In the first of what may or may not be a regular ‘column’, I’d like to engage in a little bit of what humanities academics call ‘discourse analysis’: a close reading of a particular piece of text, in this case from yesterday’s leading article in The Times. The article is about the meeting of Nobel Laureates convened by the Prince of Wales to discuss solutions to climate change. The full text can be found here, but I am going to zoom in on a small part of it, take it apart and see what exactly is going on. Here goes:
We need our scientists to lay out, brutally if necessary, the scale of the problem. And we need them to apply all their ingenuity and inventiveness to the putative technological responses to the climate change. The best hope for man will be found in a laboratory, not on a soapbox.
But we also need economists. At present, it is too easy to see capitalism and environmentalism as natural enemies. Yet it is only by harnessing the power of capitalism, by finding a way of painting the age-old and inescapable laws of supply and demand green, that we will find sustainability. Man’s story is one of the pursuit of, and defence of, natural resources and riches. An economic template based solely on a self-denying frugality that goes against Man’s nature will not provide a lasting solution to the problem.
Now for the dissection. Let’s take it step by step.
1. “We need our scientists to lay out […] the scale of the problem.”
The leader author quite rightly says that scientists – climate experts – are the people with who should give us the diagnosis of the problem we face. This is, of course, what environmentalists have been saying for decades, and I completely agree. But the author of this article then makes a jump in logic: the unspoken assumption here is that if the diagnosis of the climate problem is scientific and thus requiring complicated things like computer models, weather satellites and paleoclimatological equipment in the Arctic, then the solution must also be scientific – which this author rather dubiously sees as synonymous with “technological” – and thus requiring complicated things like carbon capture and storage, ocean fertilization and so on. But the jump from the if to the then is not a clear one.
Imagine that you go to the doctor and you are told that you are overweight. You expect that because your doctor is a trained scientist she will be able to provide you with a scientifically tried and tested technology to alleviate your condition: a pill, perhaps, or an injection. Maybe even some good old-fashioned liposuction. But to your surprise, the doctor simply tells you to get more exercise, to lay off fatty, sugary and processed foods, and to eat more fruit and vegetables. There is, she says, no magic pill which will allow you to keep consuming at your current rate. Scientific diagnosis, yes, but no technological cure. Likewise, there is no technology that can fix climate change while allowing us to continue to live Western industrialised, consumer lifestyles. We have to detox and diet, and there is no way around that.
2. “it is too easy to see capitalism and environmentalism as natural enemies”
I can’t help asking why exactly it is so “easy” to see this. Perhaps because to all but the most stubborn of minds, it is blindingly obvious. Capitalism has had decades to deliver sustainability and hasn’t got remotely close. As Nicholas Stern has admitted, climate change is a colossal market failure. Capitalism demands unlimited economic growth, but all markets operate on a finite planet. Growth is wrecking the Earth.
But, say the defendents, capitalism can change. Ah, but if we were to change it enough, to “harness” it not in the sense of benefiting from its strength, but in the sense of tethering it so that it can do no more damage, it would, immediately, cease to resemble capitalism as we know now it. In fact, it wouldn’t be capitalism at all.
3. “Man’s story is one of the pursuit of, and defence of, natural resources and riches.”
There’s enough to object to in the first two words, let alone the rest of this sentence. Who uses the word “Man” anymore to describe humanity? It makes me wince to see it being used by any author post-1960, let alone a national newspaper published yesterday. The word smacks of patriarchy and empire, and makes the author seem entrenched in old ways.
As for the word “story”, we must immediately ask: whose story exactly? And it is here that perhaps the use of the word “Man”, ungainly as it is, probably makes sense, if we take “Man” to refer – as it almost always did in the minds of the authors who used it – to a male human being of white European stock, probably living an industrialised life and certainly wealthy. So in that limited sense, what the author is saying is true: European elite culture has been long been obsessed with ‘the pursuit of, and defence of, natural resources’ and has successfully exported this mindset to the rest of the world. But other human beings the world over and throughout history would have a markedly different story to tell. Let’s not forget that our species had a good ten thousand years or so before civilised humans – let alone civilised Europeans – started using currencies, private property, trading, agriculture and so on. Surely that vast amount of time – regardless of whether it was “better” than civilised life – has as much or more of a claim to our “story” as the form of human life which The Times has in mind?
Next, the author fails to recognises that the whole concept of “natural resources” is the result of a particular worldview, not the nature of our species. Later on, in the same edition of The Times, the veteran Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai talks about how we need to recognise that we are part of the natural environment and that this environment is our “community”. It is not romanticising in the slightest to say that indigenous cultures the world over have, the words of Thomas Berry, tended to see the world as ‘a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects’. When making major decisions, some tribal cultures would assign representatives to speak on behalf of other species: wolves, fish, trees, bees. Seeing these beings as ‘resources’ would be completely alien to many of the human beings who have existed, and so cannot be part of our ‘nature’ as the leader article claims.
4. “…Man’s nature…”
Derrick Jensen, the author of Endgame, is a difficult and polemical writer at the best of times, someone you desperately want to disagree with. But he does one thing that no other writers do, which is to state his premises openly at the start of his books. Jensen believes that all writers, including himself, are propagandists, and the way most writers dupe their readers is by leaving premises unstated. In The Times leader, the author slips a few of his premises right by us (I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that the author is a “he”, given the use of “Man”). First, there is the premise that human beings have something as solid and unyielding as a ‘nature’. Second, the premise that this nature is competitive, acquisitive and demanding of luxuries. I’m not sure either of these things are true. I dislike talk about “human nature” because it almost always ends up with dodgy teleologies about the kinds of creatures we are. In the article here, “nature” is being used to mean an undeniable, impossible to contradict destiny, which is seems highly spurious. Even Richard Dawkins, who is often characterised as a genetic determinist of the ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ variety, has said that genes should be thought of as a recipe, rather than a blueprint: the effect they have is determined to a large extent on external factors, such as the environment, or in the case of human beings, our culture. This means, contrary to what The Times would have us believe, that our ‘nature’ is malleable and changing.
In a liberal, consumer-capitalist culture, it’s not surprising that the competitive side of our character gets emphasised. But it isn’t inevitable that this should be so. Two biologists who have done a great deal of work on the role that co-operation and altruism have played in our evolution are David Sloan Wilson and Elliott Sober, in their book Unto Others. There is no reason why a certain cultural set up couldn’t encourage our empathetic and co-operative traits, over our competitive ones.
5. “Self-denying frugality”
Another hastily hidden presumption: that frugality must mean sacrifice and poverty: the kind of “hair-shirt” environmentalism. This is nonsense. Frugality has its etymological roots in the Latin “fruges” meaning “fruits”, from which we get ‘frugalis’ meaning “fruitful or useful”. The word doesn’t mean rationing, or sacrificing, but rather an abundance of what we genuinely need and no more. Abundance without waste. As Wolfgang Sachs writes, “Frugality is a mark of cultures free from the frenzy of accumulation.” In these cultures, money does note play a central role, and is seen as far less important than universal access to healthy fields, woods, rivers and so on. In capitalist cultures, we have no frugality in the sense of fruitful abundance. We instead have some people with a surplus, and others with scarcity, which means waste from the former, and deprivation for the latter. Our culture is not “self-denying”, but “other-denying”. Some get more than they need, by denying others their share. In frugal societies, no one, neither self nor other are denied anything that is truly necessary. There is an understanding that the word “enough” must mean something.
I could go on forever. Andrew Simms pointed out to me yesterday that writers who enthusiastically invoke science, as this Times leader writer does, often have the unscientific tendency to make unsubstantiated and sweeping claims, such as the claims above about human nature and “inescapable laws of supply and demand”.
For now, though, I’ll leave it there. If you enjoyed this little bit of media dissection and have found another passage of highly specious arguments and high-faluting rhetoric in the mainstream press, please send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to take them apart.