Panglossians, pragmatists and pressurised water

My previous post on insects in the garden led, naturally enough, to an interesting debate about optimism and pessimism in the environmental movement and about peak oil and energy futures. In fact, I’d been meaning to write something about energy futures and eco-optimism anyway. Really, I’m not quite ready to do so yet, but in the blogosphere you gotta ride the news and since the government has this week announced the building of a big new pressurised water nuclear reactor just down the road from me at Hinkley Point, I thought I should make a few preliminary points about the topic. Sorry if they sound angry – it’s been a stressful week, and this topic always pressurises my water anyway.

Point #1: it must be pretty embarrassing for all those ‘eco-pragmatists’ who’ve been extolling the virtues of nuclear technologies to find the UK plumping for expensive, toxic PWR. Watch the likes of Mark Lynas crying ‘I blame the government’ for not embracing clean, cheap thorium. But there’s only a handful of thorium plants worldwide, and the technology is unproven. ‘Eco-pragmatist’ idealism brought to earth by the government’s ‘eco-pragmatist’ realism?

Point #2: perhaps there’s a general lesson here: the techno-fix optimism of ‘eco-pragmatists’ like Lynas, Stewart Brand, Matt Ridley etc always overreaches itself. The refrain ‘Hey look, this cool new technology can solve all our problems’ is an old one, but its promise always seems to recede into the (near) future. I propose to call eco-pragmatism eco-panglossism from now on.

Point #3: here’s an example of what I mean from Graham Strouts, an aggressive eco-panglossian: ‘Fifty years is a loooong time in the world of energy’. Well maybe, but it just got a lot closer now that the government has committed to Hinkley Point for the next 45 years (actually, 45 years plus a few thousand more to look after the spent fuel). But what does Strouts really mean? That people sometimes underestimate energy reserves? For sure, but then 50 years is a blink of the eye in human history. I think what he and the other eco-panglossians actually mean without caring to say so explicitly is ‘we don’t know how it will be possible to sustain our existing massive energy demands long-term, but somebody’s bound to think of something’.

Point #4: …and they could be right. There’s a lot of energy knocking around in the universe. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if people figure out how to harness a good deal more of it cleanly in the future. But let’s be clear that this is really just a speculative punt, with little supporting evidence behind it. In his dreadful (albeit nicely written) book Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand chastises greens for their arrogance in worrying about the world we bequeath to the future, for how can we know what technologies and what concerns future generations will have? Nice trick, but not convincing. Since indeed we can’t know, it behoves us to try to leave the minimum amount of mess for them to have to deal with.

Point #5: If we did come up with vast supplies of clean energy in the future, many of the problems we currently face would become a lot simpler. Or maybe they wouldn’t. A point that the eco-panglossians generally ignore is that when technological innovation overcomes a potential resource limit it stimulates activity that then re-encounters the limit (the Jeavons paradox, rebound effects etc) or runs into other resource limits. You can take the panglossian view that all these will be solved in their turn, and humanity will always manage to keep one step ahead of the horsemen. But I don’t see much of a sound basis for this view. If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried.

Point #6: Therefore there are ultimately no purely technological solutions, there are only social solutions. Though technology can certainly help with them.

Point #7: Anyway, there’s no prospect of a clean energy solution on the near or far horizon at the moment. Our whole civilisation remains massively dependent on fossil fuels. Yeah, they’ll string out for quite a while – peak oil disaster scenarios are often overplayed (though the relative unavailability of flexible fossil energy to a huge swath of the world’s poor is a disaster scenario we’ve got right now). The energy expert Vaclav Smil is pretty scathing about peak oil doomsdays in his books (and he laughs at the Victorians for worrying about ‘peak coal’, before they hit upon oil). Then again, he’s also pretty scathing about electric cars, biofuels and most other alternatives to fossil fuels. The fact that the Victorians got off the peak coal hook by discovering another limited fossil energy source doesn’t seem all that cheering to me in the long run. Especially as we’ve torched the climate in the process. Perhaps the post-peak reckoning will be delayed by fracking or Albertan tar sands, but why should anybody find that comforting? The easiest supplies are going or gone and we’re starting to chase dirtier, unconventional reserves. Only in the fairytale world of neo-classical economics can it be assumed that price signals enable resource limitations to be endlessly deferred.

Point #8: Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which everyone’s raving about at the moment, has a nice bit of analysis about optimism and pessimism, showing how routinely over-optimistic people are about future outcomes. I think this may be compounded for us rich Westerners by the fact that since World War II we’ve experienced almost a whole lifetime of substantial economic growth, peace and lack of major infectious disease, which has led us to suppose that life is always like this. Not so. One person on Strouts’ website as I recall actually commented that life for humans had just got better and better over the last 100,000 years. Yes, seriously. It’s time for us eco-realists to reclaim the word ‘pragmatic’ from the eco-panglossians!

Point #9: as I mentioned in a comment under my previous post, we really must stop projecting our idealised social-political schemes onto history. I’ll post on this at more length another time. Strouts has called me a ‘retro-romantic reactionary’ which is just so, well, so…unfair. But in my view eco-panglossism is the mirror image of this – it’s futuro-romantic reaction. ‘Futuro-romantic’ because it projects a whiggish narrative of increasing technological mastery and perfection into the future, and ‘reaction’ for various reasons – because it falsely presents itself as the ‘synthesis’ to capitalism’s thesis and the left/green’s antithesis, because it has no theory of ideology (other than supposing itself non-ideological), because it therefore has no critique of economic reason (other than supposing that markets are natural and optimising), and because it offers no mechanism for social justice other than supposing that more access to technology and free markets will enrich the poor people of the world. It’s pure let them eat cake, or maybe let them eat broccoli.

Point #10: energy futures for eco-realists summarised: Be afraid, be a little bit afraid.

11 thoughts on “Panglossians, pragmatists and pressurised water

    • Hi Clem, no he’s not a hero – definitely not a hero, as I don’t like his politics. But there are aspects of neo-Malthusianism that I think must be taken seriously (and in fact are taken seriously, which is why we’re still talking about Malthus in the 21st century and lots of people are still so keen to say he was wrong!) I talked about Malthus in a bit more detail in this post: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=383

  1. I suppose I do consider myself more a glass half full type. And your framing of eco-pragmatists leaves plenty of room for me to squeeze in. I still sign up for the notion that human ingenuity, spunk, nose-to-the-grindstone determination can continue to carry the day. Naturally resource limitation will impact extant populations. And if that is all Malthus should be held accountable for then he is a genius and we should move on… nothing more to see here.

    Resource limitation has very ugly consequences. On this we certainly agree. And history provides several instances of limited resource giving Malthusians something to point to. But still here we are – survivors, or the descendants of the survivors. There are still amber waves of grain, beautiful sunsets, and gorgeous dawns (though I’m not sure of dawn’s caloric value). We should mourn the lost, but I think it also incumbent upon we the living to strive for better. And while a good sober dose of realism certainly has its place, dwelling on negatives while offering positives short shrift seems to me a recipe for depression and sinking into a self fulfilling prophesy of doom.

    So what to do? Plant some more carrots, take your best friend to the pub for a pint (or two), and while you’re letting the alcohol destroy a couple brain cells, try to puzzle out where your gifts might be best invested in making things better (whatever “better” might be).

    This ‘land-grabbing’ behavior that Philip McMichaels (Cornell) is talking about is stirring me up at the moment. As I follow his thinking on the subject I see elements of your comments here. Have you seen his stuff?

    • Nicely put, Clem, and I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I especially like,

      “We should mourn the lost, but I think it also incumbent upon we the living to strive for better.”

      I’d add that we can also learn from the lost, without making the mistake of wishing to restore it.

      The difficulty perhaps is the radically different prescriptions available for what ‘striving for better’ involves. I think I’d count myself an ‘eco-pragmatist’ too, but I’d like to claim the term back from those who employ it for their uncritical technophilia.

      Anyway, thanks for your gentle reminder to accentuate the positive. I think I’ve made enough sideswipes at the eco-panglossians on this blog over the last year. I’ll aim to articulate some more positive analyses of ways forward in future, and try to keep my critical tendencies in check!

      Yes, I’ve come across McMichael though I haven’t read his article on land grabs yet. Will follow up – positively!

  2. First off, I had to leave the page to look up what panglossian meant on google (and I have actually read a Voltaire book) and point 9 was mostly incomprehensible to me (probably my fault though).

    I, like millions, find genetically modified organisms worrying, even frightening. I have no scientific evidence that gm will ruin nature in the future but I have the feeling that they are messing about with things they shouldn’t and I wish they wouldn’t. This is an ethical decision I have made based on ideas on how we should behave in society and in our environment. Because my decision is unscientific it is suggested I should stay out of the argument and leave decision making to those with a mature and sober outlook- I refuse to on democratic grounds – we the unscientific people don’t like it and we demand a right to have our say. Ironically, with so much doubt European governments have done the sensible thing and held moratoriums on gmo’s suggesting democracy might still have meaning here.

    Which leads us to the 100,000 years of human history issue – pessimism or optimism? What have we achieved? Oh, only a little thing called civilisation, medicine (free at the point of use), a reasonable amount of access to justice, a free press that scrutinises politicians, summer holidays (abroad), general travel anywhere, if not equal rights for women and ethnic minorities then at least the social narrative that says that inequality is unacceptable, technology that lets Chris, Tom and Clem talk to each other when Clem is thousands of miles away.

    Spectacular disasters took place on this rocky road to where we are now. In Britain’s case we had the Norman Conquest where rights to equality of land use (set up by the Danes according to Michael Wood) were abolished, the black death,the reformation (removing the nearest thing the people had to a welfare safety net), the English civil war, the enclosures (where the land the English masses spent hundreds of years getting back rights to were stolen by parliament and given to the rich forcing people into towns to work for wages), the two world wars.

    All these disasters were horrific but led us up to where we are today. Even the black death, unimaginably horrible to us, led to (physical and social) mobility for peasants and the opportunity to increase wages; the reformation broke the yoke of a corrupt church, gave us a fledgling freedom of conscience and freed up capital held by the monasteries and gave it to a new middle class; the civil war gave us representative democracy over monarchy; the enclosures gave us (and the world) the industrial revolution, and therefore Trade Unions, Marx, Bakunin and the political thought that would lead after two world wars to the welfare state.

    Poverty and disease accompanied all those events but amongst it all there were lots of people struggling forward with the hope that things would get better and basically, despite the huge loss in life, it has.

    Which is not to say the current younger generation are better off than the younger generation 20 or 30 years ago. They clearly aren’t, 1million of them are unemployed, pretty much the rest on temporary contracts or zero hour contracts and minimum waged. It is not peak oil that has done this but capitalists, alongside a wholesale betrayal by new labour of the people.

    We have to struggle on and take heart that what our ancestors have done was worth it.

    • Thanks for your comment Tom. Apologies if Point 9 was incomprehensible – you’ve got to bear in mind that I used to teach sociology! And I was trying to cram too much into a brief paragraph. I’ll try to explain it properly some time.

      On your wider point, I’m a bit reluctant to get into a very general debate, pace Monty Python, along the lines of ‘what has civilisation ever done for us?’ – I was really just arguing for a bit of realism in the energy debate.

      I agree with you and Clem that we need to move onwards with hope. I don’t think considering ourselves more advanced and successful than our ancestors is particularly helpful in doing so. I don’t entirely agree with some of your historical judgments, though I see what you’re saying. Personally, I don’t see much virtue in insisting that what our ancestors did was worth it. If you’ll forgive the terrible clichés, they did what they did and now we are where we are – the only important thing is figuring out where we go from here, and on that score I think the notion that we’re on some path of historical progress is counterproductive (actually, it depends a bit on the time frame: I think it’s a lot more meaningful to talk about ‘progress’ over the last 10 years than over the last 100,000). It’s the kind of thing that prevents people from contemplating an increase in the agricultural workforce because they think it would be a ‘backward step’. But I do think that if we’re going to extol the virtues of civilisation (and I agree that there are some) we really mustn’t sweep its darker side under the carpet – the billion people who go hungry today, the accumulated historical privilege that allows wealthy westerners to enjoy unprecedented wealth, the countless victims of European colonialism. The dominant ideology of development insists that ultimately everybody in the world should be able to enjoy European or American levels of energy use and prosperity. I seriously doubt that’s possible, partly because of resource limits and partly because the global economy requires an underclass. If indeed it isn’t possible, then we need a major rethink of what civilisation means. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, because I also doubt whether European and American levels of energy use and prosperity are actually desirable, for the sake of ourselves as well as our fellow humans and other organisms.

      It brings to mind the witticism attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. Asked what he thought of western civilisation, he supposedly replied ‘I think it would be a good idea’.

  3. Very well thought out, but please don’t fall for primitivism. We now have the possibility to survive cancer and those techniques are making their way to the developing world, despite crippling inequalities. The downsides of civilisation are more than made up for by this.

    I deliberately avoided talking about empire because it didn’t fit into my argument, but you are right. The freed up “seed capital” that made the industrial revolution possible largely came from robbing the empire, but also the sweat of our British ancestors, so i refuse to include myself in the category of rich westerner whether it is materially true or not. The capitalist attack on the people of graingemouth (which if you look carefully is about international ownership of utilities, control of the labour party, the power of the nation state to control its affairs, Scottish independence and not about some bolshie dinosaurs) is equal in quality and deviousness as that performed in the third world. I even suspect they even think of us as a third world nation.

    Of course i am not expecting a right wing death squad as in Colombia to appear or the workers to burn to death as in Bangladesh, but the total contempt for everything civil – democracy, community, institutions is the same.

    They did what they did and we did what we did. You might be right. There is no doubt in my mind that the fall of the roman empire delayed development for several hundred years, but my argument is not that everything has had a good effect, it is that there has always been a “left” and it has always tried to change society, sometimes in a good way. So, the pandemonium inflicted by the reformation was worth it because it weakened the hegemony of the church. It doesn’t mean i don’t realise that it led to 500 years of hurt.
    Interesting discussion….

    • Hi Tom – yes it’s an interesting debate. A few comments.

      I wrote a little about the fall of the Roman empire in this post a while back (Small Farm Future leaves no stone unturned in its intellectual quest!) – https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=157ref. My take on it (following Joseph Tainter’s) is that the fall of Rome seemed a disaster to those elite commentators whose works have come down to us because of the crumbling of the high civilised elite culture it entailed, but it came as a blessed relief to the peasantries on whose backs that culture had been exerting an increasingly intolerable burden. Ellen Meiksins Wood argues in her fascinating book ‘The Origins of Capitalism’ that the combination of private property, parcellised sovereignty and a wider imperial core bequeathed by the fall of Rome was critical in the later emergence of capitalism in Europe. Was the Roman empire and its fall and the later emergence of capitalism a good thing or a bad thing? Can we talk trans-historically of ‘development’ and its blockages? I can’t find any satisfactory way of answering those questions that doesn’t implicitly privilege our own particular ideological and historical standpoint, which is why I prefer to go with ‘we are where we are’.

      I for one won’t criticise the marvels of modern medicine, but the greater part of the burden of ill health is social in its origins and in the ‘developing world’ (not a term I favour…) modern medicine alone makes little headway unless the underlying causes (poverty, mostly) are also addressed.

      I take ‘primitivism’ to be the notion that ‘primitive’ (another problematic term) or hunter-gatherer peoples have access to higher spiritual knowledge lacking in we moderns. I don’t consider anything I’ve written to fall into that trap – though nor would I argue that we moderns have higher spiritual knowledge than the ‘primitives’ or that there’s nothing we can learn from them. I take romanticism to be the notion that past societies were more perfect than the degenerate present. I plead not guilty on that count too. But it’s true that I don’t find a great deal of use for the notion of ‘progress’, and since ideologies of progress are so deeply wired into modern consciousness it’s very difficult to challenge them without inviting the charge of primitivism or romanticism.

      I think I agree with you though that there has always been a “left” (inverted commas obligatory!) and it has always tried to change society, sometimes in a good way. I’d like to think I’m a part of it, and I appreciate that you are too. I agree with you about Grangemouth – we think we’re in control of this capitalist monster and are riding it towards prosperity, only to find ourselves slowly disappearing in its gastric juices.

    • Great discussion. Excellent points coming together from all over the map.

      Am afraid my American history lessons either skipped the enclosures (or I fell asleep in class) – so thanks Tom for that mention. Access to land resources, and land rights have changed enormously over a long read of human history. The value of market forces set against the tragedy of the commons seems to me is at the core of the present situation.

      Unfettered greed is pretty ugly, and I’m sensing this is most of Chris’ disappointment with the Western way. Now that some of our number have amassed enormous wealth and embarked on conspicuous consumption… is the genie out of the bottle? Will this unfortunate reality perpetuate more greed and lust for resources beyond those necessary for a comfortable life (and at what level is one comfortable?).

      I’m curious, as a sociologist Chris, what role does a community’s size play in controlling how the wealthiest are treated? I’m thinking smaller communities do a better job of keeping the balance. Any evidence?

      • Interesting question Clem, and one that I’ll respond to…but first I have to head off on a jaunt for a few days to talk about food sovereignty at the University of Warwick and then market gardening in Wigan, so please forgive me if I don’t reply straight away. In fact, I think that question deserves a post to itself – I’ll be working on it!

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