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Reading between the lines

James Heartfield looks at the latest trends in the politics of ecology

The limits of environmentalism

  • The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order
    Ulrich Beck, Polity, £12.95 pbk

  • Contested Natures
    Phil Macnaghten and John Urry, Sage, £15.99 pbk

  • Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use; The New Report to the Club of Rome
    Ernst von Weizsäcker, Amory B Lovins and L Hunter Lovins, Earthscan Publications, £15.99 hbk

Back in 1972 the elite business institution, the Club of Rome, published a book called Limits to Growth, predicting massive shortages as resources were depleted, and counselling a programme of austerity and population control. Limits to Growth captured the imagin- ation, especially when the oil shortages of the seventies, that led to rising prices and helped bring on a global recession, seemed to confirm the book's gloomy prognostications.

Today oil prices are falling and the predicted cataclysm never came to pass. The Club of Rome's new report, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, explains that oil producers revised their estimates of existing reserves upwards once prices rose again in the seventies, because that meant that it was now profitable to drill them. It turns out that the industry estimates that Limits to Growth had used as the basis for its warning of shortages to come were not estimates of the absolute amount of oil in the ground, but the amount that it was economic to drill.

The mistake of the original Limits to Growth report was that it set aside the question of productivity, and assumed that natural resources existed in simple and constant magnitudes. But what is and what is not a natural resource is something that changes over time. What is a 'resource' is not simply a matter for the natural sciences, but depends also on society, and on the level of economic development. In China, Rhino horn is a resource, but not in Britain. Above all it is changes in productivity that transform useless things into useful ones, as shipbuilding turned oceans from barriers into waterways.

As environmental sociologists Phil Macnaghten and John Urry point out in Contested Natures, 'there are no simple natural limits as such. They are not fixed and eternal but depend on particular historical and geographical determinations' (p15). In fact the common error of all economic and social theories that assume a fixed level of resources, is to ignore the way that new technologies can make new natural resources available, and use existing resources more efficiently.

Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, revisits the problems originally set out by Limits to Growth in 1972. The authors are aware that the original report made some wrong conclusions, but they do think that the general approach was right. In particular they are happy that the general concern over resource depletion has been put back on the agenda by the growing concern over the depletion of the ozone layer, as a consequence of CO2 emissions.

At the same time, the authors know that some modification of the basic argument has to be made, in acknowledgement of the errors in Limits to Growth. But their account of the flaws in Limits to Growth is begrudging. They think that it is a sleight of hand that oil producers drilled more oil; the basic approach of Limits to Growth was right, it is just that the limits were drawn in the wrong place. Where they are more concerned to make the case differently is that they do not want to be seen as doom-mongers, but as people arguing a positive case for reform of the product-ive economy. Principally they do not want to be seen to be arguing for a reduction in living standards, which they think is too unattractive an argument.

The new thesis is that a consciousness of limits need not lead to reduced living standards, because savings can be made by 'resource efficiency', which will lead not only to halving resource consumption, but also to doubling output: hence 'Factor four', as in resource efficiency increased by a factor of four. The book puts a variety of examples before the reader, from the 'hypercar' (very light, and so light on petrol use) to energy-saving houses and offices, underground irrigation systems and so on. In part the book draws on some very real advances in 'resource productivity', such as the 'paperless office' idea of electronic communications.

The idea of resource productivity sounds plausible enough, except that the authors counterpose it to labour productivity. They argue that labour productivity, saving labour in favour of high throughput of resources, is bad for the environment and bad for workers as well. It is a powerful case that links environmentalism to concern over the negative social effects of industrial development, especially unemployment. The authors are scathing about traditional economics, for its bias towards an idea of 'growth' that is indifferent to whether growth is good or bad for people - a mother breastfeeding does not show up on normal estimates of GNP, they say, but the sale of powdered baby-milk does. At the same time argues Factor Four, the solutions can be met by the market, if only prices reflect real social goods. That means that the price of petrol should reflect the social costs, including a tariff for pollution and accident treatment (as happens in Italy), but that incentives to save could be introduced by paying premiums for energy savings to domestic and industrial users (as some US utility companies have done).

Urry and Macnaghten say that this combination of the 'emerging critique of a globally planned society' with its roots in the counterculture on the one hand, and 'links to the "enterprise culture" of the eighties' on the other is all characteristic of environmentalism. But does it add up?

Factor Four seems to be optimistic in its celebration of new technologies, trying to marry the emotional cache of environmentalism with the can-do spirit of the techie. But in fact the counterposition of resource product- ivity and labour productivity is mistaken. The most plausible examples, like micro-electronics, show how resource productivity goes hand in hand with labour productivity. In fact capitalists' motives in using resources more efficiently are entirely bound up with their desire to reduce costs related to labour, whether in their own firms or other people's, by reducing orders for those products.

In itself, there is no reason why increased labour productivity ought to lead to lost jobs, rather than reduced hours. But for as long as production is undertaken for the purpose of private profit, then it must. What is so perverse about Factor Four is that it proposes that more people should be working less efficiently, so as to curb unemployment - rather like the government's make-work schemes - instead of just reducing hours for everybody.

Factor Four assumes that prices can be jigged to reflect any social good, whether environmental protection or the homely virtues of breastfeeding. The book proposes that savings could be marketed alongside resources, as if they were commodities. In that way companies could contract-out savings to third parties, such as insulation firms. Clearly where there is a straightforward incentive to reduce costs this can happen and does. But Factor Four goes further, proposing, on the model of the US electricity com-panies' rebates for savings, that negawatts, that's savings in electricity, could be marketed alongside megawatts. In time, say the authors, getting carried away with themselves, negawatts could become a greater source of energy than megawatts! Of course it is an old-fashioned businessman's excuse that capital is just another word for savings, and the capitalist's profits are just the result of his deferred gratification. The modern environmental twist to this tale is that a dwindling base of production can become a source of additional profits.

As it happens, that is sometimes true. Breaking up businesses and 'downsizing' was profitable for corporate raiders in the eighties, but after a while endless cutbacks undermine the very basis on which profits are made - production. The rational argument in Factor Four is that the broad consensus that environmentalism is a good thing, means that there are profits to be made by meeting that demand. As a strategy for individual firms, getting into energy-saving products might make sense. But overall the approach of Factor Four reflects a downscaling of production that cannot be the basis of new wealth, or a strategy to secure the profits of the capitalist economy.

On closer inspection, Factor Four's strategies for resource efficiency are generally fairly desperate cost-cutting measures. It is suspicious that so many of them are directed at domestic usage, where no doubt there is a lot of irrational energy wastage, if only because people's homes and private lives tend not to be planned on ergonomic lines. But a strategy for saving by installing efficient fridges and long-life bulbs is not going to change the world, even if you could dragoon workers in their homes as if they were in the army barracks.

It is fascinating that an economic treatise that takes as its starting point the natural limits on resources can lead to such an artificial attempt to rejig society. Price-fixing based on the government monopoly of utility companies, or taxation strategies, similar to those used by the Chancellor to punish big car owners - these are all strategies deployed in the name of restoring an imaginary natural balance between production and consumption. And yet these very strategies are the most forced and unnatural distorting of social organisation.

This is the kind of paradox that is exercising the minds of Ulrich Beck, John Urry and Phil Macnaghten. As curious and lively thinkers, they are all fascinated by the movement of modern environmentalism, which they see as among the more dynamic and interesting movements in society. At the same time, as sociologists, they are all a bit uncomfortable with the elevation of nature and the natural sciences over society and the social sciences.

Macnaghten and Urry do the classical sociologists' job on the environmental movement - they set about deconstructing its core value, nature. Often this method of deconstructing received wisdom is a fairly mediocre procedure. It is reserved by and large for those institutions and movements that are in any event on the slide out of favour. As the Conservative Party, or the Catholic church, or the nuclear family starts to break up, the sociologists pop up and start talking about all of the negative aspects of these institutions - a bit like small boys making faces at the teacher's back as he leaves the class.

But in this case it is modern environmentalism, in the main, that is being held up to scrutiny and the consequences are fascinating. Environmentalism is not after all a passing movement, but a rising one. Its arguments are not tired and easily dismantled, but fast becoming the new orthodoxy. It's not that Macnaghten and Urry don't like environmentalists: instinctively they do. It is just that their critical faculties keep ticking over, and they cannot help asking what is this environment that we should all protect, anyway, and while we are about it, what do you mean by nature?

Their conclusion is that there are many 'natures', according to who you are talking to. The nature of natural science is of course quite different to the nature of the earth mother Gaia, or that of rural conservatism. The great insight in Urry and Macnaghten's book is that they see the discourse of nature as essentially a disguised debate about how social life should be organised. As Ulrich Beck argues in The Reinvention of Politics, the emergence of environmental critiques does not mark the end of politics, but the emergence of a new style of politics, that he calls 'sub-politics'. In this way it can be seen that the intervention by Factor Four is not necessarily what it appears to be, a disinterested proposal to save resources, so much as a particular argument about how society should be organised; in this case on the basis of reduced economic activity.

In their examination of the different ways that nature has been invented Macnaghten and Urry do a valuable service. They show that environmentalism is a social movement with a history, and particular values. In looking at the development of environ- mental ideas they show how the farmers lost their historic moral standing as custodians of the countryside as a consequence of alienation from their money-making activities: a loss that was echoed in the recent Countryside Alliance demonstration. The emergence of modern environmentalism, they illustrate, has as much to do with the loss of legitimacy of traditional government and business, and a perceived loss of agency of individuals, as it has to do with specific environmental problems. The interview-based research on popular understanding of environmental programmes in chapter eight is particularly illuminating.

By contrast, Ulrich Beck's often witty and convoluted arguments in Reinventing Politics are something of a disappointment. Beck is a great innovator and coiner of new ideas, but his points here are all too arch. It seems too opportunistic to argue for environmental activism as he does, while so clearly disagreeing with its programme and policies. At one point he argues that ecology is good because it moralises questions of production, introducing 'the dramatic roles of heroes and villains': 'In the environmental issue, a postmodern, jaded, saturated, meaningless and fatalistic pâté de foie gras culture creates a Herculean task for itself, which acts as a stimulus everywhere and splits business into "villains" and "Robin Hoods".' (p159-60) Beck's point that the old politics of left and right has lost its meaning, is well observed and argued. It is surely true that environ- mentalism is, for good or ill, the form through which many debates are being had out today, whether about industrial growth, living arrangements or incomes. But is the choice really between post-modern cynicism and childish naivety? It is hard to imagine a more cynical surrender to naivety.

Read On

  • False Dawn: The Delusion of Global Capitalism
    John Gray, Granta, £17.99 hbk

If False Dawn is an accurate guide there are two things that John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics (LSE), hates above all others. He loathes the free market for the economic uncertainty it creates. And he detests the ideas of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that came to the fore in eighteenth-century Europe, for ignoring cultural difference. When these two elements are combined, as Gray believes they increasingly are in the modern world, the result is a nightmare vision of contemporary society.

If this was Gray's private nightmare it would not need to detain readers for long. But False Dawn is particularly important as it gives intellectual rigour to some of the key assumptions which underlie New Labour's politics. It is a kind of bible for the angst-ridden middle class of the 1990s. Gray sees the free market as a corrosive agent. It breaks down traditional institutions such as the family and destabilises employment patterns. The consequences of this development, in his view, include the growth of crime, the creation of an underclass and the erosion of the respectable middle classes.

Gray is obsessed with the impact of the growth of job insecurity and particularly its impact on professionals. 'The result is a re-proletarianization of much of the industrial working class and the de-bourgeoisification of what remains of the former middle classes. The free market seems set to achieve what socialism was never able to accomplish - a euthanasia of bourgeois life.' (p72)

He reserves a particular distaste for the growth of a skilled population in the third world which is able to do highly skilled work for relatively low pay, maybe even teaching at the LSE!

In Gray's mind the free market view represents a particular version of Enlightenment thought. With the demise of the Soviet Union, which represented a failed example of the Enlightenment project, the USA is the modern bearer of rationalism and universalism. 'A global free market is the Enlightenment project of a universal civilisation, sponsored by the world's last great Enlightenment regime. The United States is alone in the late modern world in the militancy of its commitment to the Enlightenment project.' (p100-1)

The problem with the USA, in this view, is that it is trying to impose a universal free market model on to other types of societies. He gives examples such as Russia and Japan, which have a different culture to that of the USA.

The fundamental assumption which underlies Gray's critique is that of the importance of cultural difference. Essential differences between nations mean that any attempt to impose a universal model across the globe can only cause moral and social disintegration. He gives the re-emergence of conflicts over ethnicity, territory and religion as examples of this trend.

To be fair to Gray he rejects the notion of 'the clash of civilisations' put forward by Samuel Huntingdon. But his objections to this theory are instructive. He believes that it is wrong to generalise as broadly as Huntingdon by, for example, talking of a European or Islamic civil-isation. Gray believes it is possible to generalise about societies at the national level at most. And he rejects any distinction between civilisation and barbarism. Gray's is a non-judgemental notion of cultural difference where, at least on the face of it, one culture is as valid as any other. Many readers might assume that a contributor to this magazine would at least be sympathetic to Gray's critique of the free market if not his attack on the Enlightenment. The experience of the past two decades of free market ascendancy is that workers have had to work harder and with less security.

But Gray's attack on the free market centres on the progressive characteristics of capitalism - its universal-ising tendency. Whereas before the triumph of capitalism the world was divided into parochial communities, often with little contact between them, the free market is international in scope. By the start of the twentieth century a world market was established which was linked by trade and investment flows.

The real problem with the free market is the opposite to the one Gray identifies. It is not dynamic enough to break down the national boundaries that still divide the world. While some economies grow, others tend to stagnate.

Gray is wrong to see cultural difference as a barrier to the development of a universalising free market. It is, rather, that the inability of the free market to overcome political divisions is a sign of its economic weakness. The market cannot fully transcend borders. Although the market exists all over the world it cannot survive without the support of the nation state.

Indeed if Gray had delved into the material realities of contemporary capitalism he would discover that the free market is a myth. The states of the world's leading economic powers are spending more than ever before to keep the 'free' market going.

Even the rhetoric of the free market has dimmed since its high point in the days of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Instead the orthodoxy is that espoused by Gray and supported by New Labour and the Clinton administration: capitalism is the best possible system but it must be controlled by an extensive system of regulation. They do not even have enough confidence in their own system to let it operate unfettered.

Daniel Nassim

James Heartfield

Reproduced from LM issue 110, May 1998



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