A Sach(s) of Mystical Woo-Woo

Posted by Ben Pile on October 16, 2012
Oct 162012

I usually try to avoid looking at the seriously nutty end of environmentalism. Paul Kingsnorth’s ‘Dark Mountain Project‘ is one such collection of madness.

The stories which any culture tells itself about its origins and values determine its direction and destination. The dominant stories of our culture tell us that humanity is separate from all other life and destined to control it; that the ecological and economic crises we face are mere technical glitches; that anything which cannot be measured cannot matter. But these stories are losing their power. We see them falling apart before our eyes.

New stories are needed for darker, more uncertain times. Older ones need to be rediscovered. The Dark Mountain Project was created to help this happen. We promote and curate writing, storytelling, art and music rooted in place, time and nature. We aim to offer up a challenge to the foundations of our civilisation. We know this is ambitious, and possibly foolhardy. But we think it is also necessary, and we hope we can act as a catalyst and curator in helping to begin the process.

The tragedy of the ‘Uncivilisation’ (their word) project is of course, that once you reduce the entire world, its past and its future to mere narratives, the unavoidable conclusion is that your own dysphoria is also merely a narrative, and as such completely disconnected from reality. The Dark Mountain is a dystopian fantasy of escape from… its prequel… a dystopian fantasy, which is dystopian by virtue of a prophecy of doom.

Speaking of prophets of doom peddling silly narratives of dystopias and utopias, this nutty chap has far more clout than the average eco-warrior:

“We become unbalanced as individuals if we become cut off from nature”, claims Professor Jeffrey Sachs, senior UN advisor, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the Millennium Development Goals, world expert on poverty, amongst many other things.

It is one thing, of course, to say that we depend on ‘ecosystems’ for material sustenance. It is quite another thing entirely to claim, as Sachs does, that we are nourished in some other way by nature.

I disagree with both things, however. Sachs begins his story with what appears to be a common sense view — that we depend on ecosystems, which in the environmental perspective,
clean and transport our air and water, pollinate crops, fix nitrogen, and so on. But the term ‘ecosystem’ mystifies what are natural processes. And the extent to which we depend on natural processes is a function of our wealth, fundamentally. It is simply been more economic to situate ourselves near natural water courses than to pipe it hundreds of miles. And it is similarly cheaper to use solar power to grow crops than to put them under lights. But that will surely change one day, when using artificial light becomes more productive than using ‘free’ sunlight. It would be ‘natural’ for me to use a horse, rather than a car. But my car is far, far cheaper than a field, the labour necessary to keep the field in good condition, and so on. It is not inconceivable, then, that we might one day replace all of our dependencies on natural processes with dependence on systems of our own making, save for that which are part of our own biology. There is no virtue in things, simply because they are ‘natural’.

The concept of ‘ecosystems’ is nebulous — they have no clear boundaries or identity. But they are presupposed to exist, as complex, fragile, and tangible entities. Even more nebulous, then, is the claim that our lives depend on them, rather than natural processes, the boundaries and limitations of which can be understood. Sachs gives the game away when he says we become ‘unbalanced’ as individuals when distance is put between ourselves and ‘nature’.

We are programmed to have… We evolved in the savannah. … People all over the world are attracted to the same kind of vistas, the horizons, being on a hill overlooking a lake. These are things that make life pleasant for us. And interestingly, all societies tend to share some of those basic traits because they’re really hard wired in our evolutionary experience as a species.

This ‘web of life’ stuff now descends to armchair evolutionary psychology. Now, I probably like being on top of a hill as much as anybody else. But can I really talk about it being anything more than a subjective experience? And even if I can say that the enjoyment of natural drama in landscapes seems to be universal, does it really say anything about the urban vista, such that too much of it produces an ‘unbalanced’ individual? I happen to have found the view of New York from Brooklyn Bridge as awe-inspiring as anything I’ve seen in nature. Only the February cold — exposure to nature? — moved me on. More importantly, can it really be claimed that this capacity for a subjective, but universal experience has any consequences for our understanding of development?

Sachs was apparently asked ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’ His answer is predictable.

Humanity in many cases at a local scale has blown it by over-farming, depleting nutrients in soils, taking too much ground water away. But in past history, when the local environment was wrecked as it often was, people moved. Migration was the safety valve. There is no safety valve [?] that way now. We’ve filled the planet with seven billion of us and there’s no place to move. There’s no other planet, there’s no alternative. Either we save the planet, save the millions of species under threat or we’re going to wreck things and its so odd. This is our generation’s time. This wasn’t the generational choice fifty years ago. It won’t be the generational choice a hundred years from now because it’s going to be too late if we haven’t gotten this right by then. This is our time, this is why I think sustainable development is this generation’s major challenge.

Did you see what he did there?

Or rather, did you see what he didn’t do there? He didn’t answer the question: ‘How can we balance quality of life and sustainability?’

What we got instead was hand-waving in the form of cod evolutionary psychology, claims about ‘ecosystems’, and the promise that we’re all going to die. He is very keen on emphasising the imperatives of environmentalism, but is not so keen on explaining what they mean.

Central to these claims is the concept of ‘balance’ alluded to in his discussion about people being deprived of nature becoming ‘unbalanced’.

It is of course, an instance of the naturalistic fallacy. In Sachs’s perspective, the good life has been dictated by nature. It restores ‘balance’ in individuals. Ditto, the iron logic of nature determines what is right in wider terms — of ‘balance’ in society. This is, I’ve argued before, nothing more than a search for a basis on which to build a form of politics which does not need to take a mandate from the public — the demos. The role of political institutions in this form of politics is — at face value — to manage the relationship between humans and natural processes.

In reality, however, it is a naked attempt to create authority for a political elite. This is shown most vividly by his inability to answer the question. And it is shown again in a second video, in which Sachs is asked “Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?”

The answer is ‘no’. Sachs imagines low and middle income countries enjoying the lifestyles that the richer world enjoys. It would mean ecological disaster. The only way it is possible, he says is through a concept he calls ‘decoupling’…

… using sustainable technologies that allow for economic progress, especially in the poor and middle-income countries without damaging the environment because those technologies decouple the progress from the use of primary resources or from carbon emissions.

Solar power is the answer, he suggests, citing recent falls in the price of PV cells on the world market. Yet those falls are, as we all now know, the consequence of over-production in the East, not advances in production of them, after markets were created for them by absurd levels of subsidy, especially in Europe. And even more so in Germany… a first world country in which 800,000 people a year cannot afford to pay their electricity bills and so get cut off thanks to its renewable energy policies — especially solar — causing ever rising prices. Not even Germans — whose GDPPP was $ 38,400 in 2011 — can afford solar power!

The developing world will just have to wait for the technology it would seem. Which isn’t really an answer to the question, Is it possible for all the world’s nations to be developed, or must there be winners and losers?” The losers will have to remain losers until Sachs’s pipe dream becomes a reality, meanwhile the coal, oil and gas that they might enjoy now, or in the very near future will remain in the ground. A man, in such a position of influence as he — with the ear of presidents throughout the world, and as former adviser to the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Development Program, and as the author of many projects seemingly intended to realise ‘sustainable development’ — really ought be able to answer the question.

Instead he unwittingly gives the lie to the claim that sustainable development is necessary — ‘sustainability’ is in fact hostile to the very concept of development.

Perhaps Sachs believes his own verbiage. But I see no reason to take at face value what has very little scientific basis. It is not simply bad science, bad politics and bad faith — these things justified on mystical concepts of ‘balance’, and ‘ecosystem’. It is woo-woo, passed off as planet-saving insight. Shame on Sachs.

Welcome to the politics of pastiche

Posted by Ben Pile on October 16, 2012
Oct 162012

<em>Published on Spiked-Online at http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/12981/</em>

In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.

Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.

Miliband is not the only leader to have emphasised his humble origins to claim that it gives him insight into a divided Britain. Nor is he the first to try to revive Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s idea of One Nation politics. John Major also sought to reverse the Conservative Party’s decline by reinventing Disraeli, claiming in 1996: ‘Decent homes, rewarding jobs, a good education, shares, quality of life. Giving more people those opportunities is what One Nation Conservatism is all about.’ Five years earlier, and just prior to an unexpected election victory that produced a government hobbled by constant in-fighting, he, like Miliband now, paraded his humble roots. For Major, that meant Brixton and grammar school rather than Miliband’s Hampstead and a comprehensive school, as this 1992 Conservative Party campaign video shows.

The two fundamentals of Miliband’s speech are the same as Major’s. Twenty years separate them, but both consciously eschew the socialism that we might imagine their backgrounds would make them sympathetic to. Both claim that their origins give them insight that people from more privileged backgrounds cannot develop. Both claim to be able to unite Britain. And both emphasise merely basic educational standards as the means to economic recovery. Miliband wants to offer ‘that 14-year-old who is not academic’ a ‘gold-standard vocational qualification, a new Technical Baccalaureate’, which is ‘a qualification to be proud of’. It is as if nobody had thought of it before. Yet Major said in 1996: ‘Some children will choose to learn vocational skills. I’ve had enough of people who look down on those children and treat them as second best… So practical skills are being put on an equal footing with academic subjects… The old divide between universities and polytechnics has gone.’

The observation that very little separates political leaders is not new, of course. But the motifs repeated over the past three decades of Britain’s political history are stark, and begin to offer a clue as to what might be going on.

At the Conservative Party conference in 2009, David Cameron’s Big Society idea was being hatched. He would put ‘Broken Britain’, he said, ‘back on her feet’: ‘Do you know the worst thing about their big government?’, he asked of New Labour. ‘It’s not the cost, though that’s bad enough. It is the steady erosion of responsibility. Our task is to lead Britain in a completely different direction.’

But the idea that the state had deprived people of ‘responsibility’ was something Tony Blair, of New Labour, had emphasised just five years earlier. In 2004, he announced a strategy that he claimed was ‘the culmination of a journey of change both for progressive politics and for the country.’ He added: ‘It marks the end of the 1960s liberal, social consensus on law and order… It was John Stuart Mill who articulated the modern concept that with freedom comes responsibility. But in the 1960s revolution, that didn’t always happen… Here, now, today, people have had enough of this part of the 1960s consensus…. That is the new consensus on law and order for our times.’

Even that was hardly new, though. At the Conservative Party conference more than a decade earlier, John Major had taken issue with people who believed that ‘criminal behaviour was society’s fault, not the individual’s’. Major, too, emphasised responsibility: ‘Do you know, the truth is, much as things have changed on the surface, underneath we’re still the same people. The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain… It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state.’

But even a decade before Major’s speech, Margaret Thatchertold political interviewer Brian Walden: ‘I think we went through a period when too many people began to expect their standard of living to be guaranteed by the state, and so great protest movements came that you could, by having sufficient protests, sufficient demonstrations against government, get somehow a larger share for yourself, and they looked to the protest and the demonstrations and the strikes to get a bigger share for them, but it always had to come from the people who really strived to do more and to do better. I want to see one nation, as you go back to Victorian times, but I want everyone to have their own personal property stake.’

For Thatcher, ‘one nation’ meant harking back to Victorian Values. Major similarly sought to get us Back to Basics. Blair thought that this could be achieved through his Respect Agenda. Cameron ordered the creation of the Big Society. Each leader promised that they could encourage personal responsibility, which would in turn transform British culture, end dependence on the welfare state, and reverse economic woes.

In spite of such ambitions, however, governments have found it increasingly difficult to let people actually take responsibility for themselves. The welfare state has not diminished, and endless policy initiatives find new ways to intrude on private life. As early as 1997, the then Labour government conceived of a ‘Quality of Life Barometer’, which would measure the government’s performance in improving individuals’ subjective sense of wellbeing – a project now more fully realised by the Lib-Con coalition’s Happiness Index. Political leaders who emphasise personal responsibility don’t even trust the people to look after their own emotional lives, let alone smoke or drink in public or find their way out of dependency on benefits.

Miliband’s grand projet - One Nation – doesn’t even bother to rebrand the nineteenth-century idea with a new name. Nor does he even attempt to give it substance. Instead, he merely offers a list of grievances, attached to his personal history. ‘That is who I am. That is what I believe. That is my faith’, he urges.

Today’s politicians have become increasingly hollow pastiches of their predecessors, echoes of long-passed political moments that ring around a public space as empty as the vision of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. Unable to conceive of new political ideas, they recycle a diminishing pool of insipid slogans that they wave at the country’s very real problems. The constant refrain of ‘One Nation’, ‘personal responsibility’, ‘sense of wellbeing’, ‘rebuilding Britain’ and the rest belies the paucity of ideas about actual development. Instead of building things like roads, industry and homes, modern leaders emphasise instead restraint, austerity, and external crises that are beyond our control – the global economic crisis, climate change and terrorism – which might let them off the hook.

Instead of answering the question ‘Who am I?’, the answer to which may be spun and invented to suit any given moment, it would be far better if politicians answered a far more difficult question: ‘What will I do?’ The fact that they have no new answers to that question is the real message of the party-conference season.

Spiking Pastiche Politics

Posted by Ben Pile on October 16, 2012
Oct 162012

I have an article up on Spiked today about the emptiness of contemporary political grandstanding…

In his speech to the Labour Party Conference earlier this month, leader Ed Miliband declared he was going to ‘do something different today’, to ‘tell you my story. I want to tell you who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country.’ Such self-conscious attempts to give identity to hollow political leaders of tired political parties in empty political contests are now a ritual in British politics.

Every political leader in recent years has overstated his vision as a new vital force. Yet each attempt to do so belies the narrowing of political discourse, the hollowing out of ideas, and the terminal vacuity of today’s political poseurs. The spectacle of Miliband delivering a personal statement was nothing new at all. Like many political leaders before him, he was forced to talk about himself because he had nothing else to say.

Read more at Spiked…

Silent Spring? Or Noisy Winter?

Posted by Ben Pile on October 1, 2012
Oct 012012

The 50th anniversary of Rachel Carsen’s book, Silent Spring has produced a lot of discussion on the internet. Much of this has been rehearsed, ad nauseum.

But 50 years is an opportunity to reflect on the failure of environmentalists past and present to successfully predict the future. Instead, it would seem to me, they project their miserable view of the world and of people onto both. Half a century of failed predictions has not caused any reflection within environmentalism. The non-manifestation of their prophecies has only caused them to defer the date of Armageddon; their excuse codified in just four words: Not if, but when….

But it is not just the failure to predict the future that causes environmentalism bad PR; explaining the present is a problem for them too. Over the last 50 years, economic crises notwithstanding, life has continued to improve in absolute and relative terms. As I have been discussing on Twitter following claims that hundreds of thousands of deaths can be attributed to climate change each year, for instance, there are far fewer deaths from seemingly ‘natural’ causes now than previously. In the case of infant mortality, there were 10,000 fewer deaths of under-fives in 2008 than in 1990. And there are 20% fewer deaths from Malaria now than ten years ago. Not even the certainty of climate change has produce the moral capital — body bags — that environmentalists claim.

The character of life — not just the avoidance of death — has improved, year on year. People lifting themselves out of poverty means determining for themselves the life they want, free from the necessities of subsistence lifestyles.

In short, we were promised a Silent Spring, but now we have noisy winters — human life thriving where once it would have been virtually impossible, or at least characterised by hardship. The chemical, thermal, and biological Apocalypses have simply not materialised. In spite of these historical clues, however, environmental mythology persists.

When Silent Spring was just 30 years old — way back in 1992 — my favourite film maker, Adam Curtis produced a series of films for the BBC: Pandora’s Box — A fable from the age of science, which explored the complexities of humanity’s relationship with science. One episode deals with the change in attitude towards chemists, and the rise of political ecology. Curtis notes that the chemist is at first celebrated as a hero, as the use of pesticides transforms agriculture. Of particular interest is the narrative that emerges during this era, that puts a Darwinian slant on technological developments. But even more interesting is the transformation of this story in the wake of Carson. As ecologism emerges, so the environmentalists claim to champion Darwin.

The conclusion of the film is extraordinarily prescient. And it speaks to the argument I have made here often, which is that the debate about the environment in general, and climate in particular descends to science. But science is fickle. We imagine it to unmoved by the chaos of the social world, and that scientists can channel pure objectivity to otherwise irrational beings, to be instructive to matters of public policy. Curtis doesn’t take sides in the eco wars, but shows how in many cases, this can be a dangerous misconception of science. The environmental movement was given birth to by lawyers exploiting public anxiety, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Mythology developed around the seemingly scientific and objective claims of early environmentalists. The story of Carson told by environmentalists is one in which scientific observation led to sensible policies and the formation of an objective perspective on humanity’s relationship with the natural world. But Carson’s legacy is instead a far more complex story, in which her ideas and their consequences are owed much more to social, political, economic and cultural changes than her defenders will admit. This turbulence besets even our best attempts to understand ‘what science says’.

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