Green capital over green labour

 

Missingman

Photo credit: “Missing man formation,” Flickr/Howard_N2GOTI’m reading the British historian Richard Overy’s analytical history of the Second World War, Why the Allies Won, and a couple of days ago (on Remembrance Day, in fact) I ran across one of those passages that makes you put a book down because what you’ve just read suddenly makes you see the world in a different way.

It’s in a chapter on the effectiveness of the Allied bombing campaign in Germany in the years before D-Day, which is no small controversy in Ottawa. While the campaign killed an awful lot of civilians, Overy concludes that it was important in bringing the Reich to its knees. He doesn’t get into the moral calculus of whether the campaign was worth it, just argues that it worked.

Among other things, Overy writes on page 157 of the paperback edition,

Bombing … permitted Britain and the United States to bring their considerable economic and scientific power to bear on the contest. The campaign was capital intensive, where the great struggle on the eastern front was based on military labour. This suited the preferences of the west, which did not want to place a much higher physical strain on their populations. For all the criticism directed at the waste of resources on bombing, the whole campaign absorbed, according to a postwar British survey, only 7 per cent of Britain’s war effort. (Italics mine.)

In the East, that is, where the German army crashed against the Red Army in grinding battles that pitted millions of men against each other at a time, the battle largely depended on who could throw more men onto the field. In the West, the fight was a contest between engineers and managers — victory depended on which side was was smarter and better-equipped (in a grand sense) rather than on which side was tougher and more numerous.

So fine. Why am I writing about it here?

Environmentalism rose into the modern public consciousness out of the social-justice movements on the left, drawing on the idea that it was intrinsically sinful, in some sense, to consume more than you absolutely needed. You escape the evil capitalistic machine by growing your own food, sewing your own clothes and refusing to buy soap, and the natural inefficiency of trying to squeeze everything into a 24-hour day — substituting your labour for the more productive, yet more environmentally damaging tools of capitalistic production — causes you do do with less.

This particular touchy-feely greeniness fit in perfectly well with the anti-establishment radicalism of the 1960s.

Yet this has turned out to be a less-than-perfect marriage. In Canada, lefties are having an ongoing struggle trying to figure out what they think of the ongoing decline of the auto industry, for instance. We’re hemorrhaging high-paying union jobs, which is bad, but those union jobs are engaged in making consumer-grade light trucks … which are also bad. The left-wing NDP has sidestepped this problem by blaming protectionism in Asia for the industry’s troubles, but it’s not a terribly convincing approach from a generally protectionist party.

Nevertheless, if you don’t have to translate these clashing ideals into actual government policies, economic leftism and environmentalism it still fit very well together in ’60s radicalism’s intellectual descendants. You don’t have to spend too much time reading Paul Hawken and his intellectual cohorts to see that there remains a very strong streak in the green movement that sees environmentalism and anti-capitalism (or at least anti-corporatism) as fundamentally aligned. Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.com can write a generally superb essay about how consumer demands are changing the way smart businesses behave, and then veer off into left field with a line like this:

It’s hard to do work you can be proud of these days. We live in an ethically compromised global economy, and almost every aspect of our lives is compromised as a result.

For crying out loud.

Naturally, this is the opponent the anti-environmentalist right wants to engage. It’s easy. You can accuse them of wanting to achieve by green means that which they couldn’t achieve by voting for Ralph Nader or Jack Layton. You can pretend to adopt their values when you criticize the very concept of carbon offsets as modern-day papal indulgences (and every once in awhile the environmentalist left will indulge you right back). Instead of arguing about environmental policy, you get to refight the Cold War against communism, and we know how that turned out.

The truth is that heading off the worst of global warming and other ecological disasters, like defeating Nazi Germany, requires both kinds of effort. Both labour (substituting some of our own for certain conveniences, like abundant cheap water and electricity and delicious prepackaged food) and capital (developing less wasteful technologies and industrial processes, even if they cost more to begin with) need to be engaged.

But just as any fighting nation would be crazy to commit its military labour to a battle before the force arising from its capital capabilities had been applied to maximum effect, it’s crazy for genuine environmentalists to argue for lifestyle sacrifices as the only meaningful way to make the kind of difference we need to make.

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2 responses to “Green capital over green labour

  1. This is an extremely significant insight you’ve brought up here. Folks like Whole Foods started going the right way with emphasis on organics and stressing the gourmet aspect of less-engineered foods, but then got caught up on importing umpteen kinds of bottled waters, exotic sea salts, and hand-twaddled turnip gazongalizers of maybe-sustainably forested mystery wood. “But these rare ingredients support a village somewhere!” Yes, and they’re using the money to buy sneakers, DVDs, and bus tickets to the city to abandon their traditional ways. Are we actually helping anyone? Including ourselves? I dunno.

    Labour and Capital indeed. Thanks for the simile and the smile. This idea looks like a handhold on the very slippery slope.

  2. Pingback: Towards a Sustainable Environmentalism « Relentless Inquiry

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