THE RHETORIC WOULD have you believe we are undergoing a green revolution. There are certainly gestures in that direction: Joe Biden, for instance, has just suspended oil and gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic Wildlife Refuge, a symbolic break with the Trump era. Meanwhile, technologists talk breathlessly of an Elon Musk era where s-curves of innovation mean electric cars will suddenly transcend petrol and diesel (even if, at present, electrics make up just 5 percent of car sales). And multinational corporations are, with few exceptions, drowning the airwaves in greenwash.
However, for all the glossy green paint jobs, it all looks rather less impressive under the bonnet. New analysis shows the G7 countries spent $189 billion supporting oil, coal and gas during the pandemic; by contrast they spent just $147 billion supporting clean energy. An extraordinary, once-off opportunity to engage in top-down economic transformation may have been missed. An apparent pro-green cultural consensus masks considerable continuity in our carbon-oriented economies.
The problems are twofold. On the one hand, the consensus stretching from social movements and campus societies to boardrooms and high-end fashion magazines has shallow social foundations. Green lifestyle politics remains a signifier of elite status: or, more worryingly, a means of distinguishing oneself from the “corrupted” masses. High-handed reforms can thus have explosive social effects, as shown by the Gilet Jaunes protests that dominated an entire year of French politics.
On the other hand, there remains that stubborn beast, the capitalist system itself. Regardless of the goodwill of particular entrepreneurs, the system answers to the logic of profit and accumulation alone. Taming its animal spirits requires extraordinary political courage, which, after decades of neoliberal consensus, is the scarcest good on planet earth.
So, the canny politician will placate worthy consciences with Captain Planet rhetoric (key demographics are aghast at Trumpian polluter talk) but not to the point of threatening the status quo. Subsidies to aviation, oil and fossil industries thus survived the pandemic, without even hints of using government’s new economic power to force change.
Take Scotland, the ne plus ultra of using progressive rhetoric to reproduce political-economic stasis. Nicola Sturgeon talks of “just transition” and even a “climate emergency” and she is currently contemplating coalition (euphemistically phrased) with a Green Party. Yet that all depends on finding a way of saving Green blushes over North Sea oil: for all her hegemony, Sturgeon has nowhere near the political capital to fell this lumbering dinosaur.
And the contradiction is real. North Sea workers and the regional economies depending on oil are understandably suspicious of any notion that “green jobs” will spring up organically by some process of creative destruction. The SNP has spent a decade promising a “Saudi Arabia of renewables” with little to match (measured, at least, by job creation).
The ultimate problem is an irrational economic system that refuses to harness itself to any ends but profit. But a significant secondary factor is deficient political leadership. And a third layer is progressive lifestyle politics itself: at times, the Tote bag brigade make it all the harder to reconcile a necessary democratic revolution with a necessarily disruptive shift to decarbonisation.
It’s not impossible. Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal never contradicted his Political Revolution. But at his most convincing, Sanders was wary of lifestyle politics and was consistently, unwaveringly on message about inequality and jobs. He was at his most popular when he was least fashionable. Social movements are at their worst when they become status-conscious subcultures; at their best, they are founded in common economic interests.