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2010 Hijacking Sustainability

2010 – Hijacking Sustainability: A review of Adrian Parr, Hijacking Sustainability (Cambridge MA: MIT, 2009), in Radical Philosophy 160 (March/April 2010)

Review Excerpt from Radical Philosophy

At the time of writing the Copenhagen Climate Change negotiations are in full flow, with stories of breakthroughs and breakdowns circulating in equal measure. However, whatever the final outcome of these talks – which in a real sense cannot be evaluated for years in so far as they require an ongoing process of industrial, economic and indeed cultural restructuring – it is worth noting that the most optimistic aims of the negotiations are to achieve an ultimate reduction in CO₂e which will, according to the stated aims of the summit, give the planet a 50/50 chance of avoiding runaway global warming. Of course, we should also remember that the issues being addressed at Copenhagen – reducing industrial carbon emissions and disseminating renewable energy technology – represent just one part of ‘the environmental question’ confronting global culture more broadly. Workers, professionals and academics in almost all arenas of human production are increasingly having to confront the demands placed upon their disciplines by both emerging and acute systemic stresses in our energy, food, material, waste and water flows, as the ecosystems across the planet upon which we feed and shit are degraded, with some indeed already in the final stages of terminal collapse.

In recent years we have become increasingly aware of the sheer scale and irreversible impoverishment of our environment, an effect of what Marx described as the “metabolic rift” between global capitalist growth and the broader web of ecological relations within which we are suspended. As the patterns of uneven development by which capitalism produces itself – and indeed large parts of nature – are played out as and through social relations, it is the world’s poorest and weakest who suffer the most from environmental degradation. For those of us associated with instrumental cultural practices – such as architecture, planning and design – it is incumbent to reflect and act upon the very real problems posed by the socio-ecological crisis of capitalism, even whilst we also act upon TJ Demos’ observation that there is today a need to “denaturalise the rhetoric of ‘sustainability’, recognising these buzzwords as deeply political, contentious and ideological.”

It is against the background of this range of issues that Adrian Parr’s new book Hijacking Sustainability is published. Whether considering the eco branding of consumer products, the greenwash of multinational corporations, or grassroots political activism, for Parr, the re-emergence of environmental issues in political and popular cultural space over the last decade defines a new social discourse: sustainability culture. In much of Parr’s analysis, the logic of sustainability culture is therefore found to be already active in contemporary culture and production, and in these situations she generally executes a reasonably sensitive and informative critique. However, elsewhere in her text Parr seems to refer to, or call for, a new and critically radicalised sustainability culture. There is an antagonism between these two different conceptions: one emerging at the leading edge of capitalism, supported by all kinds of innovative technologies, commodities and ecobranding ideologies, the other formed out of oppositional social structures and technologies.

Parr’s thesis is built around this dual conception of sustainability culture, defining and describing it as a contradictory nexus of relations between production, ideology, state and society. This is often productive and useful. However it is not always clear which conception of sustainability culture Parr is referring to, and at times the text can seem confused and confusing. It is not that conceiving of a set of relations as internally contradictory is a problem in itself. Indeed, as Bertell Ollman has described so well, the conception of a unity of relations as internally constituted through a network of contradictory internal relations and tendencies is a key moment in the process of dialectical thought. With Parr one regrets the lack of a a conscious acknowledgement and theorisation of the fact that she is working with shifting and contradictory aspects of sustainability culture. Nonetheless, although she lacks an explicit theory of dialectical process (or any systems based substitute), she does make suggestions at times in this direction – for example with a reference to the useful John Bellamy Foster.

It is a shame that Parr does not position her work more clearly with broader critical and historical conceptual work, perhaps drawing upon some of the theorisations emerging in political ecology and critical geography – I am thinking in particular of David Harvey and Neil Smith’s theory of uneven development, and Eric Swyngedouw’s conception of urban metabolism. Surely the very question of sustainability has to be framed in terms of the human metabolism within and production of nature?

However, Parr does generate some important new research into the way that the cluster of ideas and practices referred to as sustainabilty are operating within and around capitalism today. Parr explores how sustainability culture is providing a discourse through which contemporary capitalism is playing out its inner contradictions, even whilst this same sustainability culture provides a new discourse of power. As she reminds us, “sustainability culture is inherent to the logic of late capitalism.” She is particularly interested in exploring the practices and ideologies of the strands of ecological thinking that are able to engage with, or indeed are directly produced by, those sectors of capitalist production that are able to see potential for capital accumulation and investment, as a result of shifts in environmental consciousness. Still, at times Parr can seem confusingly naive – for example in her apparent faith that “in the US it is not ideology that is turning sustainability into a cultural hegemonic: it is a socially and environmentally conscious multitude whose investment and consumption patterns are prompting mulitnational corporations .. to develop a new image of corporate social responsibility.”

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