Professor's opinion: Convenient untruths - the organized self-delusion of going green

Making bicycle journeys in the Dutch Green Heart and reading American scholarly works in urban studies evoke thoughts of what building more green cities and manufacturing large facilities for green energy might do for the world. How attractive it must be to dwell in a liveable environment surrounded by all modern amenities and make this dream possible for more and more people. The lucky marriage of green movement, capital, energy technology and sophisticated branding has made all of this possible. Or has it?

How green is grass?

We know that bicycles are a healthy and pleasant transport mode. It was COVID-19, however, the outbreak of which luckily hit the Netherlands during the sunniest and warmest Spring ever recorded, that led me to adopt it as the default solution to any outdoor activity. Feeling blue is best countered by going green, I must have thought. May 2020 was the perfect month for my exploration of the Midden-Delfland and Westland areas first-hand by cargo bike. Children silently gazed around to watch the scenery, occasionally picked a flower here and there and stroked domestic animals behind fences vainly gasping for fodder. And it gave me the opportunity to get some decent physical exercise and develop a higher level of consciousness regarding regional topography. Midden-Delfland and Westland are contiguous, located in between Rotterdam and The Hague and constitute a southern pocket of what is called the ‘Green Heart’. It is there that advanced bicycle-routes bring a low carbon lifestyle suddenly within reach. I am not entirely sure whether other parts of this mythical Green Heart are as attractive as the locations I came to criss cross in recent weeks, but these journeys have definitely been a major boost to my awareness of how incredibly valuable these suburban and ex-urban spaces are for living, recreation and rural labor.

Opinions diverge on whether these areas can indeed be qualified as precious natural capital. Not long ago, a national newspaper reported that in the face of continuously rising housing prices and mounting pressure to build new real estate, the alderman of a municipality bordering this Green Heart questioned whether the simple ‘grass’ he saw around him could truly count as ‘nature’. Disqualifying the small-scale rural landscape as having ‘no distinct natural or aesthetic value’ and the Green Heart as ‘just a myth’, is obviously the ideal trigger for him to relinquish legal planning control for these tracts of land.

Green city labels for sale

Building new towns there to accommodate growing demand for housing would make a host of stakeholders in urban development happy. Project developers and municipalities could then use this freedom to construct new towns in a green context. If combined with solar panels, convenient public transport, the presence of a smart grid or sophisticated water recycling systems, selling the attractive dwellings there as ‘low carbon’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ would be a perfect cash-cow for both developers (through handsome profit) and municipalities (through tax revenue), while buyers would share in the joy with affordable housing at the fringes of (what is then still left of) the Green Heart.

This phenomenon is occurring worldwide. In my academic work, one of the topics I study (in collaboration with Simon Joss and Daan Schraven) is the extensive use of city labels in policy practice and academia to promote sustainable urbanization. Green cities, sustainable cities, eco cities, low carbon cities, circular cities, renewable cities, smart cities, knowledge cities and many more; our current article in preparation has mapped the evolution of 35 such labels over time. It appears that the combination of rising population numbers and a growing demand for attractive individual space to live exists around the world and leads to similar responses everywhere. As a consequence, humanity occupies more and more land for residential, occupational, recreational and transport purposes. It has always intrigued me that net increases in carbon emission, space consumption and ecological footprint in the field of urban planning could effortlessly be sold as ‘green and sustainable’, with barely a soul questioning whether this is analytically accurate. The imperative to respect the freedom of following one’s personal preferences in consuming space and its resources goes unquestioned, and effective resistance against this essential liberty is perceived as anti-democratic, potentially verging on the immoral. This is not to argue that all new towns are ecological monsters, but their performance often tends to underwhelm. One can come across circular cities in which most building materials enjoy an extremely short life cycle, green cities which look green because of the presence of conspicuous trees, sustainable cities where prospects for future generations turn out bleak and solar cities where the sun never shines. In a great many cases, ‘true eco cities’ never see the light of day. That is understandable, because ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ is bound to be the reflection of a total lifestyle, not the grafting of conspicuous green gadgets onto a texture of wasteful human customs and institutions. Such a lifestyle cannot be ordered by decree, especially if it is not really desired by most people. Municipalities lift burdensome planning restrictions, developers market their dwelling products and clients follow their green dreams. If all is well, they all save some cash along the way. Unfortunately, the result is often creative cities where municipalities steal talented workforce from their neighbors, smart cities where governments think for their citizens, resilient cities that struggle to handle the consequences of frequent flooding and future cities where the fulfilment of secret wishes remains a distant dream.

Who owns the True American Dream?

American scholarly debate on the topic of socio-economic inequality in modern urbanity has been enlightening. Urban sociologist Richard Florida, known for his earlier work on the rise of the creative class and its growing impact on the processes of urban production and consumption, has highlighted how the wealthier strata have grasped control of all attractive parts of town (historical city centers, mountain tops, tree-clad neighborhoods, sea- and riverside locations). Meanwhile representatives of the working and service classes have to make do with whatever is left in urban space. He also observes an impoverishment of the population in the outskirts and countryside and concludes that life in the Edge City is no longer the hallmark of realizing the American dream. While the rich and famous see their future in the leading and progressive high-tech metropolises, less wealthy newcomers have to make do with new towns further removed from ‘where it is all happening’, or in the aging housing stock of whatever is left. And what is presumably even more worrisome, those hip progressive cities show distinctly higher rates of socio-economic inequality than the uncool ones where traditional manufacturing, extraction and agriculture prevail. Florida’s American Dream has moved back to the cities, but unfortunately there is hardly any affordable space left. Florida is, malgre tout, an optimist and believes in the prospects of a future colored by green technologies and big city life. He proposes active government intervention to make high density construction in the urban core serviced by public transport as the way forward, in North America as in the rest of the world. However, his counterpart Joel Kotkin, urban sociologist and fellow social class-adept, attaches a completely different meaning to largely the same observations. The gap between rich and poor is indeed widening and housing prices in most cities are unaffordable to all but the most endowed ‘dwelling consumers’. Kotkin also takes heed of the popular clamor for a return to the cities and the green reputation of urban living serviced by the environment-friendly amenities of modern IT and clean apparel, as well as the growing role that renewable energy resources play in them. But this is where they part company. While the former applauds these new lifestyles, the latter despises them as not being in accordance with what ‘normal Americans’ want. Joe Six-pack and family cannot afford nor desire an apartment in midtown Manhattan or a villa with extensive garden-style property in Silicon Valley. An average family would still consider a family-house in Edge City with a sizable car as the epitome of the good life. Kotkin argues in addition that the vast majority of new urban expansion is actually still of this ‘unsustainable’ suburban type, and not that of the new tiny high-rise dwellings in selective pockets of urban densification. The different claims made by these two urban scholars may well reflect tensions existing far beyond the USA alone.

There’s no business like green business

One might be tempted to think that the above debate is one between progressive, green and left-wing forces and traditional, climate sceptic neo-liberals present in any society experiencing ecological modernization. But unfortunately, reality is a bit more complicated than that. Florida’s original promotion of the creative city was seen as a recipe for cities to attract primarily members of the creative class to their territories, realizing stable economic growth and thus indirectly ousting socio-economic weaklings from precious urban space. His worry about what these policies do to the not-so well-off is of fairly recent date. Kotkin’s work reveals strong sympathy for the old-fashioned manufacturing-based working class and trade-oriented middle class alongside explosive resentment of the high-earning techno-oligarchy which massively funds the American Democratic Party. Who is left and who right in this debate?

These new 21st century socio-economic cleavages re-emerged and attracted massively more attention recently in a clash between two YouTube videos, each watched by millions of viewers. There was first Al Gore’s missionary work in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and its sequel, where he revealed the seriousness of climate change and the desperate need to invest in renewable energy sources. A true visionary one might say: green, progressive and democratic. Such a pity he lost that election to Texan ranger George W. Bush, and even more so because he actually received more of the popular vote. The world could have been a much better place had he been allowed to serve in office.

Then came Michael Moore’s documentary ‘Planet of the Humans’, which portrayed biomass as sacrificing a lot of forest for a little electricity, and facilities for the production of solar and wind energy as short-lived lowly efficient constructions which would never be able to replace the role of fossil fuel in our energy mix. In the documentary, David Blood and Al Gore (yes, ‘Blood and Gore’) made an appearance as good friends owning huge private estates; they encouraged massive public and private investments in renewable energy projects from which they would directly benefit. What is more, the mining and logging industries are key partners in the consortium digging for sine qua non scarce resources in vulnerable developing countries. Moore’s suggestion that renewables in the end do more harm than good and the outdatedness of some of his claims on the performance of solar and wind have been vehemently criticized by leaders in the environmental movement. Rightly so in some cases. But the core message of the video is far harder to discard than some erroneous information and only the most uncritical environmentalists can be left untouched. Good gracious, how could the renewable energy business lobby and marketing people become so enormously successful? Did we gullible citizens miss anything here? Just like Joel Kotkin cannot be easily brushed aside as a nasty neocon, Michael Moore is no friend of the Bush family and enjoys a solid reputation as a critic of most ‘cowboy’ features in North American life. Could it be we have lost our political compass?

The vicious circle of green technology branding capitalism

Now, what if we take Kotkin’s and Moore’s word for it and come to terms with the idea that capital and the environmental movement have indeed teamed up as partners in handling climate change? This will allow us to see new forms of green politics which are not easy to pinpoint in terms of the classical socio-economic or ideational cleavages that political scientists have been familiar with. Capital and green as a couple are not only invincible for their combination of financial leverage and moral appeal, they also have access to the most powerful marketing toolkit world history has ever known. Picture this: people are perfectly fine in consuming everything they desire and can still claim to be doing it all for the common good of mankind’s future. The branding of housing construction or energy production hones the extremely pleasurable illusion that bigger houses with larger fridges on bigger tracts of land with larger hybrid cars represent a responsible and sustainable lifestyle, as long as they are based on green and renewable underpinnings delivered by IT (information technology) or ET (energy technology) innovation. Is anything more dopamine-inducing even theoretically conceivable? Given that psychologically sophisticated branding is best seen as late capitalism’s multiplier device, this vicious circle of promoting green products is bound to continue for a long time to come. It inhibits the reigning in of exuberant lifestyles while pretending to do the exact opposite. This organized art of comfortable delusion and self-delusion has no equal in modern politics. Moreover, it is also nearly impossible to subdue as long as imposing limits on humanity’s individual freedom of economic preference is a ‘no go area’.

The consequences of green technology capitalism and its branding are two-fold. First, it tends to increase the gap between haves and have-nots leading to lower levels of socio-economic stability, as Florida and Kotkin both keenly observed. Second, it transforms green into brown, while making much of the population feel confident that they are transforming brown into green and just need to do a little more of the same each time for things to end up alright. This odd and awkward political situation provides the ideal breeding ground for populists like Donald Trump to buck any respectable iron law of party-politics: they win elections based on discontent and further aggravate socio-economic and environmental damage.

Finding the fix in a Brown Heart

It would have been appealing and presumably much appreciated by readers if I were to offer fixes at this point, but the inconvenient truth is that there are no easy fixes. As is often the case, it is far easier to say what is wrong than to indicate how things can be put right. A true reduction of ecological or carbon footprints or a real life-cycle approach to production and consumption processes would obviously impel us to reduce, reuse and recycle. In that sense, it is the exact opposite of what green technology branding capitalism does in practice. Ecological thought as such has not deceived us, only its unholy marriage with capital, technology and branding has. In that sense, breaking through the dominant mindset that innovation will fix things, especially if it is called ‘green’, might help end the deeply ingrained belief in the scarcity imperative that transforming a given amount of natural resources into a maximum amount of human-made disposable items is any good. That would imply re-embedding the anthropocentric economic discipline within the biocentric field of ecology where it once came from. Certainly, economics as we know it has much to answer for. What would happen if we replaced all economics courses for school children with lessons in ecology? Perhaps our children will be able to tell us, but only if we implement this change immediately.

Modern politics is like a comic I once read. It described Donald Trump’s brain as follows: ‘On the left side there is nothing right and on the right side there is nothing left’. But I am not a nihilist and would never end my narrative in this way. I would much rather propose that on the right, there is still something left and on the left there must still be something right. We require no techno-optimists, neither in IT nor ET. And we should definitely dispense with climate sceptics, too. Not only in the USA, but in many other countries populists have wrung themselves into the gap that opened when the right left and the left proved wrong. What is needed instead is authenticity – a recognition of what simple things give people bliss, paired with a sense of practicality to envisage how to get there. Assessors of green projects should be conducting their evaluations with a far more practical sense of what benefits the natural environment rather than the use of beautiful theoretical models. Politicians should devote their time to doing the right thing rather than struggling to make others believe, through spin-doctorism, that they are doing the right thing. Populism lures people to develop fake feelings and follow, while authenticity is truly feeling the people and then luring them to a healthier, more sustainable life. TRUMP was the symbol of a first and dramatically failing attempt to overcome the left-right divide. What we need instead, as a second attempt, is an anti-TRUMP and we need Her really soon. Ladies and gentlemen, when cycling through any ‘Brown Heart’ these days, please go find PMURT!


Crisis-related research series

This article is part of RSM’s crisis-related research series: a growing collection of research-based thought pieces and opinions from RSM’s academics and researchers. Topics range from tips for battling loneliness to the ethical dilemmas faced by managers and leaders.

Reposted from Erasmus Initiative: Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity

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