Peter Dauvergne: Environmentalism of the Rich

By MacNeil, Robert | Journal of Australian Political Economy, Winter 2018 | Go to article overview

Peter Dauvergne: Environmentalism of the Rich


MacNeil, Robert, Journal of Australian Political Economy


Peter Dauvergne

Environmentalism of the Rich

MIT Press, Cambridge, 2016, 218pp., $56, hardback.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the modern environmental movement burst onto the scene as a reaction to the unchecked destruction of nature by industrial capitalism. Over the succeeding five decades, environmental activists have not only racked up an incredibly long list of political and legislative victories, but have also imbued citizens, governments, and corporations across much of the world with a broad spirit of environmental values. Indeed, by almost any metric, the environmental movement is among the most successful social, economic, and political movements in modern history. Yet, despite the impressive rise of environmentalism over the past 50 years, the pace of ecological degradation has rapidly increased, with effectively every major global environmental indicator moving in the wrong direction. This situation poses an important question: if environmentalism is a bigger and broader force than ever, why is human civilization sprinting even faster toward the precipice of environmental collapse?

In his new book Environmentalism of the Rich, Peter Dauvergne argues that much of the blame can be placed on modern environmentalism itself. While the author duly acknowledges the movement's impressive accomplishments over the years--which, as he notes, include over a thousand multilateral environmental treaties and tens of thousands of domestic regulations--he argues that contemporary environmentalism has entered into a state of moral crisis. According to Dauvergne, over the past couple decades, the movement has been commandeered by a new paradigm that he calls the 'environmentalism of the rich'--an approach focused on promoting weak, corporate-led solutions to the environmental crisis, like so-called 'eco-business', 'eco-consumption', and corporate social responsibility. As the author suggests:

   This environmentalism of the rich is spreading by the day. Its
   policies, principles, and practices appear under various guises.
   Governments like to call it 'sustainable development', where growth
   in production remains the top priority. Corporations like to call
   it 'corporate social responsibility', where sustainability is
   defined as the eco-business of pursuing environmental efficiencies
   and savings to enhance growth in profits, and not as a way of
   protecting the ecological integrity of life on earth. For NGOs,
   environmentalism of the rich manifests as 'business partnerships',
   'eco-product fundraising', and 'market solutions'. For individuals,
   it is a belief in the power of 'ecoconsumerism', in small lifestyle
   changes as forces of progressive change--walking a recycling bin to
   the curbside, taking shorter showers, and buying eco-products--even
   as overall consumption continues to rise (p. 4).

For Dauvergne, 'environmentalism of the rich' has two particularly disturbing features. First is its unabashed promotion of consumerism. According to the author, this paradigm has fostered the idea that individuals can purchase their way to sustainability by simply buying more efficient products, and taking small steps to reduce energy and water usage. Dauvergne argues that, while these minor changes are laudable as individual acts, they can actually be quite harmful when promoted as a substitute for real action and resistance. As he notes:

   recycling a Starbucks cup or Coke bottle does nothing to address
   the subjugation and marginalisation of the world's least protected
   peoples and most vulnerable ecosystems ... yet such efforts are now
   defining feature of environmentalism in wealthy countries (p. 42).

The second major aspect of this shift, according to Dauvergne, has to do with the extent to which environmental NGOs have partnered with large multi-national corporations over the past two decades. The author suggests that, as green NGOs have developed large bureaucracies of professional staffers, they have been compelled to seek corporate funding simply to maintain their operations. …

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