The Morrison government’s new-found enthusiasm for electric vehicles will plunder the land for lithium, copper and nickel like never before – and destroy any incentive to invest in public transport. But in Crimes Against Nature, Jeff Sparrow deftly shows that capitalism only ever attaches itself to environmental causes where it sees the opportunity for new markets. For the very reasons the automotive industry cheered on the collapse of Philadelphia’s Electric Vehicle Company in 1899, it now embraces this very technology.
In this series of interlinked essays, Sparrow repeatedly exposes received wisdom as a public relations con. When car giants faced fury over road deaths, they invented the “jaywalker”. When the American population decried the waste of disposable cups, industry conceived the “litterbug”. When global heating became a public concern, BP asked citizens to consider their own “carbon footprint”. In each case, vested interests shifted responsibility onto the individual – giving corporations free rein to expand their destructive activities.
Sparrow tells these stories with the lucidity and animation of a true crime podcast. He dissects the reactionary nature of placing mankind in opposition to nature: it not only erases millennia of Indigenous peoples’ relative harmony with the natural world, but seeks to preserve nature for the select few destroying it for everyone else. He is fearless too in his criticism of progressives who write off their fellow citizens as uncaring and complicit in global warming. That corporations invested in such sophisticated public relations campaigns shows they “understand something about ordinary people that escapes many environmentalists”: that ordinary people are not “innately greedy or selfish”.
Yet if capital holds the power and will always act to enrich itself, how can we possibly turn the tide on the existential threat to the planet? Sparrow dismissively lumps worthwhile collective actions – such as voting and demonstrating – in with individual ones such as recycling, but he makes a powerful case for workplace organising as a force for social good. His prime exemplar is the “green bans” launched by rank-and-file construction workers in the early 1970s, which protected Sydney from wealthy developers. They demonstrated that class is not simply “a way to talk about injustice” but “provides a basis on which a response to that injustice might be organised”.
Sparrow is weaker on social dynamics further from the New World. He views the Soviets’ environmental destruction as a Stalinist counter-revolution, without pausing to consider Russia’s pressing need to industrialise for its political survival – itself a product of capitalist encirclement. He also romanticises the feudal relations of British precapitalist society.
But even these wobbles stem from his unassailable faith in human nature. Amid the doom and gloom of so much contemporary environmentalism, that is worthy of applause.
Scribe, 240pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "Crimes Against Nature: Capitalism and Global Heating, Jeff Sparrow".
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