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Kate Soper’s plea for an “alternative hedonism” is cogent, necessary, and brave. It has been absent from public debate for far too long. She revives an argument that began to disappear almost fifty years ago. Mid-century environmental thinkers like E. F. Schumacher had recognized that life under a regime of relentless economic growth was anything but the fun its promoters in the advertising business claimed. For Schumacher and the early ecological movement, the phrase “hedonistic consumer culture” was an oxymoron. High consumption required high production, which in turn depended on labor discipline; the managers of the system created a squirrel cage of earning and spending. From the ecological view, escape from the cage could open possibilities for a more fulfilling way of life—a slowing of the pace that could open up and resurrect possibilities for personal reflection and spontaneous sociability, an alternative hedonism.
The countercultural ecology of the early seventies emphasized the centrality of conservation, which blended pragmatic necessity and utopian promise. If we weaned ourselves away from a wasteful, throwaway culture, we might not only save the planet but also locate more enjoyable ways of living on it. This assumption was taken for granted in the environmental movement, which included more than a few hedonists seeking a sensuously, aesthetically, and spiritually satisfying life.
Yet within a few years after the publication of Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful in 1973, the assumption that conservation complemented hedonism had nearly disappeared from U.S. public discourse. A seismic shift had occurred, and ideological positions had been rearranged. Even people who considered themselves leftists began to harbor suspicions of environmentalists’ alleged asceticism. The key ideological move was the resurrection of the familiar claim that consumer culture was a riot of hedonistic pleasure-seeking. From this view, it became easy to dismiss environmentalists as killjoys who didn’t know a cookin’ party when they saw one. And this revaluation of consumption accompanied a broader retreat from conservation. By the end of the century, U.S. highways were filled with thundering herds of sport utility vehicles whose emission standards were looser because they were officially defined as trucks. Hard to know what happened to all those conservationists seeking fuel-efficient cars in the seventies.
The marginalizing of environmental concerns lasted for decades and delayed any serious attention to global warming and other catastrophic developments. How could this have happened? Any explanation would involve stirring through a complex blend of political, cultural, economic, and technological change. In 1979, when Americans had been struggling with a stagnant job market, gas lines, and lower household temperatures for years, President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation on the need for limits. Limited economic growth meant reducing oil and gas usage as well as wearing sweaters inside, for example. These were hardly privations, but from a let-’er-rip consumerist point of view, the speech could be deemed puritanical. Certainly Carter made no mention of an alternative hedonism in his regime of limits.
Yet polls indicated that the public response was initially receptive to Carter’s rhetoric of sacrifice. It was only after the Washington press corps began to natter away about the president’s allegedly dour demeanor that his support began to sink. Ronald Reagan was waiting in the wings, crowning his victory over Carter with the slogan “America is back!” Reagan’s America was about nothing if not transcending limits, especially limits to endless economic growth. Accumulation and display were back.
Reagan accelerated the neoliberal turn that Carter had begun, embracing the supposed needs of “the free market” as the criteria for evaluating policy decisions. Environmental regulators were brought under scrutiny; regulators were forced to justify their existence. “New Democrats” began to wade into the murky waters of neoliberalism. A left-Reaganism emerged, celebrating its own hip version of the neoliberal self, which created an identity through the assemblage of consumer goods.
The neoliberal self spent a lot of time staring into screens, as the rise of the personal computer completed the dissolution of ecology’s utopian vision. Corporate visionaries believed that the unleashed power of cybertechnology, underwritten by deregulated capital, was creating what Bill Gates called a “friction-free” economy, where desire could possess its object with the click of a mouse. Computers were essential to this system.
More important, computers could be cool. As Fred Turner showed in From Counterculture to Cyberculture (2006), the success of entrepreneurs like Stewart Brand (creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue) fueled a resurgent technophilia. This outlook eventually supplanted countercultural skepticism toward technology with a new-style environmentalism that depended on technical solutions, which in turn required acquisition of the latest techno-gear. Through the efforts of Steve Jobs, Tracy Kidder, and other cyber gurus, computers were transformed and rebranded: from impersonal room-size instruments of corporate uniformity to desk-size, lap-size, and eventually pocket-size agents of personal liberation. Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine (1980) signaled the onset of the iconic reversal: the emblem of the soulless bureaucracy became ensouled, an engine of enchantment. Such notions have besotted technophiles for decades.
The disappearance of conservation from ecological discourse has restricted environmental solutions to the realm of the merely technical, such as a focus on the importance of shifting from gasoline-powered to electric cars. As Soper suggests, there is a certain self-deception involved in the single-minded focus on moving from fossil fuel to solar-powered electricity: it allows affluent consumers who consider themselves environmentally conscious to preserve their wired, frequent-flyer way of life. Soper persuasively argues that this way of life itself is part of the problem—and that conservation, not merely techno-fixes, must be part of the solution.
Soper admirably emphasizes the international dimensions of the struggle for ecological survival, keeping the need to address grotesque inequalities in clear view. My only concern is with her brief and inadequate mention of the Ukraine war. Its consequences are far more serious and wide-ranging, with respect to climate crisis, than she acknowledges. Recognizing this requires a clearer understanding of the war than the Western media version. While we deplore the Russian invasion, we must acknowledge it was provoked—by decades of U.S.-led NATO expansion to the East, by a U.S.-supported coup in 2014 which placed hard-right nationalists in positions of power, and by eight years of U.S.-backed Ukrainian war on Russian speakers in the Donbass. U.S. foreign policy has been captured by messianic ideologues who want to use Ukraine to fight a proxy war against Putin. The ultimate aim, says Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, is a “weakened” Russia. China is next. There is no apparent limit to the reassertion of U.S.–NATO hegemony. An alliance once supposedly focused on the North Atlantic is now being expanded to include the South China Sea. Elite policymakers are maneuvering the world into heavily armed camps.
What does this have to do with ecological crisis? Everything, unfortunately. At the very least, the U.S.–NATO conjuring of demonic Eurasian rivals distracts attention and redirects resources away from crucial efforts to create international cooperation and toward ever more bloated “defense” budgets. The missionary zeal of the “rules-based international order” demands nothing less than unconditional surrender and renders diplomacy a dead letter. This outlook threatens prolonged conventional war and, at worst, a nuclear exchange—the ultimate climate catastrophe.
For decades, until quite recently, Americans became as forgetful of nuclear war as they were of ecological catastrophe. Now nuclear war is being normalized again by politicians calmly discussing nuclear weapons as if they were weapons like any other—as well as by the city of New York, which in a recent public service announcement tells us to get inside, take a shower, and wait for instruction from “officials” after a nuclear attack. For anyone who remembers the absurd Civil Defense drills of the 1950s and ’60s, this is a cruel joke. But at least there was diplomacy then.
The normalization of nuclear war is a symptom of the wider war fever that grips elites on both sides of the Atlantic. We cannot think clearly about Soper’s inspiriting vision until that fever breaks.
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