All Watched Over by Monbiot

by | Jun 8, 2011

Monbiot, again. He has a piece in yesterday’s Guardian, taking issue with a report commissioned by the previous government — but taken up enthusiastically by the coalition. The report aimed to put a value on the UK’s ecosystem, such that planning policies could take account of the ‘ecosystem services’ that development may destroy. But, complains Monbiot, The true value of nature is not a number.

If you thought the true value of nature was the wonder and delight it invoked, you’re wrong. It turns out that it’s a figure with a pound sign on the front. All that remains is for the Cabinet Office to tell us the true value of love and the price of society, and we’ll have a single figure for the meaning of life.

The ‘wonder and delight’ you experience when you look at some nature is highly subjective, of course. It’s much easier for city folk to get misty eyed about green spaces. People who have to endure it’s realities are less romantic about it. And the report discusses the subjective value of nature in terms of the ‘amenity’ seemingly provided by green space. For instance, page 24 of the synthesis report claims,

Diversification of forest structure for biodiversity benefits improve cultural services, through better amenity value, while increases in forest cover potentially benefit carbon regulation and can also contribute to flood regulation throughout river catchments.

This should be straightforward enough. ‘Ecosystems’ provide things, claims the report, that we’d otherwise have to pay for if they were destroyed. To build the ‘flood regulation’ infrastructure that nature appears to give us for free would cost a quantity of money that is relatively easy to calculate — if you accept the premises that ‘nature’ ‘provides’ ‘services’. ( I don’t accept them, but it is of no consequence here.)

As for the subjective part, so what? A DVD of a movie has subjective vale. You might like it, I might hate it. But the fact of subjectivity doesn’t mean that it can’t be given a price. As the price increases, fewer people would want to buy it. As it lowers, so its production becomes less worthwhile. Ditto, a book. I have many books I’d not want to lose, and some I have paid over-the-odds for. But there are many books I don’t think are worth the paper they are written on.

Value is not intrinsic to either of these things, and nobody with any sense ever claimed otherwise. Indeed, nobody sensible ever claimed that ‘ the wonder and delight invoked’ by books and movies (rather than by nature) had some objective value, either. Money value — in its most basic sense — merely makes it possible for us to exchange the DVD for the book, or for whatever I need or desire, bank balance permitting. So Monbiot’s complaint that the study had put a value on nature seems somewhat redundant. Nothing has a true value. Money is a fiction, which has no intrinsic value out with the confidence that we place in it that it can represent a value in exchange. And so is nature.

So why the surprise? Did Monbiot never notice that, when the likes of Stern were discussing climate change as a ‘market failure’ in terms of ‘externalities’, they were, bringing the value of nature into relation to other things? And what did Monbiot ever mean, when he spoke of the exploitation of the natural world for profit by capitalist enterprises — i.e. for money — if there were no value in nature? What would it mean to even talk about the ‘destruction of nature’, if it were not for the fact that nature had some value? If there was no value to be somehow drawn from the natural world, capitalists simply wouldn’t attempt to find it. Monbiot concludes,

It’s the definitive neoliberal triumph: the monetisation and marketisation of nature, its reduction to a tradeable asset. Once you have surrendered it to the realm of Pareto optimisation and Kaldor-Hicks compensation, everything is up for grabs. These well-intentioned dolts, the fellows of the grand academy of Lagado who produced the government’s assessment, have crushed the natural world into a column of figures. Now it can be swapped for money.

Don’t be fooled by the reference to economic theories. Monbiot’s grasp of things here is extraordinarily weak. He reveals a breath-taking ignorance of his own movement’s thought, never mind it’s apparent enemy. From its inception, the contemporary environmental movement was precisely about the integration of the economy — of people’s productive lives — and the environment. That is the very essence of political ecology. That is the meaning of ‘living within ecological limits’. That is why it proposes a ‘no growth’ agenda. If there are no means by which the natural world can be brought into relation with our activities, then the imperative to ‘live within limits’ can only fall on deaf ears; without some metric, the notion of limits is entirely redundant. If there is nothing by which we can measure the ‘balance’ of nature, how can we ever determine what is ‘sustainable’? Or maybe that’s the point.

Moreover, far from reflecting a ‘definitive neoliberal triumph’, the valorisation of natural processes reflects its abject failure. A history lesson for Monbiot should begin with Malthus, a disciple of Adam Smith, the classical political economist. The lesson would move on to Paul Ehrlich — a member of the GOP, at the time — who similarly pronounced that human industrial society had reached its end. In the same era, and from the same end of the political spectrum was Garret Hardin, fan of Hayek, and author of The Tragedy of the Commons — a primary text for students of ecology. This work determined that, for the protection of natural resources, publicly owned property (commons) should be abolished:

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. […] We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

Hardin concludes his essay by arguing that even human fertility should be constrained:

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. “Freedom is the recognition of necessity”–and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

More than 40 years have passed since environmentalists began doing precisely what Monbiot says had only been achieved last week. As much as environmentalism is today identified with the Left, it’s history is equally embedded in the Right. For what these categories are worth — which is not much –the Left and Right flirt with eco-centricism at various points throughout history. To put it very crudely: we can see at the end of the post-war boom, conservatism coinciding with environmentalism in the gloom of the 1970s. And at the end of the cold war, the Left appears to go green as red drains from geopolitics. Far from representing a neo-liberal triumph, then, what the attempt to locate a new material basis for economics in environmentalism represents is the loss of faith in capitalism. Whether Left or Right, the argument is no longer about the virtues of either form of social organisation, but about what Hardin, who makes a literal misreading of Hegel, called ‘necessity’: we must do what the numbers — nature herself — say. Both attempts to reformulate Left and Right economic thought through ecology argue that failure to realise their agenda will result in catastrophe.

Monbiot criticises the report.

…  this assessment is total nonsense, pure reductionist gobbledegook, dressed up in the language of objectivity and reason, but ascribing prices to emotional responses: prices, which, for all the high-falutin’ language it uses, can only be arbitrary. It has been constructed by people who feel safe only with numbers, who must drag the whole world into their comfort zone in order to feel that they have it under control. The graphics used by the assessment are telling: they portray the connections between people and nature as interlocking cogs. It’s as clear a warning as we could take that this is an almost comical attempt to force both nature and human emotion into a linear, mechanistic vision.

This is one rich statement, coming from Monbiot. The interesting bit comes at the end — the complaint about ‘interlocking cogs’ and ‘nature and human emotion’ forced’ into a linear, mechanistic vision’.

Why is this so surprising? Well, in 2007, Monbiot made a startling confession in an attack on Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley.

Like Ridley, I am a biological determinist: I believe that much of our behaviour is governed by our evolutionary history. I accept the evidence he puts forward, but draw completely different conclusions. He believes that modern humans are destined to behave well if left to their own devices; I believe that they are likely to behave badly. If you belong to a small group of intelligent hominids, all of whom are well known to each other, you will be rewarded for cooperation and generosity within the group. (Though this does not stop your group from attacking or exploiting another.) If, on the other hand, you can switch communities at will, travel freely, buy in one country and sell in another, hire strangers then fire them, you will gain more from acting only in your own interest. You’ll have an even stronger incentive to act against the common good if you run a bank whose lending and borrowing are so complex that hardly anyone can understand what is happening.

Ridley and I have the same view of human nature: that we are inherently selfish. But the question is whether this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history.

The author of such a view is in no position to complain about ‘pure reductionist gobbledegook, dressed up in the language of objectivity and reason’, or about ‘people who feel safe only with numbers, who must drag the whole world into their comfort zone’, or about the view of ‘the connections between people and nature as interlocking cogs’, or about an ‘attempt to force both nature and human emotion into a linear, mechanistic vision’. These are each what Monbiot’s biological determinism is, and they have been discussed at length on this blog before. Briefly, once you take the view that humans are creatures that can be understood through a deterministic framework, their own views become immaterial to the debate about how society should be organised and governed. It is merely a matter of doing the math, and doing as the numbers instruct. It is easy to see much environmentalism in this approach. Political ecology then, simply takes its narrow understanding of humanity and ecology to determine what political institutions are necessary for the functioning of society. This was the subject of my article at Spiked recently on the Nobel Laureate Symposium on Sustainability.

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.

Why then, Monbiot’s sudden volte-face about the mechanistic understanding of the relationship between nature and society?

One reason might be that Adam Curtis’ excellent series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace has been showing on BBC2 recently. It’s an attack on the deterministic and mechanistic thinking that lies at the centre of much contemporary orthodoxy, across what remains of the political spectrum. The second episode was, in my view at least, the most comprehensive criticism of political ecology I’ve ever seen on TV, but which left wriggle room for environmentalists to distance themselves from the establishment environmentalism that has persisted since the early 1970s.  Monbiot appears to have been watching the series, and it does seem to have caused at least some reflection, as is borne out by his tweets last night.

Watching Adam Curtis discussing my old lecturer #BillHamilton. Here I am, torn between Bill’s mechanistic genetic determinism …

… and my horror at the mechanistic economic determinism of those putting a price on nature. Confused or what?

Hamilton and Dawkins had more influence on my thinking than any others.

That, I should add, was long before Hamilton got into that dodgy eugenic stuff.

‘Putting a price on nature’ isn’t, by itself ‘economic determinism’. Again, it’s clear that Monbiot’s confusion is owed to the fact that he really doesn’t understand the debate he is engaged in. Rather, it is environmental and biological determinism that drives the report, and are brought into its economic analysis to give it ground, not vice-versa. They are its premises. It is eco-centric. It starts from the premises that Monbiot himself seems to start from — the determinism developed by his gurus, Bill Hamilton and Richard Dawkins.

A while ago, Monbiot considered one of Dawkins’ theories — memetics — and what it could tell us about the phenomenon of climate change denial. Monbiot was upset by the torrent of criticism he was receiving under the line of his articles posted the Guardian website, Comment is Free and elsewhere.

Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies. On the Guardian’s forums, you’ll find endless claims that the hockey stick graph of global temperatures has been debunked; that sunspots are largely responsible for current temperature changes; that the world’s glaciers are advancing; that global warming theory depends entirely on computer models; that most climate scientists in the 1970s were predicting a new ice age. None of this is true, but it doesn’t matter. The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible. To judge by the Comment threads, they have succeeded magnificently.

The idea is highly mechanistic. It uses an analogy of genetics, to suggest that ideas proliferate in the same way. Ideas are like genes, says the theory. Just as genes which are better adapted to their physical environment proliferate, so memes — ideas — which are best adapted to culture also proliferate. Says Monbiot,

In his fascinating book Carbon Detox, George Marshall argues that people are not persuaded by information. Our views are formed by the views of the people with whom we mix. Of the narratives that might penetrate these circles, we are more likely to listen to those that offer us some reward. A story that tells us that the world is cooking and that we’ll have to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations is less likely to be accepted than the more rewarding idea that climate change is a conspiracy hatched by scheming governments and venal scientists, and that strong, independent-minded people should unite to defend their freedoms.

This is the highly mechanistic view of humans that Monbiot now claims to reject. It says that humans do not make decisions, or engage with the ideas they are exposed to, but instead respond to memes engineered by giant corporations. This is surely the tin-foil-hat theory of climate change denial. Yet it appeals to Monbiot, because it belittles the humans — mere machines — who refuse to obey him, and explains their disobedience. Equipped with such a view, Monbiot does not have to answer any criticism. The automata who criticise him are sub-human.

If humans really are the mechanistic objects that memetics and biological determinism maintain they are, this creates a problem for Monbiot, the biological determinist. If humans really ‘aren’t persuaded by information’, and their ideas and values are mere fictions, what does this say about the ‘the wonder and delight’ invoked by ‘nature’? Isn’t it as arbitrary as anything else we think or feel? What then, is the point of trying to protect it?

The climate debate is presented by Monbiot as a matter of straightforward scientific facts to which we must respond by reorganising society. But behind these are many further claims — many of which are about humanity.  They range from the metaphysical, such as his theory of memes, through to the mythological, such as his views of nature as a system of checks and balance. Like most environmentalists, the role that ‘nature’ plays in Monbiot’s arguments is comprehensive. Everything is understood through an eco-centric perspective, from humans themselves, through to ‘communities’, society, economics, and politics. Problems within them are accordingly naturalised, and seen as a matter of disequilibrium, to which nature, as ‘sustainability’ and ‘balance’ — all represented by statistics — are the solutions. These claims amount to a political ideology or even a theocracy, though nothing like as coherent.

The urgency with which the climate issue is forced up the political agenda comes at the expense of environmental ideology being either understood or tested. Monbiot’s ravings epitomise this state of affairs. His argument is both inconsistent, and incoherent. He vacillates between arguments that he finds necessary one moment, but uncomfortable the next. The spectacle really is like the environmental movement in microcosm: riven through with contradiction, it tears itself apart. Dare to point out the problem, and rather than be offered a better, more coherent account, you will be guilty of the most heinous crimes: to wish death on the world, to deny truth itself, and worst of all, to be motivated by better-formulated ideas about the world than he has. Until he works out that he represents simultaneously the worst of the establishment and ‘radical’ environmentalism, Monbiot’s scribbling will continue to serve as useful insight into the twisted, crisis-ridden logic of both.

1 Comment

  1. Russell C

    Scrambled up in these comment threads are the memes planted in the public mind by the professional deniers employed by fossil fuel companies… The professional deniers are paid not to win the argument but to cause as much confusion and delay as possible.

    Good ol’ Monbiot, regurgitating 15-year old talking points that themselves are taking on the appearance of being the very kind of disinformation campaign he complains about. In an online article I wrote on May 23rd, I tell how this long-term campaign has worked amazingly well so far, but hard scrutiny of it reveals huge contradictions and myriad other problems in those fossil fuel funding accusations, and how this could ultimately destroy the entire so-called global warming crisis. Please see “Smearing Skeptic Scientists: What did Gore know and when did he know it?”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.