When confronted with any big decision in life, I hear my mom’s voice telling me to listen to my gut. This has worked for personal adventures ranging from backpacking to parenting, even though at times it can be hard to quiet the social noise that prevents us from “hearing” what our instincts have to say. In Greed to Green, Charles Derber explores a new twist on the familiar “listen to your gut” adage by framing climate change inaction as the collective problem of not having a gut feeling about this planetary threat. Rather, he explains that we as a society have cordoned off knowledge of climate change as an intellectual concept, and have not allowed it to migrate to the realm of the gut truth. According to Derber, it is only in this realm, where knowledge is “so visceral that it cannot be ignored,” that is capable of spurring personal or collective action (14). To move the issue of climate change from our brains to our bellies is a central theme of this book, employing social theory and critical analysis throughout.
Derber should be commended for producing a work of public sociology directly aimed at understanding the underlying causes of and potential solutions to climate change. He uses an accessible style and format to broadly cover topics of climate change science, psychology of denial, and economic regimes in a way that is highly readable to citizens, students, and scholars. A few examples of his engaging writing style throughout the book include a mock script for a “green Greek theater,” text boxes that introduce Globalization’s Five Commandments, and examples of futuristic fireside chats that could publicly explain regime change. Creatively straying from the typical textbook, Derber weaves in personal stories of family, neighborhood, and self-reflection without losing the theoretical weight and ecological intensity of the subject.
One of the most important contributions of the book is that it provides a thorough analysis of the political-economic context that propels climate change. Derber pulls no punches when discussing the “rapid systemic change in capitalist order” that is required to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere (1). His structural analysis does not dismiss individual lifestyle changes, but boldly confronts its limitations. Chapter 9, “Blind Markets: How Capitalism Creates Climate Change,” introduces readers to the relationship between privatization, commodification, and environmental destruction. The chapter also reviews most recent literature on how the financialization of monopoly capitalism leads to both economic and environmental crises, citing Foster, Magdoff, Baran, and Sweezy. Derber moves from discussing U.S. capitalism to global imperialism, and helps readers see the connection between issues of hegemony and global ecological debt. Again, all this in a highly readable format for those who might be new to these concepts.
Derber is keen to include the important role of labor in understanding the political economic context of climate change. Chapter 11, “The Green American Dream” discusses how capitalism creates coerced consumption and forced overwork. Derber explains how the overworked citizen compensates for lack of leisure by spending more, which ultimately “exhausts the worker and degrades the environment” (139). He explains how a choice of work time could have enormous social and environmental benefits, and later describes how the labor movement could make a green revolution possible. It is refreshing to read an analysis that links both theoretical and practical considerations of the intersection of workers and the environment. In addition, the structural analysis makes it clear to see why large-scale change is imperative and the mechanisms that make “incremental reform a recipe for disaster” (109).
Complementing the structural analysis offered in this book, Derber also presents a nuanced understanding of time as a social construction. Although he does not stray from a materialist understanding of climate change, the author understands that our perceptions can be created and recreated by social mechanisms. Throughout the book, the reader learns of ways in which “time-trickery” can be used to move from short-term thinking to long-term strategies for change. Derber discusses how we can redefine time by “eliminating the pathological ways in which we think about it short and long term” (90). The book lays out possibilities for these strategies, although the hope that they would be realized by an Obama administration has not materialized.
It would be easy to critique any book’s political predictions three years after its publication; however, that does not constitute useful or genuine review. I admire Derber’s courage for suggesting a possible political pathway for addressing the urgent need of climate change. The book’s optimism for Obama being the first green president is also tempered with the author’s analysis of the political realities of a campaign backed by Wall Street and informed by centrist advisors. The failure of Copenhagen, the waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline, and the silence on climate change in the face of reelection superstorms are reminders that transformative potentials require people power first and foremost. Derber argues that this will to act can only be sparked when we begin collectively to address climate change as a gut truth.
Derber introduces readers to the literature on denial by first differentiating between scientific truth, popular truth, and gut truth. He explains that an existential threat such as climate change can create denial of scientific truth (rejecting what scientists tell us) as well as denial of gut truth (accepting scientific truth but failing to translate it into daily practice). Even among those who accept the scientific truth, the book argues that most are still involved in “belly denial,” refusing to internalize the information and take action. Derber reviews both the psychological and political economic dimensions of denial. Readers interested in climate change denial would be highly informed by Kari M. Norgaard’s 2012 publication, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, that insightfully addresses a third dimension—socially organized denial of climate change. Norgaard’s work suggests that many people have in fact internalized the real “gut truths” of climate change, yet are socialized to emotion-management norms that prevent them from being fully realized and enacted. This work would be a useful supplement Derber’s analysis.
Finally, Greed to Green introduces the concept of a green sociological imagination, which would use the “critical analyses of the founders of social science to transform urgently corporate capitalism” in the service of planetary survival. Derber does us all a great service by not only introducing this concept into our lexicon, but also by demonstrating so proficiently just how it can be done. Greed to Green brings together history, economics, individual perceptions, and climate science into a coherent frame that not only uncovers the roots of the problem but also inspires readers to begin to internalize these truths. Derber states, “One of the great arts of life and politics is to know when to put the truth in the attic and when to move it to the gut” (23). Let’s perfect this art and begin listening to what our intuition can tell us about the survival of species.