Innovation or Retreatism: What should students in environmental studies be learning? (part 1)

Back in July I wrote a piece called Shorter Showers or Pipeline Protests? The Personal Paradox in Teaching Environmental Studies. I was reminded of this post recently during a class discussion when a student expressed frustration with the fact that all of her environmental studies courses critique capitalism yet fail to offer alternatives. More frustrating, my student added, is the failure of her environmental studies professors to acknowledge the fact that she and her peers will graduate and have no choice but to find a way to make a living–and perhaps more importantly, find a way to make life meaningful–within a capitalist system that they’ve been taught to view as the source of the problem.

In Shorter Showers or Pipeline Protests? I explained how a political economy perspective focuses on embedded power relationships, and how this this perspective points to structure over agency as the cause of, and therefore also the solution to, environmental problems. My main point in that post was to argue that an emphasis on structural relations, which can seem impenetrable and even untouchable from the perspective of an individual, does our students a disservice unless we also provide answers to the question of how such powerful structures can be changed.Before I continue, I should provide a bit more background on the political economy perspective. When I teach Environment & Society, our introduction to Environmental Studies at the University of San Francisco, I use a textbook called Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction 2e (2012), by Paul Robbins, John Hintz, and Sarah Moore.

According to the authors, the political economy perspective argues that environmental problems are an integral part of the capitalist economic system, in fact that the system itself depends upon the overextraction and contamination of natural resources:

A political economy approach argues that the structure of the economy and power-laden relationships within it create environmental problems and our perception of them.

This perspective is analytically useful but not necessarily efficacy-producing. Take the latter part of the above quote. What does it mean, according to a political economy perspective, that even our perceptions of environmental problems are a function of our place within the structure of the economy? A simple example is the tendency, from within the capitalist system, to see solutions to environmental problems in economic terms–internalizing externalities, true-cost accounting, or incentivizing green consumption. The latter, of course, represents the “individual responsibility” approach that I criticized in Shorter Showers or Pipeline Protests? and that Derrick Jensen attacks in Forget Shorter Showers.


In this post I want to explore the implications of rejecting the individual responsibility tact, assuming that the alternative is the structural critique offered by the political economy perspective.

Back when I was teaching Intro to Sociology regularly, I loved teaching about Robert K. Merton’s structural strain theory of deviance. It occurred to me recently that the theory might be useful in environmental studies. For those unfamiliar with it, a very simplified version goes like this: Society creates cultural goals (e.g., economic success) and depending on people’s structural position within society they may or may not have the means to achieve those goals. Merton also identified five different orientations that people might have to the culturally accepted goals and their associated behaviors. I’ll describe these below. For now, based on this crash course in structural strain theory, let’s see if its application to the environmental crisis makes sense…

Although not universal, let’s assume the goal is some sort of modified sustainable capitalism. Mainstream environmentalism’s strategy, and I think it’s a similar approach that is taught in many environmental studies programs, is that the means for achieving the goal are a combination of individual responsibility (e.g., environmental behaviors, “conscious consumption” or green consumerism) and policy reform (e.g., internalizing the externality of CO2 produced in most economic activity). A political economy perspective emphasizes the structural constraints that prevent implementation of these strategies. For example, corporate power, income inequality, and a weak democracy all impede policy reform. According to Merton, our range of possible responses to this structural strain include: conformity, ritualism, retreatism, rebellion, and innovation.

In this context, conformity is going along with the vision of a modified sustainable capitalism achievable through individual responsibility and policy reform. Ritualism is when the individual rejects the goal but accepts the means. In this case, it would mean rejecting the goal of sustainable capitalism but going along anyway with the strategy of individual responsibility and policy reform. Retreatism rejects the goal and the means, such as those who reject sustainable capitalism broadly, and more specifically reject calls for exercise of personal restraint in consumption or for policies that can rein in CO2 emissions. Rebellion rejects the goal and the means while advocating for a new goal. Our example of retreatism would become rebellion if (a) the sustainable capitalism goal was at least nearly universally held and (b) in addition to rejecting the goal and the means a new goal was put forward (e.g., a “pure” free market). Innovation accepts the goal but rejects the means. In other words, the goal of sustainable capitalism is embraced, but the personal responsibility/policy reform means are rejected.

Gaps in infrastructure can create structural impediments to culturally sanctioned goals.

Gaps in infrastructure can create structural impediments to culturally sanctioned goals.

Now let’s return to the political economy perspective and its emphasis on the role of embedded power in maintaining structural relations that lock us into unsustainability. What I’ll call the strong political economy perspective calls for an alternative to the capitalist system. A weak political economy perspective, while it may accept an alternative political economy (even if it is still essentially a form of capitalism), still rejects the notion that individual responsibility and policy reform are adequate to achieve a transformation of our current capitalist system. It is safe to say, then, that the political economy perspective encourages a rejection of conformity and ritualism as both embrace the strategies of individual responsibility/policy reform. Rebellion is also problematic, unless the new goal put forth sufficiently envisions a political economy, unlike capitalism, capable of eliminating the structural relations that lock society into unsustainability. That leaves us with innovation and retreatism.

In part 2, I’ll describe what a strong and weak political economy perspective might have to say about these two options.



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