In Defense of a Grey Ecology: The Amphibology of the Greenest Green and the Blackest Black

It is probably narcissistic to think that the last paragraph of Owen’s recent Guardian piece is due in part to a conversation we recently had when he was visiting Nottingham, but during that conversation I talked to him about the importance of a militant urban ecology for facing the current ecological crisis. In truth I shouldn’t say crisis, because in a time where there is nothing but crises and crises that the capitalist system feeds off of we risk losing our bearings, we risk distraction, and the kind of hysteric worry that comes when one is assured that there is no real hope of coming through the crisis. This is not a crisis, it is but a spur, a spur to think more rationally, more humanly in the generic sense, towards a kind of disinterested, unalienated earthly humanity. So what follows is a bit of a note on Owen’s piece in an effort not just to combat the usual stupidity of the comments that litter CiF, but the stupidity of the “green” movement itself. That stupidity that thinks the answer to the ecological crisis is hair shirts, apologies to Gaia for being human, and the working towards the death of millions in the name of some kind of “respect for nature”.

The good news of ecology, like that of Spinoza, is that “everything is natural”. “The-Natural” (here using Laruelle’s symbolization to indicate a kind of hallucinatory authority that hobbles the human and thought) is no longer a source of evaluation, no longer does the proximity of something to the-Natural indicate some kind of divine analogy that places it above other entities. The “green” movements, at least as given voice by the confused Luddites posting on Owen’s piece, are only green in some pathetic pastoral sense. Thinking that somehow the green grass of the shire, so pleasant to a certain kind of middle class European aesthetic, indicates that the countryside will always be more natural than the city. Everywhere there are human beings, for these naive pastoral reactionaries, there is grey and what is grey is not green, or so they think. But nature is not pastoral, or more precisely nature is not just pastoral. An ecological understanding of nature shows us that wherever there is an exchange of energy between the living, the dead, and the never-living there we will find nature for there is an ecosystem. If we were to make the mistake of placing nature merely within the pastoral we would create an endless war between ecosystems, we would aim to kill other viable and healthy ecosystems in the name of a green image. In short, the naive pastoral reactionaries have no respect for nature, they have an undue hatred for unpleasant nature – they would have us kill the red and brown desert in the name of an ecological imperialism begun by their European ancestors centuries before (see Crosby‘s Ecological Imperialism).

Those pastoral reactionaries are have hijacked ecology, they have distorted its message of peace, that everything is natural, and remain completely uncritical of their own middle class aesthetics. Some comments on Owen’s piece rightly point out that a low-carbon footprint is not the only criteria for an ecologically resilient and productive human dwelling in an ecosystem (what is usually meant by the obscusifatory “green” label). I suspect the implication the commenter was trying to push was that city’s are inherently not green because they encourage a disconnect between humans and nature, when you’re in the city you don’t think about Gaia like you’re supposed to. This is, in the strongest Deleuzian sense, stupid. The city is an ecosystem, it can even be a healthy ecosystem (though we need to work at that, which involves more social dwelling together in public transportation, dwellings, and like, not less of the social). The reality is that the human is never not in touch with nature, how would that even be ecologically possible? What Owen’s article leaves out are other reasons, unrelated to carbon footprint, for why bigger and more concentrated cities are more ecologically resilient than some Gordon Ramsey fantasy of everyone escaping to the countryside to grow their own food and kill their own animals. In short, that sort of life is not sustainable for human beings, unless you want to see millions of human beings die, and mostly those human beings who are already in the global south living in massive amounts of poverty, then you must have an ecological policy that sees ecologically resilient cities as important, as the lynch pin, for a more eco-rational dwelling on the earth.

When you separate yourself out from the rest of humanity in the interest of being “more natural” you only show yourself as one who has a hatred of nature. If humanity is to survive and, more than that, if humanity is to live ecologically, you should pull up stakes and buy a flat or become a farmer that works for the commons, that is to produce food for the rest of humanity. Otherwise you just repeat a kind of pathetic American dream of self-reliance, a desire to live unecologically. In short, there is an unacknowledged alliance between those petulant middle class thinkers of darkness, who reveal in the illness and sores of humanity, and the middle class greenies who create an environmental ideology separate from ecology. An environmentalism without regard for the poor, without a place for those living the slums, a place where animals are respected in so far as they, and not some asshole in a kebab shop, knew who they were.

If you’d like to read more on the technical nature of how an urban response to resilient ecological dwelling can happen I’d suggest Lipow’s free on-line book. If you really care about the environment, of which human beings are a part as a place of exchange of energy, please put down your Wendell Berry and get on the subway. Cities, as a site of the commons, are kind of a big fucking deal.

39 thoughts on “In Defense of a Grey Ecology: The Amphibology of the Greenest Green and the Blackest Black

  1. Hear, hear. You mean Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, not Gordon Ramsey though, surely.

    The kind of collective structures of self-help like allotments, where surplus is given to those who can’t work, or exchanged for commodities you don’t have, in densely populated city areas is a far better solution to providing low carbon footprint food than returning to the little farm etc. Indeed, in Bristol they are already doing this, the St Werburghs is both beautiful and practical.

    See also Murray Bookchin on lifestyle anarchism, for a critique along similar lines, of certain pro-primitive tendencies in anarchism ––lifestyle-anarchism-murray-bookchin

  2. Ramsey has a similar bullshit thing going on. A lot of the celebrity chefs do, but you are right that HFW is probably the worst (though weirdly the least annoying on a personal level). I give Jaime “Sainsbury’s” Oliver a half-pass because he at least pushed for a form of subsidized “real food” that would, if writ large, move that kind of better approach to eating out of a middle class lifestyelism and into a form of holding health and good food in common.

  3. Jamie Oliver’s stuff on school dinners seems to be toward this kind of subsidised good food thing. Pity the government haven’t really picked it up.

    I guess you are right about Ramsey, but his company don’t give a real shit about the enviroment. Jay Rayner, food critic, asked his company to offset the huge quantities of carbon they belch into the atmosphere flying steaks out to Dubai and Las Vegas – a common practice for starred restaurants. They refused and the director basically told him he had seen on tv that global warming is a scam.

  4. A lot of “localists” don’t accept that there is climate change going on. Ramsey is a good example of the kind of ideological environmentalism common to the “Green revolution” and why, in this instance, the political movement needs to undergo a scientific ultimatum.

  5. I’m having trouble finding serious disagreement between what you seem to be after, and Wendell Berry’s own kind of ecological agrarianism, which don’t seem to me as naive regarding ‘civilization’ as your last line suggests.
    I take his concerns, as well as those of someone like Michael Pollan, for instance, to be fairly nuanced in understanding the impracticality of a vision that is counter-city per se. The criticism seems to be of the kind of thing cities are when disconnected from rural commonwealths by global capitalism.

    I take it you read Berry rather differently? (That’s an honest inquiry; he’s not my grandad or anything.)

  6. Scott,

    I don’t know if Berry is the direct object of my polemic here. He’s written a lot and I’ve only read a few essays. I would have to put in more work to understand Berry in himself, so to speak, but I have had a lot of conversations with Berryites and heard people speak claiming to be thinking under Berry’s influence where these themes emerge. My real concern is not an anti-rural narrative, but an ecological way of thinking. I don’t think that the Berryites are doing that, they are thinking aesthetically first and very rarely putting their thought under the axioms of ecology.

    Where do you find Berry to be saying similar things?

  7. Anthony,
    The fact that you imply “Berryite” to be the same as “Wendell Berry” is the problem. Environmental writers and thinkers are more often than not hyper-aware of exactly the same things you’re talking about, while the fair-weather bumpersticker types often are not. But that’s like blaming Marx for Stalinism or whatever; you can criticize the writers for the readers who selectively read them only by distorting what was originally said. Now, because environmental activists are often in the business of getting people to put bumper stickers on their cars in service of more thoroughly thought-through issues, the aesthetic/affective appeal often seems to take precedence (in a way that might legitimately be seen as a failing) over the more rigorous argument. But that’s not to say that the thinkers, activists, and writers themselves are themselves *ignorant* of the things you’re saying; in my experience they tend to be the exact opposite.

  8. I wonder if something could be said of making the most, ecologically-speaking, of where you’re at — whether it be in the middle of a city, a rural landscape, or a suburb/exurb. There are means of thinking ecologically in all of them, I should think. The city being the most notable, due to the the fact of its density and sheer size. The freedom of movement, between city, suburb, rural areas, etc., is a fairly recent phenomenon, and arguably following through on this freedom hasn’t been a boon for any of the regions.

  9. I’m thinking of people who really do move out to the country, not bumpersticker types, but I completely agree with you otherwise. I’ve often defended the environmental movement from those on the left who are anti-environmentalist. Things like Climate Camp in the UK, for example, I think are doing really good things and on a large level, but I would like to see them make the urban element of this more explicit and more front and centre.

  10. It seems to me that there are people other than bumper-sticker morons who hold the opinions that Anthony is critiquing, even if Wendell Berry isn’t one of them — unless someone holding that position is by definition left out of the class of “environmental writer.”

  11. Adam,
    My point wasn’t to exonerate all environments categorically, but to add nuance to Anthony’s argument. But I do think that people who have spent their lives thinking about these issues tend to be quite quick to understand the kind of point Anthony is making here; many of them make that point themselves. You can read Wendell Berry on the subway, basically, and should; it’s not an either-or, and we’ll do better at both if we recognize the kinds of coalitions that are made possible that way. One of the chief benefits of living in subway land is so that you don’t live in suburbia and interstate land, which opens up space and resources for Wendell Berry land.

  12. I can’t recall the book/essay/interview, but I do recall reading Berry say very explicitly that having a farm isn’t for everybody. He bought a chunk of his farm, I know; but I was under the impression he inherited a large part of it, as well. Which, to me, speaks to what I was mentioned in my comment above.

    I’m not all that well-read w/r/t Berry, but the one thing I’ve always appreciated about his work is his very concrete awareness of the problem of rural poverty, which is all too often ignored by the agrarian utopians who have most prominently taken him up.

  13. I don’t want to beat on a dead horse here, since Anthony has already indicated that he’s not critiquing Berry so much as a certain kind of vague agrarian-mindset, and I’m not extremely well read in Berry, either, but I do think that Berry escapes this kind of mindset. I’m afraid he might be getting lumped in with this kind of thinking because that’s how a lot of evangelicals seem to “read” him. I don’t have either of my essay collections with me at school, but just as an anecdotal experience: I worked on a “urban farm” a few years ago, developing various plots of land (empty housing plots, old baseball fields, etc.) for a community that is pretty down-and-out. Berry was a pretty big influence on the main people that I worked with. What I’ve read of Berry I find to be helpful in terms of mindset and how to look at the world. I’m not sure I’ve read much in the way of concrete (no pun intended) suggestions. If nothing else, he helps to interrupt the glazed over complacency of the middle class–but if he’s to be useful for what’s being talked about here, he needs to be rescued from the sort of agrarian utopian thought that is sometimes represented by this vague ‘green’ movement (and perhaps he is guilty of this at times).

    After writing all that, and re-reading the comments, I find myself wishing I had access to Berry at school, because Anthony’s point about aesthetics over ecology is a pretty direct one that resonates with my experience of talking to others about Berry, though not with my experience working on an urban farm.

  14. “You can read Wendell Berry on the subway”

    I agree with that and I think you’re right I need to be less polemical and nuanced to really express these points more forcefully. Thank you.

    In whole, though, what I am trying to say is that cities need to be at the centre of a rethinking of society organized around ecological science and principles. Agrarianism, as an ideology that privileges the rural over the urban, is destructive to that task, though obviously some kind of “agrarianity” is necessary (just in the same way urbanism would be destructive but an urbanity is necessary).

  15. It’s still unclear to me why an ecological vision demands cities ‘at the centre’? Is this just a reactionary gesture in lieu of the overly-aestheticized pastoralists – i.e., “a lot of fucking people live here” – or am I missing a more substantive link between the city and your understanding of ecology?

  16. An ecological vision can involve anything for its centre, I’m talking about an actual eco-political programme for redoing society. That requires cities to be at its centre because the majority of human beings will need to live in cities and those cities will need to be rethought within the ecological paradigm. I also think, on the basis of my understanding (which is open to revision), that cities are the best place to put human beings if they are going to participate in a resilient biosphere.

  17. Not that I would build any kind of ecology on this, but it is interesting that the narrative arc of the Bible is the departure from the garden (eden) to the city (new jerusalem).

  18. i guess another, less theoretical, way into the argument (for those who remain unconvinced) is to start with a smaller example – if we consider the all-to-obvious class issues involved with being ‘green’ and consumerism.

    the onus to be friendly to the environment is placed upon the consumer, much more so than on the producer or the state. in fact, it is the state and particular the producers who place this onus upon ‘us’ as consumers. for example, why should there be a ‘green’ alternative to a household cleaning product? why is it not required by law that they are all as ‘unharmful’ as possible? producers don’t really care about being ‘green’, but profit (and the state largely serves these producers). one way to make green profitable is to play off on its symbolic value, marketing it to middle/upper classes.

    (i have seen brands which basically recreate the aesthetics assoicated ‘green’ packaging but if you read the print on the packaging themselves, the products themselves are bog standard. they are not ‘green’ or especially environmentally friendly in anyway – a pure example of symbolic value of ‘greenness’).

    to be ‘green’ is a privilege that few can afford. in one of jamie oliver’s shows, there are interviews with working/lower-class mothers who talk about how, yes, they would love to buy organic chicken to feed their families with if it didn’t cost double that of cheaper chicken available. this way of being green simply isn’t viable for everyone.

    and this smaller ‘lifestyle’ example is indicative of wider ‘lifestyle choices’ that you’re talking about – whether one gets to live ‘off grid’ in the middle of nowhere or in the run-down parts of a city. if we follow this model of greenness, for some, there is no feasible way of being green even if they so desire. so, if you pardon my polemics: to think ecologically is to not only consider all ‘habitats’ (from the city to the country) as part of nature, but all things and all people as part of an ecosystem too. it is not about lifestyle, but about life.

  19. I think it’s probably important not to fixate on Anthony’s rather throwaway pay off about Berry. He was just using him as vague example, and could have used any number of writers. As I pointed out, this pro-rural stuff also occurs in a number of strands of green anarchism also and is just as irksome: the technical term is ‘anti-civ’ and it was and is widespread. Ditto strands of deep ecology.


    Great point. I’ve never understood why, when it is clear that it is deeply cruel, that battery farming for eggs isn’t just outright banned by the state, just as child labour is outright banned by the state. Or if they really cared about ethics, Tesco or whoever would simply say “no battery eggs in our stores”. No one would talk of consumers choice to buy clothes which are directly produced in sweat shops, why do they do it with eggs? The only reason is the profit motive. I think to soften the blow, the government could subsidise eggs for a bit. They could even use a bit of NHS budget to do so, extending this to other healthy eating options rather than doing pointless campaigns on public health. Is this really that difficult?

  20. There is excellent work being done by Norman Wirzba, from Duke, which is deeply indebted to Berry but takes it a bit further. In particular, his article “Why Agrarianism Matters – even to Urbanites” comes to mind here. (from The Essential Agrarian Reader, which Wirzba edited.)

    In my reading of Berry I have come to think he gives a very mixed view of cities. What Wirzba clarifies is that there is the place of concrete practices which the agrarians generally offer, and how cities insulate us from these things. That those in the city could recover some of these ecological practices remains to be seen, but is certainly possible.

  21. Yeah, Wirzba is someone I very much disagree with. The idea that agrarians are the only ones with “concrete practices” is just confusing to me. How is it that cities insulate us from them? Because we’re not digging in the dirt? That’s a strange view of human society and just the kind I find repugnant, slipping in a notion that we’re only half-human unless we have our own plot of land. Again, actual ecology here is helpful as it shows that other entities within the ecosystem rely on other entities for energy. Are they then alienated from them because they are cheated of “concrete practices”? No.

  22. It seems to me a rather uncharitable reading of Wirzba and Berry as stating we’re only half-human unless we’re digging in the dirt. While they both continually (and to my mind, rightly) emphasize what has been lost (culturally, politically, ecologically) in the mass migration to cities, they nowhere imply that everyone should move back to the country. Berry, in particular, has continually expounded just the opposite. Here you are right to insist that arguing for a ‘return to nature’ in the purely aesthetic sense is middle-class nonsense, totally out of touch with ecological realities, and Berry would agree with you.

    However, I cannot follow why you critique the ‘stupid’ notion of this article, “that city’s are inherently not green because they encourage a disconnect between humans and nature, when you’re in the city you don’t think about Gaia like you’re supposed to” but then you go on to propose “an ecological policy that sees ecologically resilient cities as important, as the lynch pin, for a more eco-rational dwelling on the earth.” If we need to make cities more ecologically resilient, mustn’t that involve healthy and meaningful connections with the wider ecosystems?

    To my mind the issue is in how we can develop ecologically resilient cities, when those cities are full of people who have no concrete (or even theoretical) awareness of how they are situated ecologically. While you are right that ecology shows examples of creatures living off of others for energy, taking this by analogy to the common city-dweller (with such rampant consumption and waste who lives almost wholly detached from the farming communities on which they depend) cannot be the sort of resiliency you are desiring. Of course this does not assume alternatives are unavailable, it just insists that what we see now in cities needs revision – and revision in line with ecology more than aesthetics, as you say.

    It is here that I find Wirzba and Berry as providing a helpful critique of the city, inasmuch as it has lost touch with ecology. As Wirzba states, “The biological character of human life requires us to pay attention to biological realities… Without these connections our lives are severely diminished.” Would you agree? If so, then the question becomes not whether to move to the country or stay in the city, but how in either case to cultivate sustainable practices, and I think for these to actually affect city-dwellers they must at some level, become concrete. There are, I realize, many instances where this is being done, but how this shall unfold long-term and become ingrained in policy remains an open question.


  23. Also, along the lines of Sarah’s comment — why should we have to be conscious of “where our food is coming from,” etc.? Isn’t one of the reasons we have a government to have people take care of that for us? I mean, The Girlfriend now gets a CSA box and so now we’re much more righteous, etc., but wouldn’t it be better if unsustainable and inhumane farming practices were simply against the law and we could all move on with life?

  24. You are being a bit pedantic, Adam. I think the point that is being made is that there is a cognitive disconnect in terms of the cities material connections to the larger ecosystem. I.e. the phenomenology of food in many cities is that it appears in a store in fully processed form and is then purchased and consumed. This “disconnect” serves to cognitively insulate city dwellers from the dissonance that would no doubt emerge had they a fuller comprehension of the actual food production change.

    So I think there can be an artificial emphasis on “agrarianism” as a universal ideal which must be resisted, but in the same sense that cities must be relevant because of empirical factors (the argument I take Anthony to be making) farms, of some sort, will also be relevant, even if we aren’t all called to be farmers. I take the best of the Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry, etc. tradition not to be calling for a return to the land in a wholesale, homogenous sense that we should all become yeoman farmers, but that a more transparent connection between city and farm will actually mobilize conceptual and social capital towards sustainability. If they valorize the yeoman farmer, it is because he or she represented a relatively sustainable arrangement (in some historical context) from which we might build, not necessarily that it constitutes the proper future arrangement of food production.

  25. It would be great if agricultural regulation led to sustainability, but in practice it seems to be geared towards pricing out smaller sustainable operations and supporting corporate, factory type setups. Now… we could wait around until the government stops disproportionately favoring wealthy and powerful super-corporations… or we could try to think of something that might actually happen.

  26. So much of this stuff, though, seems to be driven by the fantasy that if everything was more transparent, people would choose, en masse, the better or more sustainable model. But why would they? In the absense of any assurance that other people would also choose these (probably more expensive, in the short run) options, it seems as though we’d have pretty much the same situation we have now — which is that the people who have the luxury of paying a little extra for a feeling of moral righteousness would do so, and everyone else would keep calorie-maximizing at McDonald’s. Sitting around and waiting for the agglomeration of individual choices to “make the difference” does not seem obviously more correct than sitting around and waiting for the government to force people to do the right thing. On either front, I’m not sure what the average individual can do other than put their stuff in the recycle bin so that it can be thrown in with the rest of the garbage.

  27. It couldn’t hurt though. At least anecdotally, I’m sure we all know several people that have been moved to change their food consumption habits as a result of increased knowledge about food production. That may be an exclusively bourgeois phenomenon, but it’s still a net positive and can be a contributor to positive change.

    I think the larger issue is that, far from just failing to regulate agriculture properly, the government is actively engaged in practices that support unsustainable practices and inferior quality food. When you look behind the curtain on something like corn subsidies… it’s truly appalling how things operate.

    The deal with sustainable food is that it need not be exceedingly expensive and it tastes better, so in the absence of artificial negative pressure, it ought to actually be able to make inroads, but there is real negative pressure from powerful ag lobbies and their government cronies. I don’t think this is a zero sum game situation where we are ultimately going to be forcing people to do something they don’t want to do. There are going to be short run costs, but I feel like, just like energy, once the infrastructure is reconfigured and the technology slightly advances, it is a net win for everyone, except the old guard in the status quo that happen to control most things currently.

  28. I guess the individual piety stuff at least has the value of potentially signalling to someone with actual power that this is an issue people care about. But whatever concrete, direct net good it does is negligible. If I personally stop eating meat, who gives a fuck? If I personally convince ten other people to join me, still, who gives a fuck? Yet if you talk to people about these issues, they act like it’s the biggest deal in the world what I personally do. I can imagine getting into a conversation with someone and having passions be really high — both from self-righteous people and from people who have run into one too many self-righteous people. Under the current regime, I’m with St. Paul — don’t ask where your food is coming from, so you can be a good guest. Or Jesus: use your dishonest wealth to make friends.

  29. Does not your final idea there, Adam, re: Paul & Jesus, concede way too much to the “current regime”? — simply because, near as I can tell, the world is filled with prats? One is, after all, not always a guest; and doesn’t Jesus have a few things to say about the honest poor as well.

  30. I take your overall point, though, re: individual action. Your concern is precisely the thing, I think, that Anthony’s emphasis on ecology in some form addresses.

    As for me, I just don’t see any possibility at all of any other major system coming into place w/out a certain segment of the population/individuals somehow calling for it. (Or, alternatively, assembling themselves, collectively.) Any such new system will necessarily make demands on individuals. Far easier for those demands to be accepted en masse if people are already on-board w/ their overall necessity. (This, I think, is esp. important in the U.S.)

    Where I agree w/ you is that the trick is to NOT believe that you’re individual activity matters — i.e. to NOT believe that you’re saving the world. If anything, I think we need a certain critical mass of people who do not believe in the efficacy of their individual actions. I’m uncertain that this “disbelief” can be separated from the individual actions, though, without complacency and resignation setting in.

  31. Sorry, I’m at a conference for a few days so it’s hard for me to keep up with the conversation right now.

    Matt (and Hill to an extent),

    The problem is that you’re assuming that cities are somehow inherently unecological and that the countryside is already ecologically resilient. That’s not the case. It also makes no ecological sense to say that people who live in cities are “disconnected” from their food. You’re bringing in a notion of authenticity from religion and philosophy that isn’t ecologically coherent, it has to be reworked under an ecological condition.

    More should be said, but I hope this acts as a placeholder and I’ll be posting again on this in a few days.

  32. If anything farming, even in a traditional manner before the advent of the aggriculture revolution, is incredibly ecologically destructive, in the sense that it is disruptive of the ecosystem. For example, in the United Kingdom, almost all aspects associated with the countryside, rolling hills, small woods, hedgerows etc. are in fact disruptions by humans, the cutting down of huge forests, the bringing of many generations of domestic animals onto the land etc etc. Thus the current destruction of the rainforests to graze cattle repeats at a far faster level, what occured in Europe.

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