Green Romantics

Following from my last blog post, a comment from Steven Blackthorne:

One sentence stood out among many good ones in this post: “Permies don’t do numbers.” Right. Because quantification is quite outside of their way of thinking. Quantification means thinking like an engineer, making calculations to find practical solutions.

They are most decidedly NOT engineers. They are ideologues and romantic dreamers, misguided ones, at that. This is one thing that I love so much about Stewart Brand. He thinks big, he dreams big, but in the end, he wants pragmatic solutions. He wants numbers that add up. It’s the fundamental difference between the romantic dreamer and the engineer.

Brand was right on the money when he wrote about how romantics love tragedy. They don’t truly want solutions. “The romantics distrust engineers, sometimes correctly, for their hubris, and are uncomfortable with the prospect of fixing things, because the essence of tragedy is that it can’t be fixed. Romantics love problems…”

Brand’s quote comes from his seminal 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline and Steven is right that this explains a lot about the permaculture movement.

Romantics love problems… says a great deal. There is a narcissistic seductive lure of believing that we cannot solve our problems rationally, which absolves them from actually getting up off thier butt and doing something about it. Wishing for Utopia all the time allows one to shirk responsibilities- “the world is going down the tubes, at least I won’t have to pay my bills/go to work/actually solve anything”- and “I’m not going to let anyone else come up with solutions either!”

I was thinking of this as I read through a series of tweets from Mike Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute in response to Dark Mountain’s critique of The Eco-modernist Manifesto.

The critique relies on just two points:
Firstly, that eco-modernists believe in a teleological process of continual human improvement. This is a straw-man: there is no “destiny” that humanity is following, and things could go wrong. We could indeed wipe ourselves out or leave the biosphere so badly degraded that advanced civilisation may no longer be sustainable. If this were to happen however, it would not necessarily be the fault of the eco-modernist agenda:

Secondly, that modernism and technology have not yet brought a perfect world so they should be reversed/stopped and banned, which is nonsensical:

I prefer the term “eco-pragmatist” to “eco-modernist”- it is more descriptive. Unlike the Dark Greens, a pragmatic approach understands that there is no perfect world to be had, there will always be problems, but advocates quite simply a pragmatic way forward, accepting the trade-offs necessary in the real world.

The Green Romantics have no alternative other than the politics of opposition and the seductive power of negativity and a sort of “woe-is-us” misanthropy. “Technology has gone wrong in the past, so it is All Bad”; “Golden Rice does not create a perfect world and fails to address underlying political issues, so should be banned”; or often just “we don’t like your proposals, so they should be banned.”

Meanwhile, the proposals preferred by the eco-romantics will actually have the opposite effect and make things worse- they are the antipathy of pragmatism:

It is not rocket science 😉 -if we can grow food more intensively, producing more from the same amount of land, then we need to use less land for farming which could release more of it for wild nature- hence sparing nature;
if we can get more energy dense fuels such a nuclear power then we need less physical space for mining coal or installing windmills.

This will never satisfy the Green Romantics who want not just an unattainable Perfect Solution, but also their solution, often driven as much by aesthetic idealism than by anything that could actually work- but in doing so they drive a reactionary agenda which actually obstructs real progress from being made- to the detriment of both planet and people.

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12 thoughts on “Green Romantics

  1. Quite so. And it’s always perfectly unattainable–because, you know, the man keeps these perfect solutions from rolling out.

    A beautifully circular mindset.

  2. ‘Wishing for Utopia all the time allows one to shirk responsibilities- “the world is going down the tubes, at least I won’t have to pay my bills/go to work/actually solve anything”’

    It’s not utopia that they wish for, it’s the Garden of Eden that never existed. They want to return us to a past that never was.

  3. You begin this post complaining about ‘straw men’ – then you proceed to set out a whole row of them.

    An intelligent discussion about the future – or indeed the present – should certainly rest on facts. It should also rest on respect and an ability to listen. What I see here is what I also see in some green circles – simple tribalism. Pragmatic eco-modernists versus romantic deep greens. The former good and grown-up, the latter bad and lazy and dishonest. Take this concluding screed:

    ‘This will never satisfy the Green Romantics who want not just an unattainable Perfect Solution, but also their solution, often driven as much by aesthetic idealism than by anything that could actually work- but in doing so they drive a reactionary agenda which actually obstructs real progress from being made- to the detriment of both planet and people.’

    This is just mud-slinging. First you call people names, then you claim to understand what motivates them, then you caricature and dismiss their supposed motivation, which allows you, once again, to occupy the moral high ground and prove yourself right. Them and us, right and wrong, black and white. Far too much internet rhetoric is like this. If you are really a pragmatists, you will listen to everyone, not put them into boxes, think for yourself, and not allow your own issues about your past personal and political development to interfere with what you claim to want to see – a rational weighing up of the issues under discussion. Drop the labels and the tribal yah-booing and stop calling people names, and you might find out that you have more in common than you think with your ‘enemies’. That’s the only way anything eill ever change.

    • Not at all- consider the whole reason there needs to be an “eco-modernist” manifesto in the first place: to counter a powerful anti-science lobby which has successfully opposed and restricted the adoption and R&D into technologies such as nuclear power and genetic engineering. These are the big two, but there are many others also. They do this by systematically scare-mongering and spreading misinformation and lies. This extends in the case of GMOs to the deliberate destruction of science trials for political purposes. If you are new here, have a look around the blog and you will find plenty of carefully documented instances of this, which this blog was set up to counter. So, unless you have any alternative hypothesis to explain this behaviour, I will stick to the one I describe here, namely, a romantic aesthetic which denies others (mainly those in developing countries) improved technologies that are better for people and planet. In its purest form ideologically, this is I believe properly referred to as eco-fascism.

  4. I’ve been popping by your blog for a while, and I find it deeply frustrating. You’re obviously a smart guy, but you are so rigid and ideological in your thinking that the sensible points you make are obscured by your obvious anger towards people who simply don’t think like you. What you have in common with the so-called ‘eco-modernists’ is that all you come from a background in campaigning environmentalism, and have then turned away from it. What you haven’t turned away from is your campaigning rhetoric, your high moral tone and your need need to be right. The resulting tone is rather like listening to a born-again non-smoker railing against the evils of tobacco.

    I say it’s a shame, and it is, because often you make sensible points. But you are unable to make them outside of the ghetto you have pushed yourself into, and the ghetto you keep forcing everybody else into. Your reply to my post is an excellent example of this. Eco-Modernists versus eco-fascists? Really. Most people, I suspect, are like me: they might agree with some of what you say, they might agree with what some of people like George Monbiot say, they might agree with what some people you categorise as ‘romantics’ or ‘Dark Greens’ say. Your reference to being scientific or anti-scientific is mostly a smokescreen. There are people on all of these ‘teams’ who use science well, and there are people who use it badly. It isn’t very hard, for example, to pick holes in many of the eco-modernist arguments, to demonstrate how they have misused statistics and rewritten history to try to demonstrate the correctness of their narrative of progress-vs-romance. You never point this out on this blog. Why not? Because you are ideologically committed to that worldview. That is not ‘pragmatism’, that’s just more campaigning rhetoric.

    I am looking around the Internet for genuinely free thinkers on issues of the human relationship with the natural world. I’ve been involved in the green movement myself, and got fed up with the ideological boxes people put each other into. I find people like you doing exactly the same thing and imagining this to be ‘pragmatic’ behaviour. It isn’t. I hope you will be able to free yourself from your rigidity, and drop your anger, one day. You may be worth reading if you do.

    • It isn’t very hard, for example, to pick holes in many of the eco-modernist arguments, to demonstrate how they have misused statistics and rewritten history to try to demonstrate the correctness of their narrative of progress-vs-romance.

      odd, then, that you fail to do this.
      Once again, you ignore the substantive issue that I clarified in my first response: human progress is being held back substantially by ideologues who use scare-mongering and lies to block technology that they do not like. In one sense, this is just industrial sabotage by Big Organic; on the other hand, there are certainly much wider ideological issues also at play that go back to the history of the environmental movement.
      But please feel free to show me how I am to find common ground with those who lie about the health risks, for example, of GMOs.

  5. Well, that proved my point. I’m off somewhere else to find some non-angry, non-ideologically-driven grown-ups to read. Have fun in the echo chamber.

  6. What answer does your philosophy hold for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox?

    If we increase the efficiency with which we can grow crops on land, my prediction is that we will just grow our population proportionally, and also we will eat more meat as the world gets wealthier.

    • Humans are not like other animals- we dont increase population with increasing food availability, in fact the re verse- as we get more food secure and leave the land, moving out of subsistence agriculture (which demands large families to work the land) we have smaller families. This is known as the demographic transition. We have already been steadily increasing food production, leading to decline in birth rates everyhwer this has happened- the exception being Africa.
      Yes, as we get wealthier we eat more meat- this is not linear though, not clear how long before we reach “peak meat” demand.

  7. Don’t know if you noticed this article: “Counter-Point: Activists Operate By Outrage, Not Fear”

    It points out that fear-mongering is more paralyzing than empowering. The emotion that is needed then is outrage.

    “If you examine the most popular activist groups, they all operate according to this formula: they pick an enemy they can depict as the arrogant “Goliath”, a corporation that cares only about profits, then they find an issue or product simple enough to be understood by the people who read sites like Natural Resources Defense Council or Environmental Working Group (ideally something people eat or use daily, so there is first-hand experience with it) and then they ‘reveal’ an outrageous fact about it.

    “Once they have created fear and anger, they provide an action plan their audience can easily follow – sign a petition, spam a government representative, switch to an alternative product or make a donation to the activist group. They are always certain to make the tribe feel they are (warning: crackpot link) part of a community, and that they act for a cause larger than themselves. Then these hyper-empowered, angry zombies will follow instructions – after all, they are all fighting for the public good against the evil that was trying to scam them into some deadly product or behavior.”

    It’s well worth looking at the entire post. http://acsh.org/2015/10/counter-point-activists-operate-by-outrage-not-fear/

    Cheers,
    Norm

    • Thanks Norm, I hadn’t seen that- but he is obviously correct. I wonder if this plays out the same way in all topics though- true for food scares and vaccines and GMOs Im sure- but in the case of climate change I think the fear0mongering often doesn’t proceed to outrage so successfully perhaps, because although Big Oil is demonized in the same way Monsanto is, it doesnt quite work the same way- there is not such a clear-cut progression since obviously we do all use oil, and I think climate fear-mongering does largely just lead to apathy and paralysis. See for example the opening scenes from Lomborg’s film Cool It!. Most of these campaigns do start with fear-mongering, and some of them dont get much beyond it!
      Baneth references Peter Sandman, who I have come across before with respect to this fascinating interview on public reactions to nuclear power.

  8. You might be interested in this post at GLP which provides a withering critique of David Holmgren’s Melliodora permaculture property. Cheers. https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/01/06/permaculture-ecological-future-unsustainable-hobby-ex-urban-agroecological-activists/

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