Eco-Capitalism: A Dream within a Dream?

  • October 31, 2010

Culture & Critique

A dangerous idea is being planted inside our minds: the inception of an ‘environmentally friendly’ form of consumer capitalism. We need a kick to awaken us from this dream and help us realize that we cannot shop our way out of ecological crisis.

All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

~ Edgar Allan Poe

We all know at least some of them – those socially and ecologically conscious ‘Green’ hipsters. Upper middle class yuppies who love to drink fair trade lattes, who buy their organic veggies at the farmers market, and who cannot wait to buy their first Toyota Prius. South Park ran a brilliant sketch on the obnoxious self-righteousness of these smug cosmopolitan liberals. But for all the jokes that can be leveled at the postmodern hypocrisy of this stereotypical iPhone-wielding Green bourgeois, there is a dangerous subconscious assumption that undergirds his mindset and that silently keeps the hyperconsumerist project of credit-fueled capitalism alive: the idea that humanity can shop its way to salvation – averting ecological catastrophe through the conscious purchase of only those excessively priced products that carry a fancy, guilt-reducing, status-enhancing eco-label.

This dangerous idea undergirds the recent adaptation of capitalism in response to rising ecological concern among affluent North-American and West-European urbanites. The greening of the bourgeoisie is leading to the emergence of eco-capitalism, a development naively praised by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins in their best-selling book Natural Capitalism. The expansion of private property and the never-ending quest for capital accumulation remain the predominant dynamics of the eco-capitalist system – only now businessmen have learned that there is actually money to be made catering towards the social and environmental guilt of educated white liberals. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci would have referred to the inception of today’s triple bottom-line as a classic instance of ‘passive revolution’. For anyone concerned with genuine transformation, recent developments are starting to look more and more like a bad Hollywood movie.

A recent example that comes to mind is Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster, Inception, in which a small group of tricksters led by Dom Cobb come together for the greatest mental heist of all time. A set of mysterious technologies allow Cobb and company to infiltrate the dreams of their client’s competitor to perform ‘inception’ – the planting of an idea into the mind of the dreamer. However, to make their ideas stick, Cobb needs to penetrate deep into the subconscious of his victim, requiring him to create and enter a dream inside the dream (and a dream inside that one). Only at this level of the subliminal mind can Cobb and his team of industrial spies truly manipulate their subject’s way of thinking, molding his mind to generate vast profits for their businessman client.

At first sight, this phantasmal story seems to be best reserved for the silver screens of Hollywood. Upon closer inspection, however, Nolan’s storyline shows a haunting correspondence to our present-day predicament of rampant consumer capitalism. Without ever really being aware of it, our half-dreaming minds are being infiltrated every single day by the industrial hitmen of marketing and PR departments from around the world. In this context of carefully manufactured hyperconsumerism, inception is not just a fancy Hollywood idea or a box office goldmine – bizarrely enough, it is the very guiding principle of our present political and economic system.

Someone who was presciently aware of this was Edward Bernays. Bernays is widely considered to be a “pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda.” His 1995 obituary celebrated him as ‘the father of public relations’. His widely influential publications include Propaganda (1928) and The Engineering of Consent (1947). Not coincidentally, Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he made ample use of his uncle’s theories to become “one of the first to attempt to manipulate public opinion using the subconscious.” As such, Bernays was instrumental in creating the 20th century American ‘dream‘ of consumer capitalism. Bernays was Cobb: the ultimate inception artist.

Applying Freud’s theories to his campaigns for major capitalist firms like Proctor & Gamble, Best Foods, General Electric and Dodge Motors, Bernays laid the very foundations for the field of marketing. Working for the American Tobacco Company in the 1920s, he helped open up a market spanning half the country’s population by successfully breaking the taboo on women smoking in public. Bernays simply hired twenty photo models and sent them to a feminist protest march informing the media that beautiful women would be burning ‘Torches of Freedom’ in the streets of New York. Instantly, Lucky Strikes sales went through the roof.

In the early 1950s, Bernays campaigned for the United Fruit Company – now Chiquita Brands International – and successfully planted the idea in the public mind that Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was really a communist, allowing the U.S. government to ‘legitimately’ overthrow Guzman in a CIA-sponsored coup d’état by the more pro-capitalist dictator Carlos Castillo Armas. By this time, the word propaganda had fallen into disrepair because of its frighteningly effective application by totalitarian spin masters like Goebbels and Stalin. Bernays conceived and adopted the more benevolent-sounding term ‘public relations’, which remains our euphemism for capitalist propaganda today.

Describing his philosophy, Bernays famously wrote that:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.

Ever since the ‘postmodern revolution’ of the 1960s, the Western world has witnessed the steady rise of ecological concern among the affluent middle classes of the developed world. Rather than posing a threat to the survival of capitalism, as some have argued, the environmentalist critique emanating from the postmaterial counterculture has actually been smoothly integrated into the capitalist project through the embrace of the hollow notions of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and the triple bottom-line. As a result, in the last couple of years we have witnessed the gradual convergence of these three concepts into an evolving system of eco-capitalism. Nowadays, every single bank, business and baby-boomer entrepreneur claims to be the greenest in town. Being Green has become a fashion statement, an affirmation of status, a sign of moral superiority – and above all, a business asset in a highly competitive marketplace.

As many intellectuals from Thorsten Veblen to Jean Baudrillard have realized over the decades, consumption is not just about meeting physical needs. The act of consumption is essentially social and comparative in nature. It is pursued to provide the individual with a sense of meaning, status and identity. Pierre Bourdieu would have added that the very act of consumption reproduces ‘symbolic violence’ by systematically excluding those who cannot participate in the ‘dream’ for reasons of socio-economic disparity. As such, organic food and hybrid cars have remained narrowly confined to the higher income levels of society, allowing its ‘environmentally friendly’ consumers to revel in a sense of moral superiority and pride. Because its very pursuit has remained the privilege of the higher classes, conscious consumption has hardly made a dent in the Sisyphean quest for sustainability.

The infamous Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, refers to the system’s new modus operandi as ‘cultural capitalism’. The consumer products that are sold now include in their price not just the commodified value of the actual product, but also the symbolic cost of its very repair and redemption. A Starbucks coffee simultaneously provides you with a caffeine injection, a sense of relaxation and community, and a ticket to heaven, because you charitably over-compensated the poor Guatemalan farmers who harvested your coffee beans.

In other words, while we are happily destroying people’s livelihoods on the one hand through our incessant consumption of entirely unnecessary products, we are on the other hand capable of redeeming ourselves instantly through the conscious consumption of carbon offsets and fair trade price premiums. In order to allow our consumption-driven economic model to be continued in an era of ever-increasing humanitarian and environmental concern, marketing and PR departments have cleverly redefined the act of consumption as the very means by which individuals can display their altruism. It is the ultimate dream within a dream – real life inception at its very best.

We need to wake up from this dream and start seeing through the thinly veiled hypocrisy of postmodern eco-capitalism. Outside the realm of dreams, driving a brand new Toyota Prius has actually been found to cause more carbon emissions than driving this sweet Hummer. This is not a reason to buy an actual Hummer – it is a reason to refrain from unnecessarily buying a brand new car in the first place. After all, at rock bottom, we cannot shop our way out of the ecological crisis, whatever far-fetched ideas Bernays’ heirs may manage to plant into our heads.

Just as in Inception, the deeper we get stuck within our carefully manufactured dream state, the more we will start confusing it with reality. Like Cobb and company, we are already so profoundly anaesthetized that we will probably need a kick to jolt us back into a waking state. If we miss the kick, we could get caught in limbo and be stuck here for the next 100 years – slowly turning into soulless zombies, mindlessly consuming whatever we are made to dream of, and gradually losing touch with the infinitely greater reality that exists outside of the shopping mall and farmers market.

We simply cannot afford to let that happen.

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Jerome Roos

Jerome Roos is an LSE Fellow in International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the founding editor of ROAR Magazine. For more on his research and writing, visit jeromeroos.com.

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