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.Continue reading “Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature reviewed by Paul Graham Raven”