Warming up to Environmentalism

I’m starting to rethink the whole environmental craze in the culture, which is about as inescapable as pop music and jeans. It was born some 50 years ago and it has spread like a cancer ever since.

It’s always annoyed me that its most consistent dogma, pushed without evidence or argument, is that commerce, and all that is associated with commerce except on the smallest possible scale, is always and everywhere destructive to animals, plants, earth, air, water and (when they finally get around to this point) human health. So therefore, we should somehow eschew commerce, by hook or crook, in favor of some variant of asceticism.

This is, obviously, rubbish. Commerce is the heartbeat of civilization, the thing that makes possible prosperity, shelter, clothing, long lives, good lives, health, high and low culture, learning and every manner of fun. Without commerce, we lose all that we love and we are ground down to a primitive state of being, gathering and hunting and fighting for survival against the elements.

Nature on its own is terrifying and deadly — a relentless and mortal threat to all that is good. Looking at the big picture, the only kind of nature we really and truly like is that that has been thoroughly tamed by human hands. We only imagine otherwise because none of us has ever really faced real nature unarmed and unprepared — and those who have don’t live to tell about it.

Not only that, but environmentalist theory serves as the intellectual foundation of some of the greatest threats we actually face. It’s not globing warming; it’s the use of state power to dismantle the commercial society in the name of stopping climate change. Vaclav Klaus’ phrase and book is right: Blue Planet in Green Shackles.

So why am I coming around to environmentalism, despite its obvious absurdities and the threat it represents to the civilized life? Here’s why: Commerce has cracked the code. After years of struggle, the mighty capitalist machine has figured out how to use the environmental cultural ethos to sell its products at a profit. That’s good. Very good!

Let me just provide an obvious example that nearly everyone has experienced by now. When you check into a hotel these days, you will likely be asked if you are willing to participate in the “Green Hotel” initiative (the name varies). What this means is that the hotel will save water, reduce detergent use and otherwise save the planet by failing to wash your towel, provided you hang it back up again, rather than throw it on the floor.

Every patron readily agrees to this obvious cost-saving measure, and solely on grounds that he has done something pious and wonderful for Mother Nature. This is just great because the hotel now saves an average of $6.50 per night, per room, which means more money to invest in other things, pay employees or otherwise expand.

Now, if the hotel had dropped the whole environmental mask, this would never have worked. Imagine if the desk clerk said: “Sir, it would be great for our bottom line, saving this hotel vast sums, if we didn’t have to wash your towels or change your sheets. Would you agree to reduced service so that we can enjoy a higher probability to operate in the black?”

What would people say? Most people would see it as an obvious rip-off and complain. No one wants less service! But wrap the same thing in the holy cloak of green consciousness and everything changes. Now the hotel is able to call on the noble sentiments of the customer and elicit from him some sacrifice for the common good.

This is nothing short of ingenious. Capitalism is so smart that it has conquered even the ultimate anti-capitalist ideology and managed to market it at a profit. Wonderful.

Of course, this has also happened in food. It is actually difficult these days to find anything to eat that isn’t pushed on us as organic, healthy, smart, socially conscious, fair-trade, earth-friendly and so on. For a long time, I tried my best to avoid such products in the same way I would try to avoid any appliance stamped “Energy Star.”

Finally I realized that most of this was hokum. Most these companies have taken the same old product and recharacterized it. That’s great. That’s what business is good at. It’s called marketing. It can take any shape. It wouldn’t matter if a large swath of the population suddenly converted to Rastafarianism, you would see this change reflected in the way products are marketed.

It’s this way with nearly everything you consume. Add the words organic or green-friendly to just about anything and you give it a new spin. This applies to just about anything in the physical world from mattresses to shoes to suitcases. Nothing escapes this designation.

As I say, I used to resist. Now I realize that there is not much point. Capitalism has captured this market and civilized it, and thereby robbed environmentalism of its teeth (except and insofar as it is embodied in politics).

You might say that this proves the sheer cynicism of the market economy. On the contrary. It underscores the obsessive, focused dedication of the market system to serving society in every conceivable way. It’s proof that most people have misunderstood the market. People tend to think that the market is about pushing things on us; on the contrary, it is relentlessly and desperately extracting information from us and searching for ways to meet our needs, whatever they are.

Now, you might say that this whole system is a fraud. These products aren’t really organic, not really healthy and green, not really taking us back to nature. It’s just the old stuff in new guise. All of that might be true enough, but in what sense is this contrary to consumer wishes?

We don’t really want to go back to nature. We don’t really want to eat food that is half-devoured by bugs or carries diseases or sleep on sheets that are scratchy and rough or wear shoes that are nothing more than slabs of animal skin. We want everything modern life gives us, but we want to believe that we are somehow not causing harm to anyone or anything in the course of our consumption.

I would suggest that capitalism is doing for us exactly what people want it to do. Authentic environmentalism would mean the end of life as we know it. The faux-environmental aesthetic that has been captured and domesticated by the market exactly matches what our culture really wants. The more difficult task lies ahead: defanging the politics of the environmental movement in the same way.

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