An outbreak of thinking has occurred at the Guardian. In response to George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, Steven Poole observes that the ‘pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, and that it reflects a regressive form of politics. Poole doesn’t make too big a deal of the politics, but highlights a parallel between the hand-wringing about invasive species, and immigration. It seems Poole’s point, however, is less that this congruence has any major significance, but that it’s riddled with contradictions and inconsistency — as so much nature-worship surely is — and is a bit, well, daft.
What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes. “There is a danger,” he writes, “that ecosystems everywhere come to contain a similar set of species, making the world a blander and less surprising place.” Indeed, the spark of his desire for “rewilding” is, as he readily confesses in his intellectually generous and disarmingly enthusiastic book, that it would bring him more aesthetic pleasure. He came to the idea in the first place because he felt “ecologically bored”. What could, on the other hand, be less boring than seeing the sabre-toothed tiger roaming the streets of Shoreditch, the hippo snoozing outside the Hippodrome?
Monbiot, on cue, is livid at having been compared to racists. ‘I love nature. For this I am called bourgeois, romantic – even fascist‘, he complains. But to be fair to his critics, Monbiot did discover his ‘bourgeois inner self‘ only last Christmas. This leaves him trying only to defend himself against the charge of romantic fascism.
But there is a strange tension in this defence. On the one hand, Monbiot wants to hold with the aesthetic view of nature…
I see a love for the diversity and richness of nature as an aesthetic and cultural impulse identical to the love of art. It is a form of culture as refined and intense as any other, yet those who profess it tend to be regarded as nerds, not connoisseurs (that’s true snobbery for you). Poole and people like him position themselves among the philistines – those who see no value in the wonders with which others are enchanted.
… but on the other, Monbiot is saving the planet…
So those of us whose love of the natural world is a source of constant joy and constant despair, who wish to immerse ourselves in nature as others immerse themselves in art, who try to defend the marvels that enthrall us, find ourselves labelled – from the Mail to the Guardian – as romantics, escapists and fascists. That, I suppose, is the price of confronting the power of money.
… from the power of money.
So George’s aesthetic preferences are given global, and political signifiance by nothing more than his emotional attachment to an idealised account of nature. Whether or not that counts as ‘fascism’ depends on how far he is willing to defend this notion of a wild nature. He doesn’t say. But it’s certainly Romantic, nonetheless, with just one exception — Monbiot’s appeal to science.
Comparing those who describe [invasive species] to racists is the intellectual equivalent of stating that evolution through natural selection is a coded attack on the welfare state, or that the first law of thermodynamics was hatched by green campaigners intent on conserving energy. It is to see the words but not to understand the science they describe. This fallacy – mistaking scientific findings for cultural concepts – was deliciously ripped apart by Alan Sokal’s satirical paper Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.
It is something of an irony that Monbiot would admit that his aesthetic preferences for nature is equivalent to a love of art, but then invoke Sokal’s criticism of those who conflate scientific and cultural ‘concepts’. The nature Monbiot witnesses is scientific fact, he protests. The further irony being that biological determinists like Monbiot, are bound to reproduce the excesses of postmodernism in perfect mirror image. All culture is, on the biological perspective, nothing more than the expression of some gene or other. After all, it is environmentalists like him that want to impose a political order, seemingly determined by science, over all culture, including, of course, money.
I find it hard to let the problem of invasive species ruin my sleep. They are, in reality a problem for some government department or association of people whose lives it may affect — most likely farmers. They are not front page news. They are a fact of life in a world in which geography matters less, as does the ‘balance’ of nature, if it ever even existed. They’re a side effect of the most incredible period in history: the expansion of transport and technology — things that make Monbiot’s indulgence of the natural world possible. Without them, he’d find nature, as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and his life, ‘nasty brutish and short’.
Someone else with a comprehensively daft view of the world is Stephen Emmott. Geoff Chambers did a good job of debunking Emmott here a while back, and has continued at his own blog with some more posts following the media’s thirst for his Oxford-University-accredited doomsaying.
As many have observed, Emmott’s prophecy shouldn’t cause much concern outside padded cells. It’s tempting to say that it’s sufficiently nutty for the Guardian to have realised it. Indeed, The Guardian have reproduced Chris Goodall’s fairly comprehensive criticism of it, from his Carbon Commentary blog. Says Goodall:
Stephen Emmott’s book on global ecological challenges is attracting much attention. The work is extremely short – perhaps about 15,000 words – and is in the form of notes that provide terse commentary on a series of graphs. It is little more than a Powerpoint presentation turned into a slim paperback. Although any attempt to increase mankind’s alarm at the threat from climate change is welcome, Emmott’s book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line.
This blog is in its seventh year of line-by-line deconstructions of the excesses of environmental alarmism. They have all been unpicked. The only thing that seems new in the climate debate is that it is now the case that some environmentalists seem to be taking their less cautious colleagues to task. But the value of this new reflectivity amongst the environmentalists is limited. They want to sustain their cake and eat it:
Things are indeed pretty bad. The steps to address climate change are lamentably slow and ineffectual. Biodiversity is in sharp decline in some parts of the world. Water supplies are becoming tighter in many countries. The pressures on global forests are declining but still acute in some places. Air quality is appalling in big cities in Asia and quite bad in major Western capitals. But we don’t help solve these problems by exaggerating their seriousness and picking up gobbets of data from dodgy sources we found on the web.
It’s as though these were new problems. It’s as if no human had ever thought about water shortage or air pollution. These problems have solutions. Where they have been experienced in other parts of the word, they have been remedied without the need for restraint. And in spite of Goodall’s call for arguments to be constructed from more reliable provenance, there is no interrogation of environmentalism’s concepts, such as ‘biodiversity’ — as nebulous and pseudo-scientific an idea as has ever been conceived of.
Elsewhere in the Guardian’s digital pages, the ‘Political Science’ blog is running a series of pieces this week on the precautionary principle. It started on Monday, with professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, Andy Stirling defending the idea, which is a stellar example of how paying people to think often ends up with no more a positive result than leading a horse to water. (And perhaps flogging it later on).
But, in the end, the picture is quite optimistic. Far from the pessimistic caricature, precaution actually celebrates the full depth and potential for human agency in knowledge and innovation. Blinkered risk assessment ignores both positive and negative implications of uncertainty. Though politically inconvenient for some, precaution simply acknowledges this scope and choice. So, while mistaken rhetorical rejections of precaution add further poison to current political tensions around technology, precaution itself offers an antidote – one that is in the best traditions of rationality. By upholding both scientific rigour and democratic accountability under uncertainty, precaution offers a means to help reconcile these increasingly sundered Enlightenment cultures.
This is followed by Tracy Brown of Sense About Science, with a more compelling argument that The Precautionary Principle is a Blunt Instrument:
However simple we might wish managing uncertainty about the future to be, it’s not. The precautionary principle misleads us into thinking it is. Its advocates arm-wave about complexity and the unknown future, but they are producing a response that implies the exact opposite. In place of informed, real-world choices that include the potential implications of both doing something and not doing it, we have simplistic bans, precaution’s monotonous answer to every challenge.
But like Goodall’s reply to Emmott, this too fails to interrogate the context in which the precautionary principle has developed:
A world of over seven billion people faces some pretty complex questions about the trade-offs involved in producing food, using resources, reducing disease and achieving the societies and environments in which we want to live. […] In agriculture, energy and so much more we need big changes, even if some people do want to stop the world and get off. Realistically, to make these changes needs an approach to innovation that is permissive and watchful – that is, one that takes more responsibility – rather than banning and assuming you’ve done good, which is the real hubris here.
Why is a world of seven billion people (or more) understood to face bigger, more and more complex challenges than a world of just six, five, four or three billion people? In spite of the growth in our populations, there are far fewer people struggling to survive (hence there are so many more people), and there are more than ever people whose day-to-day challenges consist of no more than ‘where can I plug my iPod in?’. It is increasingly the case that there is less and less need for global institutions to oversee the production of food and resources. Yet the idea that there is ever more need dominates debates. There’s little point in challenging the precautionary principle without taking a critical view of its context and the issues to which it has been applied. After all, the idea is not new, yet achieved more purchase as a basis for new global, environmental political institutions was being sought. Coincidence?
Speaking of new global institutions seeking a legitimising basis, Roger Pielke Jr. Tweets…
Apparently, this proposal by scientists to stand above governments in an “Earth League” is not a spoof –> https://t.co/tB7dsmWeLu
The link takes us to the following document:
The Earth League
Towards a Global Research & Assessment Alliance
Humankind has become a quasi-geological force on Planet Earth. Our species is the most successful ever, still growing in numbers and absorbing more and more natural resources for its industrial metabolism, which is largely based on fossil fuels and other dwindling stocks. As a consequence, societies around the world are currently witnessing severe crises that call for a “Great Transformation” toward sustainability. Climate change might be understood as just one manifestation of the emerging complex problem or as a driver. Many other challenges such as the distortion of ecosystem services, the loss of biodiversity, the degradation of land, sprawling urbanization, worsening water scarcity, the disturbances in terrestrial and marine food chains or the ubiquitous pollution of all environmental systems have to be taken into consideration.
It seems the convenors of The Earth League (Da daa daaa!) believe that there is not a sufficient global organisation to direct research into the natural world, or, more precisely, the effects of human society (aka ‘our species’) on it. A more concise account of what The Earth League (Da Daa Daaa!) aims to be is given at the Imperial College website:
Imperial welcomed the inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of scientists addressing earth science and sustainability challenges
The inaugural meeting of the Earth League, a voluntary alliance of leading scientists and institutions addressing earth science and sustainability challenges, took place at Imperial College London yesterday, 7 February 2013.
The world should, by now, be used to pompous, self-regarding planet-savers convening meetings. And it should be bored of them. Some familiar themes emerge…
This international group of prominent scientists from world class research institutions will work together to respond to some of the most pressing issues faced by humankind, as a consequence of climate change, depletion of natural resources, land degradation and water scarcity.
By coming together in a self-organized alliance, the Earth League members will be a united voice in the global dialogue on planetary issues.
League members will meet annually to discuss a key earth science and sustainability issue in depth, using their combined expertise to assess the various solutions available. The findings from these discussions will be used to initiate new research activities or communicate new knowledge to high-level decision makers.
At the official launch at Imperial College London the League called for a step change in sustainable living, arguing that truly transformational strategies would be needed to overcome the climate crisis and the many other pressing issues facing humankind today.
Because there has never been a global meeting of global scientists to discuss global issues of global sustainability before.
And not with these people, either…
- Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, UK (Sir Brian Hoskins);Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), Sao Jose dos Campos, Brazil (Carlos Nobre)
- Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, London, UK (Lord Nicholas Stern)
Because the world has not heard enough from the likes of Sir Brian Hoskins and Lord Nicholas Stern, there needs to be another talking shop, where these bureaucrats-posing-as-scientists can, like Emmott, and like Monbiot, and pretty much like their new critics (their erstwhile comrades) carry on doomsaying.