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Sun, Apr. 26th, 2009, 11:13 am
environmentalism - a little too good at speaking the language of its' enemy?

http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/233

Quoting Curtis White at some point past midnight last night led me to see if he has any other essays online, there's one at the link given above which contains some gems.

"Capitalism — especially in its corporate incarnation — has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty."

The fox and the scorpion make an amazingly good description.

I disagree with part of his thesis, that the "corporate world" are in part just bogeymen obscuring the real problem. They may be legally obliged to "protect the shareholders" in many places, but they also do have discretion (as do the shareholders), they are human beings. And they often choose not to use that discretion, en masse. And they do throw their weight behind political campaigns, and public relations campaigns, and legal battles. And they do set up "think tanks" to run these campaigns. And they do tangibly obstruct the creation of better social ethics; they're not merely convenient scapegoats, even if a lot of the rhetoric against them is badly dumbed down in the bits of lefty culture that make it onto TV. Money does equal power.

But despite disagreeing on some points, there is something valuable in this essay. He is a genuinely good writer. Vivid, worth reading just for the way he puts things.

He argues against trends in the environmental movement:

"My concern is with the wisdom of using as our primary weapon the rhetoric and logic of the very entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place. [...] It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good."

I've been around a lot of scientists, and they often actually do share the kind of ethic that White would agree with (most of the ones i've met, anyway). But there is a frustrating sense that you need to moderate and censor this in public, simply because the "public sphere" - delineated by journalists, politicians, and corporate lobbyists - only allows certain kinds of things to be said. The scientist that White pictures as coldly advocating 'just the bare minimum amount of CO2 reduction', quantified and placed in a legal framework, actually doesn't think or talk in this way when you meet them. It's just that only certain of their comments - only the most pseudo-quantitative sounding comments - escape the media filters and get through into the public arena. (Perhaps some of them learn to just speak in this way from the outset, because they know that's all that will make it through.) But i don't blame White for thinking otherwise. And people, especially scientists, especially in regards to global warming, ought to be more willing to "reject the premise of the question" - to paraphrase the character Annabeth in The West Wing.

Anyway. Read it.