Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Shades of green: how do we respond to ecological degradation?

Ecological concern is a broad movement, containing much diversity. In my previous post, I mentioned Northcott's account of three approaches to ecological ethics: ecocentric, anthropocentric and theocentric. These refer to the underlying logic of different approaches to ecological ethics.

But there are other ways of categorising the field that might supplement Northcott's suggestion. One categorisation I've also found helpful is to consider the different kinds of responses that are commonly seen. Following a taxonomy coined by Alex Steffen, let us call them light green, bright green and deep green. As with the previous categories, these are tendencies rather than mutually exclusive options. And as with the three approaches mentioned previously, I believe we require elements of all three in a healthy response, since each on its own is insufficient.

Light green
Light green ecological activism assumes that the most effective response begins by winning hearts and minds. Given sufficient information and perhaps some persuasion and attractive exemplars, individuals will understand the necessity and/or benefits of making lifestyle, behavioural and consumer changes. No large political change is required, simply a gradual raising of awareness. Where the people lead, the politicians will follow.

At its best, light green responses place an emphasis on personal responsibility and the necessity of a change of heart to sustain any change of life. The light shade of this green could be read as a reference to an optimism about the human capacity for change in the light of new knowledge, viz. the freedom to repent, or it might refer to the moral superiority of choosing light over darkness.

But the lightness of this shade could also be read as lightweight, lacking in seriousness. At its more fatuous end, consumer choice is the name of the game. If it has "eco" in the label, then buying it will help the planet (ignoring the fact that it might help things more if I were not to buy anything most of the time). As long as the consumers have good information about their personal ecological footprint and products are clearly labelled, then we can rely on the sensible lifestyle choices of individuals to transform the landscape. Light green actions may be susceptible to manipulation through corporate greenwash.

And so even earnest and well-intentioned light green activism may obscure the structural reasons why society develops the way it has, the deep and powerful economic and ideological vested interests in the status quo. It generally fails to question consumerism, merely replacing one kind of consumption for another, albeit one with a lighter footprint.

Bright green
Bright green was Alex Steffen's preferred mode. The focus here is on intelligent transformation of society through better design, technological development and more widely distributed social innovations. This approach assumes that it is possible to have your cake and eat it, that increasing human prosperity is highly compatible with ecological responsibility, that going green is not merely the lesser of two evils, but a chance to embrace a better life for all. The brightness of this green is intended to refer both to the focus on intelligent response and to the optimism concerning human ingenuity and flexibility espoused by many in this camp.

Much of the talk of "green jobs", "low-carbon economy" or "sustainable development" goes here, though these terms can and are, of course, used in government and corporate greenwash for policies pursued for other reasons. Politically, bright green activism advocates radical social and economic change. Bright greens are frequently passionate about redesigning cities (often with reference to new urbanism), transforming the economy to renewables and/or nuclear power, smart grids, electric cars (with vehicle-to-grid capabilities), techno-progressivism, closed loop materials cycles, bio and/or geo-engineering and, in general, the capacity of co-ordinated thoughtful human action to improve a situation.

At its best, bright green activism seeks constructive solutions rather than mere protest. Undoubtedly, it is possible to build a better mouse trap - to design systems, cities and even whole societies that waste less, produce more and more closely align with human and ecological well-being. Systems are indeed important; personal change is insufficient to avoid an ongoing and worsening ecological catastrophe.

Yet bright green thought can be blinded by the brilliance of its vision to two realities: human sinfulness and finitude. It is utopian, and like all utopian dreams, it can easily become a nightmare. We all have a tendency to go with the devil we know, to continue self-destructive habits, to put selfish interests before the interests of others. We are slaves to sin and without spiritual liberation, even the powers of intelligence and optimism are frustrated.

But there is perhaps an even deeper problem for bright green thought than sin, namely, the finitude of the earth and its living systems. That is, at its most euphoric, bright green thought forgets that finitude is a gift and control an illusion. Furthermore, not all human-caused damage is humanly reversible.

Deep green
This green is deep because it attempts to delve beneath the surface of which political party happens to be in power or which new technology is being developed, instead seeking after the underlying philosophical, economic and political causes of ecological degradation. The analysis of the problem is taken deeper than left vs right or the relative merits of nuclear or wind power. The problem lies not in lack of information or political co-ordination, but in industrialism, capitalism, or some foundational component of contemporary society. Like bright greens, deep greens seek radical political and social transformation, including (depending how deep they go) a rejection of consumerism, of contemporary hyper-capitalism, of the logic of the market in all its forms, of industrialism and even, in some cases, of agriculture.

Sometimes it is also called dark green, since it is frequently associated with pessimism about the possibility of sufficient change without massive disruption to human populations. Some dark greens seem to think that a major human die off is inevitable, desirable or both. Yet not all deep green thought is Malthusian, as it seems reasonable to include certain forms of steady state economics under this banner. Perhaps dark green deserves its own category.

Yet deep green is a better label for all approaches that view endless economic growth as ultimately inherently self-limiting. It echoes the term deep ecology, a philosophy that tries to avoid anthropocentrism in our understanding and appreciation of the complex community of life. Human flourishing is both entirely dependent upon and ultimately less important than the flourishing of ecosystems.

At its worst, deep green can be irresponsible or merely heartless in its embrace of the necessary misery associated with economic decline or collapse. It can be self-indulgent in a wholesale rejection of any partial solution or temporary improvement. It can be self-righteous in condemnation, futile in protest, acquiescent in despairing resignation, paralysed by apocalyptic nightmares.

Yet at its best, a deep green perspective refuses to grasp illegitimate hopes. Our all-too-human hopes must die. We need to feel how deep the roots of our predicament are: both within our own hearts (as light green affirms) and woven into the structures of society (as deep green reveals). While the life of Christian discipleship may have room for what Barth calls little hopes, these are only possible once we have crucified any other great hope outside Christ.

Brown
And of course, some people remain brown, perhaps sporting merely a fig leaf of greenwash to cover their advocacy of ongoing exploitation of the creation without serious limits. There are also various shades of brown, but they all smell bad.
First image by Brennan Jacoby.

10 comments:

Mike W said...

thanks byron, this is incredibly helpful stuff, thankyou for working so hard and sharing it. I really like your linking system too, it is even better than a traditional book. Perhaps you could publish it all as a dictionary, like John Ralston Saul's 'Doubters Companion'

Lionel Windsor said...

Thanks for this article - it's a great summary of the different approaches around.

I have a (relatively tiny) correction - not about the substance of the article, but about your use of the terms "entropy" and "second law of thermodynamics" (and also the term "time's arrow" if you're using it as it is currently understood in physics) and your equation of these terms with the finitude of the earth.

Technically, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics apply to isolated mass/energy systems. As far as anybody has ever observed, in any isolated system, the total entropy always increases to a state of equilibrium. However, it is quite possible for a localised element within an isolated system to decrease in entropy, provided there is a larger increase in entropy somewhere else within that isolated system which makes the total entropy of the entire system increase. My desk, for example, is not an isolated system, and so it would be illegitimate for me to use the second law of thermodynamics to claim that my desk could never get tidy. I can decrease its entropy through the proper channelling of external energy (i.e. I can have some lunch to provide me with the energy to walk into my study and tidy up the desk). The earth is not an isolated system either, because it is constantly receiving light from the sun and radiating heat into space. The energy coming from the sun theoretically allows for a decrease in total entropy on the earth - and hence it is illegitimate to use the laws of thermodynamics to speak of the inevitability of increasing disorder on the earth ("decay").

I'm not denying that creation is in bondage to decay, nor that the earth is finite in one sense--i.e. with regard to its mass.* However, since the earth is constantly receiving energy from the sun, the second law of thermodynamics cannot be used to make a point about the inevitability of decay of the earth itself. I think that terms such as “entropy” and “thermodynamics” and even “times’ arrow”, since they are technical scientific terms which don’t actually apply in this case, shouldn’t generally be used in this context.

Cheers,
Lionel

Lionel Windsor said...

Sorry, I just re-read and noticed you said that you're aware that the various terms aren't identical. So you aren't equating them. But even so, I still think that the 2nd law of thermodynamics can't be called upon in this case.

byron smith said...

Lionel - Yes, you're right. It was a lazy paragraph that needs more work. I think I conflate finitude and fallenness in some ways in that paragraph and I don't want to do that.

I'll remove the reference to 2nd law as you're correct that it was a simplistic wave of the hand that is just distracting to those familiar with it.

byron smith said...

Classic bright green: Bill Gates: "we need an energy miracle" and there are only five serious options.

byron smith said...

Energy Bulletin: What if the techo-optimists and cornucopians are half right?:

"That points us to the biggest danger of all: It's not that the TOCs [techno-optimists and cornucopians] are dead wrong, something I believe might actually be clear to nearly every thinking person if it were true. Rather, the biggest danger is that the TOCs are half right and that their endless parade of techno-fixes will prevent resources from flowing to other endeavors which are much more likely to produce a sustainable world in the long run."

byron smith said...

Light greens: The myth of the ethical consumer. This is pretty eviscerating for hopes that ethical consumption will change the world anytime soon.

byron smith said...

BBC: Greenwash - a "carbon-neutral" airport.

byron smith said...

YT: Classic light green - changing the world through ethical consumerism.

byron smith said...

Deep green options, debating various strategies to achieve the deep green vision. A lengthy, but excellent, summary of the various versions of deep green thought.