A differing shade of green

Adrian Parr, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, Columbia University Press, New York, 2013. 224 pp., £20.50 hb., 978 0 23115 828 2.

This book is a welcome addition to the spate of recent books on the ecological and resource calamities currently facing the planet. Unlike so many others – one thinks in this context of authors as disparate as Bill McKibben and Richard Heinberg – Parr analyses the crisis in the context of global inequality and social injustice. Her analysis is firmly rooted in a Marxism that allows a more comprehensive grasp of why and how the current state of affairs has developed. She makes it clear that the worsening state of the environment is the effect of global capitalism; the crisis therefore cannot be effectively addressed within the parameters of capital. She does not propose, as do so many, the mere importance of individual initiative, without any contestation of larger economic and social injustices that are inseparable from the workings of the neoliberal order. Counting on individuals alone to solve the ‘environmental problem’ is itself a symptom of the overarching problem: the current ideological triumph of a relentless capitalist neoliberalism, grounded above all in the supposed wants and needs of the (consumerist) individual.

In eight closely argued chapters, Parr presents the interrelated crises currently facing us: climate change; flawed carbon-offset schemes; population growth and income inequality; looming water scarcity; looming food scarcity and expanding worldwide hunger; the food-industrial complex, with genetically modified food and factory-raised animals; the green city movement and attendant social inequality; and the oil industry and its lamentable, indeed apocalyptic, environmental record. Typically, authors focus on individual responses to these problems: for example, changes proposed include eating less meat; driving less or not at all; living in a compact city; recycling, dumpster diving, and so on. Only if a significant portion of the world population decides on these changes, individually or in small groups, will the world somehow be ‘saved’. Heinberg, for example, in The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (2003), recommends a radically restrained (constrained?) lifestyle as a way of enabling humanity to survive longer with a much smaller carbon footprint – necessary if we are to continue to ‘flourish’ as the amount of available oil diminishes on a regular and predictable basis. He doesn’t tell us how to get there from here, though, other than through, presumably, the reading of his book and the activation of our individual consciences. McKibben, in Deep Economy: Economics As If the World Mattered (2007), proposes a small-community ethic as a way of living a healthier life: growing one’s own food, driving less, and so on. McKibben sees the ideal social unit as that of a small community, but his solution ultimately entails people voluntarily, and presumably individually, choosing to live in progressive small towns or the countryside: rural Vermont is his home, and apparently his ideal. It’s unclear how one can live in Vermont, however, if one is living in poverty in a major urban centre, or in rural India.

I mention these two authors not to condemn them, but to indicate the difficulty that lies before any progressive social/ecological critic who does not firmly tie his or her analysis to a critique of global capitalism. As Parr makes clear, one can indeed make individual choices, but how individual is individual? How individual can any choice be in the current economic regime? The individual will always be the creature of larger market forces and logic. The individual’s response, then, will always have to be framed in a larger, inclusive, political context, as political action.

Here I would point to chapter 6 of Parr’s book, ‘Animal Pharm’, which focuses on agribusiness as it is currently constituted. McKibben’s solution to the woes of junk food, unhealthy meat, fast food, genetically modified food – all harmful both to the human body and to the environment in general – entails the voluntary withdrawal from the current regime, and participation in community-supported agriculture schemes (CSAs), backyard gardening, the support of small local organic farmers, and so on. All laudable, to be sure: anyone who has read Michael Pollan knows that eating good food can certainly improve one’s life. Parr, on the other hand, stresses some obvious problems with small community reform that somehow never seems to get beyond ‘identity politics’ – that is, beyond the improvement of the lives of certain types of people (vegans, foodies, small-town inhabitants, farmers, ‘creative class’ types, etc.) rather than all people. She notes, for example, that ‘ethical food choices cannot be separated from the material conditions determining food production and modes of subjectification (race, class, gender, species).’ Most vegans have soybeans as a central part of their diets, and yet ‘soybean production is responsible for the razing of large parts of the Amazon rain forest that is facilitating the institutionalization of North–South power relations.’ Hence, ‘the vegan approach runs the risk of facilitating the culture of consumption that capitalism advances.’ She then goes on to cite the intolerance of certain vegan groups when it comes to people who have tried veganism and rejected it, for health reasons. This would seem to be the nub of the problem: the vegans constitute themselves as a special interest/identity group, they feel confident about it, but they quickly become exclusivist, seeing others as not quite up to their moral or ethical standards. They have to, because they don’t have any overarching political standards, based on rigorous social and economic analysis. The irony is that they are themselves fully caught up in the individualistic consumerism that is the very heart of the ‘society of the spectacle’.

Omnivorous capitalism, in other words, works through both individual oppression and exploitation but also through a kind of personal thralldom to consuming not just reified or fetishized objects but all the images packaged and sold by an ever-resilient capitalism. In the case of vegans, singled out by Parr, a seeming revolt against capitalism is immediately reappropriated by it: if we reject meat as individuals and go to the local wholefood stores to buy soybeans we have merely switched consumable signs; we have not radically changed our activity as passive consumers and supporters of the neoliberal regime. Identity politics is not even politics; it’s consumerism as social action. The new signs are contestatory only as signs; thus they are the problem (elements of the ‘spectacle’), not the solution. This is the genius of ever-renascent capitalism: it mutates endlessly, always capable of reappropriating contestation, no matter how seemingly radical, and turning it to its own (exploitative) ends. The vegan feels superior eating soybeans; meanwhile, the Amazon rainforest is stripped for profit.

This example is extended in the following chapter, ‘Modern Feeling and the Green City’. The current ‘greening’ of the city, from Parr’s perspective, is capitalist business as usual, with a green tint. Her example is Chicago, where a massive energy efficiency initiative has been undertaken, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Daley. But, obviously, Chicago’s transformation has less to do with ‘saving the planet’, in the noble abstract, than it has to do with turning the city into an economically efficient and lifestyle-friendly metropolis that will attract the ‘creative class’ types that nowadays are held to be the salvation of agglomerations in the age of knowledge-based industries. As Parr writes,

The green roof on Chicago’s City Hall is just another code, alongside other codes such as the LEED-rated buildings, housing voucher schemes, bicycle paths, and so on and so forth. What grounds all of these codes and the shifts they undergo over time is the axiomatic of capital, for in all cases capital serves as the justification for urban development and change.

As with the vegans, the walkable-city types are less concerned with social justice than with establishing their own turf in the most pleasant parts of the gentrified city. And, though Barr does not stress it, gentrification itself is really the index of the failure of the ‘greening’ ideal of the city, because it merely replicates social inequality under the guise of urban efficiency. When neighbourhoods are ‘revitalized’, when the LEED-style amenities are introduced, those who are not ‘creative class’ hipster geniuses are forced out, and the neighbourhood, which indeed becomes more pleasant to live in, also becomes unaffordable for most people. Gentrification and green urban renewal seem to be locked in a tight embrace; how would one go about separating them?

If I have a criticism of Parr’s book, it is in the lack of specifics she provides in response to this type of question. If we are to do away with consumerist individualism, what, in practice, will replace it? Will people individually choose to undertake a sustainable project that is more socially just and inclusive? How is this sort of individualism different from that put forward by more traditional eco-critics? Will they be spontaneously convinced to do so through their reading of Marx? Or is there a need for some overarching governmental decision-making, somehow under the aegis of Marxism? Parr criticizes neoliberalism for holding that ‘individuals, not governments or historical forces, are personally responsible for their own successes and failures’. But does that mean that only a government – presumably with the right political orientation – could be capable of implementing what she would take to be ‘successes’? Will people, then, need to be convinced to do the right thing – and be educated in all this – by the government? Which government? Elected by whom, and with what (and whose) money?

Of course change from the top has been tried already: in the Soviet Union, in Cuba, perhaps in Venezuela. The results, to put it mildly, have not always been resoundingly successful. Cuba scores high in the green sweepstakes – energy consumption is low per capita, and yet the population is highly literate and generally well educated, and on that score at least has a good quality of life. Not many other countries can make this claim. (It generally seems that one can make one claim, or the other, but not both.) And certainly Marx has a central role in Cuban political education. But how many Cubans would voluntarily retain their current system if given the choice? Conversely, throughout the world, liberation and freedom are associated with a more ‘prosperous’ lifestyle, which features, as in China, the purchase of automobiles and other far from carbon-neutral devices (fetishes?). How, then, is a proper education to be carried out, worldwide, following the values that Parr espouses? How to convince everyone, including those poor whose definition of progress is consuming more, that there must be a fairly low-lying ceiling to their consumption? Who will do this convincing? What role will constraint play in it? Say what you will, part of the genius of capitalism is to make true believers out of people – make them consumers – while all the while motivating them by convincing them that it is entirely in their interest. Capitalism has solved the problem of motivation, if not much else. Marxism and its various avatars have never come close. How in short do you get people to feel solidarity with everyone, when everything in the global culture persuades them to think first of themselves?

This problem can be flipped around. How do you convince those without that the concerns of those with – concerns having to do with the need to curb overconsumption – are legitimate? If those without are focused, inevitably, on consuming more, how can they respect those who are generally critical of enhanced consumption? Here, I think, Parr ignores some of the value of more traditional eco-criticism. No matter what, that kind of writing does critique consumerism; perhaps not the way she wants it to, but it does ‘deconstruct’ it. The green city is a largely carless city, while the car is perhaps the key consumer item in the US economy – witness the desperate governmental efforts to save GM in 2009. A critique of non-sustainable culture is therefore also necessarily a critique of capitalism, whether it realizes it or not. De-emphasizing a large carbon footprint is de-emphasizing consumer capitalism as we now know it. Rather than making eco-theory entirely subordinate to Marxist theory, it would perhaps be more effective to consider how the two are (or must be) overtly linked. In other words, rather than making light of greening the city efforts – all those yuppie bike paths, and so on – Parr might see how a green critique is inseparable from a Marxist critique. Marxism without the green is a Marxism precisely unconcerned with issues of energy efficiency, the carbon footprint, and so on. We saw, throughout the twentieth century, where such Marxism leads. (Consider, for example, the environmental record of the former East Germany.) Perhaps Parr needs to realize that the yuppie environmentalists are not the only ones who need to broaden their thinking. In point of fact there are people who bring these strands – social and environmental justice – together most effectively – I am thinking, for example, of the beautifully detailed writing of the Indian eco-activist Vandana Shiva, who is both a champion of social justice and a committed environmentalist. Reading Shiva’s work one is never in any doubt of the necessary coordination of the two impulses, of the how and the why.

Rather than a simple flat-out critique of greening as seemingly inevitable cooptation, Parr could then tell us what her model of the green city would be. How can we imagine a green city in which the poor are not simply forced out of liveable and walkable neighbourhoods? What would a non-gentrified environmentally responsible neighbourhood look like, and (above all) how do we get there? How can a refusal of a car-centric transport system challenge larger capitalist (global) structures by keeping more money in the community? How can living outside the confines of the automobile be more satisfying – when one can play rather than drive? How can people of all walks of life live better through the food they grow in their own plots, and on the bikes they ride? How do global green concerns, in conjunction with a Marxist critique of capitalism, lead towards, rather than away from, greater social equality? Parr’s book, because of its global sweep, is a necessary first step in any elaboration of an environmentally enlightened Marxism. She would argue in effect that that is the only Marxism – and one can only concur. One cannot separate environmental and social justice: they are intertwined. But how to get there from here?