Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Co-Co-optation of Environmentalism

Co-optation: it's a cumbersome word. We think of it in terms of corporate media, "greenwashing" and other forms of economic dominance of environmentalism in today's society.

Now we're doing it to ourselves.

The culprit is success. "Big Green," the amalgam of large national and international environmental organizations, has finally succeeded in grabbing the attention of world media, thanks to "Global Warming" and, to a lesser extent, Peak Oil. Lurid headlines, blockbuster Hollywood movies and media presentations by prominent political figures have brought the specter of sea level rise, increasingly destructive storms, species extinction and killer heat waves to television sets across the globe.

The cost of all this frenetic attention has been, oddly enough, environmentalism, the ideological and sociological movement to change the systemic destructiveness of the dominant human social system. Exclusive attention to anthropogenic climate change factors, that is, greenhouse gas production from human activities, focuses proposed responses to climate change on technological "fixes" to reduce greenhouse gas production and transition to a "sustainable,""post-carbon" world of "renewable" energy sources, such as wind and solar. Unfortunately, this focus on technology ignores the underlying social structure that drives environmental destruction and that would continue even in a world of "sustainable" energy production.

Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) has been proposed as an alternative to private automobiles producing greenhouse gases, taking cars off the roads and putting them on elevated tracks, powered by electricity produced in part by photovoltaics. While this may reduce greenhouse gas production in urban areas (depending on the source of electricity and the total energy costs of producing and maintaining PRTs), it will also stimulate urban growth and sprawl, which exacerbates the problems. Even worse, such a technological fix ignores the opportunity cost foregone of restructuring our living and working relationships to reduce the need for so much transportation in the first place.

Members of Parliament in the UK are now required to factor in the carbon cost of any project they approve. While this is a small step in the right direction, it has been seized on by the nuclear power industry as a justification for building more nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy only appears to produce less greenhouse gases if one ignores the enormous carbon footprint of mining and processing uranium for fuel, transportation and storage of radioactive wastes for thousands of years, and the dismantling, transportation and storage of radioactive power plant components for thousands of years after their relatively short useful life.

Environmentalism has been co-opted by technocratic sustainability-ism. Big Oil is jumping on the Big Green bandwagon, along with Big Solar and Big Wind. Big Nukes is hanging onto the tail-gate, trying desperately to climb aboard. The search is on for a new energy drug to fuel the human addiction to growth and technological "progress."

The search is futile, because the problem is social, not technological. The worst thing we could possibly do is invent a free source of energy that produces no pollution. With no technological limitation to human growth, humans would wipe out themselves, and much of the planet, in less than a century.

Fortunately for us, and our immediate, non-human neighbors, there is no free energy lunch. A thousand years from now, our descendants, if there are any, will have no need of environmentalism. Society, if it exists at all, will include all life in its range of relationships.

Environmentalism will be co-opted by Life.