Thursday, January 13, 2011

Environmentalism ≠ Socialism

Yesterday's Archdruid report triggers me to write a post I've been meaning to write for a while, which is to make the following point: the project of transforming society to use less resources, have less environmental impact, or emit less carbon, does not necessarily have anything to do with the project of making society more equal.  Environmentalism != Socialism, to reduce it to a bumper sticker.

One can be forgiven for thinking that these two projects are related, since the political right - the usual defenders of hierarchical privilege - have, in the US, gone into a state of near-total denial about environmental issues (as evidenced, for example, by the fact that it has become very difficult for Republicans to express belief in anthropogenic climate change, something that is almost completely uncontroversial amongst the scientific community). Meanwhile, the political left - the Democratic party - is for the most part in consensus that the problem exists, and Something Ought to be Done, even if it's only prepared to make relatively modest efforts at the outset. At the same time, many ardent environmental advocates strongly believe that people should live in the smallest house possible, personally use few resources, and generally aspire to a state of voluntary poverty.  It's perhaps natural that the traditional concerns of the environmental movement - the welfare of communities of plants and animals - should fall to the political left, since leftists are traditionally concerned with the underdog, and certainly plants and animals are the lowest status entities in modern society.

Still, as natural as these instincts are, I think they are seriously mistaken as a guide to thinking about the world.  And while I know a number of reasonably well-off people who care deeply about the environment and have taken many steps in their own lives to reduce their impact, it seems to me that I haven't often seen people articulate this philosophy clearly and publicly, so let me attempt it.

Humanity has no idea how to construct a very equal society on any scale. We may very well be born with natural instincts to desire an equal society because we are evolved to live in small hunter-gatherer bands, and most hunter-gatherer societies are pretty equal (and indeed many have strong cultural norms preventing anyone rising too much above the others in status). If you look at small societies today (eg residential intentional communities) the secular ones almost always gravitate to very egalitarian structures with decision-making by consensus and relatively little degree of variation in house size, etc (spiritual communities are often not this way for reasons I don't understand).

However, since humanity invented agriculture and thus civilization, all reasonably successful civilizations have been unequal to some degree. Early agricultural societies were all extremely unequal with a small nobility that maintained control over a much larger peasantry that worked the land. In every case, the nobility extracted most of the small surplus that these societies produced and used it to live in big houses with ornate clothing and lots of servants. There are no historical examples of highly egalitarian agricultural civilizations.

Since the advent of fossil-fuel powered industrial civilizations, with their higher economic surpluses, it has been possible to support a much higher standard of living for the people who would have been the peasantry in earlier times. Still, places like Sweden and Denmark represent the outer limits of what has proven possible in the way of equality, and still there are significant variations in the economic privilege accorded to a successful businessperson, a doctor, and a janitor. All attempts to create formally equal large societies have ended in dismal failure - places that have to keep their people in by force, make extensive use of secret police, etc. All have now either collapsed or effectively changed their form of government and society to moderate the degree of equality (such as China, now extremely unequal, or Cuba, increasingly undertaking market reforms). Perhaps the last holdout for some form of true communism is North Korea, which of course has become a byword for every tendency of totalitarian dysfunction that Orwell imagined.

So in trying to imagine a way through our various present difficulties, I don't see how anyone with more than a passing knowledge of history can propose that we should try to reform society with a goal of perfect equality. It's a perfectly reasonable position to say the the US has now moved too far in the direction of inequality (and indeed I share that view) and should move back toward the center of the historically workable range. But that's different than claiming that society should be perfectly economically equal and there should be no economic elite.

So let us accept that, at least until we decide to engineer better human beings, a decent society will have an economic elite. I think it's then pretty much a given (at least based on the behaviors of past elites in all civilizations everywhere) that the elite will choose to express their economic privilege by having larger houses and expending more energy than the rest of society. This may be somewhat more so, or somewhat less so, but it is going to be so to some degree.

So then, ask yourself, if you want society to move in the direction of emitting less carbon, being easier on nature, etc, what do you want your elites to do? Do you want them to expend their energies and economic privilege desperately trying to keep society in denial about our current climate and resource problems? Or do you want them, like Al Gore, to use a portion of their undoubted economic privilege in an attempt to move society in a direction of lower impact and less emissions?

One thing is for sure: if you insist that the only way for members of the elite to campaign for the environment is to give up all economic privilege, you will find very few takers. And any that do take you up will immediately be replaced in the ranks of the economically privileged by others less sympathetic to your cause.


Empedocles said...

"leftists are traditionally concerned with the underdog"

I am disappointed that the clear reasoning you usually display was lost in stating the above quote. The right sees themselves as supporters of the underdog as well whether it is an unborn fetus, a worker who does not with to join a powerful union, a small business owner who wants to resits powerful government interference etc. I am not saying either side is right, just that your claim that there is something like the "objective" underdog (an extremely context sensitive concept) and that the left sides with the objective underdog, is a very poor argument.

TiradeFaction said...

It's pretty arguable that the "Democratic" Party isn't really representative of the left anymore, anymore than New Labour is at least.

TiradeFaction said...

That being said, you're essentially right. Full monetary equality is neither possible nor even desirable. We do not want physicians to be making the same wage as janitors (no offense to any janitors reading this), simply put, more rewarding work should be better rewarded. That being said, as you point out, there's a very good argument (which I agree with) that we have way too much income inequality in the US, and as studies have shown, it's rather detrimental to our overall socioeconomic health. As Theodore Roosevelt so eloquently put it "The success of each of us is dependent upon the success of all of us."

Given that, I think we should look to other capitalist nations like say, Germany, and see what they do to limit the excesses of inequality while still having a healthy free society.

Stuki said...

I believe you are operating with rather outdated and myopic ideas about the right vs. left divide. The difference between the two is hardly one of the right favoring “hierarchical privilege” and the left more equality. If that was the case, the chief beneficiaries of “hierarchical privilege” would hardly “all” be nominal leftists, with the nominal “working class” trending increasingly right.

Instead, the distinction comes down to a difference in view about how people’s position in the hierarchy should be determined. Should it be predominantly by a chaotic system of independent economic actors operating under a strong property rights regime, or should it instead be by “democratic” means, as in, according to “majority rule”.

The two mechanisms favor very distinct kinds of people.

The “right” way favors those who willing and able to deliver something to certain others that those others are willing and able to trade some of their own work for. In the limit case without any regards for costs imposed on those who are neither a direct party to the transaction, nor have any formal property rights to something affected by the transaction's externalities.

The “left” way, on the other hand, basically favors those who are good at being popular, and at various forms of court intrigue, since winning others’ “support” for your designs are key to getting them enacted. With whether or not you have formal ownership of the resources you intend to effect, being of less concern.

Seen in this light, environmentalism’s greater penetration of the left, is hardly a surprise, since much of environmentalism, in practice, is about winning the support of third parties to restrict or rescind the property rights of people deemed “polluters.”

As for entrenching hierarchy, I can hardly think of a more crass example than environmentalists’ campaign to free up entire highway lanes for use by those who, like themselves, can afford the latest in low emissions vehicles. Being of the opinion that by far the best way of reducing car emissions would simply be to stop funding and maintaining roads on the taxpayers dime altogether, I’m not saying this is “wrong” per se; just noting that it is a pretty crass display of milking privilege for all it is worth. And the same goes for most other schemes to reward “environmentally conscious” behavior, as it almost always devolves into simply rewarding those who can afford to put themselves in a position to be rewarded.

HalFiore said...

I think there's a difference between hoping that a fraction of the elite adopt or at least support measures to improve environmental problems, and the position that it is less than optimally effective for those who would be leaders of the movement to at least walk a little of the talk themselves. Especially when the movement is basically asking people to live a lot more simply. If for no other reason than the effect that the appearance of hypocrisy will have on the effectiveness of the message. I'm guessing that's what Greer's getting at using the term "Herding Cats," it has to do with leadership.

As far as the left/right, capitalist/socialist split is concerned, my first exposure to environmental writing came quite a few years before the first Earth Day, in the short editorials and humor columns that used to be common on the back pages of Field and Stream and the other hunting/fishing journals of my youth. I don't know why this continues to surprise a lot of bright people, but there were a lot of Republicans and other forms of conservatives in the environmental ranks before Reagan pretty much purged them from the party. (Reagan was also a pretty big gun-control advocate, but that's beside the point.)

I came to social progressivism through choices I made about the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. While my sympathies still probably lean a bit further to the left than the right, I've never understood why environmentalists let the issue become the province of the left. I know it's a lot because there was a concerted campaign by corporate powers to make the conservative side their province, but it just seems to be a bad tactical position for the environmental movement. There's at least an even chance that the more conservative forces are going to rule at any given time.

Greg said...

This post amounts to saying that rather than predicting enduring deprivation, environmentalists should promote the opportunities available from a shift to more sustainable behaviours.

Some, like Al Gore, have done so. But look at the results.

John Michael Greer marginalises himself by talking of equality; Al Gore is demonised by the right-wing elite. Mr. Gore is threatening precisely because he he promotes a credible path for the needed changes - a path that doesn't involve turning society upside down.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

– Niccolo Machiavelli

No one has written a better statement of the problem. Our elites will expend their energies trying to keep people in denial no matter what alternatives are proposed.

You have a point in saying "one problem at a time; don't mix your messages". But the problems don't come along in single file. I think this is the reason for the pessimism of people like James Lovelock: we have got ourselves into a position where we need to make several large adjustments if we want to stay as we are. Each change by itself would be mildly disruptive for a generation or two; the combination is likely to be greater than the sum of the parts.

Mr. Sunshine said...

@stuki - Mr. Greenspan would like his copy of Ayn Rand's blathering philosophy back :)

Glenn said...

I'd simplify the hunter-gatherer v.s. agricultural society divide. It's little simpler in my view of history. The more wealth a society has the less equitably it is distributed.

Given the effects that the combination of peak oil and global climate change are likely to have on industrial civilization; I regret to say that in a generation or two most societies on this planet are going to be _very_ egalitarion.


Adam Schuetzler said...

I think there is a paradox at work.

JMG is right about the need for leaders to practice what they preach - Al Gore is easily ignored as elitist and hypocritical. However, our society (and perhaps every society) marks status with consumption, so the sustainable lifestyle (which can be very nice on the inside but from the outside often looks like poverty) tends to mark the people who follow it as weirdos, outside of the range of discussion.

I don't believe there is a way to make sustainable living palatable to most people, "masses" or "elites". I guess that makes me a doomer, though I think things will take a long time to really wind down - there is a surprising inertia to the way things are.

Seriously, a sustainable lifestyle means less meat, eating sardines instead of tuna, lots of walking, less lights on, etc. The appeal of it is non-material and at that point you might as well be talking religion.

As for left/right, if you still think either side means anything you're in denial. The meaning of democracy in the US is filling in a bubble every couple of years.

Michael Dawson said...

If you are going to appeal to big history, I would suggest you stick with it. 5,500 years ago, permanent elites figured out how to keep surplus wealth for themselves as "property." That, as you note, was the beginning of the end for egalitarian kinship societies.

Fair enough.

But when did anybody start making a serious attempt to check ruling classes and their stories of biological superiority? 1776/1789. Less than 250 years ago, on a 5,500 year timeline.

And when did socialists start trying to extend democracy to economic affairs? 150 years ago. And they also did so while making the mistake of dismissing existing democracy as mere bourgeois illusion. So, socialism 2.0 has barely started, here in the latest 20 years on that 5,500-year timeline.

And here you are, talking about the naturalness of elites? I don't buy it, either as history or strategy.

The point of leftism is not absolute monetary equality. It is the extension of democracy over macro-economic choices.

Of course, the impending energy/eco crash is going to make modern wealth levels and our range of macro-economic options a lot smaller.

Capitalists, meanwhile are militant ostriches and obstacles, like it or not, because they are trying to retain what is utterly unkeepable. Al Gore thinks electric cars are a sufficient answer.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Stuart.

Just a tiny quibble with:

"Early agricultural societies were all extremely unequal."

I'd change 'societies' to 'civilizations.' Many simple ag societies didn't (and don't) have huge inequality.

Michael Cain said...

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, Vilfredo Pareto observed that in "modern" economies, income/wealth was almost always distributed according to a power law with 20% of the people controlling 80% of the income/wealth, regardless of the political organization.

I've always hypothesized that this represents the point at which income is sufficiently concentrated that it is relatively easy to raise capital for large projects, but not so highly concentrated that the commoners revolt.

Mike said...

I'm a little bit confused. You seem to be going after some straw men here. I don't think any liberal, leftist, or environmental activists are advocating a "completely equal" society -- if any are, they are very few, and surely know it's not a realistic possibility. So to go on at length about the fact that humans don't have such societies .... well, we all know that. What is your point exactly? If anything, people on the left are just trying to blunt the trend toward increasing inequality, not to eliminate inequality.
Also, to what extent is this about Mr. Greer's Archdruid post of yesterday? It doesn't seem like a response to that post (maybe that's not your intention). Greer didn't mention anything about making society perfectly equal or (at least in this post). He was critiquing this new book that advocates authoritarianism. Opposition to authoritarianism =/= socialism! His main point was that this book plays right into the stereotypes about environmentalists being "elitists," "eco-nazis," authoritarians, etc. And it sounds like he's right about the book. I didn't see Greer trying to advance socialism; just objecting to fascism, and to the association of fascism with environmentalism, which, you know, really can't help environmentalism. But it plays right into the hands of anti-environmentalists. (Anyone, environmentalist or otherwise, who advocates forms of dictatorship should be reminded, "you, your group, and your ideas are not going to be in charge -- still want to go with dictatorship?")

vera said...

There too existed early ag-based civilizations that were rather egalitarian, Norte Chico/Caral being an example.

There is nothing "given" about gross inequality. It is *taken*, by force and subterfuge.

But more to the point of the article, Greer is not talking socialism, at least in the linked post, he is saying 'walk the walk.' Do the hard stuff. For a wealthy person to build a somewhat "greener" palatial mansion... where is the hard stuff? That equals a poor person changing a lightbulb to a more efficient one. Get real...

Galen Gallimore said...

I did very well on the SAT, and have a masters degree (granted, in divinity), but I still had to look up math symbols to learn that != means 'not equal'. Couldn't you have spelled it out for us non-math types?

The rest of the article was interesting, but some folks may have trouble with it, thinking that you're somehow excited about Environmentalism! Yeah! and saying that it equals socialism, which some equally dim folks on the right may already think is the case.

vera said...

I second that request. ≠ is easy enough to find, and we all know it. Since this post is about the evils of untoward leveling, maybe it does not hurt to point out that obscure jargon is one of the tools of the elites. aiming to restrict access to the hoi poloi.

Unknown said...


"Since the advent of fossil-fuel powered industrial civilizations, with their higher economic surpluses, it has been possible to support a much higher standard of living for the people who would have been the peasantry in earlier times."

A very well written sentence. I've seen a lot of peak-oil writers try to get this point across, yet fail to be so succinct.

As for the rest of the piece, your basic point is so correct that I feel chagrin at realizing that the conclusion is not obvious to some people. Socialism has often been the enemy of environmentalism in the past century. (Protests over environmental issues, especially Chernobyl, were pivotal in beginning the process of dissolving the USSR.) And conversely, environmentalism has often put forward different priorities than (short term) interests of working people, which explains some of the (confused) anti-environmental thinking on the right these days.

On the other hand, though, I agree with those who say that this has little to do with Greer's point. Greer is talking about what makes movements for social change successful. Although I don't think Greer said this exactly, one thing that doesn't make social movements successful is if they rely on the existing economic elites for their leadership and energy. Neither Martin Luther King nor Martin Luther came from the economic elite.

To me, what emerges from this is the question: can prosperity be achieved with sustainable means? I'm dedicating myself to attempting as much. If we can get to a point, where, suddenly, the world notices that a whole lot of people are living a rather decent yet sustainable lifestyle, then suddenly the rest of the world will want to imitate that. It really doesn't matter what Al Gore does.

Unknown said...

I think this post misunderstands Greer's position, which was ostensibly the motivator for the post in the first place.

Nowhere in Greer's post do I find him espousing the notion that, as you put it "the only way for members of the elite to campaign for the environment is to give up all economic privilege."

That's a far cry from Greer's assertion that the peak oil movement "has its share of leaders who are perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn’t dream of going to the next ASPO conference by train."

This clearly is not a call for peak oil movement leaders to "give up all economic privilege."

Greer's point about Gore, which is being implicitly criticized in the post above, is in fact perfectly valid:

"...a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism..."

I remember this fiasco, and the climate change deniers absolutely made hay out of it! So Greer is factually correct that this did damage.

In response, you seem not to want to acknowledge the facticity of the historical record, saying:

"Do you want them to expend their energies and economic privilege desperately trying to keep society in denial about our current climate and resource problems? Or do you want them, like Al Gore, to use a portion of their undoubted economic privilege in an attempt to move society in a direction of lower impact and less emissions?"

This strikes me as, again, a straw man, as I think the quotes above make clear. It's also an example of a false choice - presenting things such as to imply there is only the one, or the other choice. In fact, Greer's suggestion represents a third (out of several available) choices which are not included in the either/or. His suggestion is simply this: avoiding hypocrisy, and the appearance of it, will lead to more credibility.

Furthermore, your statements ignore the fact that Al Gore, as a member of the political class, in particular should know enough to avoid this kind of 'appearance of impropriety', inasmuch as hypocrisy is a self evident association with that class of individuals, especially as something like half of all congress-critters are millionaires.

Greer's post is, IMO, an important one, because it is based upon an analysis of where the climate change movement got it SO wrong that it is now in the trash heap, such that even a Democratic president and Congress united were unable to enact any policies which would mitigate this looming catastrophe. Your post doesn't disagree with this, nor with Greer's conclusions about where climate change activists went wrong, but seems to take great umbrage at the ways in which such mistakes could be corrected (i.e. avoid hypocrisy by walking the walk, not just talking the talk) - and without giving any alternative suggestions. Indeed, this post could be seen to be effectively a justification for making exactly those same mistakes all over again.

Stuart Staniford said...

Whoops on the "!=" thing. I guess I've been programming too long and this has just become deeply wired into my brain. I lost sight of the fact that this wouldn't be part of all educated people's brain.

Stuart Staniford said...

james (and several others making similar points). Greer's "When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism..."

That was exactly the point in Greer's essay I am objecting too. The "I'm using much less carbon than you'd expect for someone in my position" is in my view exactly the defense someone in his position should be able to mount. The only reason the right was able to tar him with hypocrisy and have it stick outside that echo chamber was because of the fact that environmentalism has become so much of the creature of the leftmost end of the political spectrum, who tend to think it's morally wrong for anyone successful to have more/better stuff than anyone else.

I do agree that servant leaders, along the lines of Ghandi, are incredibly effective because they do tap into something deep in our primate brains that wants the tribe to be equal. But such leaders are incredibly rare, and I don't think it makes sense to spend time criticising the leadership because they aren't Ghandi.

I also think this has very little to do with the "failure" of climate change activism. I think climate change activism has so far been unsuccessful because the climate change movement has been basically asking people to lower their living standards, and that's just not an ask that people are going to say yes to. It's only as the technology improves to the point where the lifestyle loss is minor that you'll see the politics get unstuck.

Corncrib said...

Every society must struggle with the inherent conflict between the interests of the individual and the interests of the group (tribe, neighborhood, "planet", whatever). The individual can profit by taking "just a little more" than others do, but if enough people do that, or if a few take 'way too much, then the society as a whole suffers. It's not necessary that everyone get an equal share, but it is necessary the the sum of the shares be less than the environment can provide. Although individuals may notice this, and reduce consumption in their own lives, this may not be enough. Broadly effective policies could be implemented at the level of the whole society, and would affect all individuals. It's this fact that scares many people. We don't like being told what to do. I think it's the government's actions to take measures "for the good of society" that conservatives call "socialism". I don't think they have a technical understanding of the tenets and history of Socialism.

JohnMM said...

"There are no historical examples of highly egalitarian agricultural civilizations."

I wonder if that assertion isn't called into question by the historical research reported by Michael Hudson:

Doyu Shonin said...

>The more wealth a society has the less equitably it is distributed.

This is one of the things Mr. Greer has been saying. Increased complexity very nearly equals increased inequity and maintenance costs then begin to outstrip resource income.

He's been trying to teach techniques for a soft landing from the current complexity, without offering guarantees. Tough sell but tough love.

Hank Roberts said...

Relevant: a gift economy rather than a market economy may work out better.

Stuart Staniford said...

Note - I replaced != in the title with ≠ (now that I've figured out the latter) to make the post title more comprehensible to non-programmers

Anonymous said...

...the political right - the usual defenders of hierarchical privilege..."

I'd usually agree, but the Right does advocate the Egalitarian Power Sharing ensconced in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

So far, the US has avoided an absolute "monopoly of violence"(Service, 1975) that has defined typical State Society (agricultural civilization.)

And if the process of sociopolitical egalitarianism can be defined as people who band together “to deliberately dominate their potential master if they wish to remain equal,”(Boehm, 1999) then what better parallels that process in these modern times than the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the following:

"And what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?"

Otherwise, a good article; I agree that environmentalism doesn't equal socialism.

I'm an "environmentalist" myself, working on restoring a farm from row-crop "plowman's folly"(Faulkner, 1943) with soil-building permaculture methods. And I for the most part despise what socialism and capitalism does to soil.

Both socialism and capitalism champion industrial "means of production," symbolized by the hammer and sickle, that soil-mined the nutrients from my acreage. Whether a collective owns the tractor destroying the soil or a private party owns the tractor, the consequences of the folly of seeing the earth's resources as only fodder for a "means of production" is identical.


Service, Elman. (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York, NY: Norton.

Christopher Boehm (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

Edward H. Faulkner (1943) Ploughman's Folly. University of Oklahoma Press.

Nils said...

Environmentalism needn't necessarily be socialistic, but if it isn't I fer it will have to fascistic instead