Economics of Place and the Problem of Environmental “Greenwashing”

Continuing on in the series on “re-place-ment.”  But first, this month’s ear-and eye-candy recommendations: 
Musician: Andy McKee, “Drifting”.  Unbelievable percussive acoustic guitar!
Artist: Dmitri Kadiev.  This wandering artist does beautiful mural work in the key of faith and social justice; check out his work here.  I met with him again yesterday in Santa Monica, and hope he’ll come do a small mural for us in Oak View next year! 
“And other seed fell into good soil and brought forth…a hundredfold!” (Mk 4:8) 
The happy conclusion to Jesus’ famous parable of the sower reminds us that good land, when taken care of, can yield a harvest that will ensure that everyone has enough.  Human culture is dependent upon the hospitality of the land which both constrains it and sustains it.  But industrial capitalism has, over the last two centuries, built a culture which defies the land and its limits.  This defiance, Wendell Berry argues, robs the environment and ruins local communities, all at the behest of outside forces which think only in terms of global markets and maximized profits.  Instead, he asserts, we must construct our economic life upon the “demands of affection” for the land, cognizant of our place in the Great Economy.  In the next several posts I’ll look briefly at some key issues related to environmental and sustainable economics, movements that have emerged over the last few decades that are trying to offer an alternative to capitalist vandalism and dis-placement. 
Capitalism promotes “exotic” lifestyles–literally, patterns of domestic life, work, and leisure which are “not native, naturalized or acclimatized” to the land upon which they take place.  Los Angeles (my home town) is a perfect example of a metropolis founded upon this model.  The atmosphere of L.A.’s coastal desert basin cannot bear the pollutants of the millions of cars we use; virtually none of the land’s indigenous natural resources are used in local economic production; and the water table could not support 1/20th of our current population.  Instead, ours is a city based on import and theft–of water, of deciduous plants, of human labor, of electrical power, etc.  Yet the consequences of mismanagement and depletion of the land have finally caught up with us, resulting in an environmental crisis that is both profoundly local and profoundly global.
Calvin DeWitt identified seven major environmental problems facing us today:

Habitat destruction, including urban encroachment, deforestation, overgrazing, etc.
Species extinction (at a rate of more than 3 per day);
Land degradation, including topsoil loss or exhaustion;
Waste, including planned obselescence and the introduction of toxic materials;
Global poisoning of water systems and the atmosphere;
Ozone depletion/greenhouse effect, which is causing the atrophy of protective layers in the stratosphere and thus “global warming”;
Human and cultural degradation: the severance of cultures from the land and loss of diversity.

“Under this arrogant assault on the fabric of the biosphere,” DeWitt concludes, “‘the earth dries up and withers…earth is defiled by its people’ (Is 24:4f).”
The ecological alarm was first sounded internationally in the 1972 study entitled “The Limits to Growth.”  Since then, the environmental movement has grown steadily.  Two decades later, however, its achievements are decidedly ambiguous.   On one hand, concerns over ecological sustainability and degradation have become widespread .  On the other hand, environmental issues remain subordinate to the interests of big Capital and superpower politics.  The literature related to our global environmental struggle on its behalf is now voluminous; here and in the next post I will address only two issues facing “green politics” today that are relevant to a theology of re-place-ment.
The first issue is the cooptation and “depoliticization” of ecological consciousness by government and corporate capitalism.  Environmentalist rhetoric has clearly found acceptance in popular culture, especially in the ubiquitous (and often corporate-sponsored) exhortations that suggest “ten things you can do to save the planet.” But Anthony Ladd rightly warns: “By inferring that the ecological crisis can be cured through recycling, double-pane insulation, tree-planting and 47 other ‘simple’ things that individuals can do to save the earth, an apolitical and reductionist consciousness is fostered amongst the public that only offers consumptive solutions to consumptive problems.”  This is not to imply that conducting one’s life, work and consumption in an ecologically responsible fashion is unimportant; such disciplines are constitutive of dis-continuity and what we at BCM call “Sabbath Economics.”  But lifestyle choices are not yet political–and frankly do little to mitigate corporate vandalism. 
The problem is that public discourse concerning conservation is increasingly being shaped by entities which are in fact enemies of the land. The U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, which promotes nuclear power, trumpets about “clean energy” in full page ads, and the American Plastics Council does the same about recycling.  The phenomenon of what Brian Lipsett first called “greenwashing” is ubiquitous, and hastwo major aspects.  One is the “selling” of environmental rhetoric, best seen in the commercialization of Earth Day celebrations.  The other is the “selling out” of the larger environmental organizations, best seen in the growing influence of corporate interests among the so-called “Group of 10” national conservation groups.  Meanwhile, the same corporate forces which are greewashing the environmental middle are “green-baiting” more radical environmental groups as “anti-business” and “extremist.”  This includes the institutional harrassment of activists and whistle-blowers. 
These are all characteristic trends of what Ladd terms “environmental backlash.”  The Reagan-Bush administrations relentlessly offered “regulatory relief” to corporations; dismantled or refused to enforce existing environmental protection legislation; opened Federal lands to renewed exploitation; and gutted funding for alternative energy research and development.  “The size, scope and effectiveness of ecological protection was decimated, few new federal regulations were issued, and existing ones were reinterpreted or revised to reduce their impact on industry and government.” The courts, media and universities for the most part cooperated with this backlash. 
Re-place-ment is a good antidote to efforts to domesticate popular environmentalism by individualizing its mandates.  Efforts to defend specific local places through community organizing will tend to be more credible than proxy battles for distant wetlands or forests.  The fact that urban dwellers may have little relationship to the land (apart from a recreational one) makes it all the more important for our environmental struggles to begin in our own neighborhoods, cities and regions.  Protecting or restoring the ecological integrity of our own places will help reconstruct our relationship to them.  It also can teach us and empower us for larger environmental struggles.  Such an approach degenerates into the fragmented provincialism of NIMBY-ism (“not in my back yard”) only if and when we ignore two basic realities: environmental interdependance, and the divide-and-conquer tactics of corporate globalism.  Local ecological defense groups must work in cooperation with one another not only because each part of the earth is related to overall planetary well-being, but also because the economic-political forces we must resist already collaborate at a high level.