Save us from the gentle green giants : BOOK REVIEW

The Chicago gangster theory of life Andrew Ross Verso, £18.95
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The Independent Online
Watch out, watch out! There's green gangsters about. These guys are armed not with the standard mobster accessories, but with arguments that use natural and biological authority as a model of social and cultural policy.

Ideas and metaphors based on notions of natural behaviour are increasingly shaping our society, argues Andrew Ross in this swashbuckling and insightful book. The basic premises of environmentalism - conservation of nature, biological holism, nutritional

purity, rural simplicity, energy efficiency, scarcity economics and strong regulation of industry - have deep roots in right-wing authoritarian thought.

Environmental arguments have been used throughout European history to justify the excesses and superiority of the West over other cultures. This process is now being extended, with the adoption of scientific accounts of genetic structure as models of social behaviour and cultural control.

One of the culprits towards whom Ross directs much of his venom is the sociobiologist Richard Dawkins. In his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins compares the human gene to a "successful Chicago gangster". This is the kind of metaphor, Ross asserts, that pro j ects assumptions about nature on society and ends up encouraging social Darwinism. The genetic structure of life is used to provide a rationale for the cut-throat ideology of free-market competition. If genes act like gangsters, then it is only naturalf or people to behave like thugs. Thus the language of nature is transformed into the language of power.

Thanks to such ideas and metaphors capitalism has wholeheartedly embraced the anti-humanist philosophy of modern environmentalism. Ecology has gone pop. "Greenwashing", which requires everything from the washing machine to the performance car to carry certificates of environmental fitness, has become the norm. Giant corporations have been transformed into gentle green giants operating on the principles of sustainable ethics. Some companies, such as Benetton and Body Shop, even seem to want to take over the United Nations.

Moreover, in the wake of the Cold War, environmentalism provides liberal capitalism with a rational justification for military interventions in the Third World. The Gulf war was the first ecological war waged solely for the defence of any scarce resource. The World Bank has begun to use its green fund, the Global Environmental Facility, as a powerful global policing mechanism. Scarcity and environmental problems are being used by the IMF to justify the imposition of draconian structuralised policies on the Third World. But poverty and hunger in the developing world are not the result of natural scarcity, not when the Western world's food production is so high. Ecology becomes an instrument for under-development.

All this may give the impression that Andrew Ross cares little for ecology. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He wants to rescue the language of ecology from liberal capitalism, sociobiologists and right-wing bigots. He wants to extend the definition and scope of ecology to include rights and freedoms that are tied to a system of distributive justice. And he wants environmental policies to generate public wealth rather than voluntary (in the West) or structural (in the Third World) poverty.

The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life is an erudite if somewhat meandering work. Ross mixes personal narrative with social and cultural commentary, the history of science and architecture, film and television criticism in equal measure to generate a sustained and enlightened attack on the perversities of environmentalism.

Along the way we are provided with a perceptive analysis of urban poverty, American imperialism in Polynesia, the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Gulf War. It all adds up to a carnivorous feast for the ecologically weary.