Democracy has not been doing well. For this reason, now is an awkward time to argue that it must be the fulcrum of the Anthropocene. In the United States and Europe, democracies have rushed into foolish wars and stumbled in the face of economic crises—or created those crises. At the time of writing, the North Atlantic democracies are splitting into elite technocrats, who wish they could govern without consulting the masses, and angry populists, who would like to liquidate the technocrats. Nondemocratic governments openly disdain democratic pieties. Official Chinese voices even suggest that American failures prove the future does not belong to democracies.
Democratic failures are often failures to impose self-restraint, and self-restraint is exactly what environmental politics needs. In the past fifteen years, democracies have failed to pay their burgeoning debts and have started wars that turned out to have little credible rationale and no decent ending. Climate change looks like another unsustainable deficit that is going to keep growing, a burden on future generations to pay for today’s convenience. The preferred responses to climate change, too, have an aspect of militarized fantasy: satellite mirrors to deflect solar energy from the earth, and other sci-fi technologies. These climate failures are part of a broader environmental failure. Although there have been important successes, notably anti-pollution laws, resource use and environmental impact continue to accelerate in the world’s richest democracies, and all the more in fast-growing poorer countries. Water shortage, soil health, toxicity, and loss of biodiversity are all looming sources of future crises.
In recent decades, too, a basic change in the terms of government has narrowed the scope of democratic rule. Independent central banks, supra-national organizations like the World Trade Organization and the European Union, and constitutional limitations on taxation and spending have all taken economic governance out of the hands of popular majorities and placed it with technocrats and judges. The ideas behind these moves are twofold: first, that democracies are not to be trusted with their own most basic affairs, and, second, that there is one right way to organize economic life, which experts know and administer and everyone else must accept. These ideas coincide with a broader exhaustion in the rich modern tradition of political economy. In the last Gilded Age and in earlier economic crises, many alternative visions of economic life competed for popular attention: some of these influenced antitrust law, labor legislation, unionization, and the New Deal. In the past decade, economic crises and suffering, even widespread discontent with the way our market capitalism is working, have inspired mainly austerity in Europe and gridlock in the United States. Democratic citizens’ capacity to rework their own common lives has been hollowed out in overt and explicit ways, and eroded by a decline in political imagination.
At the same time, the power of organized money in politics has only increased. It is a common—and fair— complaint that the U.S. government is distorted through and through by the political power of wealth. In environmental matters, the problem is even worse. Wealth is produced and sustained by an economy that effectively subsidizes fossil fuels (by treating greenhouse-gas emissions as costless) and industrial agriculture (through explicit subsidies to big producers and regulatory tolerance of massive feedlots and slaughter houses), along with every individual decision to buy from those industries. It’s as if the Constitution gave three votes to everyone who wants to keep things as they are, and only one vote to those who seek to change them.
Real environmental reform is a matter of political economy. That is, it requires engaging the foundations of economic life: what kind of wealth an economy produces, how it distributes that wealth, what kind of freedom and equality it promotes, and what provision it makes for the future. These are political questions whose answers must be worked out through economic institutions. But the politics of modern democracies has become less able to engage such questions, even as the questions have become harder and more urgent. This is the crux of the difficulty.
The problem is not entirely new. In the 1970s, some environmentalists took democratic failures as reason to hope that nondemocratic governments would save the natural world. Such arguments were motivated by the hope that state socialism could avoid capitalism’s demands for economic growth. The environmental record of the Soviet bloc established that, on the contrary, the pressure for economic growth was just as powerful there as in the West. Worse, those nondemocratic systems gave ordinary people no way to resist environmental destruction: while environmental politics was emerging in its modern form in the West, the heavy industry of the Eastern bloc created some of the worst disasters of the century, from the Chernobyl reactor meltdown to the death of the Aral Sea. Nonetheless, today there are resurgent fantasies of green authoritarianism, this time hung on China, with its state-led investment in solar cells. Where older hopes for an authoritarian savior expressed discontent with capitalism, today’s attraction to China is rooted in weariness of sclerotic democracy. China’s overall environmental record, though, is hardly better than the Soviet Union’s was, and its economic growth has massively increased the human impact on the planet. The lesson of the past fifty years is that humanity itself is the challenge. No political system has succeeded by contradicting the demand for more: more energy, more calories, more technology, and so more pressure on natural resources of all kinds.
It is not surprising, then, that many people hope technology will save the world. The greatest optimism rests on clean and renewable energy sources, carbon-eating organisms, and other fixes that could reduce human pressure on natural systems as thoroughly as steam power and internal combustion lightened the economy’s demands on human muscles. Those technologies freed people from exhausting labor and early deaths. Mightn’t the next wave of technology free the planet from some of the more crushing human demands? A weaker form of optimism looks to technology as the key to managing a continuing crisis: geo-engineering will not free the planet, but it may make a carbon-dense atmosphere more livable by reducing its effect on temperature and climate.
Maybe technological optimism will prove apt. Any environmentally responsible future would become much more likely if technology lessened the conflict between human flourishing and ecological health. There are, however, two reasons to doubt that technology alone could do the job. First, the environmental impact of innovation has always been a double-edged sword. With one edge, new technologies have made resource use much more efficient; for instance, the so-called carbon density of advanced economies, their carbon production per unit of economic activity, is much lower than in developing countries. This is a benefit of efficient energy production and use. The other edge of the sword, though, is a vast increase in overall resource use. As China has developed, for instance, its carbon density has dropped, but its overall carbon emissions have exploded, so that it in 2007 it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter. This example captures the general pattern: as human powers increase, each individual puts more pressure on the natural world. The second limit on technology’s power to stem environmental crisis is that no technology can tell its users how to use it, or how to shape the earth with it. But those questions will need answers. Whatever innovation brings, people will continue to shape the earth by inhabiting it, changing everything from its atmospheric cycles to its soils and habitats. It is much too late to imagine that any technology could enable humanity to “stop disturbing” the earth. Instead, every technology will become part of the joint human-natural system in which we make and remake the world just by living here.
Technology, then, brings efficiency, but it brings neither restraint nor purpose. People need both in engaging the planet. Understandably, then, many look for environmental hope in culture and consciousness. These, after all, are where individuals, families, and communities find both restraint and purpose. At some point, many meditations on environmental questions conclude that consciousness must change, or nothing will change. People must learn to make more modest choices, find satisfactions that exact a smaller toll on the natural world. After all, technology and democratic politics channel the values and priorities of individuals, families, and communities. In some way, these are always the local roots of a national failure of self-restraint and purpose.
The emphasis on culture and consciousness, then, cannot be wrong. But is it helpful? History suggests that changes in consciousness are a necessary precondition for big and material changes in the human relation to the natural world, but also that they are not enough. By themselves, changes in personal values make differences on the margins of, say, buying decisions, or even choices of career, but they do little to change the larger systems that organize the relationship between humans and nature. Say that 60 percent of Americans come to value sustainably raised food and low-energy commutes enough to spend money on them. As most U.S. readers will realize on the basis of experience, the effect of this change will be to make sustainable food and urban housing into luxuries, inducing more production of these things, but also pushing the less wealthy into exurbs and utilitarian supermarkets. Some environmentally beneficial changes can follow from shifts in consciousness alone, but the biggest material changes happen through changes in the legal and economic infrastructure that guide human energies and activity. So long as the economy treats greenhouse-gas emissions and soil exhaustion as free and the legal system permits the mass feeding operations and slaughter houses of industrial agriculture, a good deal of changed consciousness will mean no more than shuffling furniture between the first-class and second-class cabins of the Titanic.
Excerpted from "After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene" by Jedediah Purdy. Published by Harvard University Press. Copyright 2015 by Jedediah Purdy. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.