Distraction Free Reading

Opening Political Opportunities for a Green Transition

During the first year of the Obama administration, there was considerable optimism that the United States might finally catch up with other industrialized countries by developing a national renewable portfolio standard and carbon regulation. However, the hope was dashed by the compromises of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Senate and its eventual defeat. Likewise, the rise of the Tea Party movement and influence of fossil-fuel money in the Republican Party has made green-energy policy an increasingly partisan issue. It is hard to believe that in 2008 both McCain and Obama agreed that climate change was real and needed policy attention. By 2012, the pervasive influence of fossil-fuel money and the Republican Party’s anti-green strategy had led even the president who promised five million green jobs to adopt a strategic silence on the issue.

In the Arctic in 2012, the planet passed a significant milestone: the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm, a level that the planet has not had for at least 800,000 years. The summer ice melt also reached new levels. Unfortunately, climate change is occurring slowly enough in temperate climates that it is easy for political leaders to ignore the severity of the threat. Human societies face an adaptation problem that they have never experienced before, and it will be exacerbated by the 2-3 billion people who will be added to the planet during the next forty years. As ethnographic field research has shown, the effects are often magnified in marginalized populations located in coastal areas, in urban slums, and in polar regions.

My recent work has been oriented toward what I think of as the “problem behind the problem,” that is, the lack of political will to address the twin problems of environmental sustainability and social fairness that are becoming worse every year.  I have written a three-volume series that looks at the role of “alternative pathways” (loosely social movements plus other kinds of reform efforts, including in the private sector) as historical agents that could open political opportunities for sustainability politics. In Alternative Pathways in Science and Technology, I reviewed a wide range of industry-oriented reform movements and showed both their potential and limitations; Localist Movements in a Global Economy focused on the small business sector and community enterprises as another source of countervailing power to the anti-green segment of global capital; and Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy explored the much more mainstream politics of labor-environmental-green business coalitions in federal and state energy policy. Although the work is written for a scholarly audience, I have also been involved in the local living economy and state government policy fields by writing policy reports, engaging in public speaking, and also cofounding an independent business association with a living economy mission.

More recently, I have been working on a project that tracks the record of Republicans on environmental policy issues with the assistance of a very promising graduate student, Jonathan Coley. In both Good Green Jobs and a paper in Energy Policy, we track the reversals that have occurred since the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although green-energy politics and policies have subsided from the national stage, in states where Democrats are in power there has been ongoing action. Furthermore, we also found that there are some areas of bipartisanship, especially if proposed legislation does not involve a reform that can be understood as a regulatory burden.

Although my work is highly interdisciplinary, and my institutional home is a sociology department and an energy and environment institute, I find that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform my thinking.  For example, I am particularly interested in the role of political ideologies as cultural systems in policy fields, and I am interested in ideology as way in to the study of change in political culture. In addition to the mainstream polarity of American politics between a neoliberal right and social liberal left, I have been building a case that there is a growing influence of other ideologies, notably localism and developmentalism. For example, in Good Green Jobs, I argue that the United States of the twenty-first century is showing signs of a return to its developmentalist politics of the nineteenth century (in the sense of support for industry and trade defensiveness), largely due to the general shifts in the world economy and the aggressively developmentalist policies of emerging industrial powers.

By understanding neoliberalism in the political field as one ideology among others, I am especially interested in the capacity for other ideologies to become embedded in both discourse and policy outcomes, often as compromise formations. The focus is less on the micropolitics of everyday practices than on the broad contours of the political field and its potential to undergo tectonic shifts similar to the transition in dominance from social liberalism to neoliberalism that occurred in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The approach allows me to ask the empirical question of “after neoliberalism—then what?” in a way that is not clouded by utopian hopes.

Although there is a green transition in place in both the United States and many other countries, I remain pessimistic that the world’s largest countries will be able to act quickly enough to avert the multiple environmental crises of climate change, desertification, persistent toxics in the biosphere, and exhaustion of land and water resources. The future of the anthropocene looks grim indeed.

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