Some thoughts today on the weighty matters of my title, prompted by Tom’s departing broadside against me a couple of posts back. Perhaps I ought to just ignore it, but I’m slightly troubled by the fact that someone who’s been reading my blog for a while should (mis)interpret my thinking as he does. I’m sure the fault is largely mine, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to restate and clarify some of the main themes of this blog, and to lay down a future marker. If I accepted Tom’s stance on where the world is at I should probably quit my arguin’ ways, and my pretensions to being a farmer too, embrace the world as it is, enjoy my extremely privileged position within it and wait for the scientists to solve our problems. But I don’t, and I can’t. So if it’s worth me continuing both to write and to farm as I do at all, then it must be worth me trying to explain why I think as I do to whoever will listen (which I realise isn’t many – and even fewer now…)
At any rate, the intellectual content of Tom’s parting shot was as follows…
“large chunks of your thinking has been pessimistic, disregarding the basic reality that we are here and we have more stuff than our grandparents including the ability to survive cancer, a huge achievement due to science and a social system that utilises ambition and creativity. Regardless of the fact that it is corporations that benefit the most, we have benefitted too and to ignore that is disingenuous.”
To start with a point of agreement, Tom rightly says ‘we are here’. I take that to mean that societies ‘are where they are’ and all that really matters is the decisions they face about how to proceed into the future, how to deal with the threats they perceive, how to maintain and improve the characteristics that they value. Agreed. But as well as ‘us’ being ‘here’, ‘they’ are also ‘there’. Who are ‘they’? People from the past and people in the present who live(d) a different kind of life.
I find the neurosis in our culture strange that constantly needs to compare ‘us’ with ‘them’, and find ourselves to be superior on the basis of our knowledge, our science, our machinery, our cancer rates or whatever. There are many things about our culture that I cherish, including its science and its cancer care (though to be honest I think a more significant medical achievement is the decline in infant mortality rates, which stem mostly from some fairly basic science – clean water, hygiene etc – rather than anything too modern and sophisticated). I don’t think I’ve ever written anything here intended to suggest there’s anything wrong with science or cancer treatment. But I suppose it’s true that I don’t much dwell on the wonders of modern science and technology. Cultural self-congratulation is not hard to find elsewhere for those who seek it. I’m more interested in discussing how to preserve the worthwhile technological gains we’ve made into the future in a sustainable and equitable way.
But there are things about our culture that I dislike, and, even though we are indeed where we are, I’d like to be open to the possibility that ‘we’ can learn things from ‘them’ in addressing them – not because their societies are better than ours, but simply because their societies are different. I don’t necessarily want our society to be more like any other particular historical society. But I think our society could be different and better than it is now, and that other peoples may have things to teach us about how to change for the better that are not gainsaid by the fact that ‘we’ are so keen to consider ourselves superior to ‘them’ on our metrics of choice.
Another ‘them’ is the contemporary global poor. Bear in mind that there are about a billion people living today who are clinically undernourished, which is more people than lived on earth at any point up to about 1800. This brute fact makes it hard for me to agree with the ‘ecomodernist’ view that “humanity has flourished over the last two centuries”1. The world’s poorest do not necessarily have more stuff than their grandparents, and almost certainly have less stuff than ‘our’ grandparents. As I’ve already said, I don’t see the point in comparing our lives to those of others and deciding whose is best, but if we’re going to do it then I don’t consider ‘having more stuff’ a good comparative metric. We (though not ‘they’) certainly have a lot of stuff nowadays, some of which is very useful. There is a current of thought that the poor are lacking in the necessary stuff because they haven’t had the opportunity to join modern capitalist economic relationships. It’s implicit in our concept of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ countries. But in general I’m more persuaded by the Walter Rodney2 line of argument that places don’t ‘suffer from underdevelopment’. They’re actively underdeveloped by the overdeveloped ones, or, as Eric Hobsbawm3 has it, there are historical processes of uneven development. Thus I see capitalist economic relationships as part of the problem. That’s not to say that what preceded capitalism was much of a hoot either.
I struggle with the idea that ‘our’ social system utilises ambition and creativity – there are few opportunities for those one billion hungry to realise their own ambition and creativity. The whole notion sounds to me like a right-wing exercise in victim blaming. I agree that creativity is important, and even ambition has its place – but there are problems with it. Ambition and egalitarianism are odd bedfellows, unless carefully channeled. Christopher Boehm argues in his interesting book Hierarchy in the Forest that small-scale band societies tend to place a heavy emphasis on egalitarianism, and therefore consider it necessary to quash ambition whenever they see it. I think all this raises some troubling questions for the notion of a capitalist society that simultaneously vaunts ambition, creativity and egalitarianism. Economic growth may make those questions a little easier to resolve, but at best only defers them for someone else to sort out in the future. We can all trade statistics about cancer care, the availability of ‘stuff’, poverty rates and so on to assert what we will about the state of the world. Ultimately you have to choose the key values that you espouse and decide whether you think the dominant tendencies in our society are likely to deliver them: in my case those key values are equity, self-possession, social cohesion and ecological sustainability, and my answer is no. I think a non-capitalist agrarian society has a better chance (though only a chance) of delivering.
The nub of my original disagreement with Tom was about energy, not science. It strikes me that the kinds of science where it’s easiest to talk about progress are ones that are people and ideas intensive – the basic research sciences, electronics, medicine (including cancer treatment). Other aspects of our culture – agriculture, transport, construction, industry – are energy intensive, and there is to my mind a big question mark over our ability to fund them into the future with clean energy at the levels they currently enjoy. Tom says that scientists will solve this problem ‘because they have to’, but I just can’t see any warrant for thinking so other than blind faith. Most ‘ecomodernist’ thinking terminates in the same weak ‘someone’s bound to think of something’ gambit. But actually I think part of the problem we have in the overdeveloped world is the surfeit of energy we enjoy, which has made it far too easy for us to promote ecological dysfunction, usually in other parts of the world that ‘we’ don’t see. So as well as disputing the ease of a future high energy transition, I dispute that it’s necessarily a good idea – unless we do a better job of putting our economy into an ethical framework. Much is now being said about ‘energy poverty’, but I think this is largely a relative term. You’re only energy poor if you have less access to energy in a society organised around the needs of the energy-affluent. Access to some extra energy is a good thing, but how much is enough? I think we need to be asking that question persistently of much that we do. I’m not saying that science, technology, cheap energy etc. are ‘bad’. I’m saying that producing more (and producing more for less) isn’t always good – we ought to look more closely at what we want to produce and why, but to do that we need an economic system that doesn’t relentlessly incentivise the cutting of production costs. No doubt there’s some kind of historical relationship between scientific and capitalist development, but it’s not straightforward or identical. A critique of capitalist development is not a critique of scientific development.
So I don’t think that technologies, mostly, are intrinsically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – everything depends on the social context within which they operate. Therefore I’m not a believer in simple techno-fixes, because the ‘environmental problems’ we have are systemic and related to social, even spiritual, orientations: they will not be solved by the piecemeal tinkering of engineers or agronomists, though that’s not to say there’s no room for a bit of piecemeal tinkering sometimes. I think that we – that is, everyone in the world – can have the opportunity to live good, abundant lives if we transform the economy, and I think part of that transformation would have to involve a turn to smaller-scale, lower-energy farming, which is my particular interest. We are lamentably short of good political and economic analyses of what such a transformation might look like, but I find the traditions of agrarian populism of most interest to me in thinking about it. Agrarian populism is not about anti-scientific stasis, but about how to make science and technology work long-term for the benefit of all, including or especially rural farmers, not short-term for the benefit of few.
I don’t have much use for the terms ‘optimism’ and ‘pessimism’. I think they’re essentially labels with which we bestow our approbation or disapproval upon others. Why is it intrinsically good to be ‘optimistic’ or bad to be ‘pessimistic’? In most species, natural selection soon culls ill-founded optimism. I’m not sure that humanity has yet transcended this dynamic, and as psychologists like Daniel Kahneman4 have shown, humanity has an advanced capacity for ill-founded optimism. Optimism suits the ‘everyone’s a winner’ mentality of contemporary capitalism, but everyone is not a winner. I find Banerjee and Duflo’s comment interesting that while rich people tend to ponder how to get poor people to defer gratification and invest the money that comes their way so as to escape poverty, poor people tend to accept more realistically that they will always be poor and use money to make their lives slightly more tolerable in the here and now5. Here is ‘ecomodernist’ Stewart Brand’s take on a Mumbai slum: “Dharavi…is vibrantly and triumphantly alive….Everyone is working hard, and everyone is moving up”6. And here is Katherine Boo’s take on another Mumbai slum, writing of Asha, one of its denizens:
“She had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else?….Asha had a gift for solving the problems of her neighbors. And when she had control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them – a profitable sequence”7
Is Brand ‘optimistic’ and Boo ‘pessimistic’? If so, I think any workable policy efforts to improve the lot of the average slum dweller had better be based on pessimism.
I don’t think I’m pessimistic in the sense of throwing up my hands and reveling in the misery of it all. I believe in the possibility of people coming together to work out sustainable and equitable long-term solutions. That’s what I want to contribute to, but I don’t think it’s easy. I don’t have the confidence of Marxists in proletarian revolution or of rightwingers in optimally-allocating markets or any other such pat off-the-shelf solutions. So I’m not optimistic, but I’m hopeful – a distinction I’ve discussed at greater length here. I also think social power is a strong force distorting the possibility of equity and sustainability. The way I think about technology, progress and social power is well captured by a few excerpts from the eponymous hero of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s novel about a post-nuclear holocaust world written, to quote from the dustjacket, in ‘‘language which reflects the decayed world around him” (and, come to think of it, weapons of mass destruction are technologies where impressive progress has indisputably been made over the past 50 years or so, with surprisingly little fanfare from the technophiles):
“How cud any 1 not want to get that shyning Power back from time back way back? How cud any 1 not want to be like them what had boats in the air and picters on the wind? How cud any 1 not want to see them shyning weals terning?
“Power dint go a way. It ben and it wer and it wud be. It wer there and drawing. Power wantit you to come to it with Power. Power wantit what ever cud happen to happen. Power wantit every thing moving frontways.
“I wernt looking for no Hy Power no mor I dint want no Power at all…THE ONLYES POWER IS NO POWER”
I’d like to help bring about an agrarian populist-inspired economic transformation, though I have embarrassingly little idea of how best to make it happen. Once you abandon the notion that there is some unfolding historical pattern leading ever onwards to progress and redemption, the way ahead inevitably becomes murkier. But I plan for now to continue thinking and writing about it. Perhaps the best use I can make of Tom’s irate comments about my irascibility is to try not to get riled as I sometimes have in the past by ‘ecomodernist’ blowhards or people writing patronising putdowns on my blog. So in future I’ll try to focus my writing more on what I’m for than on what I’m against. Shame, because I had a cracking little post lined up about Steve Savage’s take on food science. Well, I think it helps sometimes to develop your position negatively against that with which you disagree – especially in a blog format where essentially you’re thinking out loud. So I may stray into negative territory from time to time. But I’ll try to stick with my new plan. So thanks Tom (see that wasn’t so hard…)
1. An Ecomodernist Manifesto p.8.
2. Rodney, W. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
3. Hobsbawm, E. 1976. ‘From feudalism to capitalism’ in Hilton, R. ed. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism.
4. Kahneman, D. 2012. Thinking Fast and Slow.
5. Banerjee, A. and Duflo, E. 2012. Poor Economics.
6. Brand, S. 2009. Whole Earth Discipline.
7. Boo, K. 2012. Behind the Beautiful Forevers.