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Reading between the lines

Environmentalists have been applauded for introducing a moral dimension to politics, but does it matter that what they say is wrong, asks Peter Ray

The good Green lie

  • Risk, Environment and Modernity: towards a new Ecology
    Scott Lash, Bronislaw Szerszynski and Brian Wynne (eds), Sage, £13.95 pbk

  • Battle for the Trees: Three months of responsible ancestry
    Merrick, Godhaven Ink, £3 pbk

  • The Social Construction of Nature
    Klaus Eder, Sage, £13.95 pbk

  • Reconstructing Nature: Alienation, emancipation and the division of labour
    Peter Dickens, Routledge, £13.99 pbk

Do you remember global freezing? Augustus Owsley Stanley III, a leading sixties acid head quit America for Queensland Australia in the seventies fearing the onset of another Ice Age in the northern hemisphere. Apparently his web page still details his crank theories about this particular postulated 'end of civilisation as we know it'.

Augustus Owsley Stanley III may indeed have taken too much LSD but his story reminds us that the fear of a coming Ice Age was widespread in the late seventies. Books were published, and earnest scientific debate ensued. Funny how you forget. Twenty years later the world lives in fear of the 'greenhouse effect' and global warming. Many of those who warn about the greenhouse effect are the same people who warned us of the coming Ice Age. No doubt Augustus Owsley Stanley's equivalents today are moving to Alaska, but very few people are questioning society's credulity towards theories of environmental catastrophe, even though those theories can turn through 180 degrees within a generation.

Factor 4, a new report by the Club of Rome, a high-powered group of leading academics, argues the need to drastically reduce our consumption of raw materials if the development of the South is to be 'sustainable'. Their intellectual gall is remarkable. In the 1970s the Club of Rome published an enormously influential report, one of the founding texts of modern environmentalism, entitled The Limits to Growth, which argued that fossil fuel and other mineral resources were being used up by the booming postwar economies at such a rate that they would soon be exhausted. Gold, they predicted, would run out by the early 1980s, oil by the 1990s. The Limits to Growth was proved wrong on all counts, but that has not stopped Factor 4 from being taken seriously.

The abandoned and discredited theories of environmental catastrophe are piling up, but nothing it seems can stand in the way of environmentalism. The assumption that nature imposes a limit on human industry and progress is so widely held that sociologist Klaus Eder says we live in a 'post-environmentalist society', in which these assumptions have ceased to be the property of marginal pressure groups and have formed a new 'masterframe' through which society is understood and through which conflicts over resources are fought out (The Social Construction of Nature, p180). More recent anxieties about the environmental limits on society, from particulates through radiation to biodiversity loss, are no less dependant than their predecessors on speculation or contentious reading of the scientific evidence. But society's willingness to believe in approach- ing environmental catastrophe is unaffected by mere facts.

Global warming or global freezing...it doesn't seem to matter whether the world is to be consumed by fire or ice just as long as it is to be consumed - imminently. The willingness to believe in looming apocalypse is based on an emotional state more than it is on a judgement of the evidence; there is a need to believe that such a catastrophe is about to get us unless something is done to stop it, the details are less important.

At the same time those who do 'do something', who take action on the basis of the supposed environmental imperative, have become increasingly popular. Indeed they are near saints and martyrs in the eyes of an admiring public. Think of Swampy, Animal or Muppet Dave, chaining themselves to concrete blocks buried in hazardous underground chambers in a desperate effort to thwart the evil developers and save the innocent trees. Ten tears ago they would have been dismissed as loonies, hippies, scroungers, anarchists or troublemakers. Today they are praised as selfless pioneers by the Great and the Good, from Angus Deayton to Terry Waite.

What is behind this mood that can turn a tripping tree-hugger into a media sensation overnight? 'Merrick' is one of the tree-huggers and Battle for the Trees is the story of the three months he spent in 1996 living in the protest camps on what is now the Newbury by-pass. The book is a celebration of the protesters' 'strong, loving, affirming culture'. Merrick is clear in his own mind that environmental destruction is only one part of the reason for protest: 'We're not here 'cos we love trees. We're here 'cos we love life. We have a vision of how good it could and should be.' (p123) And when Merrick looks out from the tree houses and the benders, he asks 'What real alternative is there? Nothing of worth' (p124). To emphasise the idea that there is no alternative, he pours scorn on LM for championing progress ('Whose progress?', he challenges, as though progress had to be a zero-sum game); and for giving too much importance to ideas - not something that Merrick could be accused of (p51). The destruction of the trees symbolises the protesters' disenchantment with industrial society.

Among the intellectuals keen to jump aboard the green bandwagon are the sociologists of risk. Surveying the 'post-environmentalist' society from their ivory towers, the risk sociologists are critical of the 'technological' and 'disembedded' responses to environmental crisis presented by officialdom; they prefer the more 'poetic' and 'situated' action of the Swampys and Merricks. Like Merrick, they are interested less in the actual impact of humanity upon nature, and more in the impact of environmental angst and protest upon human society. Like the journalists and the chattering classes they are impressed that people are taking action, that environmental pressure groups and charities can claim some 10 per cent of Britain's population as members, and they are keen to theorise about it.

Ulrich Beck, the most influential of these sociologists, regards the new environmental activism as democratising politics (Risk, Environment and Modernity, p33). In the same vein in Reconstructing Nature Peter Dickens celebrates the role of 'lay knowledge' about the environment. Every opinion from those of South American tribesmen to those of British primary school children has something useful to offer, he claims, when it comes to our understanding of the environment that we all share. But this lay knowledge is little use if prejudice holds sway over the truth.

There is something deeply cynical about the sociologists' sympathy with ecological politics. They too know that green arguments about the limits imposed by nature are not true. And they are quite explicit about it. All of them recognise that it is the institutional crisis of modern capitalist society that engenders the consciousness of environmental crisis.

Beck emphasises the contribution to risk consciousness of transformations in social life wrought by industrial modern-isation. He notes 'the exhaustion, dissolution and disenchantment of collective and group-specific sources of meaning', such as the belief in progress, class consciousness or religion, which has led to the 'individualising' of the way that society is experienced (p29). The crisis of legitimacy of the old institutions of the state and industrial society that bound people to collective loyalties, and the breakdown of trust suffered by those institutions, leads to the perception that society is out of control and unsurprisingly finds expression in the constant fear of catastrophe. As description, Beck's contribution is interesting, but where he fails is in attributing these social changes to the simply technical process of industrialisation, or 'modernisation'. Contrary to Beck's over-technical approach, there is nothing inherent in technology per se that could give rise to the crisis of legitimacy afflicting all of the institutions that have held society together. To really understand the culture of fear you have to look at how society has changed, rather than looking at new technologies. Beck's version lets the market off the hook, and pins the blame on human progress.

Brian Wynne goes further than Beck. If popular distrust of politicians, governments, bureaucrats and experts is the source of the consciousness of risk and environmental protest then the reality, or indeed non-reality, of threats to the environment is not the issue:

'the same basic social dynamics in the transformations of modernity could be occurring whether or not those risks objectively exist "out there". It is likely therefore that their explanatory role is not as large as presently assumed.' (Risk, Environment and Modernity, p57)

Wynne has let the cat out of the bag. Environmentalist fears are impervious to the evidence because their origin is not an impending natural catastrophe. Rather those fears arise out of a crisis of legitimacy in society. Klaus Eder provides an unusually blunt formulation of the sociologists' view of natural limits: 'Nature is a scarce good only by definition.' (p204) In other words, these are not natural limits, but limits that arise out of the consciousness of scarcity.

But if the sociologists know that green ideas are really prejudices driven not by real threats to the environment, but by disenchantment with society and distrust of officialdom, why do they endorse the action taken on the basis of such prejudices? The answer is provided by Eder. They are simply not interested in the truth or falsity of green arguments. For Eder the great thing about ecological politics is that they provide an authoritative basis for the regulation of society in circumstances where existing social institutions lack legitimacy:

'to get the process of environmental self-regulation started we have to limit natural resources. Nature is a scarce good only by definition, and this definition has to be given by some institution. Within the model of formal rationality this is to be done by the state....The advantage of this solution is that the state does not have to find a true solution to the problem of creating scarcity. It only has to define the scarcity, and within these limits everybody can calculate the factual effects of his or her action.' (p204)

For Eder, then, not only are the limits on natural resources a matter of definition - society 'chooses' to see nature in that way - but they are derived from the prior need for self-regulation. It is the capacity of environmentalist thinking to provide the new ethical 'masterframe' for a regime of self-regulation that explains its centrality to contemporary society.

The sociologists understand that natural limits are in reality no more than what postmodernists call a 'useful fiction', or what LM has criticised as the 'good lie'. Natural limits are a fiction to be welcomed as a way of engendering 'collective action' and 'legitimating social institutions through environment-related ethical frames'. The central attraction of green thinking then is the way in which it forces people to 'calculate the factual effects' of their actions. Environmentalism restrains people. This 'self-limitation' provides nothing less than the basis of a new moral order. Barbara Adam is explicit that the Enlightenment project of mastering nature for the good of man has failed. And 'where mastery fails, morals become an imperative' (Risk, Environment and Modernity, p99). It is not difficult to see the forms that this restraint takes. Environmentalists have made austerity popular in a way that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could only dream of.

In his conclusion Eder is only unhappy that the state alone should take on the task of defining scarcity. Like Beck and the other sociologists, he proposes that the process should be 'democratised' by allowing everybody in on the act of promoting the lie according to their own particular cultural preconceptions. He is no doubt reassured by the antics of Merrick and Swampy and their German equivalents, but what does this 'democratisation' really mean?

Eder's book is called The Social Construction of Nature. What he means when he says that nature is a social construct is this: 'Nature' is not to be taken literally, but seen instead as a projection of man's self-limitation. Like God or Nation, Nature is that higher value to which all human aspirations must be subordinated. 'Democratisation' here is a one-way process in which individuals subordinate their coarse self-interests to a 'greater good', but any wider aspirations to take control of our own lives are ruled out of order, still more so is the possibility of a human-centred, collective good.

Ulrich Beck and Brian Wynne contest the idea that the interests of humanity as a whole can even be established. Wynne abuses such a notion as an 'abstract essentialist norm' and Beck rules such an approach out of order. Beck tries to sell the reader his theory of the 'risk society' as 'a theory of societal self-critique' which replaces the need for 'a critical theory of society'.

Beck proposes a democracy in which 'there arises a reciprocal critique of sectional rationalities and groups in society' (p33). Here 'the self-conceptions of those concerned' predominate, every one can criticise everybody else but society as a whole cannot be considered. As the editors of Risk, Environment and Modernity interpret him, 'critique is endemic to the risk society, and does not have to be introduced from outside by the sociologist' (p6). In other words, you can criticise other people for consuming too much, but God forbid that you should try to advance your own interests, or criticise the way that society as a whole is ordered.

There is a distressing contrast between the naive energy and enthusiasm of the Swampys and Animals trying to change the world by saving the trees, and the jaded cynicism of the salaried radical intellectuals seeking to exploit their activism in the construction of a new moral order of self-limitation. But worse still is the irresponsibility of these weary 'thinkers' who bow down before the 'non-expert' authority of the energetic naïfs. Where once economists claimed in defence of the capitalist system that scarcity - the fact that there was not enough for everybody - was given in nature, today sociologists endorse the literal invention of scarcity in the face of an industrially advanced society that has the potential to abolish it.

The result of Beck's self-critical society is that the actions of a self-appointed minority in defence of 'the environment' are legitimate, but any democratically decided goals are immediately suspect. This drama is being played out in the construction of the new runway at Manchester airport. There environmental activists ensconced in tunnels are trying to prevent the work. In an exchange with the chair of the Manchester Airport Group, MP Graham Stringer, environmental activists denounced democracy as a sham. Stringer got it right when he replied, 'you deny democracy because you don't like the result' (Guardian, 17 May 1997).

Direct action is a marvellous thing when it is directed against a minority ruling class, as a challenge to its power. But here it is used by a self-appointed clique, against the majority, in the name of the fictitious greater good of the environment.

Peter Ray is speaking on the Decadent Capitalism and the Post-Material Economy course at The Next Step

Read On

  • Killing Rage
    Eamon Collins with Mick McGovern, Granta, £15.99 hbk

Eamon Collins' book is an act of betrayal. The IRA intelligence officer turned informer (a 'tout') has written a book about his life which betrays his former comrades and sets up republicans for attack. Yet Killing Rage is compulsive reading. Collins provides a gripping, detailed account of his IRA activities in the South Down area of Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, including his role in five killings.

Collins uses the book to explain why he turned his back on the IRA, retrospectively presenting IRA activity as utterly futile. He recounts dozens of IRA operations in minute detail. He reveals his thoughts just prior to the attacks and his feelings afterwards. In one story he describes attending the funeral of a former work colleague whom he had set up for execution.

It is impossible not to be moved by the horror and tragedy of many of the attacks. For example the Catholic policeman very close to retirement, who turned around on his bar stool to be faced by the barrel of an IRA gun and made a desperate last plea, 'No boys not me' before being shot dead. Or the elderly Catholic officer who tried to fend off his killers with an umbrella as they shot him in front of his wife.

Fatalities in any war are tragic, but it is the absence of any attempt at an explanation for these killings which succeeds in emphasising the brutality and futility of this war. Collins seems to echo the sentiments of every politician and church leader who took to the TV screens after every killing in Northern Ireland to denounce the mindless barbarity of this or that atrocity.

Having dismissed British domination and the idea of a United Ireland as abstract concepts, Collins divorces IRA actions from any political context. Removing the republican movement from its social base in the nationalist working class and ignoring the roots of the conflict in British repression, Collins robs the IRA's 25-year war of any legitimacy or justification. Instead Collins puts it on a par with the kind of individual terrorism exemplified by the Baader-Meinhof gang - a small group of middle class activists with no social base who arranged 'hits' on the rich and powerful in Germany during the 1970s.

In many ways this book is a product of the current Irish peace process. Now that the IRA is little more than a stage army to promote Sinn Fein into all-party talks it is difficult to argue against Collins' claim that IRA violence has been futile. If people risked their own lives and took the lives of others merely to get a seat at the negotiating table, you can understand his cynicism. In fact this has not always been the case. From the start of the Irish War, Irish republicans fought for a clear goal: an end to the British occupation of Ireland and the destruction of the sectarian state of Northern Ireland.

Killing Rage is perceptive in charting the degeneration of republican politics and the changing goals of the republican movement. These days the IRA are fighting for meaningless concessions like 'parity of esteem' and 'respect for identity'. This book presents the tragedy of the last 25 years in brutal detail, but the real tragedy of Northern Ireland is the failure of anti-imperialists to destroy the sectarian state. Collins is a repulsive character whatever way you look at it, but I have to say he tells a gripping story. Open this book up and I guarantee you will not be able to set it down until you have finished it.

Kevin Kelly

  • All power to the imagination!
    Sabine Von Dirke, University of Nebraska Press, £42.75 hbk

This is a painstaking account of the counterculture in West Germany from the subcultures of the fifties and the student movement of the sixties to the Greens of the eighties. Sabine Von Dirke provides valuable insights into the 'new sensibility' which accompanied the alienation of youth from mainstream society - what Herbert Marcuse described as the 'great refusal'. Her research into the celebration of irrationality (hence the title, All Power to the Imagination!), as a counterpoint to the ossified rationality of capitalist society and the Stalinist left, is particularly helpful.

Von Dirke is less helpful, however, in giving too much credence to the notion of 'new subjectivity'. It may be painful to admit, but the removal of aspiration to the narrow terrain of lifestyle politics might better be des-cribed as anti-subjectivity. Von Dirke, while recognising the chaos and turbulence in 'West Germany's countercultural movements', prefers to find a positive note to end on.

Andrew Calcutt

  • The Road to Hell: The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity
    Michael Maren, Free Press, $25 hbk

Michael Maren was a 'peace corps' volunteer working to promote American aid projects in Kenya and later Somalia. During the US intervention in Somalia his articles in the US press explained how aid helped to destroy the Somali economy, by putting Somali farmers out of business. Here Maren expands on his theme, showing that the superior stance of the aid workers to-wards their African charges rapidly degenerates into one of a new colonialism. Critical views of the new ideology of aid imperialism are thin on the ground, and this one is excellent, especially as it gives the insider's account. Despite a rather uncritical repetition of the aid establishment's demonisation of Rwanda's Hutus, you should read it.

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997

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