Leigh Phillips’ new book Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts (Zer0 books) is a defense from the Left of growth, industry, progress and stuff. It is also a refreshing change from much of the hair-shirted misanthropy of what now passes for the environmental movement. Many of the articles of faith of the contemporary leftish environmental movement come in for a drubbing, as Phillips exhorts his comrades to remember their promethean origins.
Phillips’ point of departure is that the green Left’s tactics appear to be at odds with their goal of the upliftment of all people. A common object of derision are theories of so-called “degrowth” that contend that, in order to solve our various ecological crises, we need to suspend economic growth and learn to live within our “planetary carrying capacity.” Phillips lines up convincing arguments that the whole notion of carrying capacity may be bunk. Similarly ridiculed is the idea that each of us growing organic turnips and cobbling together a DIY solar panel array on our hutch will magically solve the problem of climate change. But most satisfyingly, Phillips exposes how the luxuriating melancholy of climate defeatists is more at home on the Right, where notions of “natural order” and the dire consequences of deviating from it have been the engine of a lot of Conservative hysterics.
All in all, this book is amazing. It is well-argued and funny. A book that is catholic in its inspirations and willing to question the orthodoxies of its own compatriots is rare in any field, much more so in something as blustery as environmentalism.
If I have one critique it is that I find the pep talk to the Left to be a little askew. Phillips contends that we have a big problem and we need big solutions; the kind that planned economy (at some scale) can provide. The Left has traditionally been more amenable to planning, ergo we need socialism.
I agree with Phillips, vehemently, that the challenge before us will be best met not by various minute alterations to consumerism (buy this, not that), but through a return to Grand Projects; electrifying the world, nuclear power, space-based-solar, urbanization and high-yield agriculture. What I dispute is how best to get there.
The difference between societies that can accomplish great things on the scale that we need and those doomed to thrash around like a fish on the shore is not systemic, it is rather moral and aesthetic. Part of the reason that we were able to put a man on the moon was because we still had an aesthetic idea of glory (how old fashioned!); this made the sacrificing of personal gain palatable. This didn’t result directly from the political system, but rather the political system adapted to the morality and the aesthetic of the people. We can look around the world and see the gulf that exists between societies who still dream of a great future and those who find the future an inconvenience.
I sympathize with Leigh’s goal: we all want “The Answer.” We want an answer that will not only deliver us from evil, but also make evil impossible. That is often the appeal of political revolutions. But I increasingly think that this is not possible. The, quite scary, fact of the matter is that the world is constantly being remade. There is no system that we can install that will safeguard society for ever and ever. And this means that there is no difference between the Grand Projects that Phillips describes and the ongoing, thankless slog of a moral and aesthetic revolution.