Saturday, January 12, 2019

Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts

Before I read the book, I wrote this:

I like living in an industrial civilization. I like living indoors and not having to gather, harvest, or hunt my own food. I like having electronic devices and the Internet. I like the fact that air travel to almost anywhere in the world is at least moderately affordable. I like all these things, and I would like them to continue indefinitely into the future.

And that is why we need to minimize the effects of climate change on human civilization and make every effort to keep our planet’s ecosystems vibrant and healthy, and we must allow every human to have a meaningful stake in our civilization, and not have a permanent underclass of exploited workers anywhere in the world.

I really hope environmental calamity, together with social inequality and instability, doesn’t ruin everything I selfishly want!

Now, will this book address my fears?


Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts
by Leigh Phillips, 2015

As it turns out, yes, Leigh Phillips’ book is relevant to what I wrote above. Through occasionally angry, often colorful prose, Phillips tears into environmental rhetoric and solutions that he calls “a series of romantic proposals from the green left that at best to very little to deal with the issue and at worst are counterproductive -- climate change is too grave a crisis to leave it to the greens” (p. 5).

Phillips is a left-wing socialist who is deeply frustrated with the current state of lefty rhetoric when it comes to environmentalism and technology. He criticizes many modern-day leftists for embracing an anti-technology and anti-growth ideology, which he sees as actively harmful to the pro-human-being values that left-wing politics ought to hold paramount.  

“Collapse porn” is how Phillips characterizes material catering to the idea that we’d be better off if industrial civilization just fell apart and we all went back to living on the land. Granted, people have been grumbling down this road ever since the first stirrings of industrialization, but Phillips is concerned that this way of thinking is becoming way too prevalent today, when in fact we need technology and economic development to avert (or deal with) the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

I’m personally unfamiliar with the books and ideology that he characterizes as “collapse porn”, so I was forced to take his evaluation largely on trust, but the rhetorical points he makes against this way of thinking are striking. Economic “degrowth”, he writes, cannot be differentiated from the economic austerity that leftists correctly despise -- they are the same thing. In response to Naomi Klein (a frequent target of his throughout the book), he says her “degrowth arguments stand opposed to the interests of working people, and are a barrier to labour’s advance” (p. 28). Comparing the proposals of various “collapse porn” fans, he asks if we need to scale ourselves back to the 1970s? The seventeenth century? The stone age? The answer “appears more to be based on aesthetic affinity rather than any evidence of resource equilibrium” (p. 21). And towards the end of the book, he reminds us that anti-modern rhetoric can also be a tool of right-wing authoritarian governments.

He also attacks what he sees as the left’s fetishization of the local and the small-scale. When it comes to food supply, localism is often more damaging to the environment, not less. For one thing, it results in less efficient use of land than more intensive agriculture; for another, the production of food has a much larger energy appetite than the transportation of it, so localism has limited benefits. His conclusion is that “localism is ultimately presenting the instant gratification and easy option of ethical consumerism as a solution rather than the hard, years-long slog of society-wide organization for structural change” (p. 128).

Phillips criticizes the common claim that we humans have overshot the Earth’s carrying capacity, as it’s not the vague group “humans” who are to blame -- by doing so, you ignore class differences. Phrases such as “per capita consumption” contain absolutely no useful information and obscure the differences between rich and poor. This rhetoric can inadvertently hide the true causes of environmental damage. For instance, he opines that it’s misleading to characterize the 2010 BP oil spill as the result of an exploding human population’s insatiable demand for oil; rather, it was the result of irresponsible decisions made in BP executive offices, and blame should be assigned accordingly.

Calling the left’s obsession with collapse “a politics of despair” (p. 131), he feels we are at risk of succumbing to the sense that building a better future just won’t work. (This echoes very similar sentiments in Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists.) If we celebrate the collapse of industrial civilization, it’s because we can’t imagine any realistic alternative. We’re still submitting to the dominant paradigm.

Phillips argues that some level of alteration of Earth’s environment is inevitable -- we simply cannot go back to some imagined state of nature without bringing widespread misery and death to literally billions of people. So we must develop technological solutions to minimize the effects of climate change and provide the people of Earth with the means to live meaningful lives.

He is unabashedly pro-technology, and slams left-wing activists who reflexively shun nuclear power and GMOs. He points out that it’s long been a common position on the left that “technologies used in the context of colonialism and exploitation in another political and economic context could be liberatory” (p. 156), and says the left must embrace scientific and technological innovation again.

I find it difficult to evaluate Phillips’ economic arguments, as I don’t have the requisite knowledge. He argues for a democratically planned economy, without going into the details of exactly what that would look like. I get the feeling that he’d say it’s on me to educate myself -- which is fair enough.

As for his environmental stance: “to put it bluntly, the goal can only be to maximize human flourishing”. Environmentalism shouldn’t be about saving the Earth (whatever that means), it should be about saving ourselves. If you were to dip into this book at random, you might come away with the mistaken impression that Phillips thinks we shouldn’t worry so much about the environment -- but this would be a terrible misunderstanding. His stance reminds me of the following cartoon:

From Humon Comics

Click on the comic to read the fine print.

It also reminded me of Charles C. Mann's recent book The Wizard and the Prophet -- well OK, I haven't read the book yet, but here's Mann's 12-minute TED talk, which is basically a trailer for the book.

To tell the truth, there are several areas, from economics to science, where I feel my lack of knowledge very keenly and I don't feel qualified to comment on Phillips' ideas. But I can definitely reiterate what I said in the beginning, that I like industrial civilization and I want it to continue. What I don't want, in the words of cartoon Gaia above, is for humans to fuck themselves over big-time.




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