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.