Alex Gourevitch, with whom I’m collaborated in the past, has a piece at Jacobin that’s somewhat hostile to environmentalism. The piece is written as a provocation, and, indeed, it has successfully provoked at least one person: me. Alex argues that greens substitute science for politics, neglect the social determinants of well-being, would deprive the global poor of technological benefits that could protect them from natural disasters and risk condemning people to lives wasted in drudgery.
No doubt Alex can find plenty of instances of people mouthing the sentiments and opinions he condemns. But the trouble with this sort of writing is exemplified by the endless right-wing blogs that go on about “the left” and then attribute to everyone from Alinsky to the Zapatistas a sympathy for Stalinist labour camps. Just like “the left”, people who care about the environment and consider themselves greens come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours. Taking as typical what some random said at some meeting about the virtues of Palestinians generating electricity with bicycles is inherently problematic. Alex argues in the piece that “the Left” should support the industrialization of “the Global South”. Well, it might be right that some countries should industrialize more. But countries don’t all have to go through some developmental phase involving smoky factories. What’s important is that people in the Global South should, where possible, have the benefits of a modern infrastructure, well-built houses, secure energy supplies, decent transportation, and so forth. Industrializing might be one way of getting those things, but it is hardly the only way. Once technologies have been developed in once place, they don’t need to be redeveloped elsewhere: they can be transferred.
Alex reacts, and understandably, against the tendency, which undoubtedly exists, to reason directly from scientific evidence of impending environmental disaster to authoritarian and anti-humanist solutions. As he says, the natural scientists who warn us about climate change often don’t know very much about politics or economics and peremptory demands that we do something (this thing!) now or perish only serve to alienate the people they’re aimed at. But it isn’t as if the scientists are making this stuff up. Climate change may be irreversible and will be catastrophic, especially for the poorest people in the global south. The best political response doesn’t involve ignoring this in the name of humanism, it requires getting social scientists, political activists, policy makers and others to think about the social side of adaptation and mitigation and to inject this into the democratic conversation. “Industrialization” as an alternative to doing this is the politics of the ostrich and actually exemplifies what Alex condemns: a simple universal answer licensed from one disciplinary perspective. What use will “industrialization” be if those factories are underwater? Or if the land is desertified and uninhabitable? The left in those circumstances might do better to fight against the exclusion of climate refugees from wealthy countries.
Finally, Alex makes much of the importance of technological change in making it possible to free people from burdensome toil. He’s absolutely right about this. But it doesn’t abolish the environmental constraints, and nor does it alter the fact that capitalism’s inherent tendency is not to channel technological progress into increases leisure time but into increased output that, in wealthy countries, has little or no impact on real levels of well-being. Environmentalists and the left ought to be allies in this: cheap energy can be good if it brings us more time on the beach or with our children, but not if it simply enables more production of the crap the 1 per cent want to sell to us. Weaning us off crap consumer culture and enabling more satisfying human lives is not anti-humanistic. Vivre autrement! as the slogan went. People like Tom Walker and Juliet Schor (not to mention our own John Quiggin in a recent piece are doing the thinking necessary to create a genuine red-green alliance. Cat-calling at environmentalists in the name of a supposed humanism takes us in exactly the wrong direction.