The Dark Roots of Neoliberal Environmentalism

I recently took up the issue of neoliberal environmentalism in a blog post. Central to the discussion has been the way in which environmentalism, emergent in the neoliberal era, accommodated itself to neoliberal thinking, shrinking from even mild reform in favor of a fixation on individual conduct and “market”-friendly solutions that can be nicely summed up as “agonize over your carbon footprint while the corporations actually responsible for climate change (a mere hundred of them account for 71 percent of emissions) do what they want” (and the same going for every other environmental problem as well).

Still, one must acknowledge that this was not merely a matter of deference to orthodox economic ideas on the part of environmentalists in an era generally uncongenial for progressive politics, but also a matter of the ideas on which many environmentalists have elected to build their movement. There is the Malthusianism that began with its namesake’s attack on provision for the poor and the possibility of alternative to capitalism on behalf of tax-hating property owners, and which has ever since continued to fulfill the same purposes in other hands (like Jack Goldstone’s writings). There is the “localist” and “small-is-beautiful” ethic that is nothing so much as a petit bourgeois fear and hatred of modern scale — the attitude not of the working person, but the small business owner who incessantly talks rugged individualism but really thinks the world owes them prosperity. And there is the suspicion of technology and deep social critique (Luddism, disbelief in “grand narratives”), and outright misanthropy, that at a glance is recognizably derived from the darkest and most brutal of the counter-Enlightenment tradition (think the inanities of wannabe Nazi court philosopher Martin Heiddeger) by way of the ultra-reactionary force that has been postmodernism.

The receptiveness to such ideas seems enhanced by a host of unfortunate proclivities that I do not think can be called “ideas” per se, and certainly not ideas about the environment, society or anything else. One is, to borrow Emmanuel Todd’s term, a “zombie religiosity” to which the wearing of hairshirts, not least environmental hairshirts, appeals (especially if they are the kind to be more concerned with expiating a sense of personal guilt with gestures than actually addressing a problem). There is the detestation of “consumerism” and modern convenience that is largely a matter of the distaste the affluent have for the consumption choices of those less well-off than themselves, whom they choose not to understand and for whom they have, in the end, little to no sympathy, so that they readily begrudge them any and all comfort and pleasure and choice. This often goes hand in hand with the light-mindedness that thinks a reversion to pre-industrial life will be like one long camping trip and wouldn’t that be fun! — or the blend of simple-mindedness and selfishness that takes it for granted that the sacrifices will be borne by others while they somehow go on being comfortable in some oasis of modern convenience. (They will keep their McMansions, SUVs and cell phones, but those Third Worlders — tough luck.)

And, quite frankly, there are those who seem to have an appetite for what Leigh Phillips terms “collapse-porn,” with James Howard Kunstler exemplary in his having a “veritable hard-on for the end of the world, imagining with relish the coming Peak Oil collapse, a retreat from modernity, and an embrace of the Medieval.”

Say what one might about judging ideas by their sources, these are profoundly unpromising sources of or premises for a meaningful solution to any large problem, let alone the one we face now, and I often find myself wondering if the publicity accorded these ideas does not in itself reflect their awfulness. Neoliberal environmentalism is not a perfect fit with the other kinds, one reason why right-wingers’ denunciation of even this kind of environmentalism is deep and genuine. However, it not only diverts the public from other, more threatening approaches, but it also looks deeply unappealing itself. Given the choice between neoliberalism, and its techno-utopian PR, and Kunstler, and only these, a great many people, even those well-aware of our predicament, and alert to the failings of the techno-utopian view, will hope that the techno-utopians are right and things will just somehow work out in the end.

Originally published at

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.