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  • Published in Book Reviews

Austerity Ecology provides a valid critique of lifestyle greenism, but its techno-fix approach is no replacement for a mass movement for system change, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

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Leigh Phillips, Austerity Ecology & The Collapse-Porn Addicts. A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff (Zero Books 2015), 292pp.

In recent years, greens have had to get used to being blamed, if not exactly for climate change, for the lack of meaningful action to deal with it. According to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, ‘environmentalism [needs] to die so that a new politics, one capable of dealing with global warming, could be born’.i Anthony Giddens maintained in 2009 that capitalists would have been perfectly willing to respond to climate change if they hadn’t been scared off by environmentalists with their pesky tendency to stray outside the bounds of ‘orthodox political discourse.’ii Even Mark Lynas, in his 2011 book The God Species, said that ‘anyone who still marches against nuclear today … is in my view just as bad for the climate as textbook eco-villains like the big oil companies.’iii

Phillips, in a self-described ‘combative and puckish’ style, now updates these criticisms for the This Changes Everything generation, arguing that even though we have Naomi Klein, ‘climate change is too grave a crisis to leave it to the greens’ (p.6). The framing of the argument as a celebration of technology, economic growth and human ingenuity locates it squarely within the territory laid out by the Breakthrough Institute and writers like Lynas, both of whom were involved in the recently-launched Ecomodernist Manifesto. In Phillips’ hands, however, it becomes something rather different; an attempt to reclaim for the left an argument previously used to excoriate the perceived influence of the left in the climate change movement.

For Phillips, there are two sides to environmentalism, represented on the one hand by ‘Big Kit’, the use of technological advances to reduce emissions, and on the other, by a turn away from growth, consumerism and globalisation, characterised here as the movement for ‘locally-woven organic carrot-pants.’ Here, a line runs straight from enthusiasm for ‘the small-scale, decentralized, co-operatively-owned aspect of the transition [to renewables]’ (p.107), through belief in the importance of the concept of the planet’s carrying capacity, to a view of environmentalism as a lifestyle; a way in which people can identify themselves as committed greens by what they buy and what they eat.

Phillips is scathing about lifestyle greenism, and points out, correctly, how, because this is about identity, it can often be divorced from real questions of what particular behaviours are better or worse in terms of genuine sustainability. The increased waste from all those half-eaten veg box deliveries is a case in point, as is the tendency in some circles to see living in the countryside as the greenest option, even where it entails higher car use than city dwelling. Eschewing more obviously mainstream consumer behaviour in favour of the local is often presented as an anti-capitalist choice, but it can be just another sort of consumerism, albeit one which enables the practitioner to buy moral superiority along with their organic produce. Phillips has put his finger accurately on a certain type of green moralism, which when applied to consumer behaviour can function simply as a cover for distaste at working-class consumption.

Phillips is right to be sceptical about the ability of energy co-ops and farmers’ markets to bring down the system from within, and he is also not wrong in identifying some unpleasant undertones to aspects of the locally-focused green movement. (Personally, I can never read Transition Towns literature without being reminded of John Wyndham’s fictional portrait of southern English towns reacting to societal collapse by fortifying themselves and firing shotguns at passing refugees). However, prescribing that all we need to do is embrace Big Kit is also not unproblematic.

That there can be difficulties in making effective alliances based on these arguments was demonstrated by the 2015 UK launch of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, which even Mark Lynas, one of the organisers, called ‘a screw-up of impressive proportions.’ Ecomodernism, according to Lynas, is ‘an attempt to transcend some of the political polarisation in current environment debates with a recognition that human ingenuity and technological innovation offer immense promise in tackling ecological challenges.’ In this vein, it must have seemed a sensible and principled move to invite Owen Patterson, Tory MP and reputed climate-change denier, to speak at the launch, but this unsectarianism was rewarded by Patterson muttering about the ‘relentless pessimism’ of the ‘green blob’ and generally co-opting ecomodernism to ‘fight the war against greens for the Tory right’, as Lynas put it.

Phillips defends the Breakthrough Institute against charges of being right-wing themselves, but Patterson’s behaviour over the launch demonstrates the problem in their position. Arguments which start from the assumption that a particular cause should not be abandoned to the left will always end up as a gift to the right. This can also be seen in the defence of nuclear power made by writers like Lynas, in whose hands an argument for this particular technology becomes a statement that calling for systemic change to tackle climate change is illegitimate. This is because, in his view, nuclear power essentially has to be embraced as the only option which will reduce emissions and preserve the political and economic status quo.

It is also worth noting the way in which aspects of the Ecomodernist Manifesto echo some of the more problematic arguments from the other side of the green movement. Phillips is rightly critical of greens who persist in describing human activity as separate from, or even parasitical on, ‘nature’, but the ecomodernists’ suggestion that what is required is to decouple human activity from the natural world has rather odd overtones of the deepest of deep-green proposals that people should only be allowed to live around the outside of continents, to leave the interiors unsullied by their presence.

Clearly, there is no side in this debate on which you will be guaranteed to be 100 percent free from dubious arguments. The more serious criticism of Phillips than the company he keeps, however, is that dividing the green movement according to the size of the kit they espouse may not be the most helpful way to move away from lifestyle greenism to a position which can actually agitate to change the system. What matters is not so much whether we imagine that our energy under a different system would come from nuclear or from renewable sources, but how we might get there.

Phillips gives the impression that he is rather too busy sneering at locally-woven organic carrot-pants to consider where these arguments come from, and why they are so popular. He may not like that small and local visions of renewable energy generation, for example, are the ‘fastest-spreading … [and have] people the most excited’ (p.107), but he is unable to offer any arguments that this is not, in fact, the case. It is important to appreciate the history here. Localism as an aspect of the green movement grew as part of the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement of the late 1990s – early 2000s. In many ways, for example in considering food’s impact on the climate, a retreat from this position towards disdain for particular types of food is in fact de-politicisation. These anti-capitalist roots are surely a large part of why shopping in the farmers’ market can still feel like sticking it to The Man, even when we know that it is not the same thing as, say, building a mass movement.

The lure of the local is also that it feels possible, in an era, post-Copenhagen, when persuading governments to take action on a national level did not. The real corrective to localisation, however, is not to hector greens that they should be embracing the Big Kit which those very same governments want to foist on us. In his enthusiasm for nuclear power, for example, Phillips repeats the assurances we’re given by establishment nuclear fans, that the new generation of nuclear power stations are utterly safe, incapable of meltdown and accompanied by ‘proven’ safe methods of waste disposal, although no details on the last point are provided (p.198).

This may now all be true, but the nuclear industry has been assuring us that their technology (which, let us not forget, was only developed because of nuclear’s ability to kill large numbers of people) is completely safe at least since the nuclear accident at Windscale in 1957. It is not clear why we should now believe them. If the decision on whether or not to build new nuclear was under workers’ democratic control, that would be one thing (although wind turbines and solar panels still seem less inherently murderous). Supporting nuclear under the current government means placing yourself on the same side as the renewables-hating, fracking enthusiast Tories; and Owen Patterson, with his ‘green blob’ remarks, has given a recent demonstration of where that ends.

The key argument to have with greens attached to the local and the lifestyle is that change on a large scale is possible. We do not have to despair at our ability to force governments into action: for all its myriad problems, the Paris deal shows the power of the movement to at least get an appearance of action out of world leaders. The strength of the anti-austerity movement similarly shows that the idea that we can take on and challenge the government is not just empty words. Phillips may cite Marx at various points in arguing for a renewed, vigorous, and confident left, but ultimately the problem with this argument is that he is not confident enough in our ability to fight for change. Arguments within the green movement about nuclear power are likely to have a demobilising impact, and calling on greens effectively to back Tory policies is never a good look. The real argument we need to be having is for all of us, green and red, to stay in the streets.

i Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: Why we can’t leave saving the planet to environmentalists, (New York 2007), p.iv.

ii A Giddens, The Politics of Climate Change, (Cambridge 2009).

iii M Lynas, The God Species. How the planet can survive the age of humans, (London 2011),p.410

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade, focusing on issues of climate change and social justice. She speaks and writes widely on green issues and is a member of Counterfire. Her book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, will be published in April 2015 by Zero Books.

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