From critique to resistance

With the coming of green business, or ecological modernization, or whatever it is we choose to call it, the more radical, or critical, components of the ecological culture have tended to be marginalized. And yet everywhere we look there are signs of resistance, of activism, some new and some not so new, some merely updating the environmental critique of the 1970s to changing times, and some contending that they represent a new movement, or a new generation, or a new strategy, or a "new age" altogether.

There are those who foresee the abrupt demise of green businessmen and the coming of a grand synthesis of, among others, deep ecologists, ecofeminists, the "left" and "true democrats" (Dowie 1996). There are those who are aggressively "reclaiming" the streets on behalf of a generally vague sense of dissatisfaction with the workings of transnational, corporate capitalism (Wall 1999). There are those who are trying to bring it all back home and turn environmental politics into urban renewal or the reinvention of community in places that are threatened by the myriad forces that are trying to sustain the unsustainable (Shutkin 2000). There are those who hear the call of the wild and beckon us to renounce the civilization that most of us clearly are unable to live without (Turner 1996). And there are the realists, with ever more sophisticated brands of green expertise, who continue to try to reform the system into greener and cleaner directions (e.g. French 2000).

All of these strategies - and there are a great many others, as we shall see in this chapter - make it obvious that the ecological culture is very much alive today. The difficulty in assessing these strategies is that they are so diverse and, in many ways, so contradictory: sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, they are in competition with one another. They compete for public attention, for official favor, for funds, for moral support, for interest and engagement; in short, they compete for our trust, allegiance, and participation.

If there is to be any meaning in the quest for sustainable development, the several varieties of ecological resistance, or critical ecology, must find ways to articulate the rudiments of a common agenda, and to create spaces for working out their disagreements. We need to strengthen what Douglas Torgerson has termed a "green public sphere" (Torgerson 1999). Forces of incorporation are strong, especially the commercial forces of green business; but in relation to activism it is the "residual" cultural formations that can be most difficult to deal with because they tend to operate in such subtle ways. Old ideologies and allegiances may turn the protests and the projects of the emerging culture into particular, and often quite destructive, directions. Thus what is progressive can become regressive, collective actions can become extremist reactions, and visions of a new age are translated into old-fashioned and all-too-familiar dogmas. As Murray Bookchin wrote in the 1960s when the new left was so quickly starting to grow old, "all the old crap of the thirties is coming back," by which he meant Marxist dogmatism and Leninist "strategy" and an avowed communist ideology (Bookchin 1971: 173ff).

Currently there are signs that the "old crap" from the 1960s is coming back in the name of anti-globalism (so much like the anti-imperialism of the 1960s and early 1970s); there is a sense of despair among green activists that may seriously weaken the "new wave" of environmental politics that has been on the rise for some years. In recent campaigns against globalization, for instance - the battles of Seattle and thereafter -we see intransigence and extremism that is counterproductive. All too often, the arguments against globalization are framed without reference to ecological concerns; the struggle against globalization tends to be "reduced" to old-fashioned ideology, even when it is obvious that far more than the old class of national or material interests are at stake. If globalization is to become greener we need greater awareness of its ecological and cultural dimensions. And, I contend, we need more self-criticism, more reflection about the forces that have brought us here and the various attempts that have been made over the past few decades to develop a more ecological society. As Torgerson puts it, "An uncompromising green politics intent on ecological resistance threatens to succumb to a kind of resentment that, in the end, could undermine not only the intrinsic value of political action but anything further one might hope to gain from politics" (1999:168).

As a modest contribution to the making of a green public sphere - the "resilient green politics" that Torgerson and so many others are seeking to foster on the theoretical level - I will consider the dilemmas of resistance in terms of cognitive praxis, so that we may better be able to distinguish the emerging culture from the residual cultural formations that threaten to capture or contain it. While the dominant culture with its commercialism and its acquisitive values tries to turn us all into salesmen and entrepreneurs, the residual cultural formations try to pull us back into older ways of practice and thought that are no longer relevant. We need to distinguish between the innovative mobilization of traditions and the reactionary fundamentalism of traditionalist belief. The use of traditions is always selective and requires, like the rest of social action, that we become conscious of our criteria of selection and reflective about our processes of knowledge-making. In what follows I try to draw out some of the key points of convergence and divergence among the world's critical ecologists in the hope that such an exercise might improve our mutual understanding of what it is we are trying to accomplish.

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