Gentrifying climate change: Ecological modernisation and the cultural politics of definition

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages4
JournalM/C Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

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