Innovation or Retreatism: What should students in environmental studies be learning? (part 3)

In case readers have missed parts 1 and 2 of this series, here’s the summary: In Innovation or Retreatism: What should students in environmental studies be learning? (part 1), I introduced Robert K. Merton’s structural strain theory of deviance as a possible way of thinking about how those of us in the field of environmental studies, especially those who teach a political economy perspective, should be talking about individual and societal responses to environmental crisis. The basic idea is that Merton’s structural strain theory might be creatively employed by considering some sort of sustainable society our goal with individual behavior change and policy reform serving as the two dominant approaches to achieving the goal. The structural strain occurs in the form of feelings of the inadequacy of individual actions and inefficacy with regards to making policy change happen. In part 1 and part 2 I examined four of the five reactions Merton theorized individuals might take in the face of structural strain. In this final post in the series, I want to examine retreatism: the rejection of goals (e.g., the goal of a sustainable society and individual responsibility and policy reform as the means of achieving it).

Assuming some form of sustainable capitalism is the goal, a retreatist rejects this goal (perhaps in favor of a post-capitalist economic order as the basis for a sustainable society) while also rejecting calls for exercise of personal restraint in consumption and for policies aimed at regulating human environmental impacts.

My concern, and motivation for writing this series, is that retreatism is not healthy for the individual or the planet yet I fear it is too often the message students takeaway when they learn a strong political economy perspective. Sure, retreatism makes some sense, especially from the strong political economy perspective: capitalism’s internal growth logic prevents it from ever being sustainable and personal responsibility and policy reform are incapable of undermining capitalism and replacing it with a sustainable alternative. So a strong political economy perspective resolutely rejects the goal and the means, but then it just leaves us sitting there waiting for the internal contradictions of the capitalist system to bring everything down.

There are two problems with this. First, as the student I quoted in part 1 pointed out, in the meantime young people seeking a sustainable society are left to feel that the only option is to enter into adulthood and become another cog in the system. Second, even if they are willing to bide their time as a cog, waiting for everything to come crashing down, students with a deep sense of justice will be disturbed by the ways in which the consequences of the crash will be borne unequally.

We burden young generations twice over when we tell them “Sorry, we’re mostly responsible for this environmental crisis that we’ve failed to deal with. Oh, and by the way, we have this nice critique of what’s causing the problem, but you’re on your own when it comes to envisioning an alternative society and a means of getting there.”

So I am back where I started…How can we engage students in a critique of capitalism’s political economy so that they do not make life choices that sustain a system that is causing grave injustices for people and the planet, but also give them a sense that they have a choice other than to sit back and wait for a revolution that will take place in ways that exacerbate the very injustices we are critiquing in the system? In part 2, I described what I call “cultural impulses” as the type of innovation response Merton might have imagined.

Let’s revisit rebellion as a response to structural strain. I said in part 1 that rebellion, which rejects the goal and the means while advocating for a new goal, is 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. If a strong political economy perspective  justifies rejecting the goal and means of capitalist reform, a new goal must be put forward. What is this new goal? How do we propose to achieve it?

These are the deeper sorts of questions that we need to be contemplating. Doing so demonstrates an ability to see beyond the false dichotomy of either individual responsibility or policy reform. Below is an excerpt from a student’s final exam, a take-home essay with the simple prompt to read Forget Shorter Showers by Derrick Jensen and then to critique Jensen’s argument that individuals taking shorter showers is NOT, ultimately, going to solve the environmental crisis (an assignment I explained in Shorter Showers or Pipeline Protests? The Personal Paradox in Teaching Environmental Studies). I share it because I think it captures the kind of thinking that we should be aiming to nurture:

From a young age, we are told that no matter how small, our choices make a difference. We learn to turn the lights off when we leave a room, turn off the water while brushing our teeth, etc. Perhaps the most inconvenient to the average adult is the idea that we should save water by taking shorter showers. After all, who really wants to scramble to fit their cleaning rituals into a five-minute period (especially when you know that someone somewhere is enjoying a luxurious, hour-long shower)? Derrick Jensen’s “Forget Shorter Showers,” aims to unravel the years we have been told that our personal choices make a difference in the scope of the environmental movement. However, Jensen appears to be right for all the wrong reasons. While his stance is certainly not unfounded, it fails to encompass the subtle intricacies of the problem, instead opting for a broad and clumsy approach to an otherwise delicate situation. His attitude falls not in the realm of optimism or pessimism, but a type of idealistic realism that pays no heed to the innate complexities of the reality we live in.

On one hand, and as Derrick Jensen argues in Forget Shorter Showers, it’s ridiculous to expect people to believe that they are personally responsible, through daily choices like shorter showers, for overcoming the structural constraints preventing society from moving towards sustainability. On the other hand, given the embeddedness of corporate power within the political system, it is likewise ridiculous to expect people to believe that policies will be reformed, or that reformed policies will go sufficiently far towards achieving the goal of sustainability.

With environmental problems and the challenge of transitioning to a sustainable society, there are no easy answers to leave students with at the end of the semester. Our obligation, then, is not so much to teach them specific strategies for achieving the goal. Instead my objective is to give them the skills to think carefully, logically and critically about both the environmental and societal changes they are seeing around them and the ability to use those skills to apply themselves in real and meaningful ways to the changes they identify as having the potential to drive the transition to an equitable, just and sustainable future.

A mural in Richmond, CA

A mural in Richmond, CA

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