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.