By combining a sociological approach to the climate crisis with examples drawn from literature and film, interesting new horizons are revealed in this British publication.

Svein Hammer
Svein is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: June 12, 2018

Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature

Lisa Garforth


I’ve read many books on green politics, ideology and economy over the years, books with different visions for the future. Green Utopias succeeds in adding something fresh, partly because it’s the work of a sociologist, partly because of the author’s use of literature and film as sources of inspiration. The result is a book that opens up some new and interesting horizons.

Lisa Garforth positions herself at the juncture between the society we live in today and the looming threat of a future apocalypse. Within this space she identifies several different utopian discourses that at times seem to point in wildly different directions. The first chapters present us with well-known positions. Garforth takes us back to the 1970s, where Limits to Growth and a handful of other texts set the agenda. For the first time it was made clear that the Earth contains limits beyond which we cannot pass. Building on this, radical discourses on guiding society’s development in a different direction were established.

Ecological modernisation

Through the 1980s and 1990s, however, the course of development changed. Environmentalism became mainstream, and sustainable development emerged as the dominant strategy for meeting the challenge. The strategy for economic modernisation, with its narrative of how we can combine continuous growth and progress with smarter environmental choices and the use of more eco-friendly technology, took centre stage. Parallel to this, however, a different, more transformative discourse was kept alive. Arne Næss and his philosophy of «deep ecology» is crucial here, with its message that humans and nature form interlinked parts of a united whole in which both organisms and eco-systems are incorporated into our moral community. This thought is radical in a completely different way from the limits discourse, as it formulates an expectation that our identity and way of life must be changed.

Into the world of fiction

After dealing with these discursive strands, Garforth shifts her attention to the world of fiction. Whereas philosophical, academic and political discourses tend to become programmatic, she finds a greater awareness of the nuances of everyday life in fiction. We’re introduced to novels from the 1970s and onwards that in different ways shed light on life in small, self-sufficient communities. The novel’s end goal is not to formulate fixed strategies, but to explore the desire for a different way of life and how we might get there. Examining fiction is an approach that succeeds in offering a broader understanding of these discourses than a purely philosophical, academic discussion could.

«The Earth contains limits beyond which we cannot pass.»

Apocalyptic thinking as a force for change

In her book’s later chapters, Garforth again turns her spotlight in a different direction. In the discourses she explored earlier, serious climate crises figured as future risks, and the unspoilt nature (the wilderness) constituted the starting point for utopias about a green, harmonious future society. Today this has changed, and with the concept of the «Anthropocene» period we have been forced to acknowledge that there is no longer any unspoilt wilderness to return to. What we’re left with is the realisation that the situation we are now in is the situation within which we must henceforth shape human life, both now and in the future.

Although most of us realise that this is true, we have yet to take it in. Garforth asserts that this realisation should lead us to explore discourses other than those offered by the ideals of the 1970s. Salvation can no longer be sought within the dream of a harmonious future; from now on the challenge will be to limit the harm we do and adapt to a complex, demanding reality.

For some, this entails placing the climate crises within the framework of a stabilising language of management, where problems can be solved through administrative control and market mechanisms. This position has been met with criticism from others because it can weaken our commitment to change. The apocalypse should therefore still play a part in our thinking; through it, we can mobilise the force necessary to create change.

«There is no longer any unspoilt wilderness to return to.»

The loss of nature

The book gets political when Garforth examines how the 1997 Kyoto Protocol paved the ground for placing climate politics within a neo-liberal framework based on climate quotas and systems for buying and selling. Through this marketisation, climate change was in a sense removed from the public domain and repackaged as a commodity. Garforth examines the process with a critical eye but maintains that such pragmatic strategies were the effect of the future having collapsed into the present, with the result that visions for a different society had by then already disappeared.

The book next explores a different, but related topic: Not only have we lost the dream of a better future, but we have also lost nature. Firstly, the real changes that have already taken place mean that an independent, non-human world no longer exists. Empirically it is no longer possible to talk about nature the same way we did a few decades ago. Secondly, the climate crises have opened up a space for a philosophical-academic critique claiming that the very concept of «nature» prevents us from grasping the reality we now find ourselves in. We need a new language to shape new, better solutions fitted to our time.

«Salvation can no longer be sought within the dream of a harmonious future.»

Need to adapt

Green Utopias is a very successful book. It employs a wide range of academic tools to tell us something real about the world we live in, including perspectives on how different positions are trying to define how we should orient ourselves. Even if the text doesn’t have a political starting point, it is without doubt of importance to our political thinking. The book is rounded off with a reminder of how in much of today’s public debate the climate crisis is presented as something that can be managed through adaptation and minor adjustments, while at the same time we live with an uncomfortable feeling of not doing nearly enough to prevent a future apocalypse. Trapped within this tense dichotomy, we must learn to live in a changed, unpredictable and potentially dangerous world.

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