Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

Lisa Garforth, Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature (Polity Press, 2018)

One grows accustomed, as someone working on one facet of the challenge of climate change, to keeping an anxious and wary eye out for one’s opponents. 

I don’t mean climate change deniers—who it seems may always have been a lot rarer than their well-funded PR campaigns made them appear, and in any case were always fairly scarce in academia. We are now into a different and more difficult struggle, namely the struggle over what to do and how to do it. 

To put it another way, while there is broad unity on the challenge itself, there is prodigious disunity on the matter of the response. This has arguably been brewing for a while—ever since the splintering (around the time of the UN’s Brundtland report of 1987) of “sustainable development” (SD) into two conceptual camps, ‘strong’ and ‘weak.’ The camp that elected to hollow out the “sustainability” bit while firmly emphasising the “development” part, predictably enough, has proven far more popular with the worsted-clad elves of the policy machine and the Davosean clades of Business Thought Leadership. Strong SD demanded hard limits on development. Weak SD implied soft limits, so soft that they, along with the evacuated and increasingly unqualified concept of sustainability itself—“sustainable” for exactly how long, and with exactly what consequences, to exactly whose benefit, one might well ask—might be stretched like warm caramel in the hands of a dextrous accountant. (For a more thoroughgoing look at the Strong / Weak split, still very much a live conflict, this briefing paper toward the UN’s 2015 Global Sustainable Development Report sets it out fairly concisely from the perspective of the Strong camp).

We might see this as a struggle between two paradigms of response to anthropogenic climate change—though as with most such binaries, it’s probably better thought of as a spectrum strung out between two extreme positions that almost no one holds as such. Their difference might be illustrated by the current spat over carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Are CCS technologies a necessary and shovel-ready slab in the path to successful mitigation, or a vaporware accounting fudge from the business-as-usual (BAU) crowd that very deliberately leaves the door open for continued fossil fuel usage? From my phrasing, the reader may well be able to deduce which side of that particular fence I am positioned, though how far from the fence I’m stood is more a matter of perspective, as well as of time: the fence has moved many times. Indeed, if somewhat paradoxically, BAU seldom wears the same outfit twice, and corporations today are feverishly at work implementing their novel Net Zero strategies, no doubt innovating exciting new forms of heel-dragging, buck-passing, subterfuge, and slipshod dei ex machina as they go. For BAU has never really been a synonym for “do nothing”; doing nothing is anathema to the busyness of business. Rather, BAU refers to a tacit refusal to consider that the fundamental rules of the game are the problem, rather than the fouls of any particular player(s): new approaches to extraction and production in light of the reality of anthropogenic climate change are more than welcome, so long as opportunities for the accumulation of surplus value are left intact.

To reiterate: the struggle between two different paradigms of social and environmental transformation is an old one, with the role of CCS being only one of its latest battlefields. Yet though venerable, it is not timeless. The stakes have been ever-changing, as emissions pump out and temperatures rise. The upper hand has changed many times, and so too have the terms of engagement. And it is this dialectic of green hope that Garforth so thoroughly delineates in Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature in policy, in philosophy, in climate science, and in science fiction. 

It’s not a struggle unique to academia, by any means—and for all the accusations of tribalist spats within the ivory tower, I doubt it’s any worse in here than it is elsewhere (particularly given that the remunerative stakes are far higher outside). Besides, the obligatory interface of climate change academia with “policy”—which the more cynical among us might define as the escheresque process that has come to replace governance in the neoliberal era—means that many researchers are far closer to the political machinery than they might prefer, particularly the hard-science types (who are justifiably somewhat leery of being dragged out into the kangaroo court of public scrutiny, thanks to underhanded exploits such as Climategate, way back in 2009). As Bruno Latour has so elegantly argued, the sciences were somewhat themselves to blame for this, having enjoyed and profited from a closeness to policy during an earlier period when policymakers were glad to encourage a deliberately distorted perception of science as a process by which “truth” (and thus policy itself) might be rubberstamped with an inarguable sense of impartial authority. That relationship started to sour when scientific “truths” began to misalign with policy goals already chosen for other reasons. Climate change is perhaps the most significant and obvious arena in which this ugly public break-up played out.

This is not the story that Green Utopias sets out to tell, however; those with a particular interest in the dynamics of scientific truth and denial are directed to (to pick just a couple of examples) Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt, or the deservedly popular and accessible podcast series Drilled. Garforth’s story does span a similar period, and features some of the same pivotal events and characters. But it focuses instead on the changing form and character of imaginaries or conceptions of futurity from the post-WW2 birth of the modern ecological movement to the present day. I’m tempted to describe it as a history of climate futures, but really it’s more of a genealogy than a history. And while some scholars—myself included—have argued that the distinction is pretty fuzzy, Garforth’s concern is not with climate futures or imaginaries more generally, but with environmental utopias in particular.

Readers from outside the academy—or indeed from outside certain boxrooms and annexes of the humanities faculties thereof—may well react to the word utopia with an instinctive flinching or disdain. This is not surprising, even though it is somewhat unfair: as Garforth mentions in her introduction, the very notion of utopianism has been very successfully monstered over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century, tarred by a mendaciously selective association with Soviet communism and centralised planning, and by implication with Marxist perspectives on economic and social questions more broadly. Garforth’s project is thus in part a rehabilitation of utopia—though it bears noting that the tiny but steadfast discipline of utopian studies has been doing that for decades, and with admirable consistency. Garforth is working within (or perhaps at the leading edge of) that tradition, and so she deals with the deep history of utopianism only in passing. But given her focus on comparatively recent history, and the connection of utopian thought to the omnipresent issue of climate change, Green Utopias might actually serve well as an introduction to utopian thought in general for a reader to whom the concept remains largely unknown beyond its lingering status as a pejorative shibboleth.

For a reader with a particular interest in science fiction and its intersection with climate change, the hook here is that Garforth makes reference to a selection of novels and stories which illustrate and express the tone and tenor of the utopianisms prevailing at the time they were written: sf readers will recognise the names, if not always the particular novels or stories examined, of such genre luminaries as Robinson, Le Guin and Bacigalupi. But much as I am loath to dissuade anyone from reading this excellent book, it feels only right to emphasise that these excursions into literary utopias, while crucial to Garforth’s project, do not constitute the bulk of it by any means. Perhaps the best way to put it would be to say that this is not a study of ecotopian fiction, but rather a study of ecotopia which uses fictions as illustrative elements of its argument. These illustrations are situated in a historiography of green political and social-theoretical thought which Garforth divides into two periods, identified (as in the subtitle) as before and after nature, which I shall now attempt to summarise.

From the early 1970s—the aftermath of hippie idealism, whose failed utopias strongly influenced the critical-utopian novels of the New Wave—through to perhaps the early 1990s, environmentalism was still a fringe concern, albeit an increasingly visible one. Prompted by the oil crises, among other drastic events, this was a period in which extrapolative and quantitative models of society and environment (e.g. the notorious and still-controversial Limits to Growth study) envisioned what Garforth calls an “apocalyptic horizon”: futures in which the continuation of business-as-usual would lead to societal and environmental collapse. The early environmentalists of this period responded to this dystopian prognosis with programmatic alternatives to the implicit growth obsession of consumerist capitalism. “The preoccupation of post-war environmentalism with systemic environmental problems meant that it often imagined wholesale alternatives to the status quo” (18): these “formal, prescriptive visions” were often identified as “blueprints” (ibid.), indicating the extent to which environmentalist opposition to the status quo nonetheless still relied upon the positivist and managerial perspectives that prevailed in the technocratic governance of the period: to paint with a very broad brush, they tended to combine structural decentralisation with small-c political conservatism. Nonetheless, environmentalism determined that while Nature—seen as external and separate to society to some extent, timeless and passive and implicitly feminine—was threatened by human activity, Nature could nonetheless be “saved” by switching to a different model of living, and generated numerous utopian visions as alternatives (whether theoretical or philosophical, literary or lived alternatives).

Few if any of these environmental or ecological utopias had any lasting concrete impact. Nor can their yearning for a better way of living be entirely separated from the more dystopian futurities of the “apocalyptic horizon” to which they were a response. True, these early environmentalisms did indelibly shape the discourses which later emerged, from the mid-1990s to today, by dint of their having forced “the environmental question” into the sphere of politics. But the broad acceptance of anthropogenic climate change as a truth—the underhanded delaying tactics of the denialism industry notwithstanding—resulted in a sort of foreclosure upon futurity: it became harder to imagine that things might be radically different in times to come, as opposed to being an extrapolatory amplification of the status quo. To put it another way, utopias became harder to locate plausibly on the planet we expect them to inherit.

In philosophical and social-theoretical terms, this is “the end of nature,” and there are two major positions upon it. The first (exemplified by Bill McKibben) is a sort of romantic expression of loss toward a sense of nature as something distinct from humanity. The second (exemplified by Bruno Latour) is a claim that any nature separate from humanity was always-already a fiction, a mere dichotomy of Enlightenment thought which if anything encouraged and accelerated the externalisation and despoilment of the environment in capitalist production. In both cases, the early environmentalist urge to “save” or “return to nature” is undermined as a basis for green hope, resulting in the dearth of formal green utopias by contrast to the earlier phase, and a concomitant shift toward post-apocalyptic and dystopian futures in the literary sphere. 

As Garforth notes, “detailed images of sustainable societies are not currently conspicuous in mainstream environmentalism […] space for overtly utopian imaginaries seems to have shrunk” (23). The era of blueprints seems to be over—and that’s not entirely a bad thing—but “green hope” nonetheless “emerges against the grain, as an echo or desiring trace […] often expressed in images rather than words, often entangled in commodified desires rather than clearly in opposition to them” (ibid.). It doesn’t get a mention in Green Utopias, but I would argue that the solarpunk scene is perhaps an exemplar of this trend toward environmental utopianism as a predominantly aesthetic phenomenon; its tacit avoidance of the political underpinnings of its preferred future makes it very much of a part with the “after nature” phase of green hope. 

Likewise the CCS-enabled strand of ecomodernist climate futurism that I mentioned in my opening, which maps fairly well to Bruce Sterling’s old Viridian Green project: though perhaps more muted and less triumphal than earlier iterations, this is still very much the technological utopian mode in action, whereby innovative new technological “solutions” and market forces will somehow save us from the accumulated consequences of earlier technological “solutions” and market forces. There are many more conceptual dichotomies and schisms to be discovered in Garforth’s survey of green thought, far too many to recount in this review—though the relative importance of mitigation and adaptation is worth mentioning in passing, if only because it looks to me like the dichotomy that is most likely to manifest as a site of contestation in mainstream ballot-box politics in the next decade or so.

Throughout the book, Garforth attempts a rehabilitation of ecological utopias or “green hope(s)” in their manifold forms as a framework for thinking about competing paradigms of climate futurity; this is a project in keeping with the persistent effort to rehabilitate utopianism more broadly which (from the perspective of the social sciences, at least) has begun to bear some fruit over the last decade or so. Matters are somewhat different in the literary world, or perhaps merely lagging behind the theory. I’m not aware of many authors actively and avowedly celebrating utopia as a literary form; Kim Stanley Robinson would be the notable and staunch exception, although—with the utmost respect to a true crusader, of whose novels I am very fond for a variety of reasons, their utopianism perhaps foremost among them—he’s perhaps not the best counterpoint to the persistent and dogmatic “utopias make bad literature” argument. 

The utopian designation was of course current, if not exactly popular, during the New Wave: novels like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia and Delany’s Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia took up the term in a (de)constructive way, and provided the theorist Tom Moylan with the foundations of his definition of the critical utopian mode, upon which much of modern utopian studies is built. But it seems to me that, while numerous contemporary sf stories feature critical-utopian themes—John Kessell’s recent masterpiece The Moon and the Other leaps to mind, not least because I only finished it a week or so prior to writing this piece—they do not proclaim themselves as such. I feel there’s an argument to be made that the labelling of a utopia as being utopian is at least as important as the writing of it as such, and it seems to me that Garforth’s work supports that instinct. After all, an avowed and self-identifying utopia is a rhetorical and a political statement above and beyond its story and its worldbuilding: it doesn’t just make a claim about the value or virtue of the particular future or way of living it portrays, but also makes a claim that fictional futures can (and maybe should) do this sort of work: the work of imagining that we might find better ways to live (if never perfect ones). One minor downside of the prevalence of the personal-as-political is that it can be challenging to reconcile with bigger-picture politics in art, and indeed in politics itself … though it might be argued that this merely reflects the very same foreclosure upon futurity which Garforth so admirably describes. If that is so, then perhaps in art and politics alike we stand on the threshold of a new phase, a new form of expression for hopefulness.

Incredibly dense, impeccably and extensively referenced, Green Utopias is a staggering accomplishment in many ways, not least of which being the synthesis of references from across multiple disciplines to weave the tale of the sustainability struggle into such a slight volume; that would have been a challenge, if Garforth hadn’t also drawn in the fictional exemplars. But that strength is perhaps its flaw, from the perspective of a more general readership: I almost wish it was twice as long, so that Garforth might then have stretched out into the history and literary analysis in greater detail, and thus made Green Utopias a more approachable read for non-scholars. However, this is not at all to say that the writing is abstruse or “excessively academic”—a critique which is, bizarrely, more common within the academy than without (and all the more ironic when you consider the way academic peer reviewing is supposed to work). To the contrary, Garforth is lucid and precise, but she’s also compressing a politico-philosophical history and a literary parallel thereof into a remarkably slender book, and has really done the homework: the footnotes and references and index take up close to a quarter of the page-count. It’s relentless, erudite, and scrupulously fair to both sides of the struggle in a way that I would find very hard to imitate. 

That said, Garforth is not exactly impartial—another academic shibboleth honoured more frequently in the breach by its most staunch defenders. Garforth’s fidelity to green hope more broadly (as opposed to the latest incarnation of business-as-usual) can be assumed; few opponents would engage this closely with a topic in order to trash it. Her allegiance to one or another of the two camps of green hope is mostly effaced; but on the basis of the very few moments—all the more noticeable for their rarity—where the narration makes use of the direct first person address, I feel that she’s backing the Deep Greens rather than Team Ecomodern. Unless this is just wishful projection on my part? Certainly, the former gets just as many critical counterpoints as the latter; Garforth’s book is not an attempt to resolve that dichotomy, so much as to describe its conditions of emergence and continuation—a sort of “staying with the trouble,” to invoke Donna Haraway.

As such, perhaps we see here the true credentials of a contemporary utopian: the acknowledgement that the opposing team still represents a form of hope, even if you see their chosen direction of travel as excessively optimistic or pessimistic. As I understand it, Garforth’s closing argument is that this plurality of hopeful paths is in itself cause for hope, because it represents a widespread recognition that change is necessary, even if squabbling persists over what that change should look like. (And what is democracy but squabbles persisting?) This is the hope of hopes, then: that the existence of competing hopes is an advance upon the myopic we’ll-innovate-our-way-out optimism of market fundamentalism. Perhaps we might even argue that a collective agreement upon a singular hopeful vision of futurity would be a form of capitulation to the very mode of thinking that brought us to this ecological impasse … though now I’m going well beyond Garforth’s own argument. That this book should both provoke and undergird such extrapolative arguments, however, is among the highest accolades I could grant it.

Paul Graham Raven is a fiction writer, poet, and essayist, and a postdoctoral researcher in sustainability narratives, infrastructures future and theory at Lund University, Sweden.

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3 thoughts on “Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

    Dear Paul,
    Great review.
    Your well-balanced analysis of the historical picture clarifies a number of issues for me. It is difficult to see how the “Deep Greens” can decisively change political direction or the BAU mentality driving “Team Economodern” in the short term. One area helping Deep Green could be consumerism itself, where market forces and investor pressure have begun confronting BAU mentality in big corporations. Changing strategic thinking at board level is the only way this will happen, perhaps the fastest way for Green Hope to actualise. I read today the following article in Seeking Alpha:
    “ExxonMobil holds its annual shareholder meeting today amid a proxy fight against a coalition of activist investors led by Engine No.1. The small hedge fund has proposed eight existing directors and four new green-tinged directors for the board, while ExxonMobil was pushing for its existing 12-director slate until two days ago. Its new plan calls for the appointment of two new directors, one with energy industry experience and one with climate experience, though Engine No.1 urged shareholders “not to let this last-minute tactic influence your vote.”
    Activists have accused Exxon of not doing enough in response to seismic shifts brought on by climate change. They’re also hoping to promote a lower carbon strategy similar to the ones adopted by European oil majors like BP. The vote looks like it will come down to big fund owners BlackRock Vanguard and State Street- which hold more than 20% of Exxon’s stock combined – as well as the company’s huge retail investor base, which accounts for nearly half of its outstanding shares.

    Last week, proxy advisory firms Glass Lewis and ISS joined a growing list of pension funds and asset managers in supporting at least some of Engine No. 1’s board nominees. In big news yesterday, Reuters reported that BlackRock for three of Engine No. 1’s four candidates to join the company’s board.”

    I think activist investors like Engine No. 1 could prove to be the best hope for driving Green Hope.

    Adrian Rayner

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