Monday, January 19, 2009

Consumption vs. the Green Economy?

Shout-out to Michael Maniates, for being the first to leave a comment and remind me that there might actually be some readers out there. Michael teaches at Allegheny College in Meadville, home to my old grad-school friend Ben Slote.

Soon after cracking Confronting Consumption, almost by coincidence, I picked up Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger's book Breakthrough, which offers a startlingly different vision and conception of green politics. N&S are best known for their controversial essay "The Death of Environmentalism" (2004), and for backing the new Apollo Project, which calls for massive investment in a new energy infrastructure. Full of attacks on icons of the environmental establishment (including Robert Kennedy, Al Gore, place-based politics and the environmental justice movement), Breakthrough advances a starkly contrarian argument:

We may achieve some greenhouse gas emission reductions by lowering our overall consumption, but the largest reductions will come from energy efficiency and shifting to cleaner energy sources--strategies that don't require drastic changes in the way we live our lives. What's needed, in short, is not so much less as different consumption. (126)
Strong stuff--exaggerated, perhaps, for arguments sake--but ... wow. N&S represent an updated version of what's been called Prometheanism: the idea that technological creativity and ingenuity are the best way to solve environmental problems. Or, as they put it, that prosperity is not the problem, but the solution. That environmentalism can only progress by offering itself as an instrument of progress, creativity and a better future:
"The anti-ecological logic of contemporary environmentalism reduces the cause of global warming to a single thing: humans emitting too much greenhouse gas. Their goal is thus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But what if we define the causes of global warming more expansively--as the consequence of our failure to create new economies, new patterns of development, new housing, and a new consumer culture, which together are far better able to meet our material and postmaterial needs?(127)

We can see here the influence of George Lakoff's discourse on re-framing ("what if we define..."), popular, amid much liberal soul-searching, right after the 2004 election. The starting-point is the same: greens (or liberals) have failed to win the political battles because they've presented their message in the wrong terms. We need to change the terrain. Let's stop talking about "the politics of limits"--sacrifice, Collapse, doom-and-gloom--and tap into a better vision.

There's political wisdom here--N&S are strategists, after all--and it's obvious that Obama & Co. have been paying attention. (Interestingly, though, Obama is able to combine the "green infrastructure" talk with a call for sacrifice and service). The gambit is to shift the discourse from crisis to opportunity, to which even the likes of Boone Pickens can rally.

The sticking-point, though, is the suggestion that moving towards a greener economy won't require drastic changes in the way we live. That, somehow, combatting global warming is compatible with--not in conflict with--suburban development and the transit and energy-use patterns it fosters. It may not be smart to trumpet the need for sudden, drastic change--as, for example, the Transition Network or the "post-carbon" relocalization folks do--but I'm not sure it's wise to say that the road to Green Acres is an extension of Easy Street.

1 comment:

  1. Nifty stuff, Rick...thank you very much for the shout out. My bet is that N&S are trying to build a coalition of action based on the promise of technological change, and then use this coalition (and the successes they've enjoyed) to confront the gnarly challenges of "sacrifice" and tough choices inherent in reduced consumption. Pull N&S aside for a private talk, and they'll confess that there are plenty of touch choices, costs and, yes, even sacrifice inherent in their prescription for a techno-happy future. Large-scale deployment of technological systems always come with costs and benefits, and winners and losers (see Langdon Winner's stuff if you don't know it), and the vision put forward by N&S is no exception. The political question, around which reasonable people can disagree, is whether one leads with technological euphoria first, then deal with the tough questions after everyone is feelin' fine, or talk straight from the beginning, and make the technological choices we must informed by a sober confrontation of the limits before us. Candy before getting the shot, in other words, or candy after the tough visit to the doctor? (That's somewhat strained, I confess, but you get my point.) Cheers, Mike Maniates