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Ecopiety: Green media and the dilemma of environmental virtue, by Sarah McFarland Taylor

21 August 2020

Restorying will not be enough for this earth, Harriet Baber suggests

ECOPIETY is a study of environmentalist themes in popular culture, including advertising, social media, tattooing, rap, and low- to middle-brow literature. With patience, the diligent reader may extract a thesis that is both true and important from the mass of turgid po-mo speak within which it is embedded.

Taylor surveys popular media, including pop erotica and young adult vampire literature, TV, rap, and advertising, for what she calls “ecopiety”: the promotion of individual “green” examples of behaviour, including the consumption of “‘green’ products”. She rehearses the obvious: in the face of looming environmental disaster, eco-piety is not only inadequate, but counterproductive. Ecopietists burnish their social credentials through vegetarianism, recycling, and buying green, which does little to address the problem of environmental collapse; and firms “greenwash” their environmentally disastrous operations.

The source of environmental collapse, Taylor recognises, is systemic faults that, in capitalist systems, promote and perpetuate themselves through a regime of corporate culture and advertising. True. Ecopiety, which is pietistic in its programme of warming the heart and promoting individual good behaviour, compatible with the neo-liberal agenda, will not do the job. True again, obvious, and oft repeated.

Taylor suggests as a remedy countercultural “stories” that, she suggests, will promote the “restorying” of popular culture. Taylor, I take it, understands “restorying” as a clever post-modernist pun. But, after advocating the replacement of the bad “sacred money and markets” story in earlier chapters, Taylor has nothing to say about the practical matter of establishing arrangements that are more conducive to environmental survival.

Here in the US, many working-class Americans depend on extractive industries and other environmentally unfriendly businesses for their livelihood. Taylor has nothing to say about their plight. Though recognising that the source of environmental degradation is systemic, she does not even acknowledge the problem. Stories about care for Mother Earth and the like are edifying, and encouraging to upper-middle-class people who don’t make their living heaving coal or in smokestack industries, or live in towns whose economies depend on these businesses. Taylor speaks to “elites” of urban professionals for whom this is no personal problem. In that respect, her book is just more eco-piety, addressed to elites who can afford to support political agendas that harm fellow citizens who are less well off.

Taylor’s thesis is correct: personal ecopiety is not an adequate or appropriate response to environmental degradation; the source of environmental degradation is systemic and has to be addressed systemically — through, I would say, government intervention. But this book, for all that it gets right, is repetitious, prolix, badly written, and unintelligible without radical rational reconstruction.


Dr Harriet Baber is Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego, in the United States.


Ecopiety: Green media and the dilemma of environmental virtue
Sarah McFarland Taylor
New York University Press £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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