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The Deep Green Alternative: Debating Strategies of Transition

1. Introduction

Evidence continues to mount that industrial civilisation, driven by a destructive and insatiable growth imperative, is chronically unsustainable, as well as being grossly unjust. The global economy is in ecological overshoot, currently consuming resources and emitting waste at rates the planet cannot possibly sustain (Global Footprint Network 2013). Peak oil is but the most prominent example of a more general situation of looming resource scarcity (Klare, 2012), with high oil prices having a debilitating effect on the oil-dependent economies which are seemingly dependent on cheap oil to maintain historic rates of growth (Heinberg, 2011). At the same time, great multitudes around the globe live lives of material destitution, representing a vast, marginalised segment of humanity that justifiably seeks to expand its economic capacities in some form (World Bank, 2008). Biodiversity continues to be devastated by deforestation and other forms of habitat destruction (United Nations, 2010), while the global development agenda seems to be aiming to provide an expanding global population with the high-impact material affluence enjoyed by the richest parts of the world (Hamilton, 2003). This is despite evidence crying out that the universalisation of affluence is environmentally unsupportable (Smith and Positano, 2010; Turner, 2012) and not even a reliable path to happiness (Lane, 2001; Alexander, 2012a). Most worrying of all, perhaps, is the increasingly robust body of climate science indicating the magnitude of the global predicament (IPCC, 2013). According to the Climate Tracker Initiative (2013: 4), the world could exceed its ‘carbon budget’ in around 18 years, essentially locking us into a future that is at least 2 degrees warmer, and threatening us with 4 degrees or more. It is unclear to what extent civilisation as we know it is compatible with runaway climate change. And still, almost without exception, all nations on the planet – including or especially the richest ones – continue to seek GDP growth without limit, as if the cause of these problems could somehow provide the solution. If once it was hoped that technology and science were going to be able decouple economic activity from ecological impact, such a position is no longer credible (Huesemann and Huesemann, 2011). Technology simply cannot provide any escape from the fact that there are biophysical limits to growth. Despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, which it is was promised would lighten the ecological burden of our economies, global energy and resource consumption continues to grow, exacerbated by a growing population, but which is primarily a function of the growth-orientated values that lie at the heart of global capitalism (Turner, 2012).

Against this admittedly gloomy backdrop lies a heterogeneous tradition of critical theorists and activists promoting what could be called a ‘deep green’ alternative to the growth-orientated, industrial economy. Ranging from the radical simplicity of Henry Thoreau (1983), to the post-growth economics of the Club of Rome (Meadows et al, 1972; 2004), and developing into contemporary expressions of radical reformism (Latouche, 2009; Heinberg, 2011; Jackson, 2009), eco-socialism (Sarkar, 1999; Smith, 2010), and eco-anarchism (Bookchin, 1989; Holmgren, 2002; Trainer; 2010a), this extremely diverse tradition nevertheless agrees that the nature of the existing system is inherently unsustainable. Tinkering with or softening its margins – that is, any attempt to give capitalism a ‘human face’ – is not going to come close to addressing the problems we, the human species, are confronted with. What is needed, this tradition variously maintains, is a radically alternative way of living on the Earth – something ‘wholly other’ to the ways of industrialisation, consumerism, and limitless growth. However idealistic or utopian their arguments might seem, the basic reasoning is that the nature of any solutions to current problems must honestly confront the magnitude of the overlapping crises, for else one risks serving the destructive forces one ostensibly opposes.

In this paper we do not seek to defend, as such, the ‘deep green’ alternative, but rather analyse the most prominent strategies that have been put forth to bring it into existence. In other words, we take the vision outlined below for granted – we assume a deep green alternative is necessary – and critically analyse how such an alternative may be realised. We begin in the next section by outlining the deep green vision with a very broad brush, in order to give the more critical and substantive sections some context. It seems to us that there is some interesting and heartening overlap with respect to the envisioned ‘end state’ of the deep green school, and yet there is fierce debate over how to get there. Our primary interest in this paper, therefore, is to examine these various theories of transition or transformation – ranging from parliamentarianism to socialism to anarchism – in order to highlight the most important factors at play, and hopefully shed some light on the question of ‘strategy’. While we do not expect or even intend to provide answers to this thorny question, the paper should serve a worthwhile purpose if it helps clarify the debate and bring more attention to the issues under consideration.

Full essay also linked here.

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