Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Leigh Phillips, Zero Books, 2015
British science writer Leigh Philips’ treatise on the global environmental crisis, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, takes aim at progressive arguments about how to best deflect impending environmental catastrophe. Not only is he for nuclear power, but he’s for genetically modified organisms in food, and for economic growth and production. He further believes that the most revered thinkers on the subject – among them Paul Kingsnorth, Naomi Klein, Annie Leonard and Bill McKibben – are wrong about the best ways to assuage the looming threat. To put it simply, the book is filled with provocative ideas. It also throws humorous darts at the small-is-beautiful movement posited by many mainstream environmentalists as the only way to ensure continued life on earth.
Only by challenging the vast chasms dividing rich from poor do we have a chance at mediating the climate crisis.
In its stead, Phillips presents an anti-capitalist model that favors a planned economy with built-in and enforced protections for workers and community residents. And herein lies the book’s strength. By turning his gaze toward social class, Phillips emphasizes that we’re not all equally culpable in creating environmental degradation. In fact, he writes that only by challenging the vast chasms dividing rich from poor do we have a chance at mediating the climate crisis.
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“The richest seven percent of people are responsible for 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions as of 2011,” he reports. “The top 20 percent of income earners account for roughly 70 percent of consumption. People like Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich with his Bond-villian-esque 533-foot yacht with its own missile defence system and an escape submarine [no, really]; Indian petro chemical titan Mukesh Ambani, with his 22-story mansion in Mumbai with nine elevators, 600 servants, and an artificial snowfall room to escape the heat; and British retail magnate Philip Green, who flew 300 guests to the south of France and put them up in a $1600-a-night hotel so they could attend his son’s bar mitzvah” are but some of the exemplars of obscene excess.
Equally horrifying, he stresses that these examples pale when compared to the egregious environmental crimes that are committed, not by individuals, but by corporate entities that see polluting as standard business practice.
As awful as this is, Phillips believes that government can rein in bad behavior – by companies and individual violators – and enforce real, but never specified, environmental protections and sanctions on violators. At the same time, he does not believe that it is necessary to stifle economic growth or limit the production of goods. Rather, he proposes a democratically planned economy that supports innovation to make human life easier for all. He dubs those who disagree with him the prophets of “collapse porn,” and sees them as pessimists mired in a fictional doomsday. “We already have a series of technologies,” he writes, “that we know will solve the climate crisis. It is simply a lack of political will that is preventing their deployment.”
Perhaps. But what are these technologies?
Phillips first zeroes in on those that are truly lifesaving and life-changing and argues that investing in research and development has led to such innovations as electric wheelchairs, dialysis machines, computers and cell phones – “stuff” that even the most ardent back-to-the-land proponent likely champions. Phillips correctly points out that these devices – along with medicines like antibiotics – permit us to live longer and better than our foreparents.
He then asks several questions: “Is electric lighting so all school pupils can study at night a basic need or ‘stuff,’ a luxury? How about refrigeration that reduces the labour [usually women’s labor at that] previously spent having to purchase perishable food daily? Running water? Central heating? Electric irons? What about washing machines? How about indoor toilets?”
It’s a point well taken since, of course, most of us want to see decent sanitation extended to the 2.5 billion people who don’t yet have it and want clean water, well-supplied schools and electricity to be universally available. Isn’t it better to raise the bar than to lower the common denominator? he asks.
The idea that capitalism can be modified or even replaced is a necessary component of community organizing efforts.
Phillips then moves into discussion of the enormous waste endemic to the West, but as he points out, going small is not necessarily the solution. In fact, urban living is actually more ecological than rural life since public transportation is typically available in cities and apartments are less energy depleting than private homes. What’s more, large supermarkets can offer more goods, for less money, than mom-and-pop shops that require frequent deliveries to stock fewer items.
Then there’s farming. Although Phillips does not address factory farming or the rampant use of chemicals to speed growth and production, he slams today’s romance with kneeling in the mud and muck. “Only one who has never worked as an agricultural laborer could imagine the back-breaking, seven-day-a-week tasks involved in farming to be anything other than a tribulation to be endured,” he writes.
Small wonder that mechanization was cheered by most 19th and 20th century planters. Even organic growing is no panacea, he continues, since many small, independent, organic growers have been subsumed by multinational firms. Contrary to popular assumption, he continues, “evidence is beginning to show that organic food offers no additional nutrition, contains ‘natural’ pesticides that can be as toxic as synthetic ones, is less effective in preventing the spread of pathogens, and may actually be worse for the environment” because yields tend to be lower than those of conventional farms.
Phillips then goes on further to endorse genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as safe for human consumption, a stance that is sure to wrinkle the brows of readers. Although he cites numerous contradictory studies – some warning that GMOs pose a threat to human health and others singing their praises – the fact that 26 countries have banned them should, at the very least, prod us to investigate further. In addition, the fact that GMOs cause organ damage, premature aging, infertility and gastrointestinal and immune disorders in animals has led the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) to warn consumers against their use. The AAEM is far from the only group to sound this alarm; the American Public Health Association and American Nurses Association have also been circumspect about GMO consumption.
Still, it is Phillips’ defense of nuclear power that is likely to cause the most consternation and outrage. “The three main arguments that the anti-nuclear movement mounts against the technology – meltdown, background radiation and toxic waste – are no longer the problems of a few decades ago, and perhaps were never the issues they were presented as,” he writes, “To complain about them in 2015 is akin to complaining about how annoying it is to have to rewind VHS cassettes in 2015.”
Say what? The massive post-tsunami meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan happened in March 2011, not decades ago. Worse, an article in the November 2015 issue of Epidemiology reports that children living within 20 kilometers of the plant are now 20 to 50 percent more likely to develop thyroid cancer than peers who were not exposed. Safe? It sure doesn’t sound that way.
That said, Phillips’ argument about the ill effects of fearmongering is important, since if we believe that the climate crisis is unfixable – that the human-generated calamity has moved beyond the tipping point – we’re less likely to even try to maintain human survival or reverse the damage we’ve caused.
Obviously, Phillips is an intrepid optimist, and even if some of his claims are flat-out wrong, the idea that capitalism can be modified or even replaced – thereby reducing class disparities and promoting a more egalitarian culture – is a necessary component of community organizing efforts. Although our means may differ, his goal should be our goal. As Phillips writes, it may still be possible to “retain the vitality of modernity while doing away with its villainy.” Do we have any other choice but to try?