Question: Environmental Politics: What’s Left? Answer: Bourgeois Primitivism, That’s What


“The cheap prices of commodities,” wrote Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto, “are the heavy artillery with which” the bourgeoisie batters down all borders. The rise of the bourgeoisie “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. It creates a world after its own image.”

For Marx the bourgeoisie transformed urban-rural relations, subjected nature to human needs, and reorganized science and technology to serve the needs of commodity production. Class domination of the kind Marx described was based not only on legal and political forms that expressed existing real relations of production, but also included what Raymond Williams called “forms of consciousness,” which have come to persuasively express a particular class view of the world depicted as universal, pragmatic, and somehow realist and idealist all at the same time.  But these forms of consciousness are slippery and over-determined. The bourgeoisie is “like the sorcerer,” wrote Marx, “who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

This essay is part three in the continuing La Jicarita series on the politics of sustainability. Previous essays examined the environmental politics of Wal-Mart and its obfuscating “sustainability” plan and the logic of green development evident in wind development in Oaxaca, Mexico.

A central argument of this series has been that environmental politics has become something that valorizes the individual consumer and aggressively ignores questions of class, race, and gender in the production of environmental inequality. Acceptable expressions of environmentalism are only those that adhere to “ethical” consumption patterns: organics, local, fair-trade. It is a disciplinary logic that taps into a kind of eco-entertainment niche in green capitalism that redefines the leitmotif of existing bourgeois environmentalism: environmentalism as self-improvement via an urban lifestyle performed as an alternative expression of class distinction. It is class based because only the wealthy can “afford” to become “ethical” environmentalists.

In this essay I suggest that the logic of “sustainability” has come to redefine the contemporary, mainstream environmental movement as one in which the market and the bourgeois consumer are now at the privileged center of political and cultural struggle over nature.

But what, you may ask, is really new or different about this? Hasn’t mainstream environmentalism always been defined by class interests? All we need to do is read the back issues of La Jicarita to see that environmental politics in New Mexico has long been defined by a tension, marked by occasional flare ups, between an urban bourgeoisie interested in “speaking for nature” that imposes its environmental values on rural communities in New Mexico represented as “backwards,” “wasteful,” or somehow inherently anti-environmental, and a working class of rural residents with different values attached to nature. Recall the conflicts between Santa Fe’s Forest Guardians and the small-scale loggers of La Compania on the Carson National Forest in the 1980s and 1990s. Mainstream environmentalism in the United States, it seems, has always been a movement committed to protecting the class privilege of affluent, white citizens.

In addition, it is true that the environmental movement has long been preoccupied with the market as a mechanism of conservation. Indeed, environmentalism has been understood by many of its most ardent popularizers—Bill McKibben in particular—as impossible without the market at its center. The historian Ted Steinberg traced this history to the 1960s appropriate technology movement, exemplified by publications like the Whole Earth Catalog which, as Steinberg described it, offered a DIY environmental ethic in which retrofitting a toilet was as revolutionary act. Contemporary environmentalism is expressed through consumption.

This logic of green consumerism has long captured the imagination of bourgeois consumers. The spectre of bourgeois values that bathe the aisles of Whole Foods, for example, in a green glow that Michael Pollan called Supermarket Pastoral, or even better, what Forbes has called “Food porn,” now stalks the aisles of Wal-Mart, which recently announced a ridiculous “sustainability initiative.”  But the once exclusive “selling nature to save it” logic of green capitalism has, perhaps as a result of its expansion, lost its ability to connote class distinction (the poor can now express an environmental ethic through green consumption). As a result, green capitalism has come under a recent and withering critique by certain bourgeois consumers interested in creating new cultural forms of class distinction for bourgeois consumers through a focus on individual happiness and enforced self-austerity.

Environmentalism’s revolutionary act—sustainable consumption— is now a magic act—conspicuous anti-consumption; but one of course that defends class privilege. Think Colin Beavan of “No Impact Man,” or what I call bourgeois primitivism. The category of environmental “citizen” has been replaced by an emphasis on the environmental “consumer.” This is a significant shift and one that deserves critical attention. Whereas the environmental movement in the 1980s and 1990s was dominated by liberal corporate, membership-based organizations such as the Sierra Club with links to progressive era conservation, environmental politics today is defined as a bourgeois form of primitivist logic.

Beavan is the subject of No Impact Man: the Documentary, a companion to his book No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (Beavan 2009). Both book and movie were based on Beavan’s “No Impact Man Project”, a blog he started in November 2006. The blog, as with the book and movie, chronicles the exploits of one upscale, Manhattan family’s efforts to transform their consumption patterns, and thus their social and natural relations, in order to “save the planet.” Beavan sought a way out of their current lives he described in an early blog entry as “typical convenience-addicted, New York City take-out slaves.” Through reduced consumption he hoped to find “a middle path that is neither unconsciously consumerist nor self-consciously anti-materialist.” Beavan put his faith in a version of environmentalism he sometimes called “eco–effective,” a term popularized by a number of business and urban design writers, or “sustainable anti-consumerism,” a lifestyle approach to environmentalism he defined with the simple aphorism/algorithm (“negative impact + positive impact = zero. No net impact, get it?”).

Beavan has become a polarizing figure but something of a media darling. His blog found the attention of a variety of media outlets and, after numerous articles and television and radio appearances, has become hugely popular particularly among affluent, urban consumers obsessed with questions of sustainability, green consumerism, and green capitalism. Awards, accolades and press coverage followed.

Beanvan’s primitivist version of environmentalism is consistent with the ethic offered by romantic writers like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau that environmentalists have long jealously claimed for themselves. In truth, the mainstream environmental movement has owed much of its political philosophy to business-friendly progressive conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt, who saw nature as nothing more than a reservoir of inputs for industrial firms that required government intervention in order to conserve. This intellectual legacy of “green” capitalism has long influenced bourgeois thinking and values about the environment.

The romanticism of bourgeois primitivist thinking draws on this history, with its focus on a faith in technology and the market but now adopts anarcho-primitivist thinking and its calls for “reskilling,” its critique of industrial society, and its valorization of individual political agency.

This current shift has an interesting history. The story of the role of class in environmental politics has perhaps as long and sordid a history as the links between racism and environmentalism, but has received much less attention. Briefly, wild nature in the bourgeois formulation has been defined as an amenity at risk to privileged consumers because of the rapacious industrial uses of nature imagined as somehow having nothing to do with capitalist reproduction. These views have rarely made class distinctions regarding the uses of nature and are almost willfully blind to the differences between what Karl Jacoby called “working class nature” and the industrial uses of nature in capitalism. The poor, according to mainstream environmentalists, were just as culpable of environmental degradation as transnational extractive firms—and usually an easier target.

Bourgeois environmentalism fixed bourgeois consumer subjectivities at the center of environmental activism such that individualized claims to bourgeois sustainability appear as the only means to interrupt unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. This rarefied worldview has privileged certain individuals as moral environmentalists—either bourgeois consumers or romanticized pre-modern societies. These claims to appropriate nature-society relations have operated within the ironies of bourgeois anxieties of a degraded nature. Certain consumers are susceptible to the “selling nature to save it” logic because of the room it provides for expressions of bourgeois environmental values, but also for the way it resolves individual anxieties over a degraded nature. They recycle, buy bottled water, wear facemasks in polluted cities, avoid tuna for fear of mercury, and buy organic vegetables for fear of the pesticides.

This bourgeois formulation of nature has depended on constantly reproducing the idea that certain kinds of consumption, and therefore certain kinds of consumers, are the problem. It has been a view of nature that, in Raymond Williams’ (1981) words, requires the active “suppression of the history of human labor” as the key means by which nature is remade in the image of the bourgeois consumer, i.e. orderly, pristine, non-human.

The primitivist turn in environmental politics reveals how class distinction is at the heart of contemporary environmentalism. First, bourgeois primitivism offers an expression of environmental amenities rooted in class concerns around urban aesthetics, luxury, leisure, public safety, and individual health as a way to influence the shape of urban spaces so as to reinforce these privileges understood as universal.

Second, whereas mainstream environmentalism has long defined sustainability in terms of the economic “freedom” to maintain existing levels of consumption refashioned as “green,” the primitivist ideology demands sacrifices, but these are couched as new paths to a better “quality of life” (consume less, be happier). The language of self-improvement rather than socio-ecological justice obscures the connections between environmental degradation and social inequality on the one side and bourgeois values on the other. The magic act of bourgeois primitivist thought then has been to fashion forms of consumption that appear to reduce environmental impact without requiring any sacrifice of class-based luxuries.

Third, the “no net impact” rhetoric of bourgeois primitivism echoes part of the neoliberal language of environmentalism. For Beavan it provides a means to truncate any consideration of the connections between production and consumption. Instead “appropriate” technology serves as the magic bullet: a (hypothetical) technopolitical solution deployed to resolve the serious environmental impacts of those elements of bourgeois consumption off limits to scrutiny.

Fourth, bourgeois primitivism obsesses over urban order and aesthetics. Green parks and public spaces provide the means for well-being and “quality of life” in ways only affluent residents can experience. In the film, for example, the scenes of garbage accumulating on the sidewalks served to illustrate the costs of a growing urban consumption disorder. But the costs were aesthetic. They got in the way of Beavan’s walks with his daughter, for example. Later the film briefly examined the environmental health impacts of consumption via the landfilling of urban wastes in sites adjacent to public housing in the south Bronx.

This shift to bourgeois primitivism poses three troubling questions. What are the political implications of a shift in which the market serves not only as the mechanism of exchange in capitalism but the wellspring of cultural content and personal values in society? What does it mean for environmental politics when the market has become the only path to social and environmental change? And lastly, what are the chances for radical politics when the wealthy consumer is the universal subject of environmental ethics?

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