A Brief History of Ecology

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of its central themes is the idea that, in the environmentalist’s argument ‘the politics is prior’ to the science. Environmentalists seem to forget what it is they have presupposed, and appear to believe that instructions about how to live and how to organise society can be simply read off from ‘science’. For instance, in the climate debate, environmentalists presuppose an equivalence of the climate system’s sensitivity to CO2 and society’s sensitivity to climate, thus they claim that knowledge about the climate amounts to knowledge about how best society should be ordered, and if we fail to obey these imperatives, we will destroy ourselves.

Filmmaker Adam Curtis, who produced The Power of Nightmares, and The Trap: Whatever Happened to Our Dream of Freedom had a fascinating essay in the Observer yesterday, which examines some of the origins of political ecology, especially the ideas of holism and ecosystems. Curtis begins his essay — How the ‘ecosystem’ myth has been used for sinister means — with a claim from a protester at recent demonstrations in London, about her movement’s non-hierarchical structure (an expression of the prevailing ideology, says Curtis) and draws a history of this idea.

Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.

As I think Curtis suggests, the claims made by today’s radicals (and many conservatives, for that matter) to be free of hierarchy belie the dearth of substantive cohesive ideas. Hence, so many protests today look much more like self-indulgent, middle-class whingeing, and there is this bizarre spectacle of self-styled radicals marching, not to demand a relaxation of state power, but in agreement with its aims, often demanding a more authoritarian, less democratic exercise of power, and the creation of political institutions and bureaucracies to realise their aims. For instance, the ‘web march’ organised by Friends of the Earth before and during the drafting of the UK Climate Change Bill, demanded a ‘strong climate law’, seemingly in lieu of a popular movement to legitimise it. As pointed out here, this was the epitome of the environmental movement’s failure to actually be movement: it could get people to upload their anxiety onto the web, but it couldn’t get them out into the streets, or even to the ballot box, under one cohesive idea. The ‘Big Ask Web March’ was therefore to political activism (1.0) what Chat Roulette is to romance. Nonetheless, the Climate Change Bill was passed.

The essay is adapted from the next episode of his series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, due to be broadcast tonight on BBC2. The three-part series intends to examine role of cybernetics in political thought to suggest that we have been ‘collonised by the machines we have built’. The first episode examined the influence of Ayn Rand’s objectivism on the early computer pioneers and ‘cyber libertarians’, who thought, claims Curtis, that machines could create a society free of politics and hierarchy. In particular, there was a belief that computers could produce economic stability by hedging risk. But far from flattening hierarchies and creating stability, computerisation created a new means of control and the transfer of economic crises: the wealthy were able to protect themselves from chaos created in the new system. Unfortunately for Curtis, it is perhaps easy to read his narratives as a causally-determined sequence of events that seem to begin with the idea, and end with whichever phenomenon he is attempting to explain. This has led to claims that he is outlining a conspiracy theory, or over-stating the influence of some thinker or other over events. For instance, it looks as though Curtis is suggesting that Rand herself was responsible for the Asian financial crises of the late ’90s. But I think this is a misreading of a more subtle thesis. The point of outlining the progress of ideas through their history is not to ‘join the dots’ in this way, but to emphasise the role that ideas have in the shaping of history, outside the control of their authors. Myths have more power than myth-makers.

Putting humanity in a kangaroo court

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/10549/</em>

You may not have noticed, but last week you were a co-defendant in a court case. In Stockholm, the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability met at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The event websiteproclaimed that ‘hjumanity [sic] will be on trial as the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium brings together almost 20 Nobel Laureates, a number of leading policy makers and some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and experts on global sustainability.’

The charge against us, humanity, was that ‘our vast imprint on the planet’s environment has shifted the Earth into a new geological period labelled the “Anthropocene” – the Age of Man’. But this was a showtrial. The guilty verdict had been written before the court had even assembled. ‘The prosecution will therefore maintain that humanity must work towards global stewardship around the planet’s intrinsic boundaries, a scientifically defined space within which we can continue to develop’, claimed Professor Will Steffen, showtrial ‘prosecutor’ and executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. The website and literature accompanying the symposium made no mention of the defence’s argument. Indeed, why would a Symposium on Global Sustainability invite a defence that challenged the premises it intended to promote?

The ‘trial’ was merely a stunt, of course, designed to make a stuffy, pompous and self-serving enterprise such as this more appealing to the media and the hoi polloi it sought to prosecute. It was one of a number of sessions at the event, each intended to qualify the sustainability agenda with the expertise of its participants. But this circle-jerk, show-trial symposium revealed far more about its members and the hollowness of the sustainability agenda than it revealed about humanity.

A trial implies a question mark over the guilt of the accused. A showtrial on the other hand, is a performance designed to serve some agenda or purpose, to make political capital from the trumped-up crimes of the defendant, whose ‘guilt’ has already been established. And so it is with the litany of charges served against humanity: we are ‘influencing critical Earth system processes’, ‘pushing the planet out of the 10,000-year Holocene environment’, causing ‘irreversible and abrupt changes’. These are our transgressions. They were recited in the courtroom melodrama, not to encourage scrutiny of ourselves, of society, or even really our relationship with nature, but to elevate the judges and their agenda. After all, without criminals, there can be no judges.

There is a strange irony to the spectacle of the world’s best thinkers putting humanity on trial. At the same time as they sit in judgement of humanity, those who seemingly best represent its virtues distance themselves from it. This act reflects a disconnect between the world’s elite – the establishment, in other words – and the rest of humanity. It is a practical demonstration of the extent to which contempt for humanity has been absorbed into establishment thinking.

Environmentalists often find it hard to understand why their arguments and actions are taken as a reflection of deep anti-humanism. But the symposium epitomises the degradation of the concept of humanity. It’s not merely the symbolic act of the Great and Good sitting above the rest of us and passing judgement; anti-humanism runs through their discussion. The showtrial diminishes the defendant – humanity – by making the plaintiff the Earth. There are only two ways this can be made sensible: either the Earth has characteristics that qualify it as a ‘person’ deserving of legal status, or humanity does not have characteristics that make it exceptional, distinct from nature. Sure enough, across the bottom of the symposium’s brochure in large print are the words ‘The world is facing a tangle of entwined challenges. It is time to recognize that we are part of nature.’

More depth on this central message of the symposium is given in the outline of its themes: ‘A central challenge for the twenty-first century is to respect the dynamic environmental boundaries that define a safe planetary operating space for humanity and to guide the human enterprise onto trajectories that develop within these boundaries. Collective action, flexible institutions and active stewardship of our globally interconnected social-ecological system is required to ensure a prosperous future for humanity.’ The themes also declare: ‘It is time to fully realize that our societies and economies are integrated parts of the biosphere, and start accounting for and governing natural capital.’

The attack on humanity would not leave such a bad taste in the mouth, were it not so nebulous. What does it mean to ‘respect dynamic environmental boundaries’, let alone identify them? Sustainability advocates claim ground for their argument in science, but the imperative that we ‘respect’ environmental boundaries precedes any real understanding of what these boundaries are, or whether they even exist. ‘Dynamic boundaries’ are in fact goalposts that can shift according to the needs of the sustainability agenda and its advocates, not a fact about the material world. Anything, including a caveman lifestyle, could be deemed ‘unsustainable’. But most importantly, what is forgotten by the symposium’s concatenation of incoherent and pseudo-scientific eco-concepts is the dynamism of humanity.

Instead of seeing humans as creative, and able to respond to ‘a changing world’ without their guidance, the laureates presuppose that we exist within a tightly ‘entwined’ relationship with nature. Our unguided movement within this relationship unsettles the mythological balance that nature’s providence rests on; nature is dynamic, but we are not. Thus we bring disequilibrium into the world at our own peril, like Adam and Eve thrust out of Eden for bringing sin to paradise. Humanity has brought chaos into creation, and we are now burdened with the consequences. And it is from this idea of a perilous relationship with nature that the members of the symposium hope to create a basis for reorganising society, with themselves as its stewards.

The sentence handed to us by our judges is a series of emergency and longer-term measures that humanity must observe if we are to survive. Many of these demands are familiar noises about ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’, meeting Millennium Development Goals, and increasing the efficiency of productive activity. But more telling is the demand for the ‘strengthening of Earth system governance’, which calls for a range of institutions to be created or given greater power to ‘integrate the climate, biodiversity and development agendas’ and ‘address the legitimate interests of future generations’. There’s also the call to enact a ‘new contract between science and society’, which will launch a ‘research initiative on the Earth system and global sustainability’, and ‘increase scientific literacy’.

At face value, the symposium and the sustainability agenda are about saving the planet. However, the desire for a ‘sustainable’ relationship between society and nature looks much more like nervousness about the establishment’s relationship with the rest of society. The institutional apparatus and power sought by the Nobel laureates through the sustainability agenda is about a search for authority and legitimacy: to overcome the gap that exists between the establishment and the rest of humanity without actually closing it.

We don’t have to stretch our imaginations to get a glimpse of what these new institutions and powers – the object of the sustainability agenda’s ambition – will look like and what they are really about. The mock trial of humanity allowed the laureates to play out their fantasy in which humanity’s guilt is turned into political power. In this intertwined relationship, there is no need of democracy; political power is simply justified on the basis of humanity’s guilt and the inevitability of catastrophe. The laureates imagine themselves in a state administrated by Plato’s philosopher kings. Us mere plebs are deemed incapable of determining things for ourselves. They appoint themselves, in case our base ambitions, desires and needs get the better of us and we send the world into ruin.

It is no more meaningful to try humanity for crimes against nature than it is to try nature for crimes against humanity – disease, flood, famine and so on. In the Middle Ages, all kinds of animals were summoned to courts to be tried. The Enlightenment saw the formulation of a more sophisticated understanding of nature and humanity: we created our own future, and our own history; the antithesis to the idea that we are mystically ‘entwined’ with gods, monsters, and other personalities representing ‘nature’. Those ideas in which humanity was understood as exceptional and apart from nature are now being abandoned by the very group of people who ought to be carrying the legacy of the Enlightenment and the humanism that developed within it.

The idea of a closely intertwined, inflexible relationship with nature that the Laureates prefer creates a prison in which no expression of humanity can be seen as a worthwhile end in itself. Everything must be judged by the imperatives of sustainability and its institutions. ‘Our predicament can only be redressed by reconnecting human development and global sustainability, moving away from the false dichotomy that places them in opposition. […] In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice.’

Such is the extent of the anti-humanism of the sustainability agenda that meeting the most basic of human needs is not a ‘good’ unless it has been assessed for its environmental impact. It is not humanity in general, but these sustainability advocates that deserve to be in the dock.


Against Humans

I have an article up on Spiked-Online today, about the Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability and their mock-trial of humanity.

The ‘trial’ was merely a stunt, of course, designed to make a stuffy, pompous and self-serving enterprise such as this more appealing to the media and the hoi polloi it sought to prosecute. It was one of a number of sessions at the event, each intended to qualify the sustainability agenda with the expertise of its participants. But this circle-jerk, show-trial symposium revealed far more about its members and the hollowness of the sustainability agenda than it revealed about humanity.

The Laureates and their pals seem to want to create political institutions at all levels of government to enforce the entire human race’s observation of the sustainability agenda. This is legitimised, on their view, by their own expertise (“science”, they say, though even they admit that their knowledge is incomplete) and the end-of-the-world scenarios it foresees. It is not legitimised, as we’d expect, on a democratic basis of popular assent — agreement with its values, principles, perspective. However hard environmentalists try to claim that theirs is not a political agenda, there is no escaping the fact that, whatever the basis of their argument in facts, their aims are political. They seek a reorganisation of the world, the same as any other political philosophy. Moreover, as this blog aims to show, what makes the ‘science’ produce such catastrophic consequences is not a value-free investigation of the material world, but a heavily value-laden premise. That premise is identical with the conclusion of the sustainability agenda: anti-humanism is at its heart.

In the Guardian yesterday, President of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse protested that ‘freedom of information laws are used to harass scientists‘.

Nurse said that, in principle, scientific information should be made available as widely as possible as a matter of course, a practice common in biological research where gene sequences are routinely published in public databases. But he said freedom of information had “opened a Pandora’s box. It’s released something that we hadn’t imagined … there have been cases of it being misused in the climate change debate to intimidate scientists.

Nurse doesn’t seem to have been one of the Nobel Laureates at the symposium. But his predecessor, Martin Rees was. Both men, in their capacity as president of the RS, have argued for a greater role for science in the policy-making process, and emphasise that catastrophe is what legitimises this influence. The symposium demonstrates what that means. Nurse’s complaints about the treatment of climate scientists in a Horizon programme last year, of which I pointed out:

Nurse might argue that this reorganisation of political life around environmental issues comes with the blessing of scientific authority, and that it is science which identified the need to adjust our lifestyles and economy. But the greening of domestic and international politics preceded any science. The concept of ‘sustainability’ was an established part of the international agenda long before the IPCC produced an ‘unequivocal’ consensus on climate; the IPCC was established to create a consensus for political ends. Nurse, nearly recognising science’s role in the legitimisation of such political ecology, worries about loss of trust. If scientists are not ‘open about everything they do’, he says, ‘then the conversation will be dominated by people driven by politics and ideology’. But it is already ‘driven by politics and ideology’: it’s simply that Nurse does not recognise environmentalism as political or ideological, and he does not notice himself reproducing environmental politics and ideology. The loss of trust he now observes is not the consequence of politics and ideology, but the all too visible attempt to hide it behind science and highly emotive images of catastrophe. If the presidents of science academies want their trust back, they will first have to admit to the politicisation of their function in an atmosphere of distrust. Nullius in verba, indeed.

Nurse, ignorant about the role that science is playing by lending its authority to such nakedly undemocratic and anti-human political agenda, does not understand that the only way to challenge environmentalism is to interrogate the ‘science’ behind which environmental politics is hidden. He seem happy to allow politics to be hidden behind science, and now asks for more protection for ‘science’ — i.e. more protection for environmental politics. Nurse invites the harassment of scientists. Until he realises the nature of the ‘new contract between science and society’ demanded by the laureates, institutional science will continue to lose the respect and trust of the public, and it will increasingly be the battleground in which political debates are fought. He should expect more ‘harassment’ from ‘vexatious’ FOI requests, and they will be well deserved.

Eco-Rapture and the Cult of Malthus & Gaia

There’s been a lot of talk this week — and probably a lot of disappointment — about the end of the world. Said the Observer today…

To the shock and distress of a handful of ultra-devout Christian believers, the sun went down yesterday on an America and a world that had signally failed to end.

Tee-hee. Silly Americans. Silly Christians. Etc.

What made the claim remarkable, however, was not merely that it predicted the end of the world and got it wrong. There have been so many prophecies of that kind. The interesting thing about it was the cash behind it that brought it so much attention.

Camping and his followers spent more than $100m worldwide on billboards and posters, financed by the sale and swap of radio stations. Advertising popped up across America and the globe from Iraq to Lebanon to Israel to Jordan, the Philippines to Vietnam, where thousands of the Hmong ethnic hill tribe gathered together on the Thai border in anticipation of the event. The campaign was backed up by Camping’s radio show, which can be heard worldwide, and a website that featured, naturally, a countdown clock. Yesterday that clock was at zero underneath the banner headline: “Judgment Day: the Bible guarantees it.”

After some giggling at them, the Observer expresses its concern for the followers…

Camping seemed entirely genuine in his beliefs, enough to spend a small fortune promoting them. While others may be making money out of believing in Doomsday, Camping is not one of them. Many experts have worried about the psychological impact on his followers who are suddenly confronted with the collapse of their belief system. Some Christian pastors planned to gather outside Family Radio to counsel any distraught members who showed up wondering why they – and the world – were still there.


Camping himself admitted he had pretty much staked everything on his fervently held belief. “There is no plan B,” he told Reuters late last week. Which is a shame. As the day progressed in California last night with no global mega-quake in sight, he and his followers needed one.

Well, ‘experts’ need worry no more, for there is a wealth of evidence that the failure of doomsday to materialise has no psychological effect on doomsday-cults members…

High Priest of the Cult of Malthus, Paul R. Ehrlich famously predicted the end of the world…

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

… but got it wrong. However, the date has only proved to be a trivial detail to the believers — their faith has not been dented. The end is still nigh, it’s just not quite as nigh as we thought…

A more recent attempt to put a date on the end of the world is a regular feature on the pages of the Guardian, no less.

I smell smoke, I see flames and I think it is time to shout. I don’t want you to panic, but I do think it would be a good idea to form an orderly queue to leave the building.

Because in just 100 months’ time, if we are lucky, and based on a quite conservative estimate, we could reach a tipping point for the beginnings of runaway climate change.

The words belong to Andrew Simms, policy director and head of the climate change programme at the New Economics Foundation (No Foundation Economics). Simms and his chums scribbled some estimates on the back of a beermat at the pub, and determined that there were only 100 months left for the world to do exactly as they commanded, or it would all come to an end. The result is the monthly update at the Guardian, and the countdown clock at http://www.onehundredmonths.org/ .

So what’s the difference between Simms, Ehrlich, Camping, and Malthus?

Can Pap-Pop Save the Planet?

A couple of commenters on my last post questioned my judgement of misery-act, Radiohead. I hope that we can find a consensus on this little number more easily…

[youtube h65xXOVrQzQ]


It’s the Finnish entry to the Eurovision Song Contest — an annual high camp, low-brow event.

There’s not much to be said about it, apart from the fact that it’s a little sad that a young man, naive as he is, has such a bleak view of the world, even if he finds inspiration in the idea that an even younger person could somehow change it — all us grown-ups have ruined the place, you see. It’s if-you-wish-hard-enough-it-will-come-true sentimental mush.

There are more important things going on, of course. Today, the UK government announced the carbon budget until 2025, committing the UK to more and more expensive energy. This has been sold to the public — not that they had any say in the matter — on the basis that it will i) save the planet; and ii) create green growth and jobs. The answer to these points is that i) no it won’t, and ii) the idea that making things much more expensive creates ‘growth’ and ‘jobs’ doesn’t belong in the version of reality most people are familiar with.

Somebody should write a song about it.

No, wait, they shouldn’t.

Science-Pop Won't Make Climate Science Pop-Science

What is worse than pop stars preaching about climate science?

[youtube EkBS7Sw5BaA]

[Thom Yorke, lead singer of crap miserablist act, Radiohead, wondering what he’s doing on Age of Stupid director, Franny Armstrong’s Stupid Show]

It’s climate scientists expressing themselves through the medium of popular music…

[youtube LiYZxOlCN10]

How embarrassing.

Auto-tuning is to pop-music what ‘hiding the decline’ is to paleoclimatology. And the lyrics are pretty bad too.

The Inter-NGO Panel on Climate Change

The IPCC has published an SPM of its forthcoming report on renewable energy. The Guardian claims,

Renewable energy can power the world, says landmark IPCC study.


Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International, and a lead author of the report, said: “This is an invitation to governments to initiate a radical overhaul of their policies and place renewable energy centre stage. On the run up to the next major climate conference, COP17 in South Africa in December, the onus is clearly on governments to step up to the mark.”

Isn’t it a bit odd, that a policy director of Greenpeace should be a lead author of a report? Isn’t the IPCC supposed to start from a policy-neutral perspective? After all, what would we make of such a report if it found the opposite way, and it turned out that one of its lead authors was a director of a free-market think-tank that stood accused of being funded by Exxon?

Teske doesn’t appear to be named as a lead author of the new IPCC report. Maybe he didn’t have anything to do with the SPM. The following people, did, however, and I’ve located their profiles online.

Coordinating Lead Authors:

Ottmar Edenhofer (Germany) – Co-Chair of Working Group III of the IPCC – deputy director and chief economist of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Ramon Pichs‐Madruga (Cuba) – Researcher at the Centre for World Economy Studies (CIEM), Havana.
Youba Sokona (Ethiopia/Mali) –  Executive Secretary of the Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel (OSS).
Kristin Seyboth (Germany/USA) – Senior Scientist, Technical Support Unit, IPCC Working Group III.

Lead Authors:
Dan Arvizu (USA) – Director and Chief Executive of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Thomas Bruckner (Germany) – professor for Energy Management and Sustainability at the Institute for Infrastructure and Ressource Economics, University of Leipzig.
John Christensen (Denmark) – Head of UNEP Risoe Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development (URC).
Jean‐Michel Devernay (France) – Vice President, International Hydropower Association.
Andre Faaij (The Netherlands) – Professor Energy System Analysis, Department of Science, Technology and Society, Utrecht University ( Ph.D. on energy production from biomass and wastes ).
Manfred Fischedick (Germany) – Vice President and Director, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
Barry Goldstein (Australia) – Chair of the Australian Geothermal Energy Group.
Gerrit Hansen (Germany) – {no profile found}
John Huckerby (New Zealand) – Director, Power Projects Limited, Energy Industry Consultants.
Arnulf Jäger‐Waldau (Italy/Germany) – Senior Scientist, Renewable Energy Unit, Insitute of Energy, JRC-European Commission.
Susanne Kadner (Germany) – Senior Scientist, Technical Support Unit of IPCC Working Group III.
Daniel Kammen (USA) – Director, Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL).
Volker Krey (Austria/Germany) – (Researcher?), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Vienna University of Technology; “assessment of climate and energy policies and the development and application of integrated assessment models”.
Arun Kumar (India) – Vice President, Development Alternatives (global sustainable development NGO).
Anthony Lewis (Ireland/United Kingdom) – {no profile found}
Oswaldo Lucon (Brazil) – Technical Advisor on Energy and Climate Change at the São Paulo State Environmental Secretariat, PhD in ‘Energy’ and a MSc in ‘Clean Technology’.
Patrick Matschoss (Germany) – Head of the Technical Support Unit of IPCC Working Group III.
Lourdes Maurice (USA) – Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Environment in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Environment and Energy.
Catherine Mitchell (United Kingdom) – Professor of Energy Policy at Exeter University.
William Moomaw (USA) – Professor of International Environmental Policy and Director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy.
José Moreira (Brazil) – Chairman of the Brazilian Reference Center on Biomass, Brazil.
Alain Nadai (France) – Senior Research Fellow at the Centre International de Recherche pour l’Environnement et le Développement, PhD in environmental economics.
Lars J. Nilsson (Sweden) – Professor, energy systems analysis, and energy and climate policy University of Lund.
John Nyboer (Canada) – Founder Member, MKJA Energy Policy Consultants; Research Associate and Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management.
Atiq Rahman (Bangladesh) – Executive Director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (think tank); “Environment and Development Specialist”.
Jayant Sathaye (USA) – Senior Scientist and Leader of the International Energy Studies Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, University of California.
Janet Sawin (USA) – Senior Fellow, Worldwatch Institute (Sustainability NGO).
Roberto Schaeffer (Brazil) – associate professor in Energy Economics; Ph.D. in Energy Management and Policy.
Tormod Schei (Norway) – deputy director general, Statkraft — Norwegian renewable energy company.
Steffen Schlömer (Germany) – researcher, Ecologic Institute, (European environmental think tank).
Ralph Sims (New Zealand) – Professor – Sustainable Processing, School of Engineering & Advanced Technology Massey University.
Christoph von Stechow (Germany) – Scientist, Technical Support Unit, IPCC Working Group III.
Aviel Verbruggen (Belgium), Professor – energy & environmental economics, University of Antwerp.
Kevin Urama (Kenya/Nigeria) – Executive Director at African Technology Policy Studies Network, (sustainable development research organisation).
Ryan Wiser (USA) – scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; research in the planning, design, and evaluation of renewable energy policies.
Francis Yamba (Zambia) – director, Centre for Energy, Environment & Engineering Zambia. (NGO).
Timm Zwickel (Germany) – Deputy Head – Scenarios, Infrastructure, Technical Support Unit, IPCC Working Group III.

Each of these authors, work, as far as I can tell, in one or more of four sectors: private energy and policy consulting; non-governmental organisations; academia, and government/intra-government. Their jobs are very much attached to renewable energy. That is to say that, of all the people in the world, it would hard to find a group less critical of ‘renewable energy’. It is precisely as if oil executives were to decide about the future of renewable energy, and had come up with the opposite outcome.

It is no surprise that environmental bureaucrats believe renewable energy can power the world. It is no surprise that environmental economists and other social scientists with an interest in renewable energy also believe that their research can change the world (and bring in a few research grants and raise their academic profiles at the same time). It is no surprise that renewable energy consultants believe that the world needs the services of renewable energy consultants. And it is no surprise that directors of environmental NGOs are in favour of policies that bring them closer to power.

Cynical? Perhaps… But the point remains that the IPCC is once again being passed off as a policy-neutral research organisation when it is in fact merely a club for people given to a particular view of the world, to further their pre-determined agenda with pre-determined ‘research’.

This is policy-based evidence-making. The IPCC’s report on renewable energy was written by the renewable energy sector.

UPDATE Roger Pielke Jr. has a post up, in which he says the report ‘appears (indirectly and obliquely) to finally admit that we just do not have the technology necessary to achieve low targets for the stabilization of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere‘, which seems to contradict the positive reception the report is receiving from greens.

The Eco-House of Horror

Popular wisdom has it that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. I’m not so sure. How could we explain this in terms of ‘necessity’?

[youtube -jw2mNeR1tw]

I’m not knocking it. I think it’s fantastic.

This, on the other hand, is damn awful.

A tour of the Cube from Mike Page on Vimeo.

The designers of the Cube Project are proud of what they have achieved.

The Cube Project is an initiative of Dr Mike Page at the University of Hertfordshire who set out to build a compact home, no bigger than 3x3x3 metres on the inside, in which one person could live a comfortable, modern existence with a minimum impact on the environment.

‘Minimum impact’ possibly… But comfortable — a living space of just 3x3x3 meters? Modern — sleeping and cooking just a few feet away from a composting toilet?

Even if it were on wheels, it would look pokey. The idea of this box being a permanent residence should offend us. There are bigger toilets. There are bigger prison cells.

The designers claim, of course, that it is necessity which drives this un-novation — ‘low carbon living’.

It was an important design criterion that none of the techniques or technologies used in the Cube would be solely applicable to small buildings. When scaled up appropriately, everything we used could equally well be applied in homes and businesses of all shapes and sizes. The Cube illustrates what we believe to be the best of low-carbon living.

If the benefits really do ‘scale up’, then why build so small? Small is ‘low-impact’, see?

Utilitarian approaches to housing people have, in the past, offered less luxury to occupants of new homes than was offered by grander, more expensive houses. For instance, the high-rises and pre-fabricated houses of the post war years, some of which were woefully inadequate, but much of which were solid, and well designed, and offered far better accommodation than had been available. In those instances, the utilitarian calculus was one that began with the $ per sq foot, and the provision of things such as electricity, running water and flushing toilets that many houses lacked. Now, the utilitarian calculus forces people to accept lower living standards for some notion of an ideal balance with the natural world. These are the values which seem to inform today’s designers of the good life. They are so out of touch with people, they have had to reinvent the entire concept of necessity, of utility, and of ‘modern’ and ‘comfortable’.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has some interesting things to say about the influence of ideology on design — of toilets, specifically.

[youtube FJ73hLQ64Ng]

Says Zizek, ‘even such a… the lowest of the lowest, vulgar, everyday object cannot be accounted for in direct utilitarian terms.’ It is ideology that informs the design as much as the necessity. That’s not ideology as it might be understood as a concrete political philosophy, but the whole ensemble of prejudices, cultural norms, values, and so on.

Some weight is given to this view by the fact that it was not some university technical department that conceived this project, but the School of Psychology of the University of Hertfordshire.

As part of our School’s work on behaviour change in a number of different domains, such as smoking cessation and healthy eating, Dr Page has been looking at factors which affect behaviour change in relation to the environment. If we are to mitigate the problems of climate change, we are going to need to deal with problems that are as much psychological problems as they are technological problems. The Cube Project is an attempt to show that many of the technologies that we need are already commonly available and at an affordable price. The question is, why aren’t we using them? This is a psychological question.

One answer might be that people can see for themselves the bossy, authoritarian and self-serving nature of the designers expressed in the design of the eco-lifestyle, just as Zizek claims that German, French, and Anglo-Saxon ideology is expressed by each culture’s design of toilet. That is to say that we can see for ourselves that the preoccupation with our lifestyle habits at the School of Psychology of the University of Hertfordshire belies a desperate search for relevance to today’s world. The psychologists should take a closer look at themselves.

So, if it’s not necessity which is the mother of this invention, the Eco-Cube, what is? This cube may be the answer…

[youtube 01hUyIrubWE]

The Ecology of Stupid

The Guardian has a revealing editorial today, which makes the claim that

Biodiversity: It’s the ecology, stupid
At every level, human civilisation is underwritten by the planet’s countless and still mostly unidentified wild things

As discussed in the previous post, the idea that civilisation is underwritten in this way is a secular revision of Divine Providence. Environmentalism’s politics is forged by this view of nature with an equally bleak conception of human nature — equally a contemporary, secular account of original sin. The logic of these conceptions of the natural world and humanity lead to environmentalism’s tendency to produce political ideas that resonate with the worst from the Dark Ages.

Says the Guardian,

The water we drink falls as rain, usually on higher ground, often designated as a catchment area. The terrain would ideally be covered in vegetation, because otherwise the runoff would be muddy, the reservoirs would silt up and the valleys would flood. But plants depend on billions of insects to pollinate them. Insects also devour foliage, so forests depend on birds by day and bats by night to keep insect populations under control. To prevent a population crash, there must also be raptors to keep the insectivores in order – and the taps running. At every level, human civilisation is underwritten by the planet’s countless and still mostly unidentified wild things – the jargon word is biodiversity – that pollinate our crops, cleanse, conserve and recycle our water, maintain oxygen levels, and deliver all the things on which human comfort, health, and security depend. Economists and conservationists have tried to put a value on the services of nature: if we had to buy what biodiversity provides for nothing, how much cash would we need? The answer runs into trillions, but the question is nonsensical. Without healthy ecosystems, there would be no cotton and linen to make banknotes and no bread or clean water for sale.

The author seems a little slow in the head. He or she wants to claim that the question of how much we’d pay to do the job that ecosystems seem to do is nonsensical, because if there were no ecosystems there would be no stuff. This obviously forgets that doing the job the ecosystems do — i.e. what we’d pay for — would create the stuff. Who writes these editorials, anyway?

The idea that we depend on ‘biodiversity’ in this way is a curious one. I could get my water for ‘free’, rather than pay the £300 or so a year I currently pay to have it on tap. I could put buckets in my garden, and store them. But in what sense is this ‘free’? I would have to buy the buckets, but let’s assume I made them. I would also have to process the water somehow to make sure it is clean, and to maintain the buckets and make sure I have enough storage space for rainless periods: I need an even bigger bucket. If we also assume that I earn £10 an hour, in order to say that I get my water ‘for free’, we’d have to say that I would be better off collecting my own water than paying for it with what takes me just 30 hours to earn. Add to this the fact that now I’ve cut myself off from the rest of society, collecting water is now a matter of life and death.

I think I’m better off forking out the £300 a year. Moreover, this figure includes the cost of removing the water I no longer need.

The author of the editorial might protest that natural processes were still involved in the movement of the water onto higher-ground, where it found its way to aquifers and rivers, which supply our water infrastructure. But what if I live near the sea, and my water is supplied from a desalination plant, powered by nuclear energy? To what extent, then, am I dependent on ‘biodiversity’?

It seems obvious that our dependence on ‘biodiversity’ is greatly diminished by our self-dependence as a society. The time I would have spent collecting and processing water is reduced by my dependence on somebody else to do the job on a larger scale more efficiently, leaving me to spend my time and money on better things. This much is explained by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The point the Guardian editorial misses is that we are made richer by our self-dependence, and we are accordingly less and less dependent on ‘biodiversity’. We don’t need to ‘buy’ ‘ecosystem services’, we make better alternatives.

The Guardian grumbles on…

Last week the European commission unveiled its 2020 biodiversity strategy, and introduced the notion of a “green infrastructure” from Orkney to the Black Sea. A continent-sized strategy is indeed necessary: swifts, swallows and swallowtail butterflies do not care about national boundaries. It focuses on the economic value of forest, grassland, heath, wetland, lake, river and farmland ecosystems. The auguries are not encouraging. One fourth of all Europe’s farmland birds flew away between 1990 and 2007; 40 or more of Europe’s 435 butterflies are now fluttering to extinction. Yes, extinctions are a normal part of evolutionary history, but not on such a scale and pace. And who knows which species an ecosystem can do without, and still function for human benefit?

But what scale, and what pace are ‘Europe’s 435 butterflies are now fluttering to extinction’? What is the scale and pace of butterfly extinction that we should expect? Why wouldn’t ‘One fourth of all Europe’s farmland birds’ fly ‘away between 1990 and 2007’? What would have kept them where they were, if we weren’t here? Should these numerical statements be take at face value?

And indeed, ‘who knows which species an ecosystem can do without’?

By definition, an ecosystem without a species is no longer the same ecosystem. The mistake the Guardian makes is to imagine that ecosystems are tangible, bounded entities, rather than fluid and dynamic. The myth that haunts this misconception is the mystical notion of ‘balance’. Just as the eddies formed by a butterfly’s wings are imagined to be capable of producing a storm elsewhere in the world, the Guardian seem to have this idea of ecosystems in such a perilous equilibrium that just the slightest horizontal force — the disappearance of just one tiny species — can begin a cascade of tipping points to oblivion. It is as if the disappearance of just one butterfly would cause rain to cease falling on the hill, for the sun to stop shining on the field, for the earth to become infertile. It is this mystical idea of ‘balance’ which, it seems, is supposed to keep the populations of butterflies and farmland birds in check. It doesn’t matter what the scale and pace are, anything could bring doom upon us.

I don’t wish to appear callous. I’m not arguing for the senseless destruction of all things bright and beautiful. I just think the Guardian talks a lot of crap. It continues…

The EU in 2006 vowed to halt species loss by 2010, but in 2008 admitted frankly that targets would not be met. Around 18% of Europe’s land area is protected, but governments and environment agencies need to think very hard about not just protecting but restoring habitats in much of the remaining 82%. Inevitably, those critics who do not condemn Brussels for the failure of its biodiversity policies so far will vilify it for fretting about dragonflies, toads and liverworts while economies stagnate and industries collapse. Both responses are wrong. Europe may propose, but the member states must implement. And although the cost of conserving biodiversity will be considerable, the price of not doing so could be truly terrible.

Given that, in spite of a whopping 18% of Europes 4.4 million sqKm being ‘protected’ the EU has nonetheless failed to meet this goal of ‘halting species loss’, it must be worth wondering if extending the protective cover to the remaining 82% would merely amplify the failure. Nature isn’t behaving as EU diktats have instructed! Might this failure be a fact owed less to environmental degradation and insufficient legislation than to the shortcomings of self-serving bureaucracy and mystical ideas about the natural world? Might it be the case that ‘the science’ has been prematurely turned into policy?

Sod the cost, says the Guardian, it could be doomsday. Fetch the buckets!

And isn’t that what they always say? With such a comprehensive inability to bring a sense of proportion to their analyses, any trivial issue becomes a matter of life and death. It’s the precautionary principle, all over again. It allows the likes of disoriented Guardian editors to speculate about some superficially plausible way by which we might all die horribly, thus giving momentum to their absurd agenda. Nebulous concepts like ‘biodiveristy’ and ‘ecosystem’, and bogus notions of connectedness and balance allow rank moral cowardice and intellectual vacuity to be concealed.

If these claims about biodiversity were not hidden behind the precautionary principle — if real numbers took the place of vapid speculation — Guardian editors would have nothing to hide behind. As the steam runs out of the climate change scare, so we can expect other ecological issues to dominate the ecological narrative: sustainability, population, and biodiversity. The same language and logic turns up in each attempt to tell the same story, passed off as new science, or new data.

Trust Me, I Speak for Science

Two recent posts here have been about the role of trust in the environmental debate. Briefly, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot seem to expect everybody to share their trust in scientific authority, yet not so long ago, they were themselves suspicious of it. It was the obedient slave of big business, they said. Now they and anti-nuclear environmentalists are busy calling each other ‘deniers’, while claiming to be speaking ‘for science’. What arguments that make this kind of appeal to scientific authority seem not to understand is that a relationship of trust is a pre-condition of scientific authority. You can’t have any kind of authority without some kind of relationship of trust; it’s like trying to have a party without beer, music, food and friends. So Lynas and Monbiot’s claims to speak for science merely bounce off their anti-nuclear opponents: ‘you’re repeating nuclear industry propaganda’, they claim — exactly the argument Lynas and Monbiot have been using all these years against their own adversaries in institutional science. Those claiming to be speaking for science are too easily identified as speaking for something else.

Elsewhere in the debate, the question ‘in whom do we trust’ rings just as loudly…

Roger Pielke Jr had a funny post recently, about angry liberal science-warrior, Chris Mooney. Here it is in full:

Chris Mooney explains the biological mechanisms that have led experts to be able to protect their minds against the corrosive effects of ideology and politics:

I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.

So when it is revealed that many scientists have partisan and ideological leanings this is not a function of their biases, but rather a reflection of truth. This is quite different than arguing that “Liberals have a reality bias.” You can follow the logic from there.

Pielke gives Mooney’s statement the terse attention it deserves. Nonetheless, Mooney reveals many of the problem with the seemingly science-centric perspective.

The quote is from the discussion underneath an article on the Discover magazine blog in which Mooney continues his defensive manoeuvres against the ‘Rebublican War on Science‘ (i.e. calling those who don’t see the climate debate the way he does ‘contrarians’, i.e. denier-light). The issue there apparently relates to the question of the Bush administration’s interference in science. Mooney cites surveys of scientists, which seem to reveal that most scientists — including a majority of scientists who identify as ‘conservative’ — do believe that the Bush Administration interfered more in science than previous governments had. Leaving aside the questions about whether or not this is true, one way of explaining it if it is true is that science has never been so politicised. And the likes of Mooney only really have themselves to blame for that. After all, it’s Mooney’s desire that what ‘science says’ ought to determine the most far-reaching political reorganisation of the world in its history. The claim that ‘climate change is happening’, and that ‘science says’ so are almost always the prologue to a story about how the world needs a radical reorganisation, to save it from climate change. Seeking legitimacy for political ideas in science is what politicises — ‘interferes with’ — science.

It is in the comments under the article, however, in which Mooney makes his claims about truth-determining biological mechanisms.

… what I don’t accept is the validity of the comparisons between scientists, evangelicals, and Tea Partiers *with respect to* how they think about scientific topics in particular (which are the topics that are of course at issue here). I’m not saying anyone is capable of being 100 percent unbiased but I am saying that scientists evaluate scientific claims, and also claims about expertise, using the norms of their profession, precisely because they have neural circuits for doing so laid down by many years of experience. Which the other groups don’t have.

Leaving aside the stuff about ‘neural circuits’ for a moment, it’s interesting that Mooney pitches Tea-Partiers against scientists. The omission of all those countless non-scientist climate change activists (i.e. loud and angry liberal journalists with an English Major from Yale University) certainly reflects his own prejudices. So in what respect is the Yale graduate in English competent to speak about the development of ‘neural circuits’ amongst his own layperson peers in the Tea Party, and their competence to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’, versus scientists? Chris Mooney obviously believes himself competent to speak about ‘scientific topics in particular’. He even feels competent to make a claim about other people’s ‘neural circuits’ being insufficiently developed to allow the expression of thoughts about ‘scientific topics in particular’. Is it only people he disagrees with that lack mental hardware?

A commenter on Mark Lynas’s blog — the one discussed in the previous post here — suggests reading another of Mooney’s recent articles which claims to present ‘The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science‘.

“A MAN WITH A CONVICTION is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger(PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

According to Mooney, ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’. That is to say that neural circuits develop in the layperson such that he or she is predisposed to seek out facts which confirm existing belief, and to reject those which contradict them. Scientists, of course, seem to have better overcome this legacy of our evolutionary psychology.

Prior-ness is something discussed at length on this blog. The argument here is that much politics is prior to the science in the environmentalist’s argument. In order to believe the arguments that environmentalists in general have made, we have to presuppose that society’s sensitivity to climate is equivalent to the climate system’s sensitivity to CO2. I believe that this must be the case, because the fact of CO2 being a greenhouse gas isn’t something that by itself would cause us any alarm. It is the Nth-order consequences of climate change that tell us what kind of problem climate change is. When we try to work out what those are, I believe, we discover that what determines our sensitivity to climate is not the magnitude of the climatic phenomenon, but rather the extent to which we are able to organise protection for ourselves: wealth. Thus, in order to establish an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2, we must presuppose that we are not able to organise ourselves against the elements, changing or not. Climate change may well be a problem, but it may be a trivial one. The environmentalist typically answers with recourse to the precautionary principle, or to wildly exaggerate the magnitude of the problem, rather than to science.

Mooney’s priorness is something different, however. His argument is that something approximate to ‘ideology’ exists prior to the treatment of any new facts — especially scientific facts — that causes some kind of defensiveness, especially in those of a conservative mindset. That is to say that conservatives are ‘ideological’, whereas liberals more often express a tendency towards an ‘objective’ treatment of the evidence.

The short answer to Mooney here is that, if the putative Liberal/Left appears to be less-‘ideologically-driven’ than the Right, it is because it is that much more hollow. This is not a defence of conservatism (I am not a conservative), it’s merely a fact that we can see the disintegration of the Left in general over the course of the C20th. It has sought legitimacy for its ideas not amongst the public, but in the scientific academy. Meanwhile, it seems obvious enough that a more coherent ‘ideology’, and concomitant views on social organisation might mediate the impact of seemingly self-evident ‘facts’. That is to say that a conservative might just be less terrified by climate change than a ‘liberal’ because the conservative puts more emphasis on wealth. The liberal/Left, however, has emphasised wealth less and less as it conceded to capitalism.

Putting the last few paragraphs together then, it is possible that the exhausted liberal/left cannot conceive of a means to produce wealth, and thus descends to a naturalistic/deterministic view of the world in which humans are therefore vulnerable to climate. They make an equivalence of sensitivity of society to climate and sensitivity of climate to CO2. Conservatives, meanwhile, seem to better understand that humans actively produce wealth to improve their circumstances. Thus the order of change we can anticipate is far less of a problem in their perspective. Mooney likes to pretend that the way his fellow liberals see the same scientific argument is objective, and unfiltered by their own ‘ideological’ prejudices. But clearly we can see that seemingly value-free scientific judgements can be interpreted different ways in the cases of the hypothetical conservative and the hypothetical liberal. As pointed out here a lot, liberals such as Mooney just don’t recognise their own perspective as ideological. He believes that he just ‘reads off’ instructions to the world from ‘science’.

A caveat… there is a problem with the schema illustrated here, it borrows Mooney’s categories. I don’t think left and right and conservative and liberal are as rough-and-ready terms as we’d like them to be. Left and right are almost entirely redundant categories, and ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ only give nominative identity to contemporary political ideas. There is plenty of conservative thought embedded in environmentalism. And there is plenty of liberal thought amongst many a conservative. One thing we can say, however, is that there is no reason why a scientist wouldn’t be vulnerable to the political, ‘ideological’ presupposition of environmental determinism that the likes of Mooney seem to suffer.

In that case, we can say that it’s not necessarily a problem that Mooney’s scientists start from a political premise before projecting into the future to depict some terrifying Thermageddon. The problem is that he and they forget what they have presupposed, thus their forgotten political premise appears as a conclusion of climate science.

However, Mooney’s story is about more than climate change. He promises to tell us also why ‘our brains fool us on climate, creationism, and the vaccine-autism link’.

As attractive and elegant as evolutionary accounts of why some humans seemingly refuse to believe in concrete fact are, they are at best premature, and preclude the a far more straightforward explanation of different perspectives.

Dealing with the easy one first, the MMR-autism link may be better explained by the issue discussed in the previous posts: trust. Put simply, suspicion of the MMR vaccine thrived in an atmosphere in which modern medicine has not enjoyed the trust invested in it by previous generations. If you want to know why people don’t ‘accept the truth’ of MMR’s safety, read the conspiracy theories that are the background to the phenomenon. That’s not to say that ‘Big Pharma’ has never tried to cover up its mistakes, nor even that it never sought to maximise its profits at the expense of both the ill, and not at all ill. The point being that the MMR scare, much as the climate debate, represents the intersection of a number of phenomena:  suspicion of large companies and their influence, a loss of faith in the benefits of industrial society and in modernity, and the quasi-mystical elevation of the ‘natural’ over the synthetic. The degradation of trust between individuals and the institutions that might have been turned to for guidance happened prior to the emergence of the MMR scare. There is little point, in such an atmosphere, screaming about science: many people simply don’t trust it any more. Many people no longer think that the institution of medicine is about making people better, but merely about exerting control. They believe that potions and herbs can offer more than the latest scientific breakthrough, not because their neural circuits are insufficiently developed, but because the trust that really should exist between doctor and patient often simply doesn’t. The putative authenticity of ‘traditional’ medicine speaks about a broader phenomenon in which scientific, public and official institutions are seen as interested in a given outcome, much as Mooney believes individuals treat ‘facts’ according to the outcome pre-determined by their ideological perspective.

The breakdown of trust is comprehensive. It’s not simply that medicine is held in less esteem now than previously. In previous eras of optimism — even those which belied deep geopolitical conflict — scientific progress was visibly associated with a positive transformation of living standards, and a more rewarding experience of life in general. Again, it’s too easy to paint a picture of a golden era, so the point here is not to hark back to the postwar period, but to point out a transformation in the relationship between politics, science, and the public.  Science these days preaches instead the virtues of austerity where it used to promise abundance. Put crudely, the difference is between a politics founded on promise on the one hand and a threat on the other. “Vote for us and we will…” versus “vote for us or the polar bear drowns”.

There has been a tendency to overstate the Left-Right dimensions in this debate. But, as much as Mooney protests otherwise, there are no straight lines that correspond either to neurology or political theory. This week, for instance Jeremy Grantham — the backer of the Grantham Institute of the LSE, home of Bob May and Nicholas Stern — proclaimed that it is “Time to Wake Up:  Days of Abundant Resources andFalling Prices Are Over Forever“.

The purpose of this, my second (and much longer) piece on resource limitations, is to persuade investors with an interest in the long term to change their whole frame of reference: to recognize that we now live in different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common.

It is intensely irritating when the mega-rich lecture the rest of the world on its oh-so profligate ways. But the real issue here is that when men who command $hundreds of billions of capital express such a lack of confidence in capitalism, the putative political right has a problem. If (some) capitalists have lost faith in capitalism’s ability to produce increasing quantities of produce at decreasing costs, what is capitalism good for, as far as the man-in-the-street concerned? Why should he trust it, if the fabulously wealthy can only see dearth at the end of the tunnel? And why should he trust its institutions: banks, international trade agreements, government departments, contracts… and so on? Many who might identify with the Right may protest that Grantham is no capitalist, yet he is no socialist; his criticism is not of capital as such — he’s not seeking to abolish private property or dismantle capitalism — but an apology for it in an era (so he claims) of increasing scarcity. Reinventing Malthus, Grantham warns that ‘if we mean to avoid increased starvation and international instability, we will need global ingenuity and generosity on a scale hitherto unheard of’, before promising to return to offer ‘shorter-term views on the market and investment recommendations’. The end is nigh, but there’s plenty of opportunity to increase the value of your portfolio.

Grantham’s millennial anxiety reflects the failure of his own imagination. Like the Malthus he reinvents, he can not see what he has brought to the data which apparently tells him that the abundance produced throughout the era spanning the industrial revolution to the present is some kind of gift from nature. Divine providence. Capitalism doesn’t unleash human creative potential on this view; it merely digs stuff out of the ground and shifts it to where it is needed. It is this bleak outlook which is prior to the science. Grantham sees a ‘different, more constrained, world’, but isn’t it him that’s different, and constrained?

Creationism is perhaps a harder beast to understand. The noisy fight between angry atheists and creationists in recent years has been deathly boring. But again, if this is truly a debate between liberals and conservatives, all it reveals is the hollowness of either agenda. It seems obvious that there is a vast excluded middle in the debate, which neither side has been able to rally, much as the climate debate consists — apparently — of eco-warriors on the one hand and deniers on the other, while a great number of people are not really all that interested.

The angry atheists imagine some resurgence of religiousness, but a better account of the apparent rise of politicised religion is, again, a collapse of trust in secular public institutions. It is as if, so to speak, the likes of Richard Dawkins are fighting their own failures. They imagine the rebirth of a kind of medieval Catholicism, but this seems to forget that contemporary creationism expresses itself, not as the literal word of the bible, but in terms of ‘Intelligent Design’ — there is scientific evidence, claim today’s creationists, of God’s role in the development of organisms. Mirroring this concession to science, the evolutionists have invented their own creation myth from which they draw moral authority. The Darwinian account of evolution is for them more than simply an explanation of the Origin of Species, it is an encompassing, universal narrative that even explains why the stupid people who don’t believe the things you tell them stupidly don’t believe the things you tell them. Religious zealots and bigots past explained non-conformist’s disobedience as heresy and sin; those claiming to be the rightful heirs of the enlightenment put such intransigence down to insufficiently developed neural circuits — the legacy of evolutionary psychology, that only the enlightened and anointed have overcome. We might as well call ‘denial’, ‘original sin’, then.

Where the loss of faith in capitalism represents a problem for the putative right, the failure of secular public institutions to sustain, let alone engender, trust in them creates a problem for seemingly progressive liberals. Much of the argument offered by today’s secularists — and even by today’s theists — descends to science. Ethical, moral, political, and economic problems are seemingly answered by appeals to the ‘best available evidence’. Evidence-based policy-making is the order of the day. Thus we see policy-based evidence-making in place of transparent debate: politics reduced to technical process of management of public affairs in which public debate is precluded, and the contest between competing values, principles and objectives — that might have once been brought to bear over decision-making processes — surrendered to bogus spreadsheets weighted to pre-determined outcomes. Progressive movements matched the right’s loss of faith in capitalism with their own loss of faith in their ability to make moral and political arguments that appealed to a public consisting of engaged individuals, competent to understand their own interests. The greater good, it seems, was better served by self-justifying political elites than by the hoi-polloi themselves, after all.

Two things stick out from Mooney’s article. The first is this:

Modern science originated from an attempt to weed out such subjective lapses—what that great 17th century theorist of the scientific method, Francis Bacon, dubbed the “idols of the mind.” Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader processes of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.

The point Mooney wants to make on Bacon’s behalf is that human faculties are prone to error. I.e. it is a condition of subjectivity that it has only an incomplete picture of the world; i.e. a perspective. Some of this we must agree with. After all, the point emphasised above is that the politics is prior to the science; Grantham, for instance, sees in the data reasons to be cheerless, but they are his own prejudices and failure of imagination looking back at him.

Remarkably, Mooney emphasises not simply the scientific method, but the institutional apparatus of scientific practice as its extension as the means to ruling out the subjective influences that may beset a ‘value-free investigation’. ‘Institutionalized skepticism’ (or ‘institutionalised scepticism’, this side of the Atlantic) serves as the filter of bad ideas, presumably by operating according to the principles that Bacon — and philosophers of science since — have laid down, but not merely those principles. Scientific authority, in other words, comes by virtue of some form of social organisation: institutional science. Mooney’s conception of scientific authority begins to look a lot more political now.

This blog has emphasised that there is a difference between science as a process and institutional science. It’s important to note, again, that creationists, MMR-autism campaigners, climate change ‘deniers’, and all the other objects of Mooney’s criticism, do very little to attack science as such — as a process. Indeed, they can all be found, right or wrong, making appeals to science. Mooney protests that science is under attack, and that the Republican Party, during Bush’s administration, had even launched a ‘war’ against it. But as we can see, there is no war on ‘science’ as a process; so many of the putative anti-scientists make appeals to scientific evidence.

The best sense that can be made of Mooney’s claims that there was a ‘war on science’ and that there is a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the science’, is that there is a ‘war on institutional science’ and that there’s a ‘science’ of ‘why we don’t believe the institutional science’. This much has been answered above. There is no coincidence that the alleged ‘war on science’ happened during an era in which (institutional) science was so politicised, by, as much as anything, the vacuity of the liberal/progressive movement’s agenda. And Mooney has done more to politicise science than most other people. Second, the scientific method no more obliges people to trust institutional science than the literal word of the bible obliges people to believe that the church itself is incapable of doing wrong. To make the point more explicit: there is a difference between trust in the scientific method and trust in the scientific institution.

Mooney continues:

Our individual responses to the conclusions that science reaches, however, are quite another matter. Ironically, in part because researchers employ so much nuance and strive to disclose all remaining sources of uncertainty, scientific evidence is highly susceptible to selective reading and misinterpretation. Giving ideologues or partisans scientific data that’s relevant to their beliefs is like unleashing them in the motivated-reasoning equivalent of a candy store.

Irony indeed. Fancy letting ideologues and partisans near literature that they don’t understand! They might turn out some cod-science about how the people they have a political disagreement with have insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’, having failed to overcome their primitive psychology!

The second thing that sticks out from the article is the illustration that seems to reflect Mooney’s perspective:

In this picture, ‘belief’ is depicted as an poor approximation of ‘truth’. That is to say that mental models of the material world are imprecise, and prone to error, reflecting Mooney’s comments that subjectivity is flawed, and that the scientific method — and scientific institutions — aims to ‘weed it out’. The implication of this and Mooney’s concerns about letting ‘ideologues’ near ‘scientific data’ is that ‘truth’ is something which only institutional science has access to, and it that becomes corrupted in the hands of the ‘partisan’. But truth is not a property of the material, ‘objective’ world; it is a judgement about statements, or beliefs. It does not exist ‘out there’.

This metaphysical confusion runs throughout Mooney’s argument. For Mooney, ‘ideology’ is some insidious, toxic force, the antithesis to ‘truth’ itself. The thrust of his argument is that we need particular scientific institutions to ameliorate this intrinsic weakness of human nature. And as such, these institutions deserve elevated status above the reach of those prone to ideology. Otherwise, we would tend towards creationism, to MMR-scares, to climate-change denial. In other words, our flawed minds would create a catastrophe, and it is this possibility of catastrophe that seemingly legitimises the elevated position of scientific institutions. Mooney reinvents Plato’s city state administrated by Philosopher Kings, the main differences being that Mooney conceives of a global polity, and the wisdom of the Guardians only produces the possibility of mere survival, not even a better way of life. To bring this back the matter of trust, Mooney doesn’t trust humans. Their minds are flawed. Their ambitions and ideas are mere fictions. The institutions they create are accordingly founded on false premises, which, instituted and acted upon, will cause disaster. Even when humans are exposed to ‘the truth’, it is, on Mooney’s view, absorbed into the poisonous, ideological programmes of partisans: liars and cheats who distort it. But without a disaster looming, this instance of a politics of fear would collapse.

The desire for a stable climate and a stable relationship between society and the ‘biosphere’ is an unstated desire for a stable society without of the means to build it. It is a politics by other means. Mooney’s cynicism towards his fellow humans forces the business of politics away from the public sphere that he otherwise has no chance of influencing, into some imagined, purely objective realm. But this realm does not exist. His scepticism of ‘ideology’ and ‘partisanship’ and his emphasis on ‘science’ belies a lack of confidence in his own ability to create and share ideals. Hence he turns against overtly political arguments, and hides them behind the putative objectivity of institutional science. The model of society he imagines is not argued for on its own terms, and does not appeal for the assent of those that would be governed by it for authority. He simply can’t make a popular argument for his political idea, and so turns to ‘science’ to identify the necessity of such a programme — i.e. the crisis — and to identify reasons why conventional democratic processes cannot realise it — i.e. insufficiently developed ‘neural circuits’ and evolutionary psychology. Thus he reinvents ancient and medieval theological political theories. This distrust of the lay public’s mental faculties is not owed to scientific discovery, but to a prejudice in turn owed to his own anxieties about a world he has no control over. This is an anxiety that troubles those who already belong to a political class, but who feel its influence ebbing away as faith in it and its institutions diminishes. They mistake their own demise for the end of the world. This is what is prior to ‘science’ in arguments such as Mooney’s. It is ideological. It is partisan, though it is incoherent. And it has nothing at all to do with the quality of ‘neural circuits’.