Aimar Ventsel: On why I don't believe in the green turn

Aimar Ventsel.
Aimar Ventsel. Source: Ken Mürk

Historians claim that West Germany first experienced a wave of eating followed by a wave of consumption after World War II. Something similar has happened to the green turn. The First World has consumed its fill and is deciding that it doesn't matter all that much, Aimar Ventsel writes.

November. The United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland is nearing its end. The sides are triumphant as a global pact to radically dial back the use of fossil fuels, especially coal, is on the horizon.

Numerous tiny Pacific and Atlantic Ocean states are especially glad as their fate is most directly tied to mankind's ability to steer climate change in the near future. And then China and India apply the brakes. Threatening to sink the entire agreement, they push for a change of phrasing to render the obligation to use less coal a mere formality.

What followed was a considerable shock, with the disappointment deepest among the aforementioned island states. But was the move by China and India really unexpected or was it really a predictable development?

It is not just about India or China wishing to develop their economies or at least keep them going. They need coal power to do that. The problem is wider and can be summed up as a conflict of values between what used to be called the First World and what used to be called the Third World (the term "developing countries" was also used). Whereas I do not know what terms are used today, not that it matters in this context.

The First World (or the Western world) has seen a surge of environmental awareness in recent decades one manifestation of which is the realization that consumption needs to be dialed back. I suppose everyone has heard about links between consumption, ecological footprint, climate warming and fossil fuels by now.

It is praiseworthy that more and more people are taking it seriously, trying to recycle, not buy expensive brand clothing as often, use environmentally friendly modes of transport or simply keep their surroundings clean.

Estonia is neither the first in the world in this regard (for example, our supermarkets do not have containers for unnecessary packaging from around necessary items) nor is it the last. Europe and the collective West have now decided that this is how things should be and are busy introducing targets of when and how to improve mankind's climate friendliness further. Because it is for the common good.

But tens if not hundreds of millions of people are already living in a very climate-friendly fashion and sporting a minute ecological footprint. Their diet is very simple, their wardrobe minimal. They do not consume expensive electricity and often do not have cars or all manner of appliances the manufacture and use of which is everything but environmentally sparing.

Most of them do not inhabit the First World but live instead in Asia, Africa or South America, whereas their environmental friendliness is not a choice. It is simply the result of poverty.

Throughout history, white people have come to them (whether wielding a weapon or not doesn't even matter here) and, inspired by the ideals of enlightenment, explained to them why the European understanding of the world is superior and best.

European values include a lot of great things, while they also come with a certain lifestyle. People do not eat off the floor but sit at the table and use utensils. A human being needs to wash themselves and their clothes. One's home needs to be regularly cleaned. This lifestyle comes complete with a house, dining table, washing machine, electricity, a mowed lawn, a closet full of clean clothes and a fridge packed with food.

The superiority of the white man's way of life has been preached to two and a half continents for centuries, with the movie industry functioning as icing on the cake, demonstrating in moving pictures how this way of life looks. If only in an American suburb in a random Hollywood movie.

What is worse, these efforts to convince "them" that they need to live like "us" finally proved successful. Why else are we seeing one wave of migrants after another trying to make its way to Europe. People are coming for the lifestyle because they are convinced it is a good and the right way to live – bountifully, finally being able to consume and continue consuming in the future.

Whereas leading a "happy life" is the goal of more people than just those headed for Europe. One benefit of being an ethnologist is the chance to spend time in those same Third World countries and get a vague idea of what people there want out of life.

People usually want the same benefits, material values and lifestyle that form the basis of Europeanness even without seeking to make their way there. The same house, washing machine, car, flower bed in the front yard and new and expensive clothes. Because having all of those things means the difference between being civilized and a dirty backward savage.

But now a short-circuit occurs. Suddenly, the same people are told that a multistory house, blender, espresso maker, car and new brand name clothes are not the measure of civilization and that instead one should now aim for a log hut, a wooden mortar and pestle, in-cup coffee, riding a bicycle and wearing secondhand clothes. Whereas the enlightenment is once more coming from the white man who was saying the exact opposite a moment ago.

Historians claim that West Germany first experienced a wave of eating followed by a wave of consumption after World War II. After the terrible war and the devastation it caused, people first wanted to engorge themselves and then buy everything they saw and felt they wanted. Something similar is happening with the green turn. The First World has consumed its fill and is deciding that it doesn't matter all that much.

However, I very much doubt people outside the First World are willing to accept such a turn. I see no viable strategy for convincing people living in dire straits or going hungry that consumerism is of the devil. It is not something a few NGOs can achieve.

At the same time, we see no serious calls from wealthy countries to dial back consumption or them serving as examples for less fortunate counterparts. All of it leaves me more than a little skeptical of the green turn's chances of success.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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