In their 1988 song Nothing But Flowers, David Byrne and the Talking Heads imagine a new Adam and Eve struggling to adapt to their post-apocalypse, de-industrialized world, a world stripped of the comforts and convenience to which they had grown all-too accustomed. After reading Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We can Do About It, one easily imagines Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert (herein “the authors”), celebrating the collapse, indeed, relishing their rattlesnake dinner and toasting good riddance to civilization, such as it was.
Suddenly, Green is in. Governments, corporations and investors all wish to be it. And this being capitalism, there is a plethora of “green” from which to choose, green products to buy, green lifestyles to adopt, green parties to join, green investment funds promoting green growth; all designed to provide the illusion of eco-friendly agency as the biosphere disintegrates.
And in the lexicon of the authors, there is a critical choice to be made between deep and bright green. As a riposte to the bullish climate solutions and Green New Deals currently floating about, these co-authors present a thorough, unsparing take-down of the eco-modernist left and its promises that technology will deliver a kinder, greener capitalism. Countering those who insist our current way of life can be made sustainable through the adoption of “clean,” renewable energy (“Bright Greens” such as Jacobson or Carbon Tracker), the authors meticulously reveal the true impacts too often left unmentioned or obscured. Their mission is to give voice to those landscapes, habitats, biotic communities and species suffering those impacts, those sacrificed to the continuation of human prosperity. In chapter after chapter the authors document the destructiveness of the very technologies — photovoltaics, turbines, batteries, recycling — touted as “clean” saviors. Of course this critique of “extractivism,” carried primarily by indigenous cultures, has been around since the Cochabamba Declaration. And Jensen’s Deep Green crusade to slay what he terms “industrial civilization” is hardly new. But this book is an angry, accusatory escalation.
“This used to be real estate now it’s only fields and trees” Talking Heads
While Jensen, Keith and Wilbert do indeed link the destruction of the biosphere to the imperatives of capitalism, their analysis is mostly idealist and romantic, finding modernity, progress and most technologies as useless and destructive as capital accumulation. In the end what is presented is a cultural critique, even a spiritual quest more Amish than Luddite. It isn’t power relations or the inner workings of political economy the authors reveal so much as the stories, myths and forms of knowledge that they believe took civilization down a dead-end path. Pushed along by something called “the mechanistic mind” and the ideology it perpetuates. In this telling the fall from grace starts with agriculture and ends with solar panels. For models of actual sustainability and coexistence they look to pre-modern societies whose cosmovision regarded Man and Nature as one. Unfortunately, this mix of moralism and materialism provides little clarity, and even less direction on how to change course. Left unexplained is how a global capitalist culture which took hundreds of years to develop can be radically shifted in less than a decade ( the time we have to reduce emissions by 50%). Many of us accept some de-growth as necessary, especially in demand, but the Deep Greens want to take it down to the bone.
“Where is the town?, now there’s nothing but flowers” Talking Heads
The authors have absolutely no use for cities and even less for suburban spaces. Rather than sites of organized, efficient existence, for them cities are parasites, sucking the life from the countryside while returning poison and decay. In 1844, Marx developed the term “metabolic rift” to describe the break in nutrient cycling between town and country, recognizing an unsustainable arrangement. He was also thinking about humanities alienation from nature. But rather than dispersing citizens throughout the countryside, Marx sought to repair the social metabolism by emancipating workers. The authors claim that “villages and towns support their populations from nearby lands,” while cities must import resources to survive. Left unexplained is why the basic formula should change with scale? The debate as to whether cities can be made ecologically viable won’t be settled here. But one can imagine the impact of billions migrating onto the landscape to hunt and gather; scrabbling to provide calories, fighting for water, battling the vagaries of weather and pests. Such phalanstery has a long history with the utopian left, from Owens to the Narodniks to the hippies and the results have not been promising. The point, however, is moot. We all know the cities around the globe will not and cannot empty out. The idyllic dream of a pastoral landscape filled with basket-weaving villagers is just that.
“We used to microwave now we just eat nuts and berries” Talking Heads
In her essay Of Gods, Men and Human Destiny, Usha Alexander reminds us that back in the Garden of Eden, life was a breeze. Though David Byrne’s “Adam” complains that he “can’t get used to this lifestyle,” there is evidence that nomadic hunting and gathering worked pretty well for an incredibly long time. It was when seeds began to be scattered and settlers settled that “progress” and “civilization,” with all the attendant baggage, came into being. It is impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of this qualitative paradigm shift and nearly as difficult to imagine its reversal.
Yet Deep Greens insist the Garden gate is not locked and that a return to a pre-settlement mode is both possible and necessary. In their telling, finding the way back requires two basic tasks: 1. “refuse to maintain allegiance with this culture” and 2. “stop industrial civilization, stop our way of life.” The more specific solutions include “an immediate phase-out of mono-crop agriculture” and “cease(ing) infrastructure projects which disrupt or destroy biomes.” At its heart, theirs is a call for restoring ecosystem health, that is, allowing forests and prairies, rivers and oceans to do what they have evolved to do. Not by commodifying the “services” green capitalists hope to affix a price to (that is, establishing exchange value, nor for that matter, use-value). Instead, by learning to appreciate their more difficult to define intrinsic value. But for those immersed in consumer culture, who “dream of cherry pies, candybars and chocolate chip cookies,” how might this education take place? In the abstract it is easy to promote values such as thrift, simplicity, and frugality. But life without electricity or mining will be a hard sell.
“I was hopin’ we’d start over but I guess I was wrong” Talking Heads
It is impossible not to appreciate the passion and concern which drive the authors of Bright Green Lies. As I write this the Northwest is baking in a record-setting heatwave, smoke from dozens of massive wildfires chokes the air and the winter Chinook run in the Sacramento River is being annihilated forever (they’ve been on the brink for some time). Flooding has demolished German towns and now fills Chinese subways. The argument that all development, no matter how green, sustainable or renewable, requires resource extraction is unassailable. But as I anthropocentrically consider my granddaughter’s future, I’m thinking in terms of triage; given the disaster, what can be salvaged from the ruins and at what cost? Though few wish to consider it, even were rational planning adopted tomorrow, we would still face hard choices regarding the greater good. Yes, “responsible mining standards” will help, as would a more “circular” economy. But recycling and waste treatment can only be so “clean.” In his latest novel, author Kim Stanley Robinson imagines a heatwave killing 20 million Southeast Asians in one week, this holocaust finally inspiring elites to take action. Upon finishing Bright Green Lies, one hopes these ethical questions remain relevant. Yet one feels like one does upon reading any bold manifesto; yes, of course, but how? Critique is necessary and we need truthtellers to point out dubious strategies and dangerous dead-ends. But we also need a plan.
It is frighteningly easy to see Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History once again watching the “pile of wreckage” grow in her wake as she is blown inexorably forward by the “winds of progress”. Only this time the wreckage includes ecological destruction and the concomitant social crises. Ahead lies a cliff edge of cascading, runaway feedback loops. Between now and the cliff there is a dwindling sliver of opportunity to change course. Returning to David Byrne’s song, “Adam” had hoped that “we’d start over,” that someone would “pay attention,” and a sane, rational, perhaps even democratic and equitable society could thrive. But standing there among the flowers, he realizes he was wrong. He feels abandoned and lost and misses the “honky tonks, Dairy Queens and Seven Elevens.”
There are a number of ways to imagine collapse. As an opportunity to end “industrial civilization” and return to the Garden. As something that could be managed and a chance to bury capitalism once and for all. Or as our “common ruin” and something to be avoided at all costs. In any case, many more of us will have to start paying attention and many of us will have to get used to a much different lifestyle. However one comes down on the question of civilization (and its many discontents), we can thank the authors of Bright Green Lies for their direct and bold approach in asking it.
Dave Jones is a member of System Change Not Climate Change.