Green Puritanism or green realism? Frank Furedi on environmentalism

Frank Furedi, sociologist, political guru, and much else besides, writes an occasional column called “Really Bad Ideas” on the Spiked website. In his column, Furedi offers cultural and political criticism on issues as diverse as “The tyranny of science” and “Censorship”. It didn’t take Furedi too long to get around to ripping in to environmentalism, which he did in a column published in September 2007 here. There are plenty of critiques of green politics around the web and the secondhand bookstores of the world, but this is certainly among the more interesting, rigorous and insightful that I have read.

The starting point of the discussion is the recognition of the loss of meaning suffered by contemporary society. Without this web of meaning, we are unable to “make sense of the world [or] develop a feeling of responsibility and obligation to others.” As a result of this loss of meaning, as individuals and as a society, we seem “to find it very difficult to establish self-consciously moral categories of right and wrong.” Consumer capitalism is unable to provide a moral framework, and instead has sought to justify itself through its ability to deliver economic growth and increased consumption. “However,” as Furedi says, “appeals to individual self-interest do very little to endow human action with meaning, or society with purpose … [Consumerism] subjects many people’s lives to the fetishism of the brand and the product. Instead of valuing people for their achievement, the consumer culture celebrates them for what they possess.”

In the past, this was not the case. Industrial capitalism’s ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ delivered meaning through work and achievement; and one need only think of the sense of identity found in some mining communities to recognise that this ethic and the meaning it provides is still alive in certain small corners of the world. However, much of that identity in community has been swept away in a blizzard of personal consumption that grew through the 60s (the decade of “anything goes”), 70s and 80s (“the greedy decade”). Furedi explores how a number of social commentators, in particular Daniel Bell and Jurgen Habermas, have looked with sadness on the “moral depletion” and “motivational crisis” of contemporary society.

Up to this point I am entirely with Furedi in his analysis. However, with these concerns about the continuing erosion of moral restraint, Furedi take fright. Are we being asked to return to the Protestant work ethic, moral restraint, prudence, and delayed gratification of desires? These are the values of narrow Puritanism, Furedi argues, a conservative and negative moral framework that stigmatises human action and shackles human aspiration.

Furedi then connects this Puritan temperament with ideas about over-population of the apocalyptic Reverend Malthus and from there draws a straight line to 1970s survivalist environmentalism. Having been tarred with this anti-humanist brush, environmentalism is irredeemable in Furedi’s eyes. Case closed.

Yet Furedi’s argument that environmentalism is a “really bad idea” does fall down, and it does so mainly because of what is missing from his critique of environmentalism: the environment itself. Yes, greens do argue for moral restraint and prudence but it is not, as Furedi tries to portray, from some sense of shrivelled up self-loathing. A deep understanding of the natural world and humanity’s intimate connection with it is what underpins green thinking. And economic growth is not indicted by greens only “on the grounds that it leaves people dissatisfied,” as Furedi argues. It is indicted because its ever-expanding voraciousness every day further degrades the natural world and the ecosphere that supports us. Never mind infinite growth; even ‘sustainable’ growth is an impossibility, as Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend have argued. So greens recognise that we must bring some meaning to our existence other than dreams of infinite, endless consumption, and that we must bring our obsessive consumptive disorder under control.

Frank Furedi’s cultural critiques have great depth, and he writes wonderfully well. But, throughout his article, Furedi succumbs to the temptation to wheel out a succession of amusing straw men and then, rather entertainingly, set fire to them. Unfortunately, these pyrotechnics only obscure the key point that he has put his finger on, one of the central issues that greens must get to grips with: Western society has rejected restraint and now finds itself mired in meaningless consumption. How do we convince this society that, for the sake of the planet that nurtures us, it must embrace such ideals as restraint, prudence, moderation and thrift once again?

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