when critique dissolves

From Ross Douthat’s column today:

But perhaps the simplest way to describe what happened with the surrogacy debate is that American feminists gradually went along with the logic of capitalism rather than resisting it. This is a particularly useful description because it’s happened so consistently across the last few decades: Whenever there’s a dispute within feminism about a particular social change or technological possibility, you should bet on the side that takes a more consumerist view of human flourishing, a more market-oriented view of what it means to defend the rights and happiness of women.

This reminds me very much of an argument Paul Kingsnorth makes in his provocative Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist:

We are environmentalists now in order to promote something called ‘sustainability’. What does this curious, plastic word mean? It does not mean defending the non-human world from the ever-expanding empire of Homo sapiens sapiens, though some of its adherents like to pretend it does, even to themselves. It means sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.

It is, in other words, an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for ‘the planet’. In a very short time – just over a decade – this worldview has become all-pervasive. It is voiced by the president of the USA and the president of Anglo-Dutch Shell and many people in between. The success of environmentalism has been total – at the price of its soul.

“Sustainability,” then, is the magic word that allows the worldwide corporate-scaled environmental movement to become utterly comfortable with transnational capitalism. As Kingsnorth points out, the movement’s single-minded focus on reducing carbon emissions allows the energy companies to offer lucrative-for-them “solutions” to carbon-based “problems,” which may well lead to the utter despoiling of places that environmentalists used to care about preserving, even when that meant not sustaining our current levels of consumption. “Motorway through downland: bad. Wind power station on downland: good. Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good. Destruction minus carbon equals sustainability.”

Environmentalism has made the same deal that (per Douthat’s argument) today’s American feminism has made. Both movements were scrupulously attentive to the depredations of transnational capitalism up to the moment when transnational capitalism said “We can give you stuff you want at no additional cost — to you, anyway.” Then the critiques dissolved.