Eco-Identity Politics

Introducing Issue 10 of the Breakthrough Journal

American environmentalism is often thought to have sprung directly from Henry David Thoreau’s forehead, winding its way through John Muir’s exhortations for the preservation of Yosemite Valley, Aldo Leopold’s calls for a “land ethic,” and then evolving in the postwar years — by way of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, Rachel Carson’s apocalyptic vision of a “silent spring,” and the flaming Cuyahoga River — toward the conviction that modern industrial societies would bring not only the end of our collective pastoral idyll, but the end of us as well.

The apocalyptic turn that postwar environmentalism took is often attributed to worsening industrial pollution. But by most measures, air and water quality were much better in the postwar era than in earlier periods of America’s industrial development. River fires were mostly a thing of the past by the time the Cuyahoga burst into flames. Automobiles and trolleys had solved the public health crisis that had resulted in the 19th century as growing cities had become inundated with horse manure. Modern sewage systems had brought an end to cholera and dysentery. Life expectancy was rising, and Americans were healthier than they had ever been.

It’s not that there were no significant new threats. The Cold War proliferation of nuclear weapons threatened annihilation even if exposure to radioactive elements from atmospheric testing constituted only a small health threat to most Americans. And overuse of DDT did bring serious consequences for wildlife and ecosystems, even if it wasn’t bringing about the collapse of modern agriculture or an epidemic of cancer.

But clearly, something else was going on as well. America was the global economic hegemon in the 1950s and early ’60s: the dominant industrial power on the planet. With that came jobs, housing, education, interstate highways, great public universities... and much more consumption. Two decades after the Great Depression, the American working classes had achieved material prosperity unprecedented in all of human history. This created a problem for the old Marxist Left. Capitalism was supposed to immiserate the working class; instead, it was making them rich.

So it is perhaps not so surprising that it was at this moment, in the decade after the end of World War II, that a vanguard intellectual movement began to shift the case against capitalism from the old Marxist dialectical materialism, focused on who controlled the means of production, to a new critique centered on the plague of consumption. Capitalism might be making everybody rich, but it was also making us sick and alienated.

The Frankfurt School, early post-Marxists who fled Germany for the United States before the war, was the first to turn from the traditional Marxist focus on material well-being to a neo-Marxist critique of mass culture, which they said left the masses exposed to state-sponsored propaganda even as it produced material gains. The Frankfurt theorists, proper German intellectuals marooned in the vastness of American postwar conformism and materialism, quickly concluded that the working classes were no longer the enemies of capital. This line of thought culminated in Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, which made the case that industrial society and its abundance of consumer goods created “false needs” that served only to alienate and indoctrinate the working class.

“The people recognize themselves in their commodities,” Marcuse observed; “they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” What resulted was a co-opted class of no-longer revolutionary laborers and a commodified world of mass-produced meaning. The new and burgeoning generation of students and intellectuals, the educated children of the generation that came of age during the deprivations of the Great Depression and the war — not the working classes — would form the vanguard of the revolution.

This reformulation of alienation helped to shape the New Left in the 1960s, and the modern environmental movement that it would give birth to. The class-based, universalizing, and conformist politics of the first half of the 20th century gave way to an emancipatory politics emphasizing race, gender, and sexual liberation on the one hand, and communitarian self-determination and self-reliance on the other. With that came a turn from the technological rationality of the old Left to a new ethic that emphasized the local, the particular, and the organic.

A new generation of left-wing ecological thinkers — Murray Bookchin, Barry Commoner, E. F. Schumacher, and others — merged the older conservation ethic with a radical critique of capitalism, connecting the domination of man with the exploitation of nature. Modern environmentalism in many ways sprouted from this ground, drawing connections between capitalism’s excesses and novel understandings of environmental pollution.

As the new environmental politics moved into the mainstream in the decades that followed, the radical, millenarian lineage from which it had sprung was mostly forgotten. But for a growing cohort long since emancipated from work on the farm or factory floor, increasingly satiated with material goods, and involved mostly in the provision of knowledge and services that bore no connection to anyone’s basic survival needs, the conviction that modern techno-society disenchanted and commodified the world remained — and indeed intensified.

In search of authenticity and personal fulfillment, environmentalism would become a quasi-identity based movement, with its own alternative values and a liberatory narrative. It would reimagine modes of living that were no longer governed by large-scale, technological systems that were difficult, if not impossible, to understand and that were seemingly implicated in exploitation and destruction at home and abroad.

For those with the time, inclination, and resources to do so (mostly educated Americans in the upper half of the income distribution), environmentalism offered the opportunity not only to save the world but to re-enchant one’s life. “Appropriate technologies,” renewable energy, organic farming, and recycling and composting all offer their proponents the opportunity to practice what they preach: to install solar panels on their own roofs, to shop local in neighborhood farmers markets, to tend their own heirloom tomatoes, and to raise backyard chickens.

Never mind that the curbside recycling is picked up by a huge global corporation, the solar panels are mass-produced by Chinese workers in factories that would have made Henry Ford proud, or that the tomatoes are fertilized with manure from industrial feedlots and chicken houses. In Berkeley, Boulder, and dozens of similar environmentally minded communities across the country, mass-produced solar panels charge mass-produced Teslas, and there’s a Whole Foods down the street when the farmers market is rained out or the backyard chickens get sick. Neither the new gentry environmentalism nor the new eco-friendly economy actually displaced industrial capitalism: they simply reproduced and elaborated upon it.


In this, the tenth issue of the Breakthrough Journal, we consider the ways that eco-identities and the practices that come along with them are as much social as they are political. They represent salutary efforts to find purpose, meaning, and connection in advanced developed societies in which so much of our culture and consumption remains commodified. But we also examine the problems that arise when we lose track of the material preconditions that allow us to experience these activities as volitional and pleasurable. Or worse, when we attempt to pull the modernization ladder up behind us — by forgetting that these undertakings are a privilege afforded to us by the surplus that modern, industrial societies produce.

The paradox of “the art of living,” as Marcuse called it, is that it is possible only in a world in which industrialization has brought an end to scarcity. In order to say “enough,” we need to have enough. Pursuing the new forms of work, leisure, and expression that create meaning in our lives requires material surplus. And surplus requires specialization, the implicit agreement that — as geographer Jennifer Bernstein writes in her essay, “Living in a Post-Material World” — “once I am dismissed from my shift at the electronics store, upon entering the grocery store I should be able to purchase oranges.” Specialization, in turn, produces alienation.

Bernstein writes from personal experience, reflecting on the joy that working in her daughter’s school garden brings her and the troublesome claims that are used to valorize it. She reviews the sociological canon for the reasons we invest these sorts of practices with so much meaning. And she considers the unintended consequences that can result from requiring the children of undocumented farmworkers to spend their time in school gardens, or encouraging health and fitness-oriented millennials to forgo mass-produced meat in favor of hunting wild animals.

Might it be possible, Bernstein asks, to disentangle these practices from the broader environmental claims that are made on their behalf? To recognize them as healthy efforts to establish connection, rootedness, and even status without imagining that they point the way toward ecological salvation? To see them, rather, as quasi-spiritual practices that “feed our souls and deepen our connections with the natural world”?

Gestures of this sort, however, aren’t always salutary, especially when millions of well-heeled consumers around the world decide to make them at the same time. In “Bad Liquor,” food writer Felisa Rogers documents the impacts of the global boom in artisanal mezcal on Mexico’s environment and rural communities. As connoisseurs around the world have decided that mezcals produced from wild agave in small batches express unique terroir that mass-produced mezcals and tequilas can’t match, explosive growth in demand has put unsustainable pressure on wild agave, deforesting as many as 50 percent of the plants in some areas. Nor has the boom provided much benefit to local producers. Middlemen take much of the markup, while small producers get paid pennies on the dollar for mezcals that can fetch $100 or more per bottle on the global market.

As producers and communities have begun to come to terms with the carnage that the global boom has wrought, and the risks that it presents to continued production, some of them have started to take action. Wild isn’t sustainable, so many producers have started to propagate wild varietals that can be cultivated. Exoticism and uniqueness may have established the market for high-end mezcal, but cultivation and a move toward standardization are the only things that will save it. Rogers reminds us that terms like “artisanal” encode authenticity for consumers who desire to feel a connection to the people and places where products are produced. But when those connections are exoticized by tastemakers and marketers, the desire for products made by low-tech, small-scale, “primitive” methods too often leads to ecological disaster.

If marketing primitivism has brought serious social and environmental consequences to many parts of Mexico, the advocacy of neo-primitivism for African farmers under the guise of agroecology risks consequences on an entirely different scale. Today, hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers in Africa are trapped in rural poverty. They lack sufficient land to support low-productivity, subsistence agriculture for a growing rural population and have few opportunities off the farm. The answer, according to many Western-supported NGOs and academics, is agroecology, an approach to farming that eschews all synthetic inputs — synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, modern seeds, and mechanization of any kind. Instead, agroecologists advocate that farmers use natural methods: from intercropping to herbal insecticides to organic fertilizers.

In “After Agroecology,” Nassib Mugwanya, a former agriculture extension officer in Uganda, observes that these practices represent no real alternative at all because most smallholder farmers in Africa already follow the principles of agroecology. Advocates frame agroecology as an alternative to corporate, industrial agriculture. But for small farmers in Africa, the primary obstacle to better livelihoods and incomes isn’t displacement by corporate agriculture: it is simply growing enough food to feed themselves and produce enough surplus to supplement their meager incomes.

In the end, most African farmers don’t care whether practices are traditional, modern, agroecological, or something else. As Daisy Namusoke, a farmer Mugwanya knows, tells him, she just wants a bigger banana crop she can sell to local traders. But that will require disease-resistant seeds, synthetic fertilizer, irrigation, electricity, and better roads to access markets. Agroecology offers no practical solutions to the challenges that farmers like Daisy face. Instead, it offers more of the same — low productivity, crop failures, and poverty — all wrapped up in an anti-corporate polemic and calls for “appropriate technology” that are, ironically, wholly out of touch with the realities of African agriculture.


Eco-identity politics has also spawned its antithesis. “The same micro-behaviors that many environmentalists fetishize,” Bernstein writes, “are used to ridicule environmental concern and advocacy.” From “rolling coal” to the War on Coal, the perception that environmentalists are scolds who want to manage our consumption and impose their values and priorities on others has created a powerful backlash. Environmental economist Shawn Regan tells just such a tale in “Where the Buffalo Roam,” which recounts the reaction that rural communities across Montana have had to voluntary efforts to purchase ranches and grazing rights in order to reintroduce bison across the region.

The American Prairie Reserve set out to put Elinor Ostrom’s maxims to work, emphasizing property and community rights in a large-scale, bottom-up effort to rewild America’s western grasslands. The organization buys land and grazing rights from ranchers in order to reintroduce bison, take down fences, and then track and support these reintroduced wildlife populations.

But for communities that are both deeply skeptical of anything that comes with an environmental label and believe their way of life to be under threat, that hasn’t been enough. Montana cattle ranchers, it turns out, aren’t interested in becoming game wardens or buffalo herders. Their identities, and that of their communities, are deeply tied not only to the land but to particular “productive uses” of the land.

Regan’s essay should challenge not only those who argue that bottom-up community efforts offer a less contested path to conservation but also advocates of rewilding and decoupling. After agricultural intensification frees up more land, after we’ve boosted outputs with fewer resources, what then? Land use touches on fundamental and divergent value systems. Whether conservation efforts take a centralized or, as Regan prefers, market-based approach, bringing bison, prairie dogs, and wild horses back to Montana will require advocates to establish cultural buy-in as well as economic benefits.

Culture and identity, science journalist Marta Zaraska reminds us in “Meeting Meat-Eaters Halfway,” shape how consumers as well as producers respond to environmental initiatives. What, how, and when we eat are ways we commune with our tribe, determine who we are, and, just as importantly, who we aren’t, and are closely entwined with our ideas of health and well-being. For these reasons, arguments for vegetarianism and veganism have mostly fallen flat. Despite the ubiquity of vegan restaurants, countless celebrity advocates, and gruesome videos of slaughterhouses and animal abuse, calls to abandon meat altogether have had little success in reducing meat consumption.

Tracing the 2.5 million year history and biology of our “meat-hooked” diets, Zaraska argues that continued moralizing against the cruelty and environmental consequences of meat consumption is unlikely to make much headway. Dietary changes, especially radical ones, are hard, not easy. Meat-eating is a symbol of status, wealth, and masculinity for many, and is synonymous with feasting, celebration, and ceremony in most cultures. Forgoing meat is understood (often accurately) by those who continue to partake as a public and explicit rejection of the cultures and values in which meat-eating is implicated.

Zaraska argues that we will probably make more progress toward minimizing meat consumption by focusing instead on simply reducing it, rather than proscribing it. Social and cultural norms evolve slowly along with changing practices. Eating smaller portions, avoiding meat on weekdays, or treating meat consumption as a privilege — reserved for special occasions and not to be taken for granted — are all ways that people might begin to shift their consumption. These steps would not require them to renounce their ideas of who they are or what it means to live well. In so doing, ideas and identities might evolve, slowly, away from such a strong association with meat-eating.

By contrast, when vegetarians stake out a position of ethical superiority, Zaraska argues convincingly, meat-eaters dig in and often deepen their commitment to their meat-eating identities. Advocating “reducetarianism” — drawing attention to the health and environmental benefits of reducing meat consumption without demanding that converts abandon the social and cultural identities they hold dear — is the far more likely path to success.


If the end of scarcity has led increasing numbers of us to turn our attention to the “art of living,” it has not resulted in the expansion of an alternative, communitarian ethic to challenge the basic arrangements of late modernity and industrial capitalism, as Marcuse, Bookchin, and Schumacher imagined. Rather, in a world of proliferating eco-identities, in which most of the big immediate, material challenges have been solved, the consequences of continued consumption are long term, speculative, and deeply contested. One person’s excess is another’s necessity, and our capacity to rationalize self-interest as public good would appear to be bottomless.

The result has not been a sweeping political challenge to industrial capitalism, but rather what in the early 1970s the urban planners Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed “wickedness.” Rising affluence, and the proliferation of new identities that came with it, has increasingly challenged the capacity of advanced developed economies to plan for the future. Futures are always a normative proposition, and the increasing fragmentation and enfranchisement of social and cultural identities have made it ever more difficult to sustain social consensus around any explicit, shared vision of a good life or a desirable future.

That the idea of “wickededness” was invented by urban planners should not surprise anyone familiar with the pitched battles that have accompanied efforts to create inclusive, affordable, walkable, and culturally diverse cities. In “Urban Jungle,” geographer Martin W. Lewis’s part polemic, part thought experiment, he chronicles the steep sociopolitical barriers that have thwarted efforts to build dense, affordable housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “The region’s booming tech economy, temperate climate, natural beauty, and ‘anything goes’ culture have made it a magnet for new residents,” Lewis writes, “even as its deep environmental commitments and local land-use laws have made it virtually impossible to build enough new housing to keep up.”

In the name of the environment, local control, and standing up to profit-hungry developers — and frequently using tools that were intended to protect California’s open spaces and air and water quality — an odd-bedfellow coalition of privileged home owners, affordable housing advocates, and social justice activists have blocked virtually all new housing and densification in many cities across the Bay Area.

In the name of building “affordable housing” over housing for the new rising class of tech workers, communities have managed to build hardly any housing at all, creating impossible pressures on the existing housing stock and forcing many young and low-income workers out of the market altogether. The conceit that the region needs affordable, not market-rate, housing, Lewis notes, flouts basic principles of supply and demand. So long as demand so far outstrips housing supply, housing will remain unaffordable for large swaths of the population who want and need to live in the region.

In response, Lewis suggests an audacious solution: human housing reserves, modeled at least metaphorically on nature reserves. Housing reserves would provide habitat for people instead of wildlife and would be allowed to grow in an ecological and self-willed manner. They would be spatially delimited islands of density, liberated from the strictures of zoning laws and other policies that restrict housing development, centered around public transit stations, and held open for unplanned, market-based development.

Establishing reserves, Lewis acknowledges, will require overriding local prerogatives in favor of regional, state, and national interests. But this is exactly what we often do when we establish nature reserves — override local priorities for the use and exploitation of natural resources in the service of public trust and conservation priorities at the state and national level. There is no single appropriate scale or jurisdiction for all decisions, Lewis notes. In California’s housing crisis, local democratic institutions have clearly failed, so democratically-elected state officials should appropriately step in.

As goes California, a place that has been so central to modern environmental consciousness, so goes the world. The question Lewis asks, at bottom, is not so much jurisdictional as it is about our allegiances. Can we balance our legitimate and righteous needs for identity, community, and authenticity with the reality that asserting those prerogatives doesn’t always serve the public interest? Can we recognize that our contemporary projects of liberation and self-actualization are made possible only by the extraordinary freedoms and abundance that industrial modernity has made possible? Can we rework our eco-identities so that they might better coexist with the scale of infrastructure, technology, and enterprise that will be necessary to ensure better social and environmental outcomes for the billions of people who will join us as this century progresses? How we answer those questions will play an outsize role in how we manage environmental challenges in the coming decades.

Cover art design by Dirk Fowler.