Gentrifying Climate Change: Ecological Modernisation and the Cultural Politics of Definition




Ecology, climate change, discourse, cultural politics, definitional politics

How to Cite

Glasson, B. (2012). Gentrifying Climate Change: Ecological Modernisation and the Cultural Politics of Definition. M/C Journal, 15(3).
Vol. 15 No. 3 (2012): ecology
Published 2012-05-03

Obscured in contemporary climate change discourse is the fact that under even the most serious mitigation scenarios being envisaged it will be virtually impossible to avoid runaway ecosystem collapse; so great is the momentum of global greenhouse build-up (Anderson and Bows). And under even the best-case scenario, two-degree warming, the ecological, social, and economic costs are proving to be much deeper than first thought. The greenhouse genie is out of the bottle, but the best that appears to be on offer is a gradual transition to the pro-growth, pro-consumption discourse of “ecological modernisation” (EM); anything more seems politically unpalatable (Barry, Ecological Modernisation; Adger et al.).

Here, I aim to account for how cheaply EM has managed to allay ecology. To do so, I detail the operations of the co-optive, definitional strategy which I call the “high-ground” strategy, waged by a historic bloc of actors, discourses, and institutions with a common interest in resisting radical social and ecological critique. This is not an argument about climate laggards like the United States and Australia where sceptic views remain near the centre of public debate. It is a critique of climate leaders such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the Netherlands—nations at the forefront of the adoption of EM policies and discourses.

With its antecedent in sustainable development discourse, by emphasising technological innovation, eco-efficiency, and markets, EM purports to transcend the familiar dichotomy between the economy and the environment (Hajer; Barry, ‘Towards’). It rebuts the 1970s “limits to growth” perspective and affirms that “the only possible way out of the ecological crisis is by going further into the process of modernisation” (Mol qtd. in York and Rosa 272, emphasis in original). Its narrative is one in which the “dirty and ugly industrial caterpillar transforms into an ecological butterfly” (Huber, qtd. in Spaargaren and Mol).

How is it that a discourse notoriously quiet on endless growth, consumer culture, and the offshoring of dirty production could become the cutting edge of environmental policy? To answer this question we need to examine the discursive and ideological effects of EM discourse. In particular, we must analyse the strategies that work to continually naturalise dominant institutions and create the appearance that they are fit to respond to climate change.

Co-opting Environmental Discourse

Two features characterise state environmental discourse in EM nations: an almost universal recognition of the problem, and the reassurance that present institutions are capable of addressing it. The key organs of neoliberal capitalism—markets and states—have “gone green”. In boardrooms, in advertising and public relations, in governments, and in international fora, climate change is near the top of the agenda. While EM is the latest form of this discourse, early hints can be seen in President Nixon’s embrace of the environment and Margaret Thatcher’s late-1980s green rhetoric. More recently, David Cameron led a successful Conservative Party “detoxification” program with an ostentatious rhetorical strategy featuring the electoral slogan, “Vote blue, go green” (Carter).

We can explain this transformation with reference to a key shift in the discursive history of environmental politics. The birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s brought a new symbolic field, a new discourse, into the public sphere. Yet by the 1990s the movement was no longer the sole proprietor of its discourse (Eder 203). It had lost control of its symbols. Politicians, corporations, and media outlets had assumed a dominant role in efforts to define “what climate change was and what it meant for the world” (Carvalho and Burgess 1464).

I contend that the dramatic rise to prominence of environmental issues in party-political discourse is not purely due to short-term tactical vote-winning strategy. Nor is it the case that governments are finally, reluctantly waking up to the scientific reality of ecological degradation. Instead, they are engaged in a proactive attempt to redefine the contours of green critique so as to take the discourse onto territory in which established interests already control the high ground. The result is the defusing of the oppositional element of political ecology (Dryzek et al. 665–6), as well as social critique in general: what I term the gentrification of climate change.

If we view environmentalism as, at least partially, a cultural politics in which contested definitions of problem is the key political battleground, we can trace how dominant interests have redefined the contours of climate change discourse. We can reveal the extent to which environmentalism, rather than being integrated into capitalism, has been co-opted. The key feature of this strategy is to present climate change as a mere aberration against a background of business-as-usual. The solutions that are presented are overwhelmingly extensions of existing institutions: bringing CO2 into the market, the optimistic development of new techno-scientific solutions to climate problems, extending regulatory regimes into hitherto overlooked domains.

The agent of this co-optive strategy is not the state, industry, capital, or any other manifest actor, but a “historic bloc” cutting across divisions between society, politics, and economy (Laclau and Mouffe 42). The agent is an abstract coalition that is definable only to the extent that its strategic interests momentarily intersect at one point or another. The state acts as a locus, but the bloc is itself not reducible to the state. We might also think of the agent as an assemblage of conditions of social reproduction, in which dominant social, political, and economic interests have a stake.

The bloc has learned the lesson that to be a player in a definitional battle one must recognise what is being fought over. Thus, exhortations to address climate change and build a green economy represent the first stage of the definitional battle for climate change: an attempt to enter the contest. In practical terms, this has manifest as the marking out of a self-serving division between action and inaction. Articulated through a binary modality climate change becomes something we either address/act on/tackle—or not. Under such a grammar even the most meagre efforts can be presented as “tackling climate change.” Thus Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007 on a platform of “action on climate change”, and he frequently implored that Australia would “do its bit” on climate change during his term. Tony Blair is able to declare that “tackling climate change… need not limit greater economic opportunity” and mean it in all sincerity (Barry, ‘Towards’ 112). So deployed, this binary logic minimises climate change to a level at which existing institutions are validated as capable of addressing the “problem,” and the government legitimised for its moral, green stand.

The Hegemonic Articulation of Climate Change

The historic bloc’s main task in the high-ground strategy is to re-articulate the threat in terms of its own hegemonic discourse: market economics. The widely publicised and highly influential Stern Review, commissioned by the British Government, is the standard-bearer of how to think about climate change from an economic perspective. It follows a supremely EM logic: economy and ecology have been reconciled. The Review presents climate change, famously, as “the greatest market failure the world has ever seen” (Stern et al. viii). The structuring horizon of the Stern Review is the correction of this failure, the overcoming of what is perceived to be not a systemic problem requiring a reappraisal of social institutions, but an issue of carbon pricing, technology policy, and measures aimed at “reducing barriers to behavioural change”. Stern insists that “we can be ‘green’ and grow. Indeed, if we are not ‘green’, we will eventually undermine growth, however measured” (iv). He reassures us that “tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries” (viii).

Yet Stern’s seemingly miraculous reconciliation of growth with climate change mitigation in fact implies a severe degree of warming. The Stern Review aims to stabilise carbon dioxide equivalent concentrations at 550ppm, which would correspond to an increase of global temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius. As Foster et al. note, this scenario, from an orthodox economist who is perceived as being pro-environment, is ecologically unsustainable and is viewed as catastrophic by many scientists (Foster, Clark, and York 1087–88). The reason Stern gives for not attempting deeper cuts is that they “are unlikely to be economically viable” (Stern et al. 231). In other words, the economy-ecology articulation is not a meeting of equals.

Central to the policy prescriptions of EM is the marketising of environmental “bads” like carbon emissions. Carbon trading schemes, held in high esteem by moderate environmentalists and market economists alike, are the favoured instruments for such a task. Yet, in practice, these schemes can do more harm than good. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd tried to legislate the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as a way of addressing the “greatest moral challenge of our generation” it represented Australia’s “initial foray into ecological modernisation” (Curran 211). Denounced for its weak targets and massive polluter provisions, the Scheme was opposed by environmental groups, the CSIRO, and even the government’s own climate change advisor (Taylor; Wilkinson). While the Scheme’s defenders claimed it was as a step in the right direction, these opponents believed it would hurt more than help the environment.

A key strategy in enshrining a particular hegemonic articulation is the repetition and reinforcement of key articulations in a way which is not overtly ideological. As Spash notes of the Stern Review, while it does connect to climate change such issues as distributive justice, value and ethical conflicts, intergenerational issues, this amounts to nothing but lip service given the analysis comes pre-formed in an orthodox economics mould. The complex of interconnected issues raised by climate change is reduced to the impact of carbon control on consumption growth (see also Swyngedouw and While, Jonas, and Gibbs). It is as if the system of relations we call global capitalism—relations between state and industry, science and technology, society and nature, labour and capital, North and South—are irrelevant to climate change, which is nothing but an unfortunate over-concentration of certain gases.

In redrawing the discursive boundaries in this way it appears that climate change is a temporary blip on the path to a greener prosperity—as if markets and capitalism merely required minor tinkering to put them on the green-growth path. Markets are constituted as legitimate tools for managing climate change, in concert with regulation internalised within neoliberal state competition (While, Jonas, and Gibbs 81). The ecology-economy articulation both marketises “green,” and “greens” markets.

Consonant with the capitalism-environment articulation is the prominence of the sovereign individual. Both the state and the media work to reproduce subjects largely as consumers (of products and politics) rather than citizens, framing environmental responsibility as the responsibility to consume “wisely” (Carvalho). Of course, what is obscured in this “self-greening” discourse is the culpability of consumption itself, and of a capitalist economy based on endless consumption growth, exploitation of resources, and the pursuit of new markets.

Greening Technology

EM also “greens” technology. Central to its pro-growth ethos is the tapering off of ecosystem impacts through green technologies like solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal. While green technologies are preferable to dependence upon resource-intensive technologies of oil and coal, that they may actually deliver on such promises has been shown to be contingent upon efficiency outstripping economic growth, a prospect that is dubious at best, especially considering the EM settlement is one in which any change to consumption practices is off the agenda. As Barry and Paterson put it, “all current experience suggests that, in most areas, efficiency gains per unit of consumption are usually outstripped by overall increases in consumption” (770). The characteristic ideological manoeuvre of foregrounding non-representative examples is evident here: green technologies comprise a tiny fraction of all large-scale deployed technologies, yet command the bulk of attention and work to cast technology generally in a green light. It is also false to assume that green technologies do not put their own demands on material resources. Deploying renewables on the scale that is required to address climate change demands enormous quantities of concrete, steel, glass and rare earth minerals, and vast programs of land-clearing to house solar and wind plants (Charlton 40). Further, claims that economic growth can become detached from ecological disturbance are premised on a limited basket of ecological indicators.

Corporate marketing strategies are driving this green-technology articulation. While a single advertisement represents an appeal to consume an individual commodity, taken collectively advertising institutes a culture of consumption. Individually, “greenwash” is the effort to spin one company’s environmental programs out of proportion while minimising the systemic degradation that production entails. But as a burgeoning social institution, greenwash constitutes an ideological apparatus constructing industry as fundamentally working in the interests of ecology. In turn, each corporate image of pristine blue skies, flourishing ecosystems, wind farms, and solar panels constitutes a harmonious fantasy of green industry. As David Mackay, chief scientific advisor to the UK Government has pointed out, the political rhetoric of green technology lulls people into a false sense of security (qtd. in Charlton 38). Again, a binary logic works to portray greener technologies—such as gas, “clean coal”, and biomass combustion—as green.

Rescuing Legitimacy

There are essentially two critical forces that are defused in the high-ground strategy’s definitional project. The first is the scientific discourse which maintains that the measures proposed by leading governments are well below what is required to reign in dangerous climate change. This seems to be invisible not so much because it is radical but because it is obscured by the uncertainties in which climate science is couched, and by EM’s noble-sounding rhetoric. The second is the radical critique which argues that climate change is a classic symptom of an internal contradiction of a capitalist economy seeking endless growth in a finite world.

The historic bloc’s successful redefinition strategy appears to jam the frequency of serious, scientifically credible climate discourse, yet at the level of hegemonic struggle its effects range wider. In redefining climate change and other key signifiers of green critique – “environment”, “ecology”, “green”, “planet”—it expropriates key properties of its antagonist. Were it not that climate change is now defined on the cheery, reassuring ground of EM discourse, the gravity of the alarming—rather than alarmist (Risbey)—scientific discourse may just have offered radical critique the ammunition it needed to provoke society into serious deliberations over its socioeconomic path.

Radical green critique is not in itself the chief enemy of the historic bloc. But it is a privileged element within antagonistic discourse and reinforces the critical element of the feminist, civil rights, and student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In this way ecology has tended to act as a nodal point binding general social critique: all of the other demands began to be inscribed with the green critique, just as the green critique became a metaphor for all of the others (Laclau). The metaphorical value of the green critique not only relates to the size and vibrancy of the movement—the immediate visibility of ecological destruction stood as a powerful symbol of the kernel of antagonistic politics: a sense that society had fundamentally gone awry. While green critique demands that progress should be conditional upon ecology, EM professes that progress is already green (Eder 217n).

Thus the great win achieved by the high-ground strategy is not over radical green critique per se but over the shifting coalition that threatens its legitimacy. As Stavrakakis observes, what is novel about green discourse is nothing essential to the signifiers it deploys, but the way that a common signifier comes to stand in and structure the field as a whole – to serve as a nodal point. It has a number of signifiers: environmental sustainability, social justice, grassroots democracy, and peace and non-violence, all of which are “quilted” around the master-signifiers of “ecology”, “green”, or “planet”. While these master-signifiers are not unique to green ideology, what is unique is that they stand at the centre. But the crucial point to note about the green signifier at the heart of political ecology is that its value is accorded, in large part, through its negation of the dominant ideology. That is to say, it is not that green ideology stands as merely another way of mapping the social; rather, the master-signifier "green" contains an implicit refutation of the dominant social order. That “green” is now almost wholly evacuated of its radical connotations speaks to the effectiveness of the redefinitional effort.

The historic bloc is aided in its efforts by the complexity of climate change. Such opacity is characteristic of contemporary risks, whose threats are mostly “a type of virtual reality, real virtuality” (Beck 213). The political struggle then takes place at the level of meaning, and power is played out in a contest to fix the definitions of key risks such as climate change. When relations of (risk) definition replace relations of production as the site of the effects of power, a double mystification ensues and shifts in the ground on which the struggle takes place may go unnoticed.


By articulating ecology with markets and technology, EM transforms the threat of climate change into an opportunity, a new motor of neoliberal legitimacy. The historic bloc has co-opted environmentalist discourse to promote a gentrified climate change which present institutions are capable of managing: “We are at the fork in the road between order and catastrophe. Stick with us. We will get you through the crisis.” The sudden embrace of the environment by Nixon and by Thatcher, the greening of Cameron’s Conservatives, the Garnaut and Stern reports, and the Australian Government’s foray into carbon trading all have their more immediate policy and political aims. Yet they are all consistent with the high-ground definitional strategy, professing no contraction between sustainability and the present socioeconomic order. Undoubtedly, EM is vastly preferable to denial and inaction. It may yet open the doors to real ecological reform. But in its present form, its preoccupation is the legitimation crisis threatening dominant interests, rather than the ecological crisis facing us all.


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Author Biography

Ben Glasson

Ben Glasson is a social and political theorist currently researching environmental political discourses. His previous work on populist anti-intellectualism has been published in Continuum. Ben is an editor of the Melbourne Journal of Politics and is completing his PhD at the University of Melbourne, where he also lectures on the risk society and governmentality.