The Low-Carbon Good Life, a review by Simon Torracinta
Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism
By Kate Soper
Reviewed by: Simon Torracinta
The last four years have seen a tremendous surge in energy and unprecedented social movement mobilization around the threat of climate change. In the United States, its main thrust has been the call for a Green New Deal, but similar policy responses are emerging across the world, from the European Union’s Green Deal framework to China’s recent pledge of carbon neutrality before 2060. The bulk of attention in these initiatives is devoted to the decarbonization of the energy sector, and the rapid deployment of renewable technologies like wind and solar. Yet as the British philosopher Kate Soper argues in Post-Growth Living: For An Alternative Hedonism, they largely skirt the politically sensitive issue of consumption.
Put simply, the contemporary model of the good life in rich countries is biophysically unsustainable—still less so if it continues to provide the template for growing middle classes across the developing world. Even with a green grid, current levels of flying, personal car ownership, or meat consumption (to name just a few examples) are fundamentally incompatible with dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, and rely on patterns of land and resource use that irreparably destroy ecosystems and human communities on the extraction frontier across the Global South. As the recent Republican attack line that the Green New Deal will “take away your hamburgers” illustrates, environmental policy is easily associated with austerity and privation, even when advocates do everything to avoid it. Soper suggests that this association will endure as long as the left fails to articulate an alternative vision of the radical pleasures possible within “post-growth living.” Pointing to “the ugly, puritanical, and self denying aspects of the high-carbon lifestyle in the present,” Soper’s “alternative hedonism” is attentive to the richness of human pleasures, and accordingly “directed more against the limited and partial rein given to such appetites in our materialistic society than against the culture of desire as such.” In this way, she seeks to offer “a more expansive way of thinking about the complexities and potentialities of human pleasure, and how it might be made richer and stranger in a post-capitalist society.”
. . .Soper suggests [that] the recent Republican attack line that the Green New Deal will “take away your hamburgers” . . . will endure as long as the left fails to articulate an alternative vision of the radical pleasures possible within “postgrowth living.”
Post-Growth Living presents a distillation of several decades of work by Soper, a professor emerita at London Metropolitan University, on the ethical and political intricacies of pleasure, need, and consumption. Synthesizing much of these insights, her stance in the book rejects conventional theories of consumption—a liberal assumption of straightforward individual sovereignty in the market, the Frankfurt School denunciation of the false needs generated by the capitalist conditions of mass production, or the Foucauldian theme of performative self construction through lifestyle and buying habits. Instead, she presents a refreshingly Sartrean insistence on consumers as “reflecting and responsible agents who can come to assume accountability to the world beyond their immediate concerns.” For Soper, this understanding opens the door to a new consumer politics that would engage, so to speak, in demand-side environmentalism, forcing corporations and governments to respond through a wholesale rejection of unsustainable and damaging ways of living.
Careful not to present a naturalized account of “true” human needs buried under centuries of commodification, Soper’s starting point for this alternative hedonism is rather the dissatisfaction she registers among even affluent consumers about prevailing norms of the good life. For all their supposed comforts, consumers in advanced economies are overworked, time scarce, stressed out, and in poor health. Interest in crafted goods, reuse, local and “slow” food, or any number of analogous trends, while largely futile in changing the bottom line of gross domestic product (GDP) figures or carbon emissions, all index in their own way a dissent from the good life as depicted in Superbowl TV ads. (That being said, others seem to enjoy the perverse pleasure from goods of which others disapprove, from enormous trucks to the Hardee’s Monster Thickburger, a dynamic Soper does not mention). Even the increasingly desperate efforts by retailers to project an image of ethics and sustainability—one apparel company, Everlane, despite resisting an attempted union of customer service reps, goes so far as to advertise photographs of its factories in China and Vietnam online—evince an undeniable customer discomfort regarding global supply chains, even if they only marginally ameliorate the issue. “Consumption,” Soper claims, is therefore “emerging as an area of contention, a site where new forms of democratic concern, political engagement, economic activity and cultural representation might begin to have a significant impact.”
The enabling condition of the kind of transformation Soper has in mind is the radical reduction of working hours, ending the “work and spend” treadmill that has systematically channeled productivity increases—insofar as they even trickle down into wage increases any longer—into more stuff instead of more time. In effect, this would bring about the explosion of leisure time that American sociologists thought was imminent in the 1950s, or that John Maynard Keynes idly imagined as early as 1930 (though Soper does not explore why such predictions failed to materialize). Freer from the domination of capitalist time and work discipline, whose painful imposition social historian E.P. Thompson documented in early modern Britain, we might return to slower, more relaxed modes of living, reversing the carbon-intensive commodification of so much social reproduction (delivery app meals, ridehailing, hyperindividualized entertainment) and devoting more time to socializing, care work, enjoyment of non-rival public goods in arts or education, or even indulge in what French socialist Paul Lafargue once called “the right to be lazy.”
Much of this vision will not be entirely new to readers familiar with alternative imaginaries of sustainable work and ecology, from the work of philosopher André Gorz and feminist theorist Kathi Weeks to that of sociologist Juliet Schor and author Naomi Klein. But Soper is at her most arresting and original on the question of pleasure itself. The book is leavened with surprising aperçus, like the counterintuitive conclusion, drawing from vacation scenes in the novels of Proust and Mann, that “the extreme contrasts to ordinary life presented by holidays in distant and culturally unfamiliar locales may even militate against the surreal and dream-like experience that can accompany a removal to somewhere closer to home yet still strangely different from normality.” Or take Soper’s observation, quoting the cultural theorist Martin Ryle, that in cycling, “riders are subject to rhythms that they themselves create and sustain,” generating a bracingly queer kind of pleasure that both “mirrors and subverts the general condition of bodies caught up in machine assemblages.” This keen eye for what we might call the phenomenology of pleasure is crucial to the pull of Soper’s sketch of alternative hedonism—so much so it might have take up even more space. Regrettably, for example, the historically and politically collective forms of joy so beautifully captured by feminist thinkers like Barbara Ehrenreich and Lynne Segal go mostly unmentioned here, despite their usefulness for imagining what a genuinely luxurious and lowcarbon public commons might look like today.
Soper suggestively advances an aesthetic that refuses both the science fiction “toys for the boys” daydreams of left-wing techno-utopians and accelerationists on one hand and the backward-looking romanticization of traditional craft labor on the other hand. Rejecting the claim from some corners of Marxist aesthetic theory that art represents the only possible model for “de-alienated labour in the future,” Soper insists that any sustainable form of living will involve at least a partial return to the pleasures of craft, in which “artisanal ways of working might be reclaimed as a component of an avant-garde, post-consumerist political imaginary, ”without accepting any nostalgic return to the past. In ways inspired more by socialist designer William Morris than abstract artist Kazimir Malevich, this aesthetic might then
acknowledge the unspoken—one might say, suppressed—affinities between what art has been said to intimate for the form of labour-process in a society freed of the value-form of capitalism, and what craft ways of working may have to tell us about the possible realization of that utopian aesthetic goal.
However attractive one might find this future, the question arises as to how alternative hedonism might be advanced. Soper is skeptical that class politics and struggles at the point of production, given what she takes to be the reduced leverage and militancy of contemporary workers, will suffice. By contrast, the model for the kind of change she has in mind is the women’s liberation movement, which began with small and self-consciously radical organizations and consciousness-raising groups, but culminated in massive and unprecedented transformations in work and life patterns across the globe. Precisely as “individuals through the mediation of feminism arrived at altered conceptions of their selfhood and aspirations,” she imagines the transformational potential of a “gestalt switch” of “aesthetic suspension and reordering, as commodities and services and forms of life once perceived as enticingly glamorous come gradually to be seen as cumbersome, ugly, and retrograde.” Through such an “alternative hedonist dialectic,” initial “forms of collective self-policing” might be entrenched and expanded by unlocking new and unexpected forms of pleasure.
. . . [T]he question arises as to how alternative hedonism might be advanced. Soper is skeptical that class politics and struggles at the point of production. . .will suffice. By contrast, the model for the kind of change she has in mind is the women’s liberation movement. . .
Given the looming catastrophe at hand, and the ferment of movements like the youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion, and the Sunrise Movement, it is surely not inconceivable that such a large-scale transvaluation and behavior change could take place in the future. But Soper’s vision leaves little role for those who may wish to hasten this revolution. Some of her prescriptions, too, are rather reminiscent of the alter-globalization politics of the 1990s which, while clearly significant in rejecting the elite mantra that there was or is “no alternative,” would hardly be remembered as an unequivocal success even by its participants. It is here that Post-Growth Living takes for granted the individuation of pleasure that the consumer society has produced. And indeed it is precisely this individuation that corporate PR campaigns around carbon footprints and “doing your part” aim to perpetuate. But quite unlike consumption, the pleasures of both joy and politics are irreducibly collective.
Turning consumption into a collective action problem usefully reframes the issue. The history of American consumer politics suggests it is especially effective when allied with labor, be it in the “pocketbook politics” of the New Deal or the Delano grape strike of the 1960s. Patterns of consumption, moreover, are significantly class differentiated and infrastructurally determined—how does one take the bus to work if there is none?—which is something that urbanists fighting over every inch of asphalt given over to cars, activists blocking pipelines and airport runway construction, advocates for public housing, and teachers and nurses striking for public funding of low-carbon goods in health and education have already understood. For all its vitality, this is something which Soper’s book mostly misses. These struggles do not only powerfully shape consumption itself; in opening up access to new forms of low-carbon affluence, they generate the constituencies to fight for more. Organizing has its pleasures, too, especially when you win class differentiated and infrastructurally determined—how does one take the bus to work if there is none?—which is something that urbanists fighting over every inch of asphalt given over to cars, activists blocking pipelines and airport runway construction, advocates for public housing, and teachers and nurses striking for public funding of low-carbon goods in health and education have already understood. For all its vitality, this is something which Soper’s book mostly misses. These struggles do not only powerfully shape consumption itself; in opening up access to new forms of low-carbon affluence, they generate the constituencies to fight for more. Organizing has its pleasures, too, especially when you win.
1. Barbara Ehrenreich, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy (New York: Holt, 2006). Lynne Segal, Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy (London: Verso, 2018).
2. See especially Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
3. The work of sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen is particularly useful in this regard; see Daniel Aldana Cohen, “The Other Low-Carbon Protagonists: Poor People’s Movements and Climate Politics in São Paulo,” in The City is the Factory: New Solidarities and Spatial Strategies in an Urban Age, ed. Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 140-57; Daniel Aldana Cohen, “The Big Picture: Working Class Environmentalism,” Public Books, November 16, 2017, available at https://www.publicbooks.org/the-big-pictureworking-class-environmentalism/. A strategic elaboration can be found in Daniel Aldana Cohen, Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, and Thea Riofrancos, A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (New York: Verso, 2019).
Simon Torracinta is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University. His writing has appeared in n+1 and the Boston Review.