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Thread: Why A Hipster, Vegan, Green Tech Economy Is Not Sustainable

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    Why A Hipster, Vegan, Green Tech Economy Is Not Sustainable

    Improving eco-efficiency within a capitalist growth-oriented system will not save the environment.

    Source: Aljazeera

    On the western borderlands of Montreal's well-to-do Outremont district and the ultra-hipsterised and gentrified Mile End lies an expanse of land where the University of Montreal is currently building a new science campus. Just across is Parc-Extension, one of Canada's poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods and a port of call for many newly arrived immigrants.

    The new campus has been touted as a model of "sustainable development". It boasts LEED-certified buildings to reduce environmental impact, rainwater collection structures, energy-efficient lighting and heat recycling, infrastructure for electric vehicles and bikes, lots of greenery, and overall, a minimal carbon footprint. A number of tech companies, including Microsoft's new AI Hub, are moving in and are expected to further enhance the "eco-efficiency" of the area.

    The unspoken expectation is that once the green new campus is completed, capital and economic growth will naturally flow into the area. This means nearby neighbourhoods will get "revitalised", especially the poorer ones, like Parc-Extension.

    Thus, immigrant-owned grocery stores, halal butcheries and community centres will soon be replaced by vegan chain restaurants, hip vintage clothing joints, organic food stores and coffee-shops galore, as landlords push out poor tenants to make space for more well-to-do ones.

    In the process, the implicit socio-economic violence behind gentrification will be invariably "greenwashed" and presented as development that would make the area more "sustainable", "beautiful" and "modern".

    Unfortunately, creation by destruction is what capitalism does best, and its damaging practices are anything but green. This market-driven "sustainable" vision of economic activity, ecological-conscious diets and "hipness" within modern capitalism reinforce inequality and still hurt the environment.

    Before I proceed further with my argument, I should mention that I am an academic, living in a "hip" part of Montreal and engage in activities that follow a particular aesthetic ethos, all of which make me very much a part of the reality I critique below. My aim is not to moralise, but rather to highlight the dangers of a political and economic system that profits from deceiving perhaps well-meaning self-proclaimed progressive folks into believing that a greener, more efficient capitalism is possible.

    The illusion of 'sustainable development'

    The term "sustainable development" was first introduced at the UN Earth Summit in 1992. At that time, Western governments espousing neoliberalism had just spent the whole previous decade dismantling unions, environmental regulations, and Keynesian welfare programmes and were looking to spread their practices elsewhere, as major geopolitical threats to a fully global and universal capitalist development trajectory were beginning to wane.

    At the backdrop of these developments, concerns over environmental degradation and social inequality were coming to the fore and something had to be done about them.

    The "solution" was to have one's cake and eat it too… that is, to paradoxically turn "social" and "green" values into new markets for expanding capital.

    "Sustainable development" not only proposed that negative social and environmental impacts were mere "externalities" to the system that could be diminished through profit-oriented market-based mechanisms but also implied that there is no escaping a neoliberal development model.

    Thus, environmental problems became framed as an issue of inefficiency that could be solved by technology and the better management of resources, which effectively neutralised the politically-oriented environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s.

    An elite cadre of policy experts, economists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs took over the environmental issue and transformed it into another profit-making endeavour, presenting the expansion of capital as progress towards a more "sustainable" future.

    In essence, environmentalism was and is consciously de-politicised for the purposes of expanding profit.

    Part of the conceit surrounding apolitical techno-focused environmentalism centres on the idea of dematerialising economic growth through more efficient lifestyles and technologies. These include using the latest labour-saving apps on your phone, purchasing energy-saving appliances, eating vegan or organic food, and constructing buildings with lower negative environmental impact.

    While these improvements in efficiency should indeed be applauded, they are not a solution to the major environmental problems we face today. This is because such "quick fixes" derive from the economic and political structures of capital expansion.

    Growth-based economies are at the heart of environmental disasters we face today; making our goods, economic activity or infrastructure "greener" and more efficient without a major overhaul of the global economic system is not a long-term solution.

    Improving efficiency would always involve maintaining and indeed expanding production to satisfy growing demand. This is reflected in the so-called "Jevons paradox", named after the 19th-century English economist William Stanley Jevons, who discovered that increasing energy efficiency also led to higher demand.

    Today this "rebound effect" can be observed across economic sectors, as gains made due to enhanced efficiency are put back into use to fuel further growth. The higher efficiency of planes, cars and electronic devices is immediately offset by cheaper prices, resulting in an increase in demand and ultimately greater consumption of energy and resources. And within the globalised economic system we live in, the enhanced efficiency in one place often happens at the expense of growing inefficiency or waste in others.

    In other words, the more efficient we are, the cheaper consumption gets, and in an economy predicated on endless growth, the more we consume and waste. The environment will always be at the losing endof this logic.

    Working 'green'

    When capitalism teams up with growth-oriented efficiency improvements, one result is the fabulous hipsterised "green tech" enclaves we see emerging in cities around the world, including Montreal.

    These high-tech enterprises, along with the professions of the "creative class" (eg artists, musicians, academics, graphic designers etc), often concentrate in places where heavy industry and manufacturing have been shifted elsewhere in the same country or abroad. Rather than producing raw materials or manufactured goods, they focus on expert information provision.

    Those who argue that growth can be accompanied by a dematerialising economic activity are convinced that these knowledge and creative classes of the service economy have somehow lower environmental impacts than those engaged in industrial agriculture or manufacturing (so-called "dirty" jobs). But is this information economy really any cleaner and greener?

    Not really. This is because the resources they need to operate fundamentally depend on manufacturing and intensive agriculture located increasingly further away from their sites of operation, and often carry with them significant environmental impacts and exploitative labour practices.

    Let us take the information economy's dependence on technology as an example. In their work, the creative classes both use and rely on the mass consumption of certain technological products, whose raw materials are extracted in war-torn places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and later assembled in places like China, where workers face precarious working conditions and inadequate pay.

    High-tech devices may be advertised as extremely efficient, but the remarkably fast growth of the communications industry has not only increased the demand for material resources, boosting dangerous extractive industries in developing countries but also drastically expanded energy consumption. By 2020, IT would use as much as 20 percent of electricity globally, contributing significantly to carbon emissions.

    This industry is also producing an ever-expanding amount of e-waste - currently the fastest-growing solid waste stream - which is shipped en masse to developing countries where it is polluting the environment and killing workers that recycle it.

    Green tech enclaves may appear to be materially light compared to manufacturing, industrial agriculture, or mineral extraction only because they rely on goods produced elsewhere, usually beyond national borders. But exporting "dirty production" abroad and keeping national records "cleaner" does not make the service industry any greener.

    Indeed, the fact that Montreal is not buried in heaps of e-waste has little to do with the "green-ness" of the city and much more to do with the Canadian government's pernicious practiceof shipping refuse abroad.

    More: AlJazeera
    “Traditionally, sex has been a very private, secretive activity. Herein perhaps lies its powerful force for uniting people in a strong bond. As we make sex less secretive, we may rob it of its power to hold men and women together.” - Thomas Szasz, “The Second Sin”

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