Newsletter 45: Divide and Conquer

I am what you might call a tree-hugger. If there’s an earthy-crunchy cause, chances are I am in favor of it. At the same time, I am aware that natural isn’t the same as desirable; drinking hemlock can kill you almost as fast as being shot with a bullet. I have to remember this distinction when I get into arguments over biotechnology or organic farming. Are genetically modified brinjals a good idea? Can we feed nine billion people without them? There’s no end to the debate once you go down that rabbit hole. The simplest way to respond might be:

We may not be able to feed nine billion people without intensive genetically modified agriculture. However, that’s a reason why we need fewer than nine billion people on earth in the first place.

The standard developmental model is deceptively seductive. Read the Economist often enough and you will inevitably read lines like: growth is the only proven method to lift millions out of poverty in one generation or less. Proof: China. It’s more or less impossible to counter this argument. The horror of sweatshops and the destruction of the environment are all washed away by photos of young men and women in smart clothes walking into a gleaming skyscraper. First grow, then save the environment.

That logic is doubly interesting. It starts with changing our desires: we want to walk into gleaming skyscrapers rather than sweat over a paddy field. Then it turns the environment into a liberal, upper middle class cause, pitting mothers in comfortable suburbs against single mothers in the working class. I have my issues with the post-growth tree-hugger. Their model of flourishing is what we find in Europe today - far greener than India but an utterly human dominated green; the forest as an extended garden rather than wilderness.

Coming back to the division between nature and humanity, I am fascinated by that divide and conquer strategy and its subtle simplicity. When the labor movement was threatening to take ownership away from the capitalist elite, they used the race card in a similar way - by making factories in the northern United States a source of employment for Southern blacks and a ticket out of racial oppression. By offering jobs to Southern blacks in Detroit, they created divisions between two large pools of poor people: working class white people and most black people. Now the same logic is being used to divide those who want to save the earth from those who are still struggling to make ends meet. Environmentalists are termed anti-people and who wants to be anti-people?

One of the advantages of power is the ability to shape beliefs and desires. We struggle against those who thwart our desires but what can we do when our desires are shaped by the very people whom we might protest? The battle is lost once we all want to walk into gleaming skyscrapers. We can protest the glass ceiling and demand admission in the elevator that takes us to the top floor. An office coup might replace the white man with a brown woman, but the penthouse has room only for one person.