The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice

By Bryan Walker 06/09/2010


The Environmental Politics of SacrificeAddressing climate change will require citizens of wealthy consumer societies to sacrifice. But that’s never going to happen. We’ve all heard statements like that, indeed we’ve probably muttered them to ourselves. Michael Maniates and John Meyer place the words at the beginning of their book The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice. They and their ten fellow-contributors examine exhaustively what they describe as ’the political stickiness of sacrifice-talk’ to see if there are more hopeful options than the stark contradiction of that opening statement.

In fact, as several of the writers point out, there is a normalcy to sacrifice which is part of many people’s lives. It may be mingled with self-interest, but the sacrifices we make for children, for causes we care about, perhaps for our careers, are essential to making our lives meaningful and pleasurable, and for the most part are recognised and welcomed as such. That kind of sacrifice becomes ingrained in who we are and doesn’t feel like sacrifice. It is not heroic, but sacrifice needn’t be restricted to the exceptional undertaking that cannot be expected of ordinary people. The book doesn’t argue for sacrifice on a superhuman scale for the sake of the environment. Its discussions of the word are nuanced and show a preference for the normalisation of environmental sacrifice whereby it becomes part of the price we willingly pay for the welfare of future generations and the Earth they will inhabit.

Paul Wapner examines the upbeat notion that tackling climate change is a call to embrace new green opportunities rather than be concerned about sacrifice.  ’Promethean’ environmentalism he calls it. But he prefers to keep the sacrifice word in environmental discourse and points to writers like McKibben who see environmental sacrifice not as a matter of reduction but rather enlargement.  Environmentalism takes Others into consideration by realising that we are not the centre of the universe, and in doing so it is not a politics of less but one of inestimable more. Sacrifice is not a deprivation, but a provision — it involves feeding our moral selves. Karen Liftin in her chapter on the sacred and profane, as she argues for an affirmative politics of sacrifice in an ecologically full world quotes the Indian nationalist and mystic Sri Aurobindo:

’The acceptance of the law of sacrifice is a practical recognition by the ego that it is neither alone in the world nor chief in the world…The true essence of sacrifice is not self-immolation, it is self-giving; its object is not self-effacement, not self-fulfilment; its method not self-mortification, but a greater life.’

There are strong currents in modern affluent society which make this kind of perception difficult. Thomas Princen looks closely at the beguiling concept of consumer sovereignty. There’s a grand entitlement to consumption. The good life centres on goods, not on relations, not on service, not on citizenship.  It leads to a society supremely organised to absolve individuals of responsibility, whether as consumers, producers, investors, or rule makers.  Sacrifice is depreciated and rejected. But in fact much is sacrificed to maintain such a society, in costs and trade-offs, social and environmental problems which are rendered covert and hidden.

“… the hedonistic, growth-manic, cost-displacing consumer economy must give way to a purposeful economy, an economy premised on principles of positive sacrifice, of giving (along with receiving), of sufficiency and good work and participatory citizenship. The sovereign consumer must be dethroned; sacrifice must be elevated, restored to its proper, ‘make sacred’ pedestal.”

Sometimes the built environment makes sacrifice for the environment difficult. Peter Cannavá½¹ looks at the development of suburbia in America and the way in which its original pastoral civic republicanism has been lost, especially in the closed, often gated, communities of the post World War II outer suburban expansion. The very form of sprawling suburbia mandates unrestrained consumption, privatism, and exclusivity. The automobile becomes what Lewis Mumford called ’a compulsory and inescapable condition of suburban existence’. Zoning laws decree low-density development. Shopping is removed from neighbourhood and town. People are increasingly isolated in their cars and homes. Cannavá½¹ looks at ways in which suburbia could be reconstructed to become greener, more moderate and civic and sustainable, and expresses the hope that suburbanites will be willing to sacrifice what they have now in favour of what he sees as a return to suburbia’s republican roots.

Justin Williams provides an interesting essay on the difficulties placed in the way of bicycling as a contribution to environmental sustainability. He observes that there is little meaningful freedom, in America at least, to make choices about transport modes and hence it is difficult for sacrifice to enter the rhetorical field. Structural decisions, particularly those associated with suburban development, have placed cars at the centre and turned streets from social gathering places into means of transport between two distant places, home and work. The obstacles these developments place in the way of cyclists are formidable, paramount among them the distances that need to be travelled, the dearth of facilities such as adequate routes and parking, and the threats posed to personal safety by cycling among cars. Nevertheless a combination of carrots and sticks in cities such as Portland and Chicago in the US and in a  country such as the Netherlands has made cycling a more genuine option. He argues that the promotion of cycling at automobility’s expense is democratic because automobility is not an expression of freedom but merely the structurally ’obvious’ choice, given the constraints placed on alternatives, and because the freedom to cycle is limited by current automobile infrastructure.  I warmed to his advocacy. I have taken to cycling myself in my later years and often observe myself reduced to pathetic gratitude for very minor provisions for cyclists in my own city.

Can academics refining the concept of environmental sacrifice dent the prevailing perception, often vehemently expressed in the hurly burly of every day politics, that it’s almost an affront to expect wealthy consumer societies to make sacrifices? Sometimes it can seem an insuperable task. But I liked the idea of doggedness to which the editors give voice in their conclusion. They quote Frances Moore Lappé: ’keep asking ‘why?’’. They urge students, activists, scholars and citizens to ask, and keep asking, why sacrifice should be pushed to the margins, why narrow assumptions about the capacity and willingness of humans to sacrifice should prevail, why leaders remain reluctant to call on our ability to sacrifice on behalf of public aims. That’s the first challenge. Four others follow: developing awareness of the many rich ways in which sacrifice infuses daily life; shaping environmental politics to cultivate the capacity for sacrifice or at least to make it part of the discussion; identifying and studying illustrative examples where sacrifice is made for distant benefits; engaging in a nuanced way with the rhetorical power of sacrifice, a word perilous in public debate but not therefore to be shunned.

The book is a thoughtful and lively contribution to an issue which gathers importance and urgency as the years of climate inaction continue to accumulate. There is still hope we will choose the democratic sacrifice which the book advances. If we spurn it we are likely to have sacrifice forced on us by the passage of events.

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