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':