Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Ooh, I'm a green heretic

Many thanks to Karen James on Twitter for pointing out to me an article by Paul Kingsnorth for Orion Magazine* in which I get a mention as a green heretic (presumably for my book Ecologic):
Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.
Now I could simply take issue with this 'self-declared' tag - this is not something I have ever called myself, so I'm not sure how I can be 'self-declared'. And for that matter I post-date Lomborg in writing on this stuff, rather than being a figure from his past. But rather I would like to examine Kingsnorth's argument (as he clearly doesn't agree with me) in a little detail.

This is easier said than done, because I have to say it's one of the most impenetrable articles I've ever read. (And I read scientific papers on a daily basis.) Not so much because Kingsnorth's arguments are complex, or his jargon difficult, but rather the way he puts those arguments across seems designed more to obfuscate than illuminate. I probably need to summarise the thesis, as most readers, I suspect, will, as I did on the first attempt, give up by the time they reach the fourth paragraph and find that Kingsnorth is still wittering on about the name for the handle of a scythe (I think).

Eventually we get to some content. Us 'neo-environmentalists' it seems are almost uniformly in favour of technological solutions to environmental problems. Even, dare to think it, nuclear power. We have an 'excitable enthusiasm for markets' and an 'almost religious attitude towards the scientific method.'

This is immediately put down as bad (with one proviso, which I'll come back to). But let's take away the rhetoric and see what he's attacking. It's a bad thing to be pro-science? As this is our means of getting a better understanding of the universe, I guess this means the preferred alternative is ignorance in a kind of wishy-washy sentimental rosy glow. You certainly need plenty of ignorance to think people had better lives before science intervened. Back in those lovely times when the majority of funerals were for children, when people regularly died of easily preventable diseases and when most people were uneducated, limited, overworked, had no entertainment to speak of and wouldn't have travelled more than ten miles from home. Ever. Ah, idyllic times indeed.

As for markets, I don't have an excitable enthusiasm - I think they're awful. But I also think, like democracy, despite being bad, they are the best option we have to make things work.

The one proviso where Kingsnorth reckons us heretics are 'half right' is that little human scale efforts like recycling your tights won't make enough difference. The difference being that the 'neo-environmentalists' believe we will have to engineer our way out of environmental trouble (including again those dreaded nuclear power stations), while the option Kingsnorth seems to prefer is that we all abandon pretty well everything and concentrate on getting to know our scythes. He advocates withdrawing from the technological world, without acknowledging that withdrawing is a luxury that needs that wider world to support it - unless you are truly happy to return to medieval brutishness.

I'm not against everything he says. He points out that we should recognise that nature has a value beyond utility. But the argument that this is contrary to a scientific viewpoint is that hoary old chestnut, unweaving the rainbow. The idea that somehow, for instance, knowing how a rainbow is made makes it less wondrous. And this is bilge, as it has been ever since Keats came up with the term. Knowing the science doesn't prevent you from appreciating nature at an emotional or spiritual level - quite the reverse, it enhances that appreciation. And much of science, as opposed to technology, is nothing to do with utility. The LHC and the Hubble telescope are not about utility, but about exposing the universe to our sense of wonder. It is the romantic who ignores the science who only gets the small, limited uninspired and ultimately unsatisfying view.

It is science and technology that has made it possible for Paul Kingsnorth to eulogise endlessly about the wonders of handling a scythe. If his life depended on wielding it 12 hours a day, he would not have a romantic view of it, he would come to hate it. He would have, of course, no laptop to write his article on - and no audience for his writing - he would not have the time, the finances, the energy or the opportunity to do anything other than scrabble for survival.

To pretend it is possible to return to some mythical past where we were in tune with nature and life was wonderful is romantic fantasizing at its worst. But to turn away from what science can offer is even worse. It is simply ignorant.


* I have to confess to never having heard of Orion Magazine. My apologies. According to its website, Orion’s mission is to 'inform, inspire, and engage individuals and grassroots organizations in becoming a significant cultural force for healing nature and community.' Right on.


Later addition: thanks to Kiley Dancy for for pointing out this great animation by Fraser Davidson illustrating Richard Feynman's brilliant counter to 'unweaving the rainbow':

Richard Feynman - Ode To A Flower from Fraser Davidson on Vimeo.


  1. Heretic is certainly fitting with this quasi-religious fundamentalism. But yesterday he said he wished he'd thought of the phrase "epistemic autism" that someone else used as some kind of slur. Nice folks.

    I thought the reverence for Kaczynski was truly disturbing. Especially since we know that eco activists are taking action with the Unabomber as an inspiration:

    It's a disturbed and dark view, that's for sure.

  2. Mary
    Don't think the view is dark and disturbed. Rather the situation for life as such, is dark and disturbed. To make peace with this situation makes one go through hell. First; finally all one can do is quietly accept. It has been going like this for millenia, we were not capable of changing course.
    As to techno solution, haven't we been doing this for some thousands of years by now? Come, see the results.
    Impenetrable seems the key word. Give it another try?

  3. Thanks Mary - I didn't want to pick up on the Kaczynski aspect, but it was worrying.

    Bernhard - we have indeed for a couple of thousand years, and it has certainly been bumpy quite a lot of times along the way. But I think it would be shortsighted to deny that the majority of people lead better lives today than they would have done 2,000 years ago (especially as most of them would have died in infancy or childhood).

  4. Bernhard: "As to techno solution, haven't we been doing this for some thousands of years by now? Come, see the results."

    Well, I look at the results. And I am impressed and happy.

    There's been progress over millenia, but let's just look at the latest ~100 years. My father was born 93 years ago at a tenant farm; from early childhood onwards, he had to work in the fields or the woods, to make a living. The family, although relatively well off, had barely enough to eat. My mother was born 80 years ago. Her sisters and brothers died in infancy; so did her nieces (of undernourishment, whooping cough). When she went to school, she learned what an orange is. Using a porcelain model - no one in the place had seen actual real fruit from abroad. My parents still worked woodland to fields using a hoe.

    I was born at a municipal hospital just 46 years after my father, and I have had enough to eat all my life. I was vaccinated against polio and I could go to school for 12 years for free. My whole family has access to medical care that can trivially cure most illnesses that would have killed children 100 years ago. This medical care system is mostly burdened by people who eat too much. My unemployed friends get welfare money that they can use to buy fresh airplane-flown papaya for their pet parrots, and we all use handheld touch-screen phones which not only enable us to call each other all over the world, but also have have access to more information known to man than any library anywhere had 30 years ago (and as someone pointed out, we mostly use for sharing silly pictures of cats and the like).

    And so on.

    Yes, I would really say I'm happy with the results and wouldn't like to change course, as long as the world can materially support this development onwards - which it can, because technology develops.

    There have been some dark moments - for instance, 70 years ago when the two mustached guys played their game of national and international variants of socialism, and pretty much destroyed much of Europe. But even that is now so distant history that only the oldest remember the days when food had to be rationed.

    Yes, this is good development.

  5. If a poet were to read a scientific paper he might also find it 'impenetrable'. He might grumble about the lack of form and the strange words and the nonexistence of sprung rhythms. He might be right, but still you wouldn't take his criticisms of its content very seriously. The piece you highlight here is an example of the classic essay form. George Orwell would have recognised it. 'Creative non-fiction' I believe they call it these days. Perhaps it is just not your thing - but in that case you might want to tread a bit more carefully in your acknowledged befuddlement.

    I did not read this piece as any kind of paean to the past. I think you have, Brian, in your failure to understand it, made some hasty assumptions - perhaps based on your own prejudices about 'romantic greens'?

    If I were you, I would read it again, more carefully. Does the author not write that '"romanticising the past" is a familiar accusation, made mostly by those who think it is more grown-up to romanticise the future'? Does he also not declare, outright, that 'if you try to live in the past, you will be wasting your time'?

    This is not a green activist's romantic vision of a golden age. That is a lazy caricature on your part. Neither it is an attack on 'science' - which seems to be your major beef with it. It is certainly an attack on a certain kind of literal-minded technocrat who believes that science in and of itself is an adequate way of measuring progress or ascertaining good or bad social outcomes - but that is not the same thing as an 'anti-science' position. I did not find a single attack on the scientific method in here, though I did read, and approve of, a criticism of attempts to elevate science to a position within society which it does not merit.

    Neither, incidentally, does the author seem to have any 'reverence' for the Unabomber, Mary. Quite the opposite: he condemns his actions and expresses concern that, despite himself, he finds some of Kacynski's analysis convincing. Agreeing with (some of) a person's ideas is not the same as approving of their actions, and when they have specifically made this clear it is dishonest of you to attempt guilt-by-association.

    Personally I found this essay to be an honest attempt by the author, who has elsewhere described himself as a 'recovering environmentalist', to work out what still makes sense to him in a fast-changing world in which the green movement is failing and in which those who would replace it bring an equally narrow worldview to the table. Responding to this inevitably imperfect exercise by saying 'everything is better than it used to be, and anyway you used a laptop' (something else which the author acknowledges directly - perhaps you missed that too?) is not an especially valuable piece of commentary.

  6. But then, James, scientific papers are not addressed to poets. But this is supposed to be addressed to a general reader. Everything I commented on was in the piece. You probably couldn't see it because it was surrounded by so much 'creative non fiction'.

  7. James hit the nail on the head really. This is a lazy and caricature-riven reading of a piece I found thoughtful and balanced for the most part. How you found it impenetrable, I'm not sure.

    Just to pick up on one section though:
    "You certainly need plenty of ignorance to think people had better lives before science intervened. Back in those lovely times when the majority of funerals were for children, when people regularly died of easily preventable diseases and when most people were uneducated, limited, overworked, had no entertainment to speak of and wouldn't have travelled more than ten miles from home."

    Firstly, your standpoint is very anthropocentric. We have to also factor in whether the lives of non-human animals were better off "before science." It could easily be argued, and should be factored in, that they were. Habitat destruction and the rise of science practically go hand-in-hand.

    "when people regularly died of easily preventable diseases" - Most of the diseases we're discussing in fact only arose with civilization if you read the epidemiological literature. Influenza, tuberculosis, malaria etc. You seem to have this faith that things have inexorably improved as we gained the civilized arts leading to science, but this is simply untrue.

    "when most people were uneducated, limited, overworked, had no entertainment to speak of"
    This entertainment comment seems ludicrous. What could you possibly mean? That only with science did we think about enjoying ourselves, creating songs, dancing, getting intoxicated?
    Add to that the fact that people today, according to solid ethnographic studies, work far longer than our hunter-gatherer forbears (averaging 20ish hours per week, if you can define them 'living' as 'work'). The fact we celebrate the 40 hour working week as a victory for workers is perverse.

    And what of education? Are you telling me a child who intimately knew their surroundings, the hundreds of animals and plants which they interacted with on a daily basis, who could construct a life out of nothing but natural materials, isn't educated compared with a modern child who gets sat in rows and bored to death at school for at least 14 years, wishing away their childhood, until they're small-minded enough to sit in an office and slave for most of their waking hours.