Mobilizing the Green Imagination
An Exuberant Manifesto
by Anthony Weston
Review by Shaun Day Woods
Mobilizing the Green imagination, by Anthony Weston, takes on a lot. It’s an ambitious manifesto that aims to take a critical look at the limits of what the environmental movement and its philosophers currently offer, and to recommend his own practical, even visionary, alternatives.
Weston accurately summarizes the contemporary project of most green thinking, describing it as mitigationism or the goal and practice of focusing on reducing negative human impacts on the natural world. But, he reminds us, the human imagination has much more to offer in terms of the range of possible responses to the ecological crisis. Is the only option to mitigate our harm? Can’t we go further, deeper?
Weston believes that mitigationism is not only a limited vision, but it is also demoralizing, infused as it is with a hopelessness that denies the possibility of deeper change. It is, he says, unimaginative.
Contemporary thinkers and activists overwhelm us with impending apocalyptic doom and gloom and then offer electric cars, more recycling of plastics and less pollution as solutions. All of these, he claims, are merely half-measures. Can we not imagine a world without any cars? Or without any plastic at all? Or without any pollution? We are aiming too low, he warns, and the end result of this fear of more radical and imaginative responses will soon mean an unlivable environment.
Weston teases apart other common environmental activist outlooks to reveal their shortcomings. Sustainability, he argues, while containing a positive thrust, is still essentially just another version of the “reduce-and-minimize ideal”. It amounts to “guiltlessly flipping the familiar kinds of switches to turn on the familiar kinds of stuff.” Could it be that the underlying industrial system is a problem, he asks, rather than a cherry picked list of harmful products and processes within it? And if sustainability means practices that can continue without completely depleting their resource base, then almost anything could be sustainable, even the most heinous of things - he uses a chemicals weapons industry as an example.
Weston argues that the only way out is to change the world, and not respond with half measures. He surprisingly argues against looking to ‘technically ingenious ways’ to adapt the natural world to the industrial system, the typical solution offered by modernity.
So far, so good. Overall I agree with much of this, especially his view that industrial modes of living are inherently problematic, a heretic take in most mainstream green circles.
My main criticism is that Weston misses, or dismisses, the fact that living in reciprocity with the natural world was the norm for humans for hundreds of thousands of years. This isn’t to say that our non-agricultural past was utopian, or that no group of hunter gatherer humans ever harmed their environment. It is to say that overall, humans lived in harmony with each other and with their surroundings. They did so, as the social historian and evolutionary biologist Peter Kropotkin explained convincingly, out of pragmatism. Reciprocity, mutual aid, cooperation, symbiosis... all of these practices make practical sense. They weren’t based in silly idealism or naive romanticism. It would be foolish, it is foolish as we clearly see today with the catastrophic events beginning to unfold before us caused by competitive social relationships and industrial ways of living, to despoil our nests, our habitats.
Our ancestors clearly saw the common sense of adapting to nature, of dancing, playing and communing with it rather than only fearing and fighting it. Other worlds are possible, but we needn’t argue and rattle our brains for decades to determine what some of them might look like. We have eons of the life-ways of non-industrial cultures to draw from. But Weston takes a rejectionist view of the environmentalists who urge us to rediscover our wildness and to look to primal cultures as sources for our green imaginations, describing these activists as hopelessly utopian and too extreme.
Let’s not embrace a foolish rejection of the entire modern world, he exclaims. That would be succumbing to an ill-informed and thoroughly romanticized version of the past. And yet, most creative undertakings teach us that ‘starting with a fresh canvas’ is the easiest and best way to start something new. So while Weston wants us to imagine ‘new worlds’, in the very first pages of the book he decides to limit the parameters of these new worlds as ones that must include the institutions of modernity. Whatever happened to unleashing a free flowing imagination? What about the rejection of creating new worlds that aren’t really new, but merely flipping familiar switches? What’s wrong with using successful ways of life as a starting point? Why is desiring to start with a fresh canvas too extreme?
Weston insists that we are not at a Dead End, but at a Starting Point, so “going back” is both out of the question and, well, to put it impolitely, stupid. To my mind the starting point for Green Visionaries should actually be learning from successful cultures and life ways and not automatically accepting Modernity.
Weston, to his great credit, makes profound claims - such as the automobile was a mistake and we should redesign our lives so that we can live without them. A heretic viewpoint within contemporary green outlooks. It shows that he really is an imaginative thinker. Along these lines Weston states that industrialism is inherently problematic. But I would argue that industrialism is a subcategory of an even larger enterprise - a domestication based, urban, authoritarian, competitive, ecocidal civilization.
Whether we get inspiration for our desired destinations from pagan cults and societies, hunter gatherer clan living, artisanal villages, green horizontal municipalism or something yet entirely undeveloped, is up to each person and place. Weston seems to think that the primary problem facing humanity and the earth is ecological so his solutions, as imaginative as they are, are typically around designing new modes of life and living. But we are in the midst of an ecological crisis because of politics, broadly speaking, so it will be in the social realm that the ecological crisis will be solved. It isn’t the lack of great ideas from out of the box architects and city planners that is the issue anymore than it is a lack of technical solutions.
Weston agrees that the natural world needs humans to demassify, to scale down their lives and for scaled down communities to begin an era of experimentation that includes a commitment to reestablishing our kinship with nature. But he can’t imagine that that might mean, for some humans, rejecting all forms of domestication or embracing pagan gods and goddesses. His something-entirely-new must integrate the modern world. Even the micro-communities he envisions are linked globally and integrated enough to allow for the possibility of a Green Space Age. But the destinations chosen should, and hopefully one day will, be up to autonomous communities, many, perhaps most, of which won’t want to be integrated into planetary systems.
What thwarts this potential experimentation is the lack of land on which to experiment. In other words, a green world is impossible without looking at privatized property - fields, forests, rivers, valleys, mountains, (not your guitars, knives and fishing rods) - an illegitimate social-political illusion maintained by the state with its laws, courts, documents, police and prisons. If the entire world is carved up into private parcels, then the starting point has to be rejecting this template so that we have access to land in order to once again become freely self-organizing and experimenting groups of people.
In his description of a New New Orleans, one that adapts and even embraces climate change, he mentions that part of this vision is to protect essential institutions of society - naming the police station as an example. By rejecting what he considers the ‘unaccountable extremism’ and naive romanticism of primitivists, pagan dreamers, anti-civilizationist experimenters, traditional indigenous lifeways, direct action ecologists, etc., he misses the value in what ties them all together - a compelling critique and rejection of domestication, of centralized political authority and of private property. And during a time period in which marginalized communities are asking that we defund the police and reject the carceral industry, it demonstrates more than a little naïveté in terms of why humans aren’t creating saner, friendlier, happier and more ecological communities. We are prevented from doing so, not lacking in desire or ideas.
Autonomous communities and individuals need to take direct action, not make their life effort petitioning authority for small opportunities, rarely granted in any case, to prove that their great ideas might work. All of the imagination in the Cosmos isn’t going to get us anywhere fast enough, or perhaps ever, if we can’t put it into practice. Green living includes rejecting political authority over our habitats and territories, it means decolonizing, it involves sharing land and arguing against private property, which limits every move we might collectively make. It means organizing for communal habitats.
Throughout the book Weston refers to a universal ‘we’, as though humanity moves in tandem through history, reaching natural evolutionary milestone after milestone on some sort of Cosmic march of Progress, with only a few stragglers, the last ‘primitive people’, lagging behind. But Modernity isn’t a natural milestone in human evolution. Progress itself is a myth. In any case, it’s easily arguable that pagan and hunter gatherer societies, as examples, both offered much more, all things considered. And a playful future primitive, a tinkerers paradise devoid of industrialism is also possible. But these types of destinations and experiments must be excluded for Weston because they reject the entire modernist project and sabotage our hard earned Progress.
Weston hits many bullseyes. His book is a great challenge to the activists that dominate the Green Movement to be more imaginative, to aim higher, in fact, to see the imagination itself as a useful and powerful tool/weapon in the struggle for a livable present/future. A world without cars or plastics or pollution, one based around micro-communities, is a wonderful and rare vision within green circles. But his rejection of non modern cultures as outdated and of their advocates and allies as hopelessly romantic and too extreme only limits our imagination, and, even worse, ends up pushing the radical ecological movement away from where it should reasonably start.