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Focus On The Costs

I think that one of the major factors inhibiting the progress of environmentalism (as well as other progressive social movements) is the prevalence of the "costs" paradigm.

The costs paradigm presents sustainability as a cost to society. Anti-environmentalists take this to be an argument against environmental protection, while environmentalists argue that either costs are morally necessary, or the costs of failing to take action will be greater in the long run. The costs paradigm presents environmentally friendly actions as burdens for society to bear -- land placed off-limits, scrubbers to install, less effective ingredients to use, economic growth foregone, meat and out-of-season produce given up. There's a certain psychological appeal to the ascetic discipline the costs paradigm demands, and the seriousness of the costs seems to honor the seriousness of the current environmental crisis. The costs paradigm's vision is of an unfortunate set of ecological limits, which society must be jury-rigged to avoid crossing.

Cultural Theory argues that environmentalism is really about commitment to a certain way of organizing social life, not just about responding to objective environmental threats. Typically this point is expressed in a way that makes environmentalists look bad -- they're just using environmental issues as a stick to get us to share their vision of the good life. This may be part of the reason that so many environmentalists buy into the costs paradigm. The costs paradigm sounds rational, and it allows environmentalists to say "look, we love modern society too, but unfortunately we have to make some concessions to environmental limits."

But the costs paradigm is depressing, and it invites people to say "it's not worth it." The costs paradigm is happily promoted by anti-environmentalists, because when the crisis isn't immediate (as it was in the 60s and 70s) the costs paradigm helps to defend the status quo. Environmentalism needs to shift the public conception of environmental issues toward a positive vision of a sustainable society. We do, in fact, need the kind of thoroughgoing change in how society is organized that Cultural Theory sees lying behind environmentalism. A reconfigured society would fit comfortably into the environment we have, "naturally" pursuing ends that don't conflict with nature's limits rather than having to be deliberately held back from its desires. Think of it as a matter of learning to make aloo gobi (a vegetarian dish that stands on its own), rather than always buying veggieburgers (an omnivorous dish with the meat swapped out). We need to talk about positive solutions, rather than asking how high of costs we're willing to bear.

This is not to say that there will be no costs associated with sustainability. The transition from our current society to a sustainability-oriented one, in particular, will bring costs. But it's a mistake to see environmentalism as fundamentally about costs, about limits on what we could do if it weren't for nature's fragility.


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