Monday, July 28, 2014

More on scalability, anti-modernism and the future

In one reading, the ontology of green political thinking is distinctively global. After all, it is concern with planetary-scale processes, in particular the global carbon cycle but also issues such as biodiversity loss, habitat destruction and ocean acidification, that motivates much green scholarship and serves as evidence for the unsustainability of modern industrial civilization. At the same time, few green authors have shown much interest in the actual people populating an increasingly global world or how their dreams and aspirations may constrain the scope for environmental politics. Instead, the lack of democratic support for radical environmentalism is often seen as a reflection of a false consciousness manufactured by malign elites or a passing historical anomaly which will disappear once the global environmental crisis worsens sufficiently.

Rejecting both these interpretations, it is my belief that any realistic vision of sustainability must take as a starting point the fact that we are now seven billion people on this planet wanting to live modern lives with access to energy, freedom of global mobility and the possibility of remunerative employment. Unfortunately, green political thinking has, by and large, proven unwilling to engage with the kind of solutions that could adequately scale to such a world of universal affluence. Shunning their responsibility to think creatively about global social theory, green authors have preferred to retreat into identity politics, moralistic absolutism or utopian localism. This would of course be of little concern for society if these authors were simply the “dissident voices” on the margin that they often think of themselves as. However, in a time when many people rightfully feel remorse at the loss of the natural world and experience deep ambiguities with regard to the future, the anti-modernist narrative of environmentalism has been surprisingly successful in undermining public support for everything from advanced nuclear technologies to genetic engineering. In its place, there has been a strong tendency to avoid the really difficult questions, to tout the need to “lead by example” even as that example may be impossible for others to replicate and to seek pragmatic, piecemeal changes that “feel good” even as they do not take the world as a whole any closer to long-term sustainability. It is in this context that we must consider wind power (which as an intermittent and diffuse energy source can never power a country such as China), organic small-scale agriculture (which can never feed the world) or energy forestry (which would be outright catastrophic to biodiversity if scaled to a global level). It is not that any of these things are wrong in their own right yet, by the paradoxical virtue of their relative local success, they end up obscuring the need for the kind of breakthrough innovation that seems called for in order to achieve long-term global sustainability in a world as populous as ours.



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