Thinking through the value of everyday environmentalism
As an individual deeply concerned by the state of the planet, I find myself increasingly nervous about the future. The daily digest of apocalyptic sound bites and calamitous news stories that flood my twitter feed have a remarkable ability to push me into a state of dysphoria. I routinely question the extent to which I can make a difference, and often wonder how I can contribute to transformational change. Because how can I, as an individual, stand up to the unrelenting hydra that is the environmental crisis? What can I do to reverse climate change? What can I do to halt the extinction of species, or the destruction of habitats? As a citizen of a large metropolis, what role do I have, or can I have, in this unfolding story? And so, in defiance of this emotional turmoil, and in solidarity with anyone else who feels the same way, it seems to me like there is a need to think practically about what we can do, so that we might rediscover our agency. However, to avoid regurgitating the platitudes of institutional advice that we all know so well, I want to focus on the role of social movements, and explore the framework of everyday environmentalism with the help of the late Marxist philosopher and sociologist, Henre Lefebvre.
First, to introduce the idea of everyday environmentalism. The concept itself is fairly intuitive, and you would be right in thinking that it implies some sort of daily environmental practice. But the simplicity of the phrase covers up the value of the framework, and it needs to be unpacked a little so that we can understand its significance. Within academic circles associated with the fields of social movement studies and environmental political theory, everyday environmentalism points to a subtle, yet historical shift in the politics and practices being deployed by a new wave of social movements that have been emerging since the 2010s. Often found in affluent cities in the global North, these new social movements are usually small-scale, largely urban, and rely on experimental methods to help tackle the panoply of sustainability challenges we face as a global community. Notable examples that have been studied include Transition Towns, food justice movements, alternative currency movements, community supported urban agriculture, new domesticity movements, and energy and housing cooperatives (though this is by no means an exhaustive list).
The emergence of these movements has been explained as a breakaway reaction to post-2008 austerity, despondency after the failed 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, and by the exhaustion caused by several decades of largely ineffectual forms of protest such as mass demonstrations and Climate Camps. Along with the existential angst associated with doom and gloom narratives of ecological collapse, this social and political dissatisfaction has encouraged new movements to shift away from a reliance on institutional governance and slow-paced policy developments to focus on the changes that they can make in the context of everyday life. Everyday environmentalism, then, is based on a cohort of non-institutional practices aiming to facilitate the provision of basic material needs and to operationalise environmental values in the cultural domain, rather than delegating responsibility to top-down institutions and globalised systems. Examples of practices include the likes of:
Growing and sharing food amongst communities to support food security.
Mending and recycling materials and products rather than supporting throw-away consumerism.
Developing local energy systems that provide electricity at the community-, or neighbourhood-level.
Creating community gardens to support mental health, wellbeing, and biodiversity.
Rewilding our homes, streets, and neighbourhoods to invite nature back into our lives and connect with the Earth as a living entity.
Sharing knowledge and ideas about our place in the world so that we can decolonise our thought, communalise our values, and expand our moral circles to all forms of life, no matter how big or small.
It is important to note, of course, that these ideas and practices aren’t new, per se, and environmental values have long inspired alternative communities to exist and flourish alongside globalised systems. So too is it important to note that these practices are in no way replacing more traditional forms of activism. The significance of the turn to everyday practice rests in the fact that this new wave of movements are opening up pockets of creativity and resistance that can prefigure new ways of living in the city. In addition, new and emerging micro-systems, communities, and networks are inspiring a proliferation of socio-political formations that can subvert the feelings of depoliticisation that tend to accompany more traditional forms of environmentalism. This has significant implications for how we, as individuals, groups, and communities, might align ourselves with these developments and start contributing in a more targeted way.
To explore these implications a bit more, I would like to introduce my mentor and guide: the late Henre Lefebvre. Renowned as a philosopher of the everyday, Lefebvre was perhaps the most eloquent proponent of the revolutionary potential of street life. As a Marxist philosopher, Lefebvre was concerned by the inequalities caused by the power dynamics of neoliberal capitalism, and his attention was most frequently absorbed by the role capitalism played in the production of cities and urban life. In contrast to the coinciding wave of cultural theorists that framed the city as an abstract representation, Lefebvre was more interested in the material textures of what he called the ‘urban fabric’ and how they were produced. His aim was not to deconstruct the city as a representation (i.e. the role and influence that the image of ‘the city’ has in popular culture and discourse), but to follow the everyday, practical realities that create the city from the bottom-up. For Lefebvre, like many other eminent scholars working on a theory of the everyday, the story of the city always begins at the ground level.
But what kind of theoretical insight can this ground-level vantage point afford us? For Lefebvre, thinking with the hum of city streets leads to a number of critical insights. First and foremost, it led him to produce a series of publications that revolutionised how we think about urban space. Our received notions of space would lead us to believe that it is simply an empty container within which matter exists and intermingles entropically. But Lefebvre would encourage us to think beyond this, and he claimed that space is not just an inert container, but an active medium, a field of potential, or a malleable fabric through which asymmetrical power relations unfold. In particular, Lefebvre related this critical insight back to capitalism, and suggested that beyond the production and circulation of commodities, capitalism has actually survived and flourished through producing and occupying space. Consider the material form of the city, the underlying structures that direct our day-to-day lives, and the ceaseless processes of urbanisation that are driven and mediated by capitalist development. Space is forever being colonised and transformed by capital, which has rendered, designed, and coded the spaces in which we live, and consequently, the lives that we lead. As suggested by Lefebvre himself:
“What space signifies is dos and don’ts - and this brings us back to power. Space lays down the law because it implies a certain order - and hence also a certain disorder. Space commands bodies. This is its raison d’etre.”
(Lefebvre 1991, p121)
So far, this may sound like even more doom and gloom to add to the pile, and the revelation that our lives are fundamentally designed by the coordinated occupation of space by capitalist interests isn’t exactly comforting. But it does make us think about the conventional use of space, who, exactly, has a ‘right to the city’ (in the sense of owning spatial development and behavioural conventions), and forces us to question why certain everyday realities are in fact the way they are. Although, in typical Marxist fashion, Lefebvre was always on the hunt for revolutionary opportunities to subvert capitalist hegemony, and he was certainly able to overcome the resoundingly cynical view that cities, and the lives which constitute them, are simply automated functions of capitalist development. Crucially, Lefebvre emphasised that the dynamic (re)production of urban space is not solely owned by capital development (although you could argue that it has a monopoly), and resistance is always possible through creative and embodied acts that transgress the status quo. To conceptually frame this argument, he distinguished between three forms of space: (1) spatial practices (the routines that constitute the everyday), (2) representations of space (the knowledge, images and discourses that order space), and (3) spaces of representation (which open up through bodily practice).
Lefebvre explains that these three forms of space are held in tension with one another. Spatial practices, for example, are held in dialectical relation with representations of space. We act a certain way in urban space because our representations of that space dictate appropriate forms of behaviour. This coding maintains a status quo that enables a particular type of daily urban ritual to unfold. Yet, the nature of dialectics is that two interacting phenomena co-evolve responsively, and are never static. Dialectics imply motion. And so Lefebvre claims that creative interruptions to the established dynamic have the potential to open up new spaces of representation, in which urban space can transform into something entirely different, and new representations of that space can emerge and take root. One only needs to think of a New York City flashmob to get the idea that space can radically transform both practically and representationally in a moment's notice. In these moments of flashmob, Times Square becomes a dancefloor, and this shared experience cuts through and transcends the monotony of automated life to bring novelty into the world. It is precisely the act of spatial transgression that enables transformative change, whether temporary or permanent.
Indeed, many ethnographers have capitalised on the fact that exploring transgressions of urban space helps to reveal the moral and social order immanent in everyday life. Further examples can be seen in the practices of skateboarders or free-runners, or street artists and situationists like Banksy, who routinely and creatively re-make urban landscapes based on their own performative designs. Scholars have even focused on the ways that animals and other nonhumans transgress urban space as a launchpad to talk about the uneven and unethical development of cities for different species. Tying this back to the environmental movement, creative transgressions can also be seen through practices of guerilla gardening/agriculture, parklets, pop-up gardens, or, in more radical examples, through practices of civil disobedience performed by the likes of Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, or the Occupy Wall Street movement. Whatever the case, when we consider transgression as the fundamental act of resistance, there is no end of possibilities, particularly when we go back to the ground-level hum of the streets. Revolutionary potential resides in all of us, and as a collective we are more powerful than we know or realise.
So, within his theory of space, Lefebvre rehabilitates the political agency of the creative and subversive energies of bodily practice. In many ways, his notions of space supersede Marx’s notion of historical materialism (which saw class conflict as the basis of social change) with an alternative notion of geographical materialism (which emphasises spatial conflict as the basis of social change). And it is perhaps here that we can bring everyday environmentalism back into the picture and think more specifically about its revolutionary potential. If transformational change occurs through the medium of spatial politics, then what kind of creative transgressions can we imagine and enact, as individuals, groups, and communities, for the sake of environmental sustainability, for biodiversity, the climate, each other, and for future generations. We might argue that thinking collectively, creatively, and divergently can open up new spaces of representation where we control the narrative. And it is precisely within these new spaces that we can push forward together, generate solutions, share knowledge and ideas, build communities, develop networks of like-minded people, break down the barriers that divide us, and reclaim the streets through a series of creative interruptions to the status quo.
The real value of everyday environmentalism, then, is not located in its progressive approach to sustainability challenges, but in the fact that it resituates our political agency in the context of the everyday; a context where we all have an opportunity to be empowered and contribute. We as individuals should therefore not despair at our perceived lack of agency. This external locus of control is diminishing our potential to come together and make a difference. By viewing everyday space as a medium through which we can affect change, who knows what kind of innovations we might make together. Through the vehicle of social movements, we might then imagine a collective voice emerging from the grassroots, one that can push back against the status quo and collectively rebuild our communities, neighbourhoods, and cities from the raw potential emanating from the ground-level hum of the city.