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
ISBN 0745613268 £45 (hardback)
ISBN 0745613284 £14.95 (paper)
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
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
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.
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).