Environmentalism and Post-modernism as Ideas of Progress
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Introduction to Reactionary Ideas of Progress
By definition, most reactionary ideas of progress hark back to an often illusory past, either distant or recent. There, in the mists of time, the proponents of these social movements search for answers and remedies to the perceived ills of their present. These contemporary deficiencies and faults are presented as the inevitable outcomes of decadent modernity. By using a romanticized past cast as ideal, perfect, and unblemished to heal a dystopian and corrupt present, these thinkers, artists, and activists seek to bring about a utopian and revitalized future.
Other reactionary ideas of progress are romantic and merely abandon the tenets and axioms of the prevailing centralized culture in favor of a more or less anarchic mélange of unstructured, post-structural, or deconstructed ideas and interactions, relying on some emergent but ever-fluid underlying social "order" as an organizing principle.
Recent Reactionary Ideas of Progress - Post-modernity
Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard (and, to some extent, Michel Foucault) posited post-modernity as both the culmination and the negation of modernity. While modernity encouraged linear change in an asymptotic and teleological pursuit of progress, post-modernity abets change for change's sake, abandoning the very ideal of progress and castigating it as tautological, subjective, and obsolete.
Inevitably, post-modernity clashes with meta-narratives of progress, such as Marxism, positivism, and structuralism. Jurgen Habermas and Timothy Bewes described post-modernity as "anti-Enlightenment". They accused post-modernity of abandoning the universalist and liberalizing tools of rationality and critical theory in favor of self-deceptive pessimism which may well lead to totalitarianism.
Some post-modernist thinkers - such as David Harvey and Alasdair MacIntyre - regarded "late capitalism" or consumerism as dystopian and asocial, if not outright antisocial. Such a view of the recent past tied in well with prior concepts such as anomie, alienation, and atomization. Society was disintegrating while individuals accumulated assets, consumer goods, and capital. Post-modernity is an escape route from "Fordism" and an exit strategy from the horrors of the Brave, New World of mass production and mass consumption.
But paradoxically, as Michel Maffesoli noted, by its very success, post-modernity is sawing off the branch it is perched on and may ultimately lead to a decline in individualism and a rise of neo-tribalism in a decentralized world, inundated with a pluralistic menu of mass and niche media. Others (Esther Dyson, Henry Jenkins) suggest a convergence and confluence of the various facets of "digitality" (digital existence), likely to produce a global "participatory culture".
Still, in a perverse way, post-modernity is obsessed with an idea of progress of its own, albeit a reactionary one. Heterodox post-modern thinkers and scholars like Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, Castells, Zygmunt Bauman and even Jacques Derrida regard post-modernity as merely the second, "late", progressive (albeit "liquid", chaotic, and ambivalent) phase of the agenda of modernity.
Recent Reactionary Ideas of Progress - Environmentalism and Deurbanization
Exurbanization and "back to nature", "small is beautiful", ersatz-preindustrial arts-and-crafts movements dominated the last two decades of the twentieth century as well as the beginning of the twenty-first. These trends constituted "primitive", Jean-Jacques Rousseau-like reactions to the emergence of megalopolises and what the Greek architect and city planner Constantinos Apostolos Doxiadis called "ecumenopolis" (world or global city).
A similar, though much-perverted celebration of the natural can be found in the architecture and plastic arts of the Third Reich. As Roger Griffin observed in his essay "Springtime for Hitler" (The New Humanist, Volume 122 Issue 4 July/August 2007):
"Albert Speer’s titanic building projects ... the “clean” lines of the stripped neoclassicism of civic buildings had connotations of social hygiene, just as the nude paintings and statues that adorned them implicitly celebrated the physical health of a national community conceived not only in racial but in eugenic terms."
The concept of "nature" is a romantic invention. It was spun by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century as a confabulated utopian contrast to the dystopia of urbanization and materialism. The traces of this dewy-eyed conception of the "savage" and his unmolested, unadulterated surroundings can be found in the more malignant forms of fundamentalist environmentalism.
At the other extreme are religious literalists who regard Man as the crown of creation with complete dominion over nature and the right to exploit its resources unreservedly. Similar, veiled, sentiments can be found among scientists. The Anthropic Principle, for instance, promoted by many outstanding physicists, claims that the nature of the Universe is preordained to accommodate sentient beings - namely, us humans.
Industrialists, politicians and economists have only recently begun paying lip service to sustainable development and to the environmental costs of their policies. Thus, in a way, they bridge the abyss - at least verbally - between these two diametrically opposed forms of fundamentalism. Still, essential dissimilarities between the schools notwithstanding, the dualism of Man vs. Nature is universally acknowledged.
Modern physics - notably the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics - has abandoned the classic split between (typically human) observer and (usually inanimate) observed. Environmentalists, in contrast, have embraced this discarded worldview wholeheartedly. To them, Man is the active agent operating upon a distinct reactive or passive substrate - i.e., Nature. But, though intuitively compelling, it is a false dichotomy.
Man is, by definition, a part of Nature. His tools are natural. He interacts with the other elements of Nature and modifies it - but so do all other species. Arguably, bacteria and insects exert on Nature far more influence with farther reaching consequences than Man has ever done.
Still, the "Law of the Minimum" - that there is a limit to human population growth and that this barrier is related to the biotic and abiotic variables of the environment - is undisputed. Whatever debate there is veers between two strands of this Malthusian Weltanschauung: the utilitarian (a.k.a. anthropocentric, shallow, or technocentric) and the ethical (alternatively termed biocentric, deep, or ecocentric).
First, the Utilitarians.
Economists, for instance, tend to discuss the costs and benefits of environmental policies. Activists, on the other hand, demand that Mankind consider the "rights" of other beings and of nature as a whole in determining a least harmful course of action.
Utilitarians regard nature as a set of exhaustible and scarce resources and deal with their optimal allocation from a human point of view. Yet, they usually fail to incorporate intangibles such as the beauty of a sunset or the liberating sensation of open spaces.
"Green" accounting - adjusting the national accounts to reflect environmental data - is still in its unpromising infancy. It is complicated by the fact that ecosystems do not respect man-made borders and by the stubborn refusal of many ecological variables to succumb to numbers. To complicate things further, different nations weigh environmental problems disparately.
Despite recent attempts, such as the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), no one knows how to define and quantify elusive concepts such as "sustainable development". Even the costs of replacing or repairing depleted resources and natural assets are difficult to determine.
Efforts to capture "quality of life" considerations in the straitjacket of the formalism of distributive justice - known as human-welfare ecology or emancipatory environmentalism - backfired. These led to derisory attempts to reverse the inexorable processes of urbanization and industrialization by introducing localized, small-scale production.
Social ecologists proffer the same prescriptions but with an anarchistic twist. The hierarchical view of nature - with Man at the pinnacle - is a reflection of social relations, they suggest. Dismantle the latter - and you get rid of the former.
The Ethicists appear to be as confounded and ludicrous as their "feet on the ground" opponents.
Biocentrists view nature as possessed of an intrinsic value, regardless of its actual or potential utility. They fail to specify, however, how this, even if true, gives rise to rights and commensurate obligations. Nor was their case aided by their association with the apocalyptic or survivalist school of environmentalism which has developed proto-fascist tendencies and is gradually being scientifically debunked.
The proponents of deep ecology radicalize the ideas of social ecology ad absurdum and postulate a transcendentalist spiritual connection with the inanimate (whatever that may be). In consequence, they refuse to intervene to counter or contain natural processes, including diseases and famine.
The politicization of environmental concerns runs the gamut from political activism to eco-terrorism. The environmental movement - whether in academe, in the media, in non-governmental organizations, or in legislature - is now comprised of a web of bureaucratic interest groups.
Like all bureaucracies, environmental organizations are out to perpetuate themselves, fight heresy and accumulate political clout and the money and perks that come with it. They are no longer a disinterested and objective party. They have a stake in apocalypse. That makes them automatically suspect.
Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist", was at the receiving end of such self-serving sanctimony. A statistician, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom tendered by environmental campaigners, scholars and militants are, at best, dubious and, at worst, the outcomes of deliberate manipulation.
The situation is actually improving on many fronts, showed Lomborg: known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals are rising, agricultural production per head is surging, the number of the famished is declining, biodiversity loss is slowing as do pollution and tropical deforestation. In the long run, even in pockets of environmental degradation, in the poor and developing countries, rising incomes and the attendant drop in birth rates will likely ameliorate the situation in the long run.
Yet, both camps, the optimists and the pessimists, rely on partial, irrelevant, or, worse, manipulated data. The multiple authors of "People and Ecosystems", published by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and the United Nations conclude: "Our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, but it simply has not kept pace with our ability to alter them."
Quoted by The Economist, Daniel Esty of Yale, the leader of an environmental project sponsored by World Economic Forum, exclaimed:
"Why hasn't anyone done careful environmental measurement before? Businessmen always say, ‘what matters gets measured'. Social scientists started quantitative measurement 30 years ago, and even political science turned to hard numbers 15 years ago. Yet look at environmental policy, and the data are lousy."
Nor is this dearth of reliable and unequivocal information likely to end soon. Even the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, supported by numerous development agencies and environmental groups, is seriously under-financed. The conspiracy-minded attribute this curious void to the self-serving designs of the apocalyptic school of environmentalism. Ignorance and fear, they point out, are among the fanatic's most useful allies. They also make for good copy.
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