Why a hipster, vegan, green tech economy is not sustainable

Improving eco-efficiency within a capitalist growth-oriented system will not save the environment.

Montreal street
Gentrification has already transformed the neighbourhood of Mile End in Montreal; a similar fate awaits Parc-Extension [Vijay Kolinjivadi/Al Jazeera]

On the western borderlands of Montreal’s well-to-do Outremont district and the ultra-hipsterised and gentrified Mile End lies an expanse of land where the University of Montreal is currently building a new science campus. Just across is Parc-Extension, one of Canada‘s poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods and a port of call for many newly arrived immigrants.

The new campus has been touted as a model of “sustainable development”. It boasts LEED-certified buildings to reduce environmental impact, rainwater collection structures, energy-efficient lighting and heat recycling, infrastructure for electric vehicles and bikes, lots of greenery, and overall, a minimal carbon footprint. A number of tech companies, including Microsoft’s new AI Hub, are moving in and are expected to further enhance the “eco-efficiency” of the area.

The unspoken expectation is that once the green new campus is completed, capital and economic growth will naturally flow into the area. This means nearby neighbourhoods will get “revitalised”, especially the poorer ones, like Parc-Extension.

Thus, immigrant-owned grocery stores, halal butcheries and community centres will soon be replaced by vegan chain restaurants, hip vintage clothing joints, organic food stores and coffee-shops galore, as landlords push out poor tenants to make space for more well-to-do ones.

In the process, the implicit socio-economic violence behind gentrification will be invariably “greenwashed” and presented as development that would make the area more “sustainable”, “beautiful” and “modern”.

Unfortunately, creation by destruction is what capitalism does best, and its damaging practices are anything but green. This market-driven “sustainable” vision of economic activity, ecological-conscious diets and “hipness” within modern capitalism reinforce inequality and still hurt the environment.

Before I proceed further with my argument, I should mention that I am an academic, living in a “hip” part of Montreal and engage in activities that follow a particular aesthetic ethos, all of which make me very much a part of the reality I critique below. My aim is not to moralise, but rather to highlight the dangers of a political and economic system that profits from deceiving perhaps well-meaning self-proclaimed progressive folks into believing that a greener, more efficient capitalism is possible.

University of Montreal
The new science campus of University of Montreal as seen from Parc-Extension [Vijay Kolinjivadi/ Al Jazeera] 


The illusion of ‘sustainable development’

The term “sustainable development” was first introduced at the UN Earth Summit in 1992. At that time, Western governments espousing neoliberalism had just spent the whole previous decade dismantling unions, environmental regulations, and Keynesian welfare programmes and were looking to spread their practices elsewhere, as major geopolitical threats to a fully global and universal capitalist development trajectory were beginning to wane.

At the backdrop of these developments, concerns over environmental degradation and social inequality were coming to the fore and something had to be done about them.

The “solution” was to have one’s cake and eat it too… that is, to paradoxically turn “social” and “green” values into new markets for expanding capital.

“Sustainable development” not only proposed that negative social and environmental impacts were mere “externalities” to the system that could be diminished through profit-oriented market-based mechanisms but also implied that there is no escaping a neoliberal development model.

Thus, environmental problems became framed as an issue of inefficiency that could be solved by technology and the better management of resources, which effectively neutralised the politically-oriented environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s.

An elite cadre of policy experts, economists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs took over the environmental issue and transformed it into another profit-making endeavour, presenting the expansion of capital as progress towards a more “sustainable” future.

In essence, environmentalism was and is consciously de-politicised for the purposes of expanding profit.

Part of the conceit surrounding apolitical techno-focused environmentalism centres on the idea of dematerialising economic growth through more efficient lifestyles and technologies. These include using the latest labour-saving apps on your phone, purchasing energy-saving appliances, eating vegan or organic food, and constructing buildings with lower negative environmental impact.

While these improvements in efficiency should indeed be applauded, they are not a solution to the major environmental problems we face today. This is because such “quick fixes” derive from the economic and political structures of capital expansion.

Growth-based economies are at the heart of environmental disasters we face today; making our goods, economic activity or infrastructure “greener” and more efficient without a major overhaul of the global economic system is not a long-term solution.

Improving efficiency would always involve maintaining and indeed expanding production to satisfy growing demand. This is reflected in the so-called “Jevons paradox”, named after the 19th-century English economist William Stanley Jevons, who discovered that increasing energy efficiency also led to higher demand.

Today this “rebound effect” can be observed across economic sectors, as gains made due to enhanced efficiency are put back into use to fuel further growth. The higher efficiency of planes, cars and electronic devices is immediately offset by cheaper prices, resulting in an increase in demand and ultimately greater consumption of energy and resources. And within the globalised economic system we live in, the enhanced efficiency in one place often happens at the expense of growing inefficiency or waste in others.

In other words, the more efficient we are, the cheaper consumption gets, and in an economy predicated on endless growth, the more we consume and waste. The environment will always be at the losing endof this logic.

Enviro protest
The idea of ‘sustainable development’ has depoliticised environmentalism. In the photo above, demonstrators stage a blockade at the busy centre-city intersection of Broad and Chestnut streets in Philadelphia demanding a ban on automobiles on July 30, 1970 [AP/Bill Ingraham]


Working ‘green’

When capitalism teams up with growth-oriented efficiency improvements, one result is the fabulous hipsterised “green tech” enclaves we see emerging in cities around the world, including Montreal.

These high-tech enterprises, along with the professions of the “creative class” (eg artists, musicians, academics, graphic designers etc), often concentrate in places where heavy industry and manufacturing have been shifted elsewhere in the same country or abroad. Rather than producing raw materials or manufactured goods, they focus on expert information provision.

Those who argue that growth can be accompanied by a dematerialising economic activity are convinced that these knowledge and creative classes of the service economy have somehow lower environmental impacts than those engaged in industrial agriculture or manufacturing (so-called “dirty” jobs). But is this information economy really any cleaner and greener?

Not really. This is because the resources they need to operate fundamentally depend on manufacturing and intensive agriculture located increasingly further away from their sites of operation, and often carry with them significant environmental impacts and exploitative labour practices.

Let us take the information economy’s dependence on technology as an example. In their work, the creative classes both use and rely on the mass consumption of certain technological products, whose raw materials are extracted in war-torn places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and later assembled in places like China, where workers face precarious working conditions and inadequate pay.

High-tech devices may be advertised as extremely efficient, but the remarkably fast growth of the communications industry has not only increased the demand for material resources, boosting dangerous extractive industries in developing countries but also drastically expanded energy consumption. By 2020, IT would use as much as 20 percent of electricity globally, contributing significantly to carbon emissions.

This industry is also producing an ever-expanding amount of e-waste – currently the fastest-growing solid waste stream – which is shipped en masse to developing countries where it is polluting the environment and killing workers that recycle it.

Green tech enclaves may appear to be materially light compared to manufacturing, industrial agriculture, or mineral extraction only because they rely on goods produced elsewhere, usually beyond national borders. But exporting “dirty production” abroad and keeping national records “cleaner” does not make the service industry any greener.

Indeed, the fact that Montreal is not buried in heaps of e-waste has little to do with the “green-ness” of the city and much more to do with the Canadian government’s pernicious practiceof shipping refuse abroad.

Canada trash
Environmental activists protest against toxic waste shipped from Canada to the Philippines during a rally at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in suburban Quezon city, northeast of Manila on July 20, 2015 [File: AP/Bullit Marquez]


Eating ‘green’ 

In recent years, veganism has also been sucked into the profit-making “green” economy. Its rising popularity is indeed quite mind-boggling. What was traditionally seen as a subversive and anti-establishment form of resistance to the global food industry and its horrific abuse of animals has increasingly become a “cash cow”.

The reason why veganism has gone so mainstream is because of how it has been presented – as a “win-win” strategy. It’s good for your health, it’s good for the planet, and it’s good for the animals! What’s not to love about it? Indeed, there’s nothing not to love about veganism per se.

But going vegan within a growth-based economy does not save you from the “rebound effect”.

According to Oxford researcher Marco Springmann, if the world were to turn vegan by 2050, it would save $1.5 trillion in health-care costs and climate change damages, as it would cut greenhouse emissions by two thirds.

But in a capitalist economy, such a surplus would never simply be left idle. It would be re-invested into further growth, which would still consume more resources, exploit workers and produce waste and damage the environment in one way or the other.

A growing demand for vegan products would also be devastating for biodiversity because it would rely on monoculture fruit and vegetable crops (particularly soybeans). It would also necessitate expanding arable land by cutting down forests and increase the consumption of water for agriculture. It would also deepen already existing labour exploitation of vulnerable populations and further encourage large landowners and corporations to abuse small-scale farmers.

The dairy-free products in the health food stores in Montreal‘s hip Plateau and Mile End districts are often tagged “cruelty-free”, but they may not actually be. If no animals were abused in the making, that does not mean that humans and/or the environment weren’t.  

The cashews for that delicious non-dairy milk you buy likely come from India, where women work long hours in poor conditions to shell the nuts, enduring painful injuries from the acid released in the process. The almonds for the equally delicious almond option are likely sourced from drought-stricken California, where almond farming is one of the largest consumers of water.

Indeed, growth-oriented capitalism will “sell” you veganism as a noble practice that reflects your values and benefits your health, but it would not tell you the full story about the ongoing and long-term social and ecological consequences of industrial veganism.

Women labourers work inside a cashew processing factory in Gakulnagar near the Indian city of Agartala [File: Reuters/Jayanta Dey]


Being ‘cool’

Working and eating “green” is, of course, accompanied by a certain lifestyle shaped by hipsterised aesthetics of “coolness” – be they vintage furniture, organic markets, tattoo parlours, or third wave coffee shops. But being “green” and “cool” often has a steep price-tag which directly reinforces classist divisions in society.

For this reason, the production of “coolness” in its myriad forms is a slippery slope and requires much deeper collective reflection on its consequences.

In theory, “coolness” just is. It is imbued with all the things that reflect deep relational values of care, affection, creativity, connection, authenticity, and meaning. It should have no racial, gendered or socio-economic boundaries and likewise, have no impact on those fronts either.

In practice, it involves the reproduction of a particular way of being which invariably sets in motion new avenues for capital to expand, allowing everything that has meaning to be hollowed-out and commodified for profit.

Returning to the example of the University of Montreal‘s new campus, the juxtaposition of the campus to Parc-Extension, as one of Canada’s poorest and most culturally-diverse neighbourhoods, renders obvious the classist and racialised ways by which the emergence of “coolness” takes place.

Just who can extend particular aesthetics of hipness, eco-friendly chic and health-conscious consumption patterns is tightly associated with both class and inherited privilege to consume and waste more.

At the same time, it is these historically privileged individuals at the forefront of “coolness” that consciously or unconsciously accept the modern conceit of equating human progress with new forms of value to exploit for profit. In doing so, the violent ecological destruction and social displacement of the ensemble of humans and non-humans around the world which work to serve the forever unsatisfied aesthetics of the “cool” class become the unfortunate consequence.

What’s potentially more problematic with the classist nature of green production and consumption is that urban hipsters pride themselves as being “woke” about sustainability issues, while simultaneously alienating the rural and overseas agricultural, peri-urban, and manufacturing classes, without whom “hip” lifestyles would not be possible.

Urban hipsters are quick to dismiss poorer classes as having no “green consciousness”, for not living up to their expensive “green” standards, and failing to recognise the fact that opportunities to live “green” are limited in places that are economically disadvantaged and neglected by the authorities. They also tend to turn their backs on working-class political struggles for the fairer distribution of wealth and well-being across society.

On a global scale, capitalism is most certainly not “cool”… it is literally burning our planet. An aloof, detached, apolitical coolness which centres on individuality and imagery is simply not going to cut it any more.

Such lifestyles may appear marginally efficient, but they are, by and large, a convenient by-product of shifting social and ecological costs to those less privileged both locally and globally.

One way to move forward in a positive direction is to abandon a singular focus on lifestyle choice to focus resistance on externally-conceived and profit-driven developments as a moral and even survivalist imperative and work to re-establish community through solidarity economies, replenishing those relations severed by the growth-centred logic.

Material or energy dematerialisation is simply not enough. It must be accompanied by an economy built on care and responsibility, rather than profit, growth and self-interest if it is to have any long-term impact. This is a small but absolutely crucial step towards attaining the authentic desires for sustainability that many of us are so dearly committed to and which we so urgently need.

Residents of Parc-Extension fear gentrification could force them to leave the neighbourhood [Vijay Kolinjivadi/ Al Jazeera]


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.