Gaia's Witnesses?

by | Jul 16, 2011

I got a visit from the Jehova’s Witnesses this morning, who handed me this.

I like Jehova’s Witnesses. Not because I agree with anything they say (at all), but because they arrive at your doorstep impeccably turned-out, and ready with passionate, but polite and considered answers and a willingness to debate — unlike most environmentalists in almost every respect.

The man explained that the world was being destroyed. ‘Oh, I think it’s getting better all the time’, I said. ‘What about all the oil spills’, he asked. ‘Well, they’re local problems, and they get cleaned up. Meanwhile, we get better and better at looking after ourselves’. I suggested that Jehova’s Witnesses should be encouraging a discussion about how to get more oil out of the ground, faster, if they want to help people — especially the poor. Ultimately, our conversation ended when I explained that I did not beleive in God, though the smell of tobacco smoke and the seven empty bottles of wine next to the front door may have had as much to do with their departure. A lost cause.

As far as I can tell, the decline of the natural world is an inevitability, according to the Witnesses until such time as ‘God’s Kingdom’ on Earth is restored by him. But paradise will only be available to them. Obviously, then, there’s no need for the IPCC, or the Climate Change Committee, or Greenpeace — God will mend the planet.

There always has been a Christian character to environmentalism: the idea of paradise being destroyed by the Fall of man, and the need for institutions such as the Church to help us balance our temporal desires against the limitations of divine/natural providence. Nonetheless, I was surprised to see that the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ recruitment campaign is founded on such ecological precepts as ‘environmental destruction’.


  1. Aynsley Kellow

    The JWs are millenarians. They share this not just with other millenarian Christians, but with Marxism, Nazism and numerous other social reactions to rapid social change and/or disintegration. The pattern is 1. rapid social change; 2. apocalypse; 3. some unchanging utopia in which some shall be saved (heaven, a thousand year – ie eternal – period – Reich with Nazism, communist society, sustainable society?). There are a few studies by sociologists of environmentalism as a millenarian movement (I would argue only some of it) and a few of its apocalyptic tendencies.

    Bernie Lewin has a good post over at:
    But he is busy earning a living these days and had not posted much.

    It all gets interesting when the predictions of the apocalypse prove the be false: new facts and explanations are provided. It is always after for the predictions to be sufficiently far in the future so as not to be falsifiable within the immediate future, otherwise the failure has to explained away. So 2100 is better than ‘the Arctic will be free of ice by 2007, 2009, 2012, or whatever’. Fifty years ago, Leon Festinger (of cognitive dissonance fame) ad others did a study for the Nastional Science Foundation published as ‘When Prophecy Fails.’

  2. anglichan

    Aynsley Kellow does not give an accurate potrayal of Christian Millennialism, which is a part of the study of Eschatology. Some Christians believe in a literal thousand year reign of Christ on earth [pre-Mill.] whilst others believe in a more ‘spiritual’ interpretation. [Post Mill. and Amill.] There are other overlapping ideas between those three.

    It could be argued that the ‘dominant’ idea at this moment, in the USA and UK, is the Pre Mill hypothesis, particularly due to the charismatic/Pentecostal influence in the church as a whole, but that viewpoint hasn’t always held sway. Augustine was instumental in promoting an Amill. interpretation of certain biblical texts and that position was popular for many hundreds of years, and not just because of the rise of ‘apocalyptic events’.

    JWs are known to use current events/concerns in order to ‘hook’ the unwary into believing that it has some relation to biblical prophecy. They are not alone in that, of course. A famous radio preacher from America recently had egg on his face when his ‘prediction’of the end of the world didn’t happen on the day he said it would. But, whenever it happens, the truth of the Scripture is that Christ will return one day and, before He does, men will mock those who believe. 2Peter 3 vs 3,4.

  3. Ben Pile

    Aynsely, I think the millenarian cap is too broad to be useful if it really does fit all those -isms.

    I have my own arguments with Rees’ prophecies on this site. I found Bernie Lewin’s analysis interesting in its own right, but I think he fails to see the RS’s fear-mongering in the context of contemporary ‘politics of fear’, which extends further than environmental issues, and which cannot be explained simply as ‘millenarian’. On the contrary, I beleive the PoF can be better explained as stuck forever in the present, unable to conceive of a future.

    Having said that, I think there is some discussion to be had about whether environmentalism can be seen as a Utopian — rather than Eutopian — project. But I think the answer to that can be found by looking at why the Utopia is being sought. You mention Marxism, but Marx only outlines a means, not an ends. He refuses to describe his E/Utopia. In More’s Utopia, we find a different idea, where Utopia is already established. Divine providence is limited, but bountiful given a form of social organisation: a primitive communism; a social order arranged as a panoptican, to preclude sin. More gives us many clues, however, that he believes Utopia yet to be a Dystopia. Yet it is nonetheless in many respects a preferable place to the England he criticises in Book I, in which people are moved from the land to make way for sheep, and are forced into sinful lives by the corruption of social institutions by nascent capitalism. Marx too, responds to the excesses of a more advanced form of capitalism. It’s not easy to dismiss Utopias. They are responses to the conditions of the time. A real dystopia, then, is implied by the fictional Utopia.

    So what is the dystopia that environmentalism is responding to? An actual crisis, a disequilibrium of our relationship with the natural world, or simply an illusory crisis, caused by the inability to make sense of the world. As with all Utopias, they become a problem when they become dogma. We’re not allowed to challenge the Utopia, because to do so is to deny the Dystopia. We’re not allowed to question the reality of the Dystopia (as it is presented), because doing so identifies us as motivated by a rejection of the Utopia — we’re committed to something else that clouds our perception.

    Anglichan — many thanks for your useful comments and link. One thing though, I had no intention of mocking those who beleive — that is up to them. I do, however, mock those who believe who tell me that I must beleive or face some consequence, and that my failure to beleive is owed to some moral or intellectual shortcomings.

  4. Chris T

    There always has been a Christian character to environmentalism: the idea of paradise being destroyed by the Fall of man, and the need for institutions such as the Church to help us balance our temporal desires against the limitations of divine/natural providence.

    So much so that ‘deep ecology’ is almost entirely limited to the Western world. Deep ecology simply does not work without Western religious concepts and traditions. Most non-Western countries are generally environmental pragmatists.

  5. Peter S

    Our most enduring Utopia, of course, is the Garden of Eden – and it is no accident that it features at the beginning of the Jeudo-Christian scriptures. It is the first place – or the first state – from which a human is cast out on developing consciousness… ie: rational knowledge of his surroundings and of himself as being a separate entity to them (and specifically, knowledge of his sexual nature). It’s hardly surprising that the story goes on to tell us that man has mixed feelings (to say the least) about having the leave the place and spends a large amount of time thereafter wishing to return (and wishing up somewhere to return to). If read as a shared human history, we may find it to be a good one – a context by which the irrationality of our contemporary projects – and our preoccupation with them – make more sense.

  6. Ben Pile

    Peter S –Our most enduring Utopia, of course, is the Garden of Eden…

    It is a classic error, but Utopia and paradise are not equivalents. Paradise is a place that cannot exist; Utopia is an optimal social order that can (in theory). More’s Utopia is characterised, not by abundance and a free-for-all, but by authoritarian social institutions. It is absolutely not an attempt to create paradise. It is taken by some, even, as a satire.

    Paradise is an easy place to contemplate. It’s just filled with what you wish for. Utopias are more complex, and don’t strive for the same thing. They must propose something equivalent to an immutable human condition/human nature, and material reality — nature itself. What the myth of Eden sets up for Utopians (who take inspiration from it) is that ‘human nature’ is flawed — that’s why man was chucked out — and ii) paradise is an impossibility — because of man’s sin.

    We can see this simple formula in much environmental thought. Humans are driven by impulses (original sin) that cause them to behave in ways that exceed the possibilities created by natural processes (divine providence). Therefore, social institutions above their control are necessary to contain individuals, to make them observant and obedient, lest creation be thrown into chaos, etc.

    The irony here, is that Utopian ideas are pragmatic, not fanciful notions about creating an Earthly paradise. It was fear about the atrocities committed in pursuit of a planned society (i.e. WWII & the Soviet Union), which made seemingly ‘Utopian’ ideas unfashionable. Utopianism creates Dystopias. A crueller irony, then, is that the putative pragmatism that followed in its wake is equally a Utopian political project: it abolishes the possibility of a public discussion about improved ways of organising society, dismissing such thoughts as dangerous and fanciful ideas which are incompatible with human nature, and contrary to what ‘science says’ (‘evidence-based policy-making, etc). Public institutions are arranged accordingly, and debate about public life moves away from the putatively ‘ideological’, towards managerialism. It is in this atmosphere that environmentalism thrives.

  7. anglichan

    Peter S, ”It is the first place – or the first state – from which a human is cast out on developing consciousness… ie: rational knowledge of his surroundings and of himself as being a separate entity to them (and specifically, knowledge of his sexual nature).”

    I don’t know where you get your theological ideas from, Peter. If you read the account in Genesis, you’ll see there that Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, not Paradise, and they were cast out for disobeying God’s specific command, not for becoming sexually aware-that’s an old Roman Catholic viewpoint, essentially because that church has a ‘downer’ on sex [the celibate state is preferable blah, blah]. In so disobeying, Adam and Eve exerted their independence from their Creator and became alienated from Him, not from creation necessarily [though if you must see metaphors everywhere then their being cast out of the Garden could be a metaphor for that separation from God.]

  8. Peter S

    Ben – It is a classic error, but Utopia and paradise are not equivalents

    Well my dictionary has Utopia as “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect… paradise, heaven (on earth), Eden, Garden of Eden, Shangri-La…” and goes on to show its Greek root as ou ‘not’ + topos ‘place.’

    Whether such a ‘place’ is ‘not’ because it can not exist or because it has not been made yet is open to question… but what is known is that Utopia is located in fantasy. That so many people (including the Greens) go to such elaborate lengths to convince themselves, and others, that its ‘notness’ is purely for lack of trying (rather than its intrinsic impossibility) may be a testament to the power of the ‘Fall’ as an unresolved human drive. As we have seen, the road to Utopia is littered with the bodies of those who have died trying to get there – whether armed with the Communist manifesto, the Bible or an empty bottle of gin.

    We might also ponder the character of the ‘not self’ a ‘not space’ is auto-created to exist in. What makes a ‘not space’ so tantalisingly preferable to a real space is that it might meet felt needs a real space is unable to. The ‘notness’ in the fantasised self may well be a set of needs which do not belong in adult life, or in the adult space… but which are still, however, placing intolerable demands on the self.

    How these demands are managed – whilst keeping idealism alive – may be down to finding good-enough substitutes… going some way to meeting a need without having to descend into a utopian oblivion in order to do so – and bearing the pain of its loss (as the story of Eden concludes).

  9. anglichan

    Sorry Peter, I’ve responded to Ben’s use of the word, ‘Paradise’ in my response to your first post when you didn’t use the word at all. My mistake. Don’t cast me out of Climate Resistance comments, will you?

  10. daniel

    Sorry to say that my own denomination, Seventh-day Adventist, is bringing up the rear on the global warming bandwagon. Even tho the global warming doctrine can be easily seen to be error, there is a fascination with many for “gory stuff”. The gorier things get, the sooner many believe Jesus will come back and make everything right. That is a very poor method to try and win people over to the truth, by showing them apocalyptic error! Come to think of it tho, this is the same method used by most of the climate-alarmists – the direr, more outlandish and unbelievable the prediction is, the more people they get to believe, and the more funds come their way. So in a way, you could say that the religious groups are learning from the climate-alarmists! Or is it the other way around?

    It is true tho, that Jesus will come back one day soon, and this planet will get a LOT hotter before it cools down into paradise restored :)

  11. Ben Pile

    PeterS – Well my dictionary has Utopia as “an imagined place or state of things…

    I can’t help what your dictionary says. Perhaps you should write to the publishers, and suggest they read More’s Utopia, and see how it compares to ‘paradise’. Certainly ‘Utopia’ has a colloquial understanding — i.e. a vulgar form. But if we want to dismiss political ideas because they are ‘Utopian’, we should be more precise.

    but what is known is that Utopia is located in fantasy.

    Again, I find myself surprised that you seem to have failed to comprehend the preceding discussion. Utopia is not located in fantasy. It is a response to the present, not a whimsical act of the imagination.

    As we have seen, the road to Utopia is littered with the bodies of those who have died trying to get there…

    And as I pointed out, the anti-utopian impulse becomes utopian. Utopian ideas are pragmatic, not fanciful. The use of the term ‘Utopian’ as a pejorative against any idea relating to a way of transforming society produces exactly the characteristics of a Utopian idea: that there is a perfect model of society, and that its excesses (austerity, strict authoritarian regime, inflexible social institutions) are necessary for the optimal functioning given i) ‘human nature’, and ii) material reality. Utopias do not transform.

    The rest is psychobabble.

  12. Ben Pile

    An extract from my dissertation on Utopianism, to help PeterS.

    The difference between the societies depicted in each book of Utopia gives the tale its political dynamism. More’s depiction of contemporary England sits in contrast to the social justice of Utopia. According to Ernst Bloch, the fulfilment of lack is the fundamental dynamic of Utopian thought. In Bloch’s view, ‘everything that reaches to a transformed existence is Utopian’, according to Ruth Levitas. (Levitas, Looking for the blue: The necessity of utopia, 2007). In this view, utopian thought may even be an expression of some innate human drive – which we will return to later – which encompasses myths, daydreams, and music into a definition of ‘Utopian’ (Levitas, Educated hope, 1997, p. 66). But this would seem to give the same significance to DIY home improvement as political revolution. A complete view of Bloch’s work on Utopia is beyond this essay, his broad conception of utopianism is raised here to delimit the concept of utopia, and to make use of his two categories of Utopianism: abstract and concrete. Abstract Utopia is a fantasy; a wishful place, whereas concrete utopia requires “wilful rather than wishful” thinking – it is about a place that there is an intention to build, not just a place that we would like to live. (Levitas, Educated hope, 1997, p. 67). What makes More’s Utopia political then, is not simply that it ‘reaches to a transformed existence’, it is that we apprehend the society he depicts as possible, making it distinct from fantasy, or ‘abstract utopia’. Utopia as More describes it seems to pass the test of material possibility, which in turn seems to create an impulse to create it in those who would benefit from its creation.

    And this is useful too,

    Above, I argued that Utopia must first be materially possible in order to be conceived of as more than fantasy, but also utopia has many consequences in that it seems to imply things about human nature, as well as material possibility. The possibility of a utopian society must be considered against the fitness of its intended population – is it possible for humans to be persuaded to behave in a way that sustains utopian social organisation? And for how long will it sustain their interests? Does it require people to change, and does it attempt to change people against their natures? Is this change possible? Thus, utopia must either explicitly or implicitly say something about human nature.

    The implication of a model of a perfect social order is that it presupposes imperfect people. A perfect people would not need a perfect social order, because it would emerge from them. To illustrate these points and to show how deeply More’s view of human nature was coloured by his religiosity, Allesandro Scafi compares More’s contemplation of a perfect society with Thomas Acquinas’s deliberation about what a society would look like, had Adam and Eve not sinned. The bodies of the individuals in this society would be ‘totally subordinate to the mind’ (Scafi, Carver, & Lane, 2007) – rather than vulnerable to the vices. The design of More’s social institutions reflects the predisposition of humans, after The Fall, to sin, and his belief that experiencing a world of subsistence is a condition of salvation. (Kenyon, 1989, p. 65).

    The moral degeneracy of the clergy and nobility that More satirised had seemingly been caused by a transformation in the relationship between men, and between men and nature, or ultimately, men and God. More’s utopia instead places men in direct relationship to each other and nature as an inversion of the social structures that were developing in England at that time. An idle, titled, land owner was removed from the reality of work, and so free from the discipline that nature imposes, such that he indulged in what More calls ‘unnatural wants’, in pursuit of which, his political power created the conditions in which the dispossessed were forced towards sinful behaviour . The institutions More designs keeps all such relations in balance.

  13. Philip


    You told the JWs that the world is “getting better all the time” and that “we get better and better at looking after ourselves”. I agree with these statements, but they are relative to measurable criteria of well-being (a la Simon and Lomborg). This is good because the statements can then be verified, provided you and the JWs agree on the criteria. But it raises some questions…

    o How do we choose which criteria to measure?
    o How much do people agree on the choices?

    A further practical question is what to do in order to achieve the desired improvements. My naive response to this one is that in the past improvements have occurred indirectly by addressing smaller, more readily solvable problems. I can’t think of a better approach. Perhaps you’ll tell me that with the demise of the old left, everyone thinks like this nowadays … and yet it does seem lacking in the establishment approach to climate policy.

  14. Ben Pile

    Philip. difficult questions.

    There’s obviously some degree to which environmental problems can be measured. The problem comes in interpretation. On the green view, there seems to be a tendency to see a negative trend as demonstrating that we’re interfering with the biosphere’s ‘self-regulating’ systems and the such like. When the debate isn’t about atmospheric CO2, it’s about population and resources. And when it’s not about them, it’s about biodiversity. The debate isn’t a purely empirical one, in spite of claims to the ‘scientific consensus’.

    No mutually-agreed on measurements will speak across the distance between the perspectives, for instance, of rational optimists and environmental alarmists. Greens claim that ‘facts’ speak for themselves, but I’ve aimed to show that there’s a lot that happens before the presentation of the facts’ face-values. We can agree that, according to a measurement, a river is polluted. But we might not agree on what kind of problem it is. Sewers made cities better places, but arguably make rivers worse. A perspective that doesn’t privilege humanity, or can’t conceive of the possibility of a waste water treatment facility would thus have a different perspective on ‘the facts’ than we might have. Alternatively, somebody who believes that a commitment to those ideas is a commitment to an endless series of such solutions creating new problems might say that it would be better to live in trees and caves. We would argue (I think) that some problems are preferable to others.

    The problem of what to do with all that sewage was relatively straightforward, but it was huge in its scale. And it then created many new possibilities for humans. What drove it were ideas that, in many respects pre-dated the Old Left, and so the argument above is not one which intends to hark back at all. It’s a shame that we don’t think in such terms: how can we make changes that make cities even better. Contemporary politics seems dominated by merely managing: congestion charging, reducing water and electricity consumption, turning houses into flats, and so on. What if I.K. Brunel had been of such a dreary mindset?

  15. Peter S

    Ben – “I argued that Utopia must first be materially possible in order to be conceived of as more than fantasy…”

    A fantasy, of course, is the act of imagining something – usually as an attempt to preempt and meet a felt-need (or, as Ernst Bloch puts it, a ‘lack’). In this respect, it could be understood as an effort to feed oneself in the absence of the real object… or as a refusal to use the real object – and the negotiation required to gain access to it (Utopias are always the places where non-negotiable transactions take place).

    For the content of what is imagined to proceed from the abstract to the concrete depends not upon what is ‘materially possible’ in the outside world but on what is rationally feasible. In other words, whether the mechanics of the process of meeting the need in concrete terms is likely to succeed given the corresponding realities of the external world and the obstacles it will undoubtedly throw up in the process. This is where your thesis on Utopia falls down. And also why socialism failed – having misunderstood the mechanics of human nature.

    Many Utopian fantasies may remain abstract merely because we suspect they are only cover-stories for getting rid of the obstacles in real life… and don’t want to risk discovering the unacceptable truth of this by testing them out.

  16. Ben Pile

    Peter — A fantasy, of course, is the act of imagining something – usually as an attempt to preempt and meet a felt-need…

    Peter, an apple is distinct as a mental object to a unicorn. I can fulfil my desire to eat an apple, but I can never realise my desire to see a unicorn. Moreover, I have no meaningful ‘need’ to see a unicorn.

    The point of establishing a difference between abstract and concrete utopias is to establish terms that are interesting to political theory, rather than, for instance, the study of literature.

    There is no movement from abstract to concrete utopias. Again, it seems I’m arguing with your inability to comprehend and your relentless desire to bring some cod psychoanalysis to the ‘discussion’, than your actually taking issue with what is written here. I think it’s really boring.

    … having misunderstood the mechanics of human nature.

    There are many ideas about why socialism failed. The idea that it is at odds with ‘human nature’ — as we have discussed more times than I care to count — is amongst the weakest, there not being an adequate account of ‘human nature’. And as I point out, the premature formulation of what ‘human nature’ consists of is a utopian gesture: it implies that this imperfect nature can be understood, and thus contained within perfect social institutions. You’ll find this from More’s Utopia, and Orwell’s 1984.

    I could want for an apple, but you could say that this desire was ‘utopian’, and that stale bread would suffice.

  17. Mooloo

    there not being an adequate account of ‘human nature’

    Some of us believe that there can be human nature without an account of it.

    One pretty obvious human trait is the intolerance of freeloaders: those that take the benefits without doing the work. It’s found regardless of culture and often is extremely strongly felt. That has huge implications for which economic systems will work, regardless of any lack of theoretical underpinnings.

  18. Ben Pile

    Mooloo – One pretty obvious human trait is the intolerance of freeloaders:…

    Freeloading and getting annoyed by it aren’t necessarily expressions of ‘human nature’ as such, though. We don’t need to know what ‘human nature’ is to explain why freeloading is annoying, and we get annoyed by it in different ways, even if it’s ubiquitus. The ubiquity of freeloading and being annoyed by it is explained by the ubiquity of the division of labour. This speaks more about a human condition than a human nature.

  19. Mooloo

    Can’t say I agree Ben.

    Kids dislike freeloading long before they have any chance to experience any division of labour. Try to give a lolly to a kid who doesn’t deserve it and not to one who does and you will see it in action.

    I would say it was up there with lust in terms of primal nature. Culture can drive those feelings into different forms, but they arise from the animal. (Indeed dislike of cheaters is one of the few human traits reliably seen in other species.)

  20. Ben Pile

    Mooloo — but kids are not without ways of explaining or understanding their treatment in relation to themselves. Though they may even be able to articulate the concept of ‘fairness’ — ‘that’s not fair’ — the actual sentiment is often ‘I WANT IT’. It’s not the injustice of the undeserving being rewarded as much as the opportunity to have a lolly denied that upsets small children. If we are to talk meaningfully about ‘human nature’, moreover, wouldn’t it be more interesting to notice that socialised individuals do not have tantrums when faced with such treatment, and are at least able to articulate their feelings and what caused them — ‘look, pal, I’m doing all the work here, and you’re loafing about. Do some work or get lost’. Again, it doesn’t seem that we need an idea about ‘human nature’ to understand freeloading.

    As to rudimentary ‘ethics’ in primates, I think it is again premature to claim that this says something about a common ‘nature’. First, there’s the problem of anthropomorphism. Second, there is the problem of distinguishing the phenomenon’s cause as one being an expression of an animals ‘nature’ versus its arising from its condition. Then there is the question about the significance of this behavioural trait, when, whether or not there is such a thing as ‘human nature’, its expression is completely transformed by a more sophisticated layer of influences and faculties. I feel an urge to shout ‘YOU ******* STUPID ******* ****’ whenever I hear Chris Huhne — or any other environmentalist — talk on the radio, but I aim for a more reasoned discussion on this blog. Yet Huhne wants me to pay hundreds of pounds more per year for my electricity, and wants to give the difference to his freeloading pals in the renewable energy sector. So why don’t I just have a tantrum, if human nature is so significant?

  21. Philip


    You mentioned the dreary modern mindset compared with IKB. I certainly agree with the comparison, I have noticed it during my lifetime. But I wonder what has caused this change? It strikes me it may be related to the way we have become so reliant on computers (as per AWOBMOLG). A kind of dependency culture in which we also defer uncritically to experts; expect others to take the blame when things go wrong for us; expect the government to look after us, and feel betrayed when they are not able to. Is this what has happened? But if so, what then has led to the dependency culture? Where have we gone so horribly wrong?

  22. Ben Pile

    Philip. It seems to me that if we suggest that things could be otherwise, we might find ourselves accused of utopianism. We seem to be afraid of politics, and of the political. I think the putative climate sceptic right and eco-left are equally quilty of this.

  23. Philip

    If I understand you rightly then, we’ve given up on big ideas because there is a chance of things going badly – what a shame. If utopianism means a rejection of that kind of cynicism, I really wouldn’t object to being accused of it.

    BTW, some of your earlier comments suggest to me that I’d benefit from trying to delve into the history more deeply. I was wondering what to read. I noticed Modern Environmentalism by David Pepper. Would this be a useful one, or can you suggest something better?

  24. Ben Pile

    Philip – If I understand you rightly then, we’ve given up on big ideas because there is a chance of things going badly

    To make some sweeping statements, Big Ideas are made unfashionable post WWII — and in many respects because of it — by postmodernism and the likes of Hayek, and yet more so post Cold War. Big Projects suffer in this era, increasingly, as right and left converge on managerial politics, and no longer disagree on politics to any significant extent. The cold war does produce big projects, of course — especially the space race. I’ve quoted Zizek on this before, but he tends to annoy people. Here goes, though…

    Today’s predominant mode of politics is post-political bio-politics an awesome example of theoretical jargon which, however, can be easily unpacked: ‘post-political’ is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and, instead, focus on expert management and administration, while ‘bio-politics’ designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as its primary goal. It is clear how these two dimensions overlap: once one renounces big ideological causes, what remains is only the efficient administration of life … almost only that. That is to say, with the depoliticised, socially objective, expert administration and coordination of interests as the zero level of politics, the only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilise people, is through fear, a basic constituent of today’s subjectivity. ‘Violence’ (page 34).

    You can take or leave Zizek’s broader aims (for e.g. his ‘In Defence of Lost Causes’ might upset some commenters), I think he’s spot on here. We can see in what he describes the ‘utopianism’ in the sense I used it above: the ‘leaving behind ideological struggles’ imagines a post-political world, which only requires management. There’s no real need for democracy, or plurality in this schema. Thus there is no real need for Big Projects. There is no contested notion of the future. And we can see what a bizarre and stifling inversion it is to consider ideas ‘utopian’ in this context.

    I’ve not read Pepper’s book. I’ll order it. I’ve been dipping into some older criticisms of Ecologism recently, such as Bramwell, and Luc Ferry’s ‘the New Ecological Order’ (1992). I’m surprised at how much richer the criticism was in previous decades. There’s a great deal more historical context, and more circumspection about the putative ‘sides’ in the debate than there is in today’s squabbles.

  25. Ben Pile

    Geoff. Interesting that Rowson seems to acknowledge that ‘nudge’ doesn’t work, and that ‘nudge is not enough’. Is he suggesting that ‘nudge’ should come to ‘shove’?

    Neuberger is right to say that nudging is not enough but wrong to suggest that other “technical” solutions are best alternate ways to change behaviour. Moreover, these critiques of nudge should not be used to reject the behaviour change agenda more generally. As a growing number of organisations are beginning to recognise, behaviour change is a cultural imperative that goes beyond nudge, and perhaps beyond governments, too.

    What is a ‘cultural imperative’ anyway?

  26. Peter S

    Perhaps he’s hinting that a wink has to be added to the nudge (know what I mean, Guv?).

  27. geoffchambers

    Dr Jonathan Rowson is “head of The Social Brain Project at the RSA, and member of DCLG Behavioural Science Network”

    His doctoral thesis is “an inter-disciplinary and multi-method examination of the concept of wisdom, including a detailed analysis of the challenge of overcoming the psycho-social constraints that prevent people becoming ‘wiser’, similar to what the RSA terms the ‘social aspiration gap’”.

    The RSA is “an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world”.
    The DCLG is the Department for Communities and Local Government, which “Aims to foster prosperous and cohesive communities, offering a safe, healthy and sustainable environment for all”.

    He sounds just the man nudge us all into those little boxes you were looking at recently.

  28. Ben Pile

    Here’s another one… from

    What is shame’s purpose? Is shame still necessary? These are questions I’m asking myself. After all, it’s not just bankers we have to worry about. Most social dilemmas exhibit a similar tension between individual and group interests. Energy, food, and water shortages, climate disruption, declining fisheries, increasing resistance to antibiotics, the threat of nuclear warfare—all can be characterized as tragedies of the commons, in which the choices of individuals conflict with the greater good.


    My colleagues and I conclude that ultimately shame is not enough to catalyze major social change. Slavery did not end because abolitionists shamed slave owners into freeing their slaves. Child labor did not stop because factories were shamed into forbidding children to work. Destruction of the ozone layer did not slow because industries were ashamed to manufacture products that contained chlorofl uorocarbons. This is why punishment remains imperative. Even if shaming were enough to bring the behavior of most people into line, governments need a system of punishment to protect the group from the least cooperative players.

    Finally, consider who belongs to the group. Today we are faced with the additional challenge of balancing human interests and the interests of nonhuman life. How can we encourage cooperation among all living things when the nonhumans have no voice? Successful species will likely be those that recognize, implicitly or explicitly, life’s interdependency. If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.

    Her biog is printed above the piece…

    JENNIFER JACQUET graduated with a master’s degree in environmental economics from Cornell University in 2004 and earned a PhD in 2009 from the University of British Columbia, where she now holds a postdoctoral fellowship. As part of the Sea Around Us Project, a joint collaboration between the university and the Pew Charitable Trusts, she researches market-based conservation initiatives related to seafood and other natural resources. With colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology and UBC’s Mathematics Department, she is currently conducting a series of games and experiments to study the effects of honor and shame on cooperation, which was the theme for her contribution to the 2010 Edge-Serpentine Gallery “Maps of the 21st Century” at the Royal Geographical Society on London…

    Funny how the same old names keep popping up.

  29. Peter S

    Geoff – The RSA… “seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world”.

    I wonder what happens to the people who don’t want their capabilities enhanced? The RSA doesn’t say if it’s optional or compulsory (or if will be available on the NHS). Presumably, if enough people are quite content with their capabilities just the way they are – unenhanced – the RSA will be stuck with its open gap.

    I like to think gaps should be left open anyway… what would life be like with no gaps in it? Gaps are good places for waiting in – the sort of place where we might have a change of mind… and perhaps decide that ‘today’s reality’, for all its faults, is infinitely better than a ‘better world’.

    But then, I suppose for someone who has fallen in love, or who hopes too much (or indeed, has had their capabilities enhanced), gaps of any sort can feel perfectly intolerable – as if it’s the end of the world. And they never stop letting us know it – one way or another.

  30. Alex Cull

    Fascinating stuff at the RSA – I’ve just been reading about some of their projects, including Citizen Power in Peterborough, where the good citizens of Peterborough are being empowered by “a partnership between a pioneering, active think-tank (RSA), an ambitious local authority (Peterborough City Council) and an influential national arts body (Arts Council).” Well, it’s not as if citizens can do this sort of thing for themselves.

    Also about Sustainable Citizenship:

    “Changing our collective behaviour is important for addressing the many problems we face which stem from our habits and conscious lifestyle choices; environmental sustainability, obesity and some long term health conditions are all examples. But many of the more traditional ways of influencing behaviours have limited capacity to do this.

    Sometimes government, and other national organisations can complicate messages or leave a sense of having been preached at. National social marketing campaigns are a good example of this. Or they can use covert approaches, for example, profiling people through the waste they dispose of. Such approaches are likely to have a lower impact on changing behaviour than the influence of trusted peers and being empowered to take action.

    Communities can play a central role in influencing behaviour change.The role and choice of the messenger is critical. Information communicated to people will have more influence if the messenger is a trusted authority on the subject, and seen as ‘one of us’. It also seems intuitive that those around us will know how to best present information to make it relevant.”

    So we need to be empowered to save ourselves from ourselves by being influenced by a “trusted authority” (friendly neighbourhood think-tank? Local government? The Arts Council?) who can present information to us about ourselves in a way that is “relevant”? I find that a little confusing, which probably means I’m in need of empowerment.

    Ben: “Funny how the same old names keep popping up.”

    I know. I’ve just started to keep track of them all here:

  31. Ben Pile

    Rob Lyons has an article on ‘nudge’ today at Spiked-Online…

    This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a report into behaviour change. It provides revealing insights into the limitations of the fashionable idea that we can be ‘nudged’ into changing our ways on a range of problems, from obesity to climate change. What the report doesn’t do, however, is challenge the idea that our behaviour needs to be changed in the first place, and that it is the role of government to do it.

    Interesting to see that Bob May is part of the crew who criticise nudge, given the Climate Change Committee’s emphasis on ‘behaviour change’. Maybe he wants something stronger too.

  32. Alex Cull

    Good article by Rob Lyons. Lord May had something to say, did he not, in 2009 re something stronger than nudge: “…what helps most is carrots with a few sticks. A mechanism for punishing the people who don’t pay their dues for the cooperative benefit which they get.”

    Solitaire Townsend of the Futerra agency discusses nudge here:

    Being someone who always emphasises the upside of being green, she loves nudge. “I love nudge, and a government that looks beyond incentives and information as change tactics has to be a good thing.” She also describes “super nudges” which are “well funded nudges which are fully integrated across governments major policies, interventions and departments…” She ends: “So yes, government does need to do more than nudge. It needs to super nudge us towards a specific (and desirable) sustainable lifestyle.” The word “interventions”, though, would seem to hint at something stronger and more coercive than nudge. Maybe something a little closer to the “sticks” Lord May was referring to? Although this is not spelled out.

  33. Mooloo

    Ms Townsend is a champion!

    “With just a little psychological push decent but unhealthy, high impact consumers could become model citizens.

    The idea we will suddenly give up everything we like in order to meet someone else’s idea of virtue with just a bit of gentle guidance is mental. It’s going to take a bloody great stick to get me to live a low-carbon lifestyle. I hate to think what it will take those who actually like cars and travel and short term consumer goods!

    And what has “unhealthy” got to do with this? Does Ms Townsend believe living Green will make us healthy and that anyone who doesn’t live Green is automatically unhealthy? I suppose it the magic extra nutritional content (not located by science) which local “organic” food has.

  34. geoffchambers

    This thread has been an excellent example of how co-operative effort from unorganised individuals can turn up the most interesting and diverse material.
    University departments, think tanks, arts bodies, local authorities – anything and anyone can apparently get a handout of public money providing the magic words “sustainable” or environment” are on the application form.
    It’s like a parody of what was supposedly happening in the late 70s, when militant Labour local authorities were accused of handing out cash to their pet lefty projects (black lesbian single mothers’ support groups etc), leading to the Thatcher backlash, and the cuts in public spending, based on the idea that “we” should be allowed to spend “our” money as we thought fit. This apparently admirable principle was used to privatise (health, unversity education, research) wherever the populist argument could be used: “why should I pay for that?”
    The complex response would have been: “Because without public subsidy of science, the arts, education, etc. the country will regress culturally to the level of the Sun newspaper”. The answer in fact cooked up over the past two decades was “we need education, research, art, etc. to save the planet”. Nothing less than preventing the extinction of the human race was considered a forceful enough argument to justify public expenditure. So instead of financing the pet projects of elected parties, we end up financing the pet projects of the Greens, and of the educated middle classes who have espoused their cause (without going so far as to vote for them, in most cases).
    PeterS, I do appreciate your comments about gaps. Perhaps it’s because I’ve spent my entire life in the cosy space between aspiration and performance, that I feel immune to the desire to join some millenial project to bridge the gap between hope and reality.

  35. Jamspid

    If Climate Change is supposed to be the dogs boll__cks instead of just total bol__cks then why isnt it in the book of revelations in the bible

    Why didnt Nostrodamus mention it

    Also theres nothing written about it on the wall of that ancient Myan Temple where theres all that stuff written about the world ending in 2012

    Maybe its in the bible code next to stuff about 9-11 and princess Diana Dying in a car crash in a tunnel next to a river (even Amy Winehouse)

    The trouble with all us old 40 somethings we all grew up with nuclear war and world starvation the ozone layer and the Y2K Millenium bug

    And off course the new ice age from the early 1970S when i was a little nipper

    The trouble is we,ve heard it all before

    Climate Change its why the media the TV and the papers love it AND THINK ITS SO SEXY

    They can say what they like hype it up over exaggerate it as much as they like because they havent actually got to worry about it

    It just “another good end of the world story” with not much chance of it ever becoming true as usual

    • Ben Pile

      Thanks for the link Philip. It’ll be interesting to see what he makes of the ‘anti-environment backlash’ in the current edition.

  36. geoffchambers

    I can’t remember how Dobson came into the discussion, but the book referred to by Philip looks fascinating. One might expect a book called “Green Political Thought” to contain a critical analysis of the same. Not so.

    [from the Preface to the second edition]
    “It was only some time after the publication f the first edition of this book that I realised what I had been trying to do in it. The arrival of the owl of Minerva was prompted by many generous readings of Green Political Thought made by colleagues throughout the world, the collective weight of which made me see that securing a place for ecologism in the list of modern political ideologies was my prime intention first time round. Introductory textbooks on political ideologies have abounded for some time, but only recently has ecologism found its way into them. In 1989 I knew of no textbook of this sort that included a chapter on ecological political thought, but now there are several …”

    [from the Introduction]
    “… in the context of keeping ecologism and environmentalism apart, it is important to stress that whatever problem is being confronted by any given ideology, it will be analysed in terms of some fundamental and (as it were) necessary feature of the human condition, and not in terms of contingent features of of particular social practices. In our context, ecologism will suggest that climate change is not simply a result of inappropriate technologies for energy production, but rather that it is symptomatic of a misreading of the possibilities (or more properly here, constraints) inherent in membership of an interrelated biotic and abiotic community…
    For the sake of convenience … the world view thet modern political ecologists challenge is the one that grew out of the (early) Enlightenment …A period when … man was to a great extent the master of his own destiny … the general tenor is the exaltation of human beings and their particular faculties (e.g. reason) – the placing of the human being in a pre-eminent position with respect not only to the rest of terrestial phenomena, but the universe at large”.

  37. geoffchambers

    In the extracts from the Dobson book on Amazon I came across the term “eco-feminism” for the first time. Then, a few hours later, I met my first eco-feminist. She’s an ex-student of mine, and is taking over some of my classes when I retire this year. She gabbled on about Rachel Carson and DDT in walruses being passed on through the mother’s milk. I was too polite to ask her, if she was so interested in walrus milk, why she didn’t study biology instead of English literature?
    Every day at Bishop Hill and WUWT there are cries of “We’ve won!” because of the latest irrefutable paper by Spencer or Lindzen. But my ex-student will still be pushing the walrus milk in 40 years time, and Lady Worthington of Sandbag (enobled by Miliband) will still be legislating in the Lords. It’s a long hard slog.

  38. Philip

    Hi Geoff,

    Thanks for the snippets. They certainly sound a bit odd, I agree, but I’d also noticed comments that appear on face value to reflect points that I think Ben has also made here: making a distinction between the practical management of environmental issues and the promoting of it into an ideology; pointing out that the ideology of environmentalism is a new one, distinct from both left and right.

    So is it likely to be a worthwhile read? I still don’t know, so perhaps I’ll just get hold of a copy and see what I think :-). BTW, reason I added the question here was simply that we’d had a earlier exchange on this thread about Pepper’s book (unfortunately still on my list – I’ll get round to it eventually).

  39. geoffchambers

    There’s a review of Modern Environmentalism: An Introduction (1996, an updated version of The Roots of Modern Environmentalism, 1984) at
    which describes it as
    “as balanced and sober an assessment as is possible”
    The Journal of Political Ecology (online since 1994, and peer reviewed) should probably be on all our reading lists, though I’m not sure I have the strength.
    It looks as if Pepper and Dobson, and the JPE would agree with Ben that the politics comes first. And to think we’ve been wasting our time arguing against the Lynases, Monbiots and Lucases who all claim that the peeer-reviewed science comes first, when their own peer-reviewed literature says the opposite!

  40. Philip

    Thanks for the review link and journal reference as well Geoff. It does sound as though Pepper’s book should be next on the reading list (well, first after “World of Jeeves” anyway). Browsing through Amazon on environmentalism is quite a sobering experience, it makes you realize just how deeply the green mentality has become embedded. Although in a lot of ways I quite like it – the Thames is vastly cleaner than it used to be and so on and so forth. It is the ideological aspect that sticks in the craw.

    Contemplating the recent threads at BH, I can’t help thinking there should be enormous scope for people with as wide a range of scientific opinion as say Dominic, myself and Philip Bratby to converge on a distaste for the ecocentric wing of greenery. Unfortunately, the green sceptics seem to want to spend most of their time bickering over irrelevant scientific details. As least Ben carries on trying to focus attention where it should be.

    I also noticed another Pepper book:

    Don’t know if the title is worth adding to the terminology handbook alongside eco-feminism? Have a look at his comments in the last two paras of page 246 though – I find it difficult not to warm to him.

  41. Philip

    Geoff, I think the JPE might just be a goldmine, thank you!. A random article selection located this absolutely splendid paper:

    Within the opening three paragraphs, it has leapt nimbly from the existential maunderings pointed to by Sean Penn’s film (Into the Wild), directly into the thrilling world of international environmental treaties! The rest of the paper is equally good IMO: it is very well written, it makes a number of good rational arguments, mentions ecofeminism(!) and is thoroughly well worth the read.

    Here as an snip is a little story from the paper that I found both touching and telling:

    Paradoxically, at certain locations and times, alien species may even be considered worthy of protection. A case in point is musk oxen (Ovibos moschatus), which died out in Scandinavia thousands of years ago. After some effort, musk ox were reintroduced into Norway in the 1940s. They found their way to Sweden in the 1970s, and today there is a small and not particularly vigorous herd. This herd is not only tolerated but also receives protection, which seems to have little to do with what is natural, but rather with the affection people feel for this prehistoric animal and the fact that the musk ox is a tourist attraction in the area. Musk oxen are thus accepted and protected because of the simple fact that people like them, not because of their natural occurrence in the area. Ultimately, the natural and aliens are awkward concepts that are difficult to define in a continuously changing world.


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