Environmentalism as a Politics of Fear

My friend Bryan and I have been engaged in a discussion for several weeks now about the politics of environmentalism and the prospect of climate change. We are both of a rather ascetic bent, at heart—the sense that the only way forward for the human community is a simpler existence made of nonviolence, plant-eating, and freelance writing.

For some odd reason, though, in recent conversations, I keep fighting him on this stuff. Unable to articulate it right, I keep talking about Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish economist who has made a longtime stink about how global warming isn’t the biggest world-historical fish to fry. (Bill McKibben answers him in the NYRB.) He’s also sort of in the category of a climate change denier, the ultimate heresy in my circles. Why do I keep bringing a crazy like that up? I don’t want to deny climate change, which the experts seem to agree on. I do want to ask questions about it. But every time I try, I get stuck with my words and end up happily agreeing with Bryan. As I still do.

Well, I think I’ve found the right words, or at least a start on the way to them. They come in an essay in n+1 no. 6 by “political thinker” Alex Gourevitch. The words are these:

Environmentalism is a left-wing politics of fear because it rests on the deeply fearful idea that only an overweening threat to our physical and collective health can inspire us to “transcendence.” … In the Bush years we have seen that security is an unstable foundation for institutions—the separation of powers, constitutionalism, federalism, civil society—that liberals have recently sought to rehabilitate. It is a principle that can only constrain and limit politics, not renew our political imagination.

That’s a powerful statement, that last part. But the next sentence isn’t so bad either:

No social change is possible without a great deal of uncertainty, and even the production of insecurity.

After that, the n+1 guys have some rich but less striking replies. They even did a live debate on this all at the NYPL. Overall they agree with Gourevitch that environmentalism represents a will to power. It is not the antidote to the Bush doctrine, it is the replacement. If the War on Terror can justify the total perversion of the Constitution and the whole tradition of human rights since the Enlightenment, what means will the environmentalists’ ends justify? But they insist that this is simply a better end, more worthy of the necessary means.

So take it back to what Bryan and I agree on: nonviolence, where the ends cannot justify the means. Can it be enough to say that this is a warning? That in the process doing environmentalism, we will not destroy politics and impose policy in desperation? Or is this cause so just that, this time, our enemies really deserve to be vanquished?

What I like about Lomborg is not whether he is right or wrong so much as, in the words of Gourevitch, his “political imagination.” He offers an alternative, one that doesn’t melt in the face of fear but suggests a pragmatic, possibly sensible answer to it. If he’s wrong, okay. But if he were right, would we be too rapt up in fear by the Toyota Prius marketing department to notice?

The environmental movement needs discipline with its conviction. We cannot let ourselves become driven by the thrill of seeming correct to the point of blinding ourselves with violence. Forget all the proposals about what China should do or how we clever green urbanites can get our dumb suburban relatives to take public transportation. If there is to be restraint, we should begin by taking it upon ourselves to the point of sacrifice. Take radical steps at our own risk, not that of others. The fear all this has stirred up should be transformed into hope—not desire, as Benjamin Kunkel suggests in n+1. Desire is another will to power, hope a will to discover.

That’s all for now. Will keep thinking. Am hungry for help.





6 responses to “Environmentalism as a Politics of Fear”

  1. Bryan

    It’s funny to hear you say that you’ve struggled to articulate your thoughts. I never had that impression. If anyone struggles to articulate thoughts, I generally think that person is me. I guess if we can learn anything from one another it’s that we’re both still developing our ideas. That being said, I’m going to attempt to lay mine out as a reaction to the above mentioned essay…

    First off, I share a number of your concerns with the broader environmental movement, which is controlled mainly by big organizations like the Sierra Club, NRDC and WWF. These groups are responsible for what’s being termed “a politics of fear,” which I think has a lot do with a term their conservative detractors often use when describing the environmental movement’s ideology: eco-imperialism.

    An Australian journalist Michael Barker, who has a knack for exposing hypocrisy among progressives, recently wrote on this topic for ZNet, saying, “I agree with [conservatives] that the best-funded parts of the environmental movement that are regularly talked-up in the mass media promote eco-imperialism, but this is not because they challenge powerful elite interests, but rather because they serve them so effectively.” He then goes on to show how the WWF, which has an annual income of just under a billion dollars per year thanks to funding by powerful elites, “promotes capitalist interests under the cloak of environmentalism.”

    Now, I don’t think these organizations are all bad. But that’s another conversation. The reason I mention imperialism and the strong corporate hand backing top enviros is because they are the same forces forwarding the “war on terror.” Fear is a great motivator for business. Perhaps no industry has found as much success or growth over the past eight years as the private security industry.

    N + 1 suggests that if we continue to buy into the fear mongering of environmentalism we will essentially be trading “one state of emergency for another.” When put in that context I understand the desire to dismiss talk of imminent ecological collapse. I think we’re all tired of being scared into giving up more freedom and personal liberties. But politics of fear doesn’t go away by merely rejecting it. Nor do the threats posed by terrorism or global warming.

    More to the point, I think the only way to move past the politics of fear is to take responsibility for the issues at hand. The need for a war on terror is the direct result of an aggressive US foreign policy. Pull out of the Middle East and terrorism will become less of a concern. Similarly, the need for environmentalism is the direct result of an aggressive industrial policy. Stop polluting and environmentalism will become less of a concern.

    I really think it’s that simple. And that’s why I cringe at the line: “No social change is possible without a great deal of uncertainty, and even the production of insecurity.” It’s not because I disagree with it. It’s because in the cases of the war on terror and environmentalism we’ve had debates and open dialogues about uncertainties for quite some time and are at the point now where consensuses have been formed. That’s why so many errors have been found in Bjorn Lomborg’s work. His deliberate intent to become a “skeptical environmentalist” has forced him to resort to what McKibben calls “carefully selected, shopworn data that holds up poorly in light of the most recent research.”

    My argument (and I realize I’ve taken a while to get here) is not against open dialogue. It is against the equal representation of voices long past the point where a consensus has been reached, which has the effect of undermining truth and the advancement of solutions.

    I just came across another example of this in an article on the economics of climate change. Eric Pooley, writing for Slate, says that the media isn’t recognizing the consensus among economists that the costs of climate inaction greatly outweigh the costs of action–much like it ignored the consensus among scientists over the cause of global warming for much of the past two decades. Perhaps not coincidentally, Lomborg is mentioned in the article as a marginalized outlier since he is not even an economist.

    Sorry to beat up on your man so much. Unlike most skeptics, I think his intentions are good. But the final point I want to make is that there are plenty of altering views on the ecological crisis. It’s a shame that the mainstream approach has been taken over by the corporate elites, who use fear as the main motivator. But as the aforementioned Barker concludes, we need to “amplify those quiet radical voices which present a daily (if underfunded) challenge to the environmental injustices perpetrated by imperial plunderers.” Campaigns like 350.org, organizations like Earth First! and writers like Wendell Berry are right on the science and use justice–not fear–as their motivating call to action. These are the voices that need our support.

  2. Wow! I’m so grateful for this response. Awesome.

    Again, I’m not so much rooting for Lomborg’s argument as the possibility that it represents.

    Anyway, there are a lot of gems in what you’ve said. One:

    I understand the desire to dismiss talk of imminent ecological collapse. I think we’re all tired of being scared into giving up more freedom and personal liberties. But politics of fear doesn’t go away by merely rejecting it. Nor do the threats posed by terrorism or global warming.

    Absolutely. That is something I should have insisted on more—that critique of the environmental movement must absolutely not become an excuse for doing nothing. It should, rather, be the self-reflection of (or, more in my case, an act in support for) a community of activists.

    Also, I’m not so immediately skeptical of the big groups and sympathetic to radicals. Ideally, I would hope the two should work in creative tension. As ever, radicals should point the way forward while mainstream groups conduct the art of the possible. In my experience, people involved in the large groups are powerful and effective fighters in the present political situation, but being so drenched in the present makes it hard for them to hold onto a vision of the future. This is why they need radicals. And to be effective, the radicals need them.

    I think your speaking of Wendell Berry is so right on. As a poet and a farmer, he has done so much to “point the way forward” by painting a positive vision of how life can be lived. This, I think, is the antidote to the politics of fear. In the war on terror, we were told that we had to give up our freedoms in order to save them. In the war on irresponsible stewardship of the earth, we cannot allow similar proclamations to be made. We cannot, for instance, use environmental justice as an excuse to deny economic justice to other societies.

    I love how you say:

    Stop polluting and environmentalism will become less of a concern.

    I really think it’s that simple.

    Yes, but no. Yes, we have to stop polluting. But how do we do that? There is an infinite variety of ways. Which one(s) we choose is just as important as choosing to do so in the first place. What I’m eager to see (and what is happening more and more) is a flowering of creativity about how this change of life can be accomplished in a way that’s actually better than how we live now. What saddens me is to see the environmental movement making irresponsible, vindictive demands on their political enemies.

  3. Quentin Kirk

    Wonderful discussion.
    For me we will not become true enviornmentialists until we feel it as a profound religious issue. Not until we love Holy Earth. I see beginnings in Green Catholocism http://www.green-catholic.com/ and others.

  4. Thanks for the link! That site looks great.

  5. Jeff Sharlet

    Don’t you think Gourevitch conflates liberalism with the left? What he seems to mean is the liberalism employs enviromentalism as a politics of fear. Federalism and civil society aren’t really leftist interests. And yet, Gourevitch seems to look at this with a very Old Left framework — as if the goal of all political action is to “inspire ‘transcendence’ ” — or, as the Revolutionary Communist Party would put it, revolution. That kind of pop-Leninism strikes me as fairly detached from the real world of political action, in which people do things and believe things without concern for manipulation of the masses — because most people are part of the masses.

  6. most people are part of the masses

    I always wonder if I’m part of the masses. Can one possibly be? What are the criteria?

    That’s sort of a joke.

    I’m not quite sure what liberalism you mean here. My sense is that he is, perhaps justifiably, accusing “environmentalism” of being a revolutionary faith—in the negative, futile sense. That is, environmentalists hope to use a crisis (e.g., climate change/World War I) to spur a dramatic coup (e.g., sustainability/Soviet Union). If you don’t think that’s true, I offer myself as a self-suspicious counterexample. I, for one, hope that climate change spurs us to a dramatically more sustainable way of life. Maybe even: whatever the cost.