment to Mars and now know enough about the quantum world to build a simple calculator out of a glass of water, even if we have almost perfected the artificial eye and the bionic heart, and although we can now buy (if the unequal distribution of the world’s ‘resources’ is biased in our favour) high-definition 3D televisions, portable music players that hold a hundred thousand songs and touchscreen phones that recognise spoken commands, perhaps we have forgotten, in our mad rush towards some fictitious goal post, how to ask some very simple questions:
What is an individual human life and what is life together? What could living consist of? How do we define ourselves as a species and how do we measure our worth? Is this really the best it could be? Are we acting in the interests of ourselves and the planet? What is the value, intrinsic or otherwise, of the dwindling numbers of other species we share it with? What is it that drives all of us to act in such facile and self-destructive ways? Can this be changed? Will our strategies for change truly replace these failing systems, or will they instead merely serve to reproduce them?
Maybe, just maybe, if enough of us are brave enough to confront these kinds of questions honestly and with all of our being, without simply invoking our political or philosophical biases, the very shifts in living brought about in the pursuit of finding new answers will suffice to begin the long and uncertain process of change and move us a little closer towards saving not only ourselves but also, and perhaps just as importantly, all the other life on Earth that we have disempowered, artificially divided and claimed dominion over.
Until then, the old adage is surely true: our reach exceeds our grasp.
Aragorn Eloff is an independent anarchist researcher, a long-time animal rights activist and a passionate environmentalist. He is currently completing a documentary on the global history and ideas of anarchism and in his spare time distributes radical literature via the Missing Shelf.