James Boyle © 1997

A revised version of this article appeared as "What the Left Has to Say" in the TLS, February 28th 1997.

reviewing Social Theory and the Environment by David Goldblatt

Polity Press

ISBN 0745613268 £45 (hardback)

ISBN 0745613284 £14.95 (paper)

pp. 247

Environmentalism has a lot to answer for -- literally. The evironmental movement is used to show that radical protest is not dead, that there is still an economically justifiable role for the state under neo-liberalism, that there is more to life than identity politics. Contemporary social theorists seem to consider it obligatory to turn from their particular hodge-podge of polysyllables to the muddy reality of a Greenpeace protest, using it as an illustration of 'resistance to the colonisation of the life-world,' or 'protest-politics in a risk-society.' The reader is hurled rapidly from epistemological bootstraps to dirty gumboots and back again, suffering a kind of conceptual whiplash in the process. Most of this work uses environmentalism as an example, as one of the pieces of terrain a theory must scale in order to have completed the standard social theory obstacle course. But the destruction of the environment is more than "an example"; it is both one of the most serious problems the human race faces and the spur to some of the most interesting political movements of the 20th century.

David Goldblatt has done us the large favour of starting from the other end of the story. Rather than using environmentalism to shore up a set of conclusions arrived at elsewhere, he starts with the two main questions posed by environmentalism -- the structural origins of environmental degradation and the conditions under which environmental movements might ameliorate or prevent that degradation -- and examines the work of four contemporary social theorists to see what answers they provide. This is both the strength of the book and one of its weaknesses, because Goldblatt's own analyses are generally both more pointed and interesting than his descriptions of the ideas of the four theorists he selects; Habermas, Beck, Giddens and Gorz.

As Goldblatt notes, the great names of classical social theory offer us very little. It is jarring to turn from contemporary accounts of the destruction of the rainforest or the ozone layer to the Communist Manifesto's almost gleeful celebration of the "subjection of nature's forces to man," the "application of chemistry to industry and agriculture," the "clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers.. what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?" After all, the explosion of productive capacity that would feature so prominently among the causes of environmental degradation, appeared to Marx as a necessary way-station on history's main line. The idea of successful political resistance to that degradation within market societies would have appeared either as wishful fantasy or pietistic farce.

Correction of Marx's more obvious "errors" seems to make things worse rather than better. Marx believed that capitalism would be insufficiently rational to placate its workers; today's pundits believe that an eternally expanding economy will yield enough surplus to make all better off (albeit wildly unequal.) Marx believed that the expansion of productive capacity would eventually lead to revolution because demand would be satiated, leading to cut-throat competition for an ever-smaller segment of an exhausted market. As enlightened moderns, we know that demand can be manufactured like any other commodity. (Karl never imagined the disposable fashion-watch and he probably thought that a citizen needed only one type of athletic shoe, the fool.) Finally, if there was one thing that the state socialist economies of Eastern Europe did more efficiently than the West, it was destroy the environment. The economic "cure" represented by the consumer society, the macroeconomics of eternal growth and the environmental irrationality of state socialism -- these are hardly optimistic aspects of reality for post-Marxist social theory to confront.

As Goldblatt works his way through his quartet of thinkers, one is struck by the depth of these problems, and the difficulty of reorienting the tools of social theory to deal with both environmentalism and environmental degradation. From Beck, Goldblatt takes the notion that we have shifted from an industrial to a risk society, in which the rationality of social institutions must be judged by their ability to manage and reduce risk. From Habermas, Giddens and Gorz he takes both a sensibility and a vocabulary. The sensibility -- less determinist and reductionist than scientific socialism -- is to be cherished more than the vocabulary, which is both lumpy and Germanic. (Despite my admiration for Jurgen Habermas, I particularly regret the epidemic spread of the phrase "life-world," which has replaced recourse to "the dialectic," or "transaction costs" as the last refuge for otherwise insoluble theoretical problems.) Goldblatt's own analysis is thoughtful, well-argued and has a painful honesty to it; even when it appears that conclusions do not please him, he follows them through to the end.

There is a tendency to reduce environmental problems to the dynamics of capitalism, or industrialism. Goldblatt's readings of Giddens and Habermas show the problems with either formulation in isolation; mere technological capacity does not require environmental destruction any more than mere economic or cultural orientation produces it. At the same time, he is forthright about the "appalling environmental record of the state socialist economies." He concludes by spreading the blame fairly equally. "Capitalism and state socialism have been the structural causes at work in actualizing the worst environmental implications of industrialism and demographic expansion. They have however, undoubtledly been facilitated by two shared characteristics: their inequitable distribution of political power, and an economic logic of unrestrained demand for public and private consumption."

The message that the two economic and political systems we know best both mess up the planet is hardly consoling (or particularly new.) The more interesting portion of Goldblatt's book lies in his concentration on the role of culture and meaning in producing and solving environmental problems. Following a line of thought that begins with Weber, Goldblatt insists on "the interpretive dimension of environmental change -- politics and disputes about meaning become directly enmeshed in the environmental implications of economic action and technological deployment." Throughout the book, he struggles against an enfeebling economic determinism, arguing convincingly that culture and politics are forces that shape the meaning and use of technology and (potentially) breed resistance to environmental destruction. The book ends with the defense of the environment located firmly in civil society, political action and cultural study. Goldblatt's last words are "we must equip ourselves."

But with what? Having struggled out of our depressive determinism, where do we go then? The enquiry could be pushed in two directions. The first is to study the contest for the soul of the environmental movement -- the competition among the different kinds of conceptual structures, rhetorical frameworks and analytic tools that Goldblatt believes are so important. Are environmental problems to be solved, as neo-liberal environmentalists believe, by the very market forces that gave rise to them? Should we expand the trading of pollution rights or the use of wetlands banks by developers, thereby allowing the right to degrade the environment to move to its highest use-value? Is the solution to the tragedy of the commons, that we just sell the damn thing off? Alternatively, are we looking in the wrong places for environmental solutions? My colleague Jim Salzman argues persuasively that by focusing too much on pollution, we ignore the reason that we generate waste in the first place -- namely production and consumption. What would happen if we forced the design and price of products to reflect the environmental costs of the entire product lifecycle -- from raw material to recyclable waste? Or are these type of solutions merely placebos, and the only answer a complete change of orientation towards the world and its resources? Some of these solutions have already been tried as part of national policy, others struggle for legitimacy in civil society. We can only know how "feasible" environmental protection is if we know much more about both the analytical truth and rhetorical power of such ideas.

The second enquiry goes in the other direction, to the challenges and lessons that environmentalism bears for our cultural and political traditions. One "cultural" issue which it would have been interesting for Goldblatt to explore is offered by a striking irony of contemporary politics; environmentalists take towards the natural world, towards the ecosystem, the same -- essentially Burkean -- attitudes that conservatives take towards the social world and the social system. Burke wrote powerfully about the "fail and feeble contrivances of reason" and the dangers posed by the "delusive plausibilities of moral politicians;" he portrayed civil society as a fragile edifice which has stood the only real test of social institutions, the test of survival, and is now imperilled by the arrogance of reformers who believe that their tinkering will have only beneficial consequences. Most of those on the left -- I include myself -- would reject this kind of pessimism about the power of reason when applied to something like changes in sex roles but find it convincing when the 'delusive plausibilities' come from those who claim that they understand the impact of clearing a kelp bed or the likely consequences of storing hazardous nuclear waste.

Both types of Burkeanism warn us away from the hubris in thinking we understand our subject well enough to tinker with it. Both, at their extremes, get trapped in a kind of circular definitionalism. What exactly is "natural" or "traditional"? Both show greater veneration for the system than for its inhabitants. Indeed, extreme interpretations of the so-called Gaia Hypothesis represent the ultimate, Burkean faith in the embedded knowledge of the system; the ecosystem can and will cure itself by feedback effects, including the environmentally driven extinction of the human species if necessary. Yet the believers in environmental Burkeanism would seldom embrace its social counterpart, and vice versa. How can we, or the cultural conservatives, reconcile our attitudes to culture and nature? Do we say, with Vico, that because human society has been made by man we can understand it, but that we have no equivalent sapienza poetica for the environment?

This point may illustrate a final connection between social theory and environmentalism -- the light that it sheds on the role of "reason" in political life. If environmentalism forces a Burkean humility on our confident depictions of the natural systems that surround us, it also speaks to the power of reason. As Goldblatt repeatedly points out, it is our ability to understand the extent, complexity and importance of environmental consequences that makes the environmental movement possible. Anti-foundationalist philosophers write about the antinomy of rationality, the need to see our systems of reason as both necessary aids to vision and arbitrary blinkers. The environmentalist holding a cost-benefit study on the effects of killing off the snail darter, must live out that theoretical experience on a daily basis. In fact, when one looks at the challenges that environmental problems pose to our conceptions of property rights, our understanding of the market, our attitudes to nature, social rationality and culture, it is hard not to conclude that the real question is not "what can social theory do for environmentalism," but rather the reverse. In this thoughtful book, David Goldblatt has helped us move toward some answers to that question.

1825 words

James Boyle is Professor of Law at American University in Washington DC. He is the author of Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society, Harvard University Press (1996).