The environmentally concerned are constantly being manipulated by a wide array of mainstream forces. The list below is intended to help you recognize the most common forms of this manipulation. Each item consists of an identifying phrase, followed by a succinct refutation of the associated deception.
1. A climate sleight of mind
The essence of the ecological crisis is not climate change, but overshoot. Although climate change is an existential threat on its own, it is only one aspect of a much broader and deeper problem. The scope of this problem has been intentionally diminished because overshoot is a massive challenge that mandates systemic change, whereas climate change can be presented as a manageable issue that can be solved through technological advances at relatively low cost.
2. Clean energy! Clean energy! Clean energy!
Once climate change has been established as the core environmental problem, the solution can be specified as clean energy: greater efficiencies, the switch to renewables, etc. Typically, this is accompanied by the cheery claim that economic growth can continue. This is the emissions fallacy: the fixation on greenhouse gas emissions while ignoring their existing concentrations, which are now sufficient to cause catastrophic global warming and ocean degradation.
3. Geoengineering is the devil’s spawn!
Geoengineering has long been characterized as a set of crazy techno-fixes pushed by those seeking to prolong greenhouse gas emissions. Although the second part of this claim may well be true, geoengineering is now necessary for preventing Arctic collapse and drawing down the current CO2 concentration. I describe the facts about geoengineering here and the arguments for and against it here.
4. Love those WE-sel words!
The pronouns “we”, “us”, and “our” are pervasively used to erase the distinction between the capitalist class and the rest of society. For example: “we” are causing climate change through “our” economic activities, and the solution is up to “us”. Such statements are deeply deceptive because those who control the economy have a completely different set of capacities and responsibilities from those who don’t. Anyone who uses the pronouns in this manner is guilty of manipulation, no matter how sincere they are or how advanced their views may otherwise be.
5. Capitalism? Hadn’t noticed!
Another common trick for diverting attention away from capitalism, and thus its ruling class and growth compulsion, is to pretend the system doesn’t exist. This is done by avoiding the word itself and instead employing deceptive alternatives such as “industrial economy”, “market economy”, and “developed economy”. A slightly more subtle approach is to use the word, but to modify it in some way, as in “modern capitalism”, “deregulated capitalism”, and “capitalism as we know it”. This ruse allows commentators to severely criticize the system while claiming or implying that a new form of capitalism will overcome its deficiencies.
6. Elites rule!
In 1956 the American sociologist C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite, which ascribed political power to the “higher circles” of the military, economic, and political domains. Mills had two objectives: to establish that democracy had been compromised due to the centralization of power in these circles, and to deny the existence of a ruling class. This combination proved to be irresistible for progressives. It allowed them to vent about the undue influence of a powerful minority, but to avoid identifying this minority as the capitalist class. A full refutation of Mills’ thesis is beyond the scope of this document, but I will say that it is a sophisticated whitewash. The capitalist class is unique in holding political power through its economic dominance, and the military is part of the state that serves this class. The three domains share power only in the mystified imaginations of Mills and his followers.
7. Corporations rule!
Another way to evade political rule by the capitalist class is to locate power in the corporations. These, however, are primarily economic rather than political entities. As noted in #6 above, economic dominance is central to political power, but the two must be clearly distinguished. An example may help clarify this point. Progressives frequently refer to the “corporate media”. This accurately reflects the fact that media companies are profit-driven enterprises – the economic reality. However, it ignores the fact that the media’s propaganda serves the social-control requirements of the capitalist class as a whole – the political reality. If you want to highlight the latter, my suggested term is “capitalist media”.
8. Growth is a government policy
Many environmental thinkers correctly state that economic growth is incompatible with sustainability, but to protect their status and paychecks they refuse to link growth to capitalism. One way to break this link is to insist that growth is the result of government policies implemented after World War II. Thus, with sufficient “political will”, governments could reverse these decisions and turn growth into contraction. These are desperate claims that have no basis in reality. Regarding the first, capitalism replaced feudalism precisely because of its growth capacity, and the system could not survive without a steady dose of expansion. Policies can do nothing more than stimulate this inherent compulsion. Regarding the second, governments lack the political power to implement the fundamental shift to contraction. If any government were to introduce such policies, it would be quickly undermined and removed from office. Historical examples of such ousters are too numerous to mention.
9. It’s all in our heads
By using words such as addiction, madness, mania, fetish, fixation, and mindset, many commentators sneak in psychological explanations for the ecological crisis. This transfers responsibility from an irrational economy to our messed-up minds and reprobate moralities. If only people would overcome their shameful addictions to oil and growth! Immediately call bullshit on anyone who tries this banal form of blaming the victim.
10. Bad culture! Bad!
Another way to deflect responsibility is to ascribe ecological destruction to culture – as in “today’s wasteful consumer culture”. But “culture” refers to the historically transmitted results of human endeavors, which are dominated by the powerful. Although the “consumer culture” has its roots in human nature, this inherent tendency has been exploited and inflamed by those who wield economic control. Blaming culture obscures such realities and simplistically assigns responsibility to our – typically unexplained – collective foolishness.
11. It’s the system itself!
This is opposite extreme from the psychological explanations cited in #9. Rather than blaming people’s mental states, people are taken out of the picture altogether. For example, the problem is the monetary system, which manipulates economic actors into various forms of destructive behavior. Or it is capitalism per se – the economic system itself dictating to reluctant participants. All such claims deny human agency, thereby absolving people – particularly the ruling group – from responsibility.
12. Conservatism is the enemy
No, it’s not. Modern conservatism is a mix of two distinct political positions: classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. Conservatives who trace their roots to Edmund Burke’s traditional principles – prudence, humility, community, and environmental stewardship – could well support a sustainable economy on this basis. For details, see my Political Primer.
13. If all you have is a hammer …
In her 2014 book, This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein repeatedly tells us that only social movements can solve the ecological crisis. This is because, as a progressive, she has nothing else to offer. Progressivism is a defensive movement that restricts itself to moderating capitalism’s social and environmental abuses. As such, it has no ambitions to move beyond the system, and therefore frames no theories, strategies, or tactics to this end. If reform-oriented initiatives can’t fix a problem, it can’t be fixed. Unfortunately, the ecological crisis is just such a problem.
14. It’s already happening!
Permaculture here, solar panels there … the transition to a sustainable economy has begun! This is progressive ignorance parading as sunny optimism. The obvious fact is that growth-dependent capitalism remains deeply entrenched despite the innovations sprouting along its edges. The ruling class tolerates such initiatives because they have no significant effect on the system’s operations and safely absorb the energies of the concerned. But if permaculture ever threatens industrial farming, it will be labeled a form of terrorism or an assault on health or sanity, and will be savagely suppressed.
15. We don’t need no stinkin’ theory!
When I studied economics at university I became aware that the progressive world had no economic theory of its own, so I developed one. It turned out, however, that progressives weren’t the least bit interested. As activists they dismissed theory as a distraction from concrete initiatives, and as thinkers they were content with snippets of insight from E.F. Schumacher and the platitudes of ecological economics. Here’s the truth: a sustainable economy is a post-capitalist economy, which requires a post-capitalist economic theory. Anyone who denies this must show that a historically novel economy can be guided without a conceptual framework.
16. Forget history and power
You will sometimes encounter the claim that the economy is just a human invention, so it should be a simple matter for humans to alter its nature and direction. Today’s economies, however, are the products of lengthy historical development and the assertion of power by specific groups. The idea that some popular representatives sat around a table and concocted capitalism is an extraordinary delusion that deserves no credence. The system must be superseded, but this can only be done with full awareness of its deep historical roots and the realities of political power.
17. Fix the popular mind!
The following appears in The David Suzuki Reader, and is approvingly quoted by Bill McKibben in the book’s foreword: “I believe the overarching crisis resides in the modern, urban mind, in the values and beliefs that are driving our destructiveness.” (p. 10. McKibben quotes this statement on p. vii). As with culture (see #10), this ignores the fact that many values and beliefs are not generated by natural impulses or autonomous minds, but have instead been inculcated by the powerful to suit their purposes. This is another form of blaming the victim: the populace is massively disoriented by those in power, and their disorientation is then cited as the root cause of environmental decline.
18. No business without capitalism
Business refers broadly to commercial activities, whereas capitalism refers to expansionary commercial activities with the business class in power. Business has been with us for 5,000 years, whereas capitalism has been around for only the past 500 years. The two are thus related, but conceptually and historically distinct. Conflating them is an old trick, much beloved by conservative economists, and is intended to convince the gullible that moving beyond capitalism will destroy private enterprise. Don’t buy this crap: capitalism needs business, but business doesn’t need capitalism. A post-capitalist economy will be business-oriented to the extent that this is compatible with sustainable well-being.
19. No growth, no jobs
Much of the political left still supports economic growth because it creates jobs and incomes, and is therefore conducive to social justice. If the environment is ignored, this support makes sense. I know from my work experience that an expanding economy makes life more pleasant and less stressful. In the shadow of ecological collapse, however, growth-driven job creation is no longer acceptable. The new mantra must be: jobs are the result of economic rationality, not economic growth. In a rational economy, a factory closing or company downsizing would lead to the reallocation of labor resources, the reduction of the work-week, or both. Unemployment for those willing and able to work is a capitalist obscenity, not an economic inevitability.
20. BEWARE THE GOOD COPS!
A lot of the above bullshit is brought to you by good cops: individuals, organizations, and media outlets that may well have genuine environmental concerns, but that join the bad cops in denying the core facts about capitalism and power. Although it is psychologically compelling to choose good over bad in this situation, both preclude the possibility of systemic change and rapid impact reduction. To have a chance at a civilized future for yourself and your children, you must learn to recognize these duplicitous actors and reject their appealing but ecocidal assertions.
To wrap this up, note that two strategic ideas underlie many of these manipulations. The first is to severely diminish the scope of the overshoot crisis. The second is to shift responsibility from the powerful to various scapegoats: culture, the popular mind, the monetary system, etc. Basically, the capitalist class is telling the rest of society that the problem is fixable and the blame lies elsewhere, so leave us and our system alone. The environmentally concerned must expose both this strategy and the numerous bullshitters who are responsible for its pervasive impact.
Edited: April, 2017