Skip to content

Gettin’ Žižžy Wit It

There are many keen insights in this, but Žižek lumps so many things under the heading of “green capitalism” that the label becomes meaningless and does so in service of rather nihilistic conclusions. Žižek never clearly defines what “green capitalism” is but rather lets it stand in for a variety of things he dislikes: environmentalism, consumerism, contemporary business standards and anything else that might somewhere, someplace have been called “green” or “capitalist.” The kicker? There’s no way out, unless we replace the existing order entirely.

To the first point, he rightly castigates people who believe that the only thing wrong with voracious American consumption patterns is that they are not sustainable. We buy too much shit, and no matter how sustainable that becomes, real change won’t come until we have a more modest sense of what we’re entitled to, and dare I say it, a less materialistic view of what makes life meaningful. On the consumer side, buying green products is self-congratulatory and naive (in the sense that it won’t really solve anything); on the producer side, it’s often a cynical ploy to increase sales. Zizek is on point with all this. But consumerism and capitalism aren’t the same thing. Consumerism is necessarily predicated on the accumulation of more stuff. Coupled with American expectations, and to the exclusion of other philosophies, this is extraordinarily wasteful. Capitalism as such as not, is not wasteful. Capitalism does not require you buy increasingly large amounts of stuff for the rest of your life, it’s simply about generating value. That can come from material goods, but it can also come from services, and both are governed by competition. If consumers value not destroying the environment, then manufacturers and service-providers have an incentive to outdo each other in that respect.

Capitalism, and especially capitalism American-style, can be not so great, but it is all we have. What solutions do arise will inevitably come from a capitalist milieu. They will be imperfect. That may not be the land of milk and honey, but it’s something. Žižek, on the other hand, dwells in the realm of abstraction and possibilities. In his view, solutions tainted by the old order are no solutions at all. He therefore calls for a more genuinely just economic and political order. And he admonishes us to not throw in our lot with the world’s pragmatists, despite the fact that nearly all of the decisions we make in our daily lives are a choice from among imperfect solutions, rather than from a stark choice between “the right way” and “the wrong way.”

Žižek’s solutions don’t exist anywhere in the world and have no track record to evaluate. My Exhibit A comes from a country I’ve studied for the past 2 years: Indonesia. The thing that in my view stands to do the most to stop illegal logging (and legal logging, for that matter) in Indonesia in the next 20 years is the tech industry, American capitalism’s current golden baby. Kindles and iPads obviate the need for books. Much logging in Indonesia is done to secure raw materials for the paper industry. It’s possible that we’ll be the last generation to really think of books as something other than a piece of furniture or a nichey vanity object, and it’s because of the explosive popularity of e-readers. More forests and forest-dwelling creatures stand to be saved from this shift in demand than from most any grassroots efforts. Granted, this also means that the exploitation of mineral resources will probably increase. The transistors and chips in kindles and iPads also requiring exploiting some part of the environment. The net effect of this strikes me as less worse than the degradation caused by clearcutting of forests, which also gets compounded once sprawl creeps over the former wilderness. This is a function of market operations, not of green crusading.

Merely shifting around the sum total of evil on earth is never completely satisfying. Yet we should also bear in mind that there’s nothing historically unique about the moral quandary we face when we buy products that we know contribute to global suffering or environmental degradation. The difference is that we recognize it, and often feel guilty about it. If we want to criticize people who buy wedding rings as villains because the jewelry they bought was smelted in a dirty foundry with raw materials acquired through slave labor, that’s perfectly legitimate, but realize that we may also end up also condemning Russian peasants. By their very labor, they upheld the autocratic and brutal Tsardom. Steppe peoples were slaughtered, virgin forests were cut down, and all manner of other nasty things transpired. Everyone in the past would be guilty, and so would everyone in the present. Just like “green capitalism,” when a term becomes undefinably broad, it means there’s probably a problem with the term or with the question being asked.

My example about logging in Indonesia is a case of an unintended good resulting from market operations. Waiting around with fingers crossed hoping that market operations cause collateral justice is no solution either. I’d like to see a new class of businessmen who believe in things other than enriching themselves. We carry our values with us everywhere, and we shouldn’t be expected to check them at the doors of a shareholder meeting. I’d like to see a new class of investor that thinks of buying stock in a company as taking part in a larger cause, in addition to swelling their retirement kitty. I’m still an idealist. I may not have the managerial, marketing or financial acumen to practice what I preach in this case; my path is in the medical field. But American capitalism would look very different if more of the idealists among us would choose to create businesses that correspond to their ideals, rather than opting to live on a commune or wander the country’s campuses as an itinerant social critic.

There’s another more submerged issue here concerning how we think about nature. Again, I think Zizek is right when he (elsewhere, not in this video) characterizes our views of nature as sentimental and overly romantic. So long as we think that nature should be in a constant state of harmony and equilibrium, rather than one of instability occasionally punctuated by catastrophes, it’s going to be hard to stop fucking it up. We need to first think harder about what nature actually is, and then proceed from there to think about the ways in which we should preserve it and why. “Nature is not wasteful” and other silly canards that imply that nature operates with a set of principles worthy of emulation need to be jettisoned. Zizek’s view of nature is closer to the truth in my view; it’s like the filmmaker Werner Herzog’s, but shorn of Herzog’s odd quasi-mysticism. It’s a place of, in Herzog’s words, “chaos, hostility and murder.” Attempts to make a forest conform to some Disneyfied paradigm of what nature is can be just as bad as burning the forest down, and maybe even worse.