Saturday, March 24, 2007

Environmental discourse

I have this sense about environmental discourse that treats capitalism as antagonistic to the environment, as "the enemy of nature". Well the "environment" and "nature" are two very different things, so it would be a mistake for me to conflate the two of them. "Nature" is a particular way of relating to the physical and living world around us, the environment. But the two are often conflated along with other conceptions of the world around us, like "wilderness".

One can certainly make a case of capitalism as "the enemy of nature". If, say, "nature" means something we participate in, respect, see as living, as part of us, etc. -- really, a spiritual conception of the world around us -- then capitalism is antithetical. Capitalism is an economic system based on the transformation of the world into quantities, economic units, in Marxist terms, Values. A world reduced to raw material and commodities, inputs and outputs, is the opposite of a world with which we can converse, embrace, experience in a qualitative way.

But this spiritual opposition I suspect is not what is generally meant by capitalism as the enemy of nature. The implication is that capitalism will destroy not just nature, but the environment. And so the philosophical or spiritual leap to seeing the world as "nature" isn't made. The "enemy of nature" will destroy world we live in, and end life. "Nature", or the environment is left as part of a narrative that we get trapped in -- I'm thinking of Carolyn Merchant's Reinventing Eden here. In the ascensionist narrative, we are coming out of a wilderness and creating a new Eden -- this I suppose might be the capitalist narrative, where Eden is associated with the maximization of commodity production and profit. The declensionist narrative sees us falling still, from a primeval Paradise into an industrial wasteland, and we must act to stop the fall and restore Eden. Or something like that. Merchant saw these narratives as trapping us into narrow binaries and linear plots, false and/or constrained choices as it were. She proposes the alternative of complexity and dynamism, of multiple voices and partnership with the environment -- a way of reaching nature?

Well I have digressed. I think the environmental movement runs a risk in posing capitalism as the enemy of the environment. because as capitalism adjusts itself, as it surely will, to ensure the continued conditions of its reproduction, it will create a split within the environmental movement, or exacerbate the one perhaps already there. As a class, capitalists will take the necessary steps to ensure that accommodations are made to preserve capitalism. This may mean the preservation of some habitats, not because they have intrinsic value, but because they are repositories of unique genetic sequences that can be harvested or perhaps because they can be commodified as sites of eco-tourism or perhaps they are recognized as necessary carbon sinks to allow carbon-based production elsewhere. Or polar bears as a species deserve to be protected, not because they are majestic creatures, but because they have some economic value as a public relations symbol or cartoon characters or stuff-toy. And then the movement is faced with a real Sophie's Choice of which part of the planet to abandon to extinction.

Capitalism is not the enemy of the environment, but it is the enemy of nature. Where nature is something to struggle for, to achieve and embrace.

-- jd

Monday, March 05, 2007

Green capitalism

"Green capitalism" describes a kind of shift in capitalist thinking, a somewhat forward-thinking by a sector of capitalists about the limits of environmental destruction. The environment is a part of the conditions of production. Production, and hence the expropriation of surplus value cannot take place without an environment that can provide the wherewithal for production to take place, whether that is clean air, clean water, dry land, or relatively stable weather.

The recent push by some major corporations to manage the solutions to climate change indicates this broader awareness. The rhetoric is couched in terms of "saving the planet", but I think deep-down the apparent change of heart has more to do with the problem of continuing to make money under changing objective conditions.

Well it's more complicated than that certainly -- the real possibility of some sort of social rebellion around environmental destruction, could force political changes before the full force of, say, climate change, hits business. So business is attempting to get ahead of the wave, and manage it somehow. Hence a renewed interest in Kyoto-like non-solutions like cap-and-trade markets and interest in renewable fuels like ethanol that is creating havoc within agricultural markets. Anything but, heaven forbid, consider cutting consumption.

Anyway, there is a section of the environmental movement more than happy to sidle up next to this green wing of capitalism -- they never saw anything inherent in capitalism that eats away and destroys a healthy relationship with nature (and by this I mean one that sees nature as more than a machine to be tinkered with).

This accommodation came to light last week in the deal struck by the Environmental Defense (formerly Environmental Defense Fund) and National Resources Defense Council that blessed the buyout of the controversial utility TXU by the firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. The two environmental groups are highlighting how they extracted support from the utility for climate change legislation and to cancel planned coal-fired power plants. As David Wessel wrote in a March 1 Wall Street Journal column, it's a "business-friendly, market-loving strain of environmentalism". But Saturday's WSJ reported that the two organizations had been "snookered" by the utility, that the so-called concessions had been planned anyway, and that big loopholes in the terms of the agreement would allow the utility to proceed with the scrapped coal-fired plants anyway. (See "Environmentalist Groups Feud Over Terms of the TXU Buyout", p. A1

As Saturday's article notes, "[I]t can be difficult to determine who is empowered to speak for the environmental movement." But as last week's deal indicates, the idea of an "environmental movement" is a fuzzy, ill-formed one at best. As green capitalism matures, which it is quickly doing, the "movement" as such will need to come to terms, in a much deeper way than has been necessary up till now, on how it wants to relate to capitalism, what capitalism needs, and what environmentalists want. What kind of world.