The strange shape of environmental politics

I’m hazarding there are three possible responses to environmental politics:

1) The eco-modernists. (Beloved of big business, progressive bureaucrats and technophiles; believe if we work hard, eco-modernism can save us).
2) The “Keep Calm And Carry On” contingency. (Most people. Suspicious of change, and therfore not keen on the above, or…)
3) The radical alternative-ists. (Loathed by both the above. Broadly utopian and egalitarian and unlikely to have much purchase with category 1) who regard them as a bunch of feckless Luddites.)

These are leaky categories of course and we probably have a bit of each in all of us. Now I’m toying with how to reconcile the above with the Mary Douglas/Michael Thompson/Matthew Taylor ideas of cultural theory, because on first glance they don’t fit too snugly. Cultural theory sees society as containing separate cultures that are in constant conflict. Mary Douglas wrote in  A History of Grid and Group Cultural Theory:

In conflict compromise counts as betrayal. Opponents dismiss out of
hand evidence from other kinds of institutions. According to CT, their intransigence is neither irrational nor immoral. It expresses their loyalties and moral principles, and their responsibilities to other members of their society. 


… which is enough to make anyone who’s been involved even glancingly in environmental politics emit a knowing chortle.

CT then proposes you apply a grid to any society to try and identify those cultural loyalties. It suggests you look for four groups – the heirarchical, the egalitarian, the individualist and the fatalist. For a fuller explanation of these groups, look here.

I tie myself in knots trying to apply the theory to the environment issue (though Michael Thompson has attempted it in an essay called Cultural Theory, Climate Change and Clumsiness). To me, the four CT groups don’t fit at all neatly with my three categories.

Category 1) contains both the heirarchical and individualist. It would be well represented by Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot Flat And Crowded,
a book which suggests that American entrepreneurial know-how is the
only way to save the planet and which John Gray took apart spectacularly in his
review in last Sunday’s Observer.

Category 2) contains both the individualist and the fatalist, apparently happily co-existing.

Only category 3) appears to fit as the so-called egalitarian approach, but even that is dubious on closer examination. As right-wing critics of George Monbiot might say with some justification, and as the NUM have said about Climate Camp, there’s nothing that egalitarian about much of the green movement. 

If you follow the CT line, I suspect you’d say that the fact that the CT grid group doesn’t quite fit my categories is a potentially good thing, as it suggests alliances can be made that form what Michael Thompson calls a “clumsy” solution.

That may be true. I don’t know. At the moment the three groups I outlined at the top regard each other with the kind of contempt that would make even the doughtiest anthropologist’s toes curl.

Matthew Taylor is willing to explore a great deal of complexity in his understanding of those four paradigms – pointing out the conflicting paradigms at work behind Kyoto, say. I know Mary Douglas herself studied this when looking at environmental groups in the US in Risk and Culture which drew unflattering disctinctions between heirarchical environmental groups like the Sierra Club and righidly egalitarian ones like Friends of the Earth.

For the moment, I’m probably missing something, but I can’t really make the CT paradigm sit neatly onto the strange non-traditional shape that environmental politics has thrown up. That does nothing to challenge underlying fundamental insight behind Mary Douglas’s work; that problems like this have a crucial cultural dimension that is misunderstood by politicians, behaviouralists and other scientists. For that, take a look at, which Sacha Kagan and other academics have been working on for the past few years to conceive an inter-disciplinary approach.

Photo: Disrupted Ecosystems: Great Barrier Reef, Belize, by Susannah Sayler 2006. Courtesy of the Canary Project.

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