From environmental protection to cultural transformations

Like women's liberation, rock music, and the internet, an environmental consciousness can be seen to be a product of the 1960s.1 It was then, inspired by the spirit of the times a-changin', and exemplified by a number of highly publicized cases of waste and pollution, that humankind's diverse natural surroundings were seen to be in danger, and protecting the environment became a matter of public concern. As part of the counter-cultural critique ofthe "technocratic society" and the widespread questioning of the dominant values of the consumer culture, environmen-talism emerged as a new political cause, a new historical project (Roszak 1973; Morgan 1991). The science of ecology, a hitherto neglected branch of biology, which seemed to provide crucially important knowledge for this newfound mission of environmental protection, became a household word, and it soon became a label, as well, for the generally polite "activists" who set out to spread an environmental consciousness among their fellow citizens.

Around the world, many universities established environmental departments, governments set up environmental protection agencies, parliaments passed new laws and created new courts to enforce them, and, here and there, groups of people banded together to form what eventually came to be called an environmental movement. By the early 1970s, protecting the environment had become an expanding public-policy sector, and some even referred to the emergence of a "pollution industrial complex" that was trying to make money out of the cleaning up (Gellen 1970). By the time the United Nations held its Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in the summer of 1972, environmental protection was firmly placed on the international political agenda (McCormick 1991).

Thirty years later, the politics of the environment - both the talk and the action, the rhetoric and the reality, the theory and the practice - has changed in fundamental ways (Connelly and Smith 1999). Throughout the world, the general emphasis among politicians and policy-makers - as well as for most of the experts who advise them and the activists who goad them on - has tended to shift from the protection of an external realm of non-human nature to the greening of our own human societies (Dobson 2000). An ecological consciousness, we might say, is in the process of being internalized in our cultures and our personalities. And while we are all invited to take part in the greening of the world, the diverse processes of greening, and of green knowledge-making, are filled with ambiguities.

The new environmental agenda is both extremely ambitious and decidedly amorphous. While nature protection and pollution control remain important, and in need of further development in many countries and in relation to many specific economic activities, the broader program of greening has come to occupy the attention of increasing numbers of people. The general idea is to integrate an environmental concern into all aspects of social and economic life. The new agenda has been given many names, but, most frequently, it is referred to as sustainable development.

The apocalyptic tones, the bad news that characterized so much of the environmental debate in the 1960s and 1970s, have tended to give way in the course of the 1990s to the encouraging, good-news rhetoric of sustainable development. The emblematic depiction of doom, identifying "limits to growth" and "population bombs," has come to be replaced by more upbeat messages and conciliatory slogans: "changing course," "greening of industry," "ecological modernization," "partnership ethics" (Fischer and Hajer 1999). Former activists regularly advise private business firms on how best to improve their environmental performance, while former plunderers of the environment, such as Shell and Exxon, do their utmost to convince us of their corporate change of heart. Even the World Bank, we are told, is building an environmental ethic into their programs these days.

As a result of these and countless other developments, environmental-ism has come to be decomposed and all but reinvented in recent years as elements in constructive programs oftechnological, economic, and social innovation. There has also been a reorientation in much environmentally related knowledge production toward approaches that are based on so-called precautionary, or preventive principles, and which seek to eliminate waste and pollution at the source, before they have been generated. Rather than delimiting environmental protection to a separate policy sector or a specialized area of scientific-technical competence, there is a growing awareness that changes need to take place throughout the entire society if there is to be an adequate alleviation of environmental problems. No longer is environmentalism viewed by those in powerful positions primarily as a threat to the further expansion of industrial society. Instead, environmental concern has come to be seen, by many influential actors in both business and government, as an important contributor to economic recovery and rejuvenation, and, for some, even as an interesting source of profit (Frankel 1998; DeSimone and Popoff 2000).

Meanwhile, new forms of domination and exploitation have come to be identified as transnational corporations seek to transform the quest for sustainable development into business (Sachs 1999; Shiva 2000). There has emerged around the world an increasingly visible, but extremely mixed, variety of critical responses to the machinations of a green-talking but not always so green-doing global capitalist order - from activists in the Southern hemisphere, small farmers in Europe, militant animal-lovers in Scandinavia, health-minded consumers everywhere, and, even in the United States, from some of those who once mined ore and tended the machinery in the industrial heartland. Many of the resisters draw on environmental arguments, but increasingly they seem to be deflecting the ecological culture into older and more traditional forms of resistance.

As such, an environmental consciousness has largely ceased to serve as a living source of identity for a relatively small number of activists and experts, and has become instead a broader, but also much more diffuse, source of inspiration for society as a whole. What had previously been fairly limited and well-defined movements of protest against the destruction of the physical environment have come to be supplanted over the past two decades by a highly variegated and contested set of ideas and practices (Macnaghten and Urry 1998). Throughout the world, a disparate range of activity is taking place in the name of ecology and sustainable development, and yet there is a gnawing sense that there is little, if any, overall direction to the process. Even more seriously, there are increasing indications that, for all the green talk, the actual health of the planet and its inhabitants is continuing to deteriorate (French 2000).

In this volume I attempt to connect the quest for sustainable development to broader processes of cultural and cognitive transformation.

As I see it, at different sites in our societies the harbingers of an emerging ecological culture are seeking to reconstitute discursive, institutional, and scientific-technical practices. They are disseminating, among other things, a wide range of ideas and concepts, organizational procedures and policy proposals, as well as "environmentally friendly" artifacts and consumer products. And sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, they are serving to change the way we do things, both at work and at home, in the various social worlds or contexts in which we live.

As we shall see here, the emerging ecological culture is waging a struggle on two fronts - against the rich and the powerful, who are doing their utmost to commercialize the new ideas and values and turn them into business opportunities, and against the dispersed forces of resistance, who are trying to utilize the new ideas for their own often incommensurable purposes. The transformations that we will be exploring involve a wide range of activities in different social locations, and it is important to recognize that those activities are, for the most part, governed by different kinds of rationalities, motivations, and interests.

The actual manifestations of the new environmental politics are often in contrast to more established forms of political activity. Public participation has become a catch-all phrase that is used to describe the variety of ways in which various types and groups of people are involved in these processes. But it has become a phrase, like sustainable development, that refers to many different kinds of social action. Ulrich Beck has coined the term "subpolitics" to indicate that indirect forms of pressure and informal types of action have taken on a greater significance, while Maarten Hajer has used the notion of "cultural politics" in order to emphasize the symbolic, or cultural, nature of many aspects of contemporary environmental conflicts (Beck 1995; Hajer 1996). These include debates about naming programs and defining ambitions; disputes over the construction and design of policy reforms and organizational initiatives; and disagreements, both in everyday life, as well as in the wide range of "expert worlds", over how best to develop and implement practical-technical measures.

If we are to understand these processes it is not sufficient, as many policy analysts and political scientists continue to do, to focus attention primarily on the relatively formalized domain of the state and its systems of regulation and control, for what is proposed by policy-makers and politicians is often far different from what is actually carried out in practice. Nor can the environmental strategies of companies be sufficiently understood within the terminology and conceptual frameworks of business economics, when their impact and consequences are now felt far outside of the business world. It has also become problematic to discuss the broader social aspects of environmental change within the received language of sociology and social theory, since the contradictory relations of real-life ecological transformations are often at variance with the "modernist" or cosmopolitan world-view assumptions of most sociologists. In all three of the main societal domains - state, industry, and civil society - the various doctrines, or ideologies, of environmental politics cannot be adequately understood without considering the actual practices of the actors involved and the knowledge they are making.

For while there appears to be widespread agreement, in principle, about the need to infuse an ecological consciousness as broadly as possible into our increasingly "globalized" societies, there is an enormous and highly diverse range of activity that has emerged in the quest for more sustainable paths to socio-economic development. There are differences between countries - due to various national political conditions and resource bases, as well as different national policy styles and cultural traditions -and there are also conflicts within countries, as different actor groups or social constituencies seek to redefine environmental issues in their own terms (for a recent survey, see Low et al. 2000).

We need to understand, in particular, the ways in which the quest for sustainable development has been affected by the overriding emphasis on economic efficiency and rationalization that has come to dominate our "neo-liberal" world. The dominant strategy has been to assign the main responsibility to the private sector, and this has meant a number of new managerial and administrative procedures that attempt to incorporate environmental concern into business and government (Hillary 1997). In many countries, however, particularly in the so-called developing world, these organizational innovations have run into major financial and institutional barriers, while many "Northern" companies have devised ways to move, or transfer, some of their more visible environmental problems - and profitable "solutions"-to the South (Agarwal etal. 1999). Greening in the North has thus paradoxically led to an intensification of environmental destruction in the South. As so often in the past, we see how scientific and technical ingenuity are being integrated into patterns of global inequality (Guha 2000). And, throughout the world, the processes of institutionalization have also faced what has been termed a "green backlash" from those in powerful positions who have had enough of environmental protection and are unconvinced that ecology will ever be particularly profitable (Rowell 1996; Beder 1997). Especially around issues such as global warming, where scientific assertions are extremely difficult to prove, the anti-ecological forces have been given particularly attractive opportunities to oppose an emerging ecological culture. The aggressive resistance to increased taxes on diesel fuel that spread across Europe in the summer of 2000 is only the most visible sign of this tendency.

As such, a disparate range of activity characterizes the quest for sustainable development as different actors, with very different interests, seek to entice different segments of the "public" to participate in their own favored organizational and institutional initiatives.

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