The battle between the Enlightenment and Romantic traditions is far from over, though it has taken on new forms. This article is abridged from a presentation to the NZ Skeptics Conference, 2004.
P J O’Rourke famously asked “Here we are, the longest lived, healthiest, wealthiest, best educated, best fed generation that has ever lived — so why are we crying into our beer?” This question begs the reverse question “Why are some of us not crying into our beer?”
Many of us recognise that we are indeed well off and are optimistic about the future. Virginia Postrel has recognised the existence of two cultures, in a political sense, in her book, The Future and its Enemies. In this she divides people into two groups, the stasists, who fear the future, and the dynamists who enjoy change, choice and the multiple futures which lie before us.
The Root Cause
Previously I have argued that these big debates about the nature of our world continue to reflect the contest between the conflicting traditions of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. Of course these traditions overlap in their influence on all our lives. The most reasonable of us is likely to have some affection for nature. So we are talking about positions on a spectrum.
My earlier argument was that:
- Socialism is the dark side of the Enlightenment tradition — if we can use science to design a bridge then we can use science to design Europe.
- Fascism is the dark side of the Romantic tradition — Fascism is anti-reason, believes that truth is culturally constructed, looks to the racial wisdom of the “volk” and promotes the need for great leaders to tells the masses what truths are holistically true.
- Communism combines these two dark sides into an engineered utopia which also accepts fascistic leadership to reveal the truth of the Marxist “book”.
All three belief systems maintained that the modern world is too complex to depend on spontaneous order, and must be planned, and that wise men must therefore direct and control the rest of us. The alternative was economic chaos. There are many people who are happy to be planned and only too many who are happy to do the planning. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the belief systems which shored it up, these models are no longer there — but the conflict between reason and romanticism remains. And the controllers are always waiting in the wings. The new controllers have identified a new chaos or dystopia. They say that our population, wealth and technology and consumption is destroying the planet, or will do so in future, unless, of course, the environmental planners take control and manage our lives so as to avoid this future.
The Two Views
These two conflicting cultures have differing views on the environment. The people of the Enlightenment tradition, or the dynamists, are concerned about the environment because they live in it, and know that their enjoyment of life depends on clean surroundings. They know that as people get wealthier they become increasingly concerned about the quality of their physical environment. At a certain income per capita people want clean water, at a somewhat higher income they want clean air, and at a higher income again they want clean soil, waterways and visual amenity etc. Which is where we are.
We are rich enough to care about the environment and have the discretionary wealth to do something about it. Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast. The truly poor people of the past were responsible for the great megafaunal extinctions.
However, the Romantics interpret our care for the environment as a sign of our willingness to make penance for our sinful consumption and that everything wrong with the environment is our fault. We have sinned against nature and must be punished for our sins.
Global warming presents the perfect punishment — we shall be burnt in the heat of a greenhoused Earth. A new group, Powerless New Zealand, are convinced we are about to run out of fossil fuels and have cheerfully predicted that only two billion of our present six billion will survive this century. No doubt they continue to believe we shall be cooked in greenhouse gases at the same time because many nature worshippers are able to believe in two impossible things before every breakfast.
How are these alternate views expressed?
After almost a century of neglect there is now much discussion of the role of private property in promoting personal freedom and generating wealth. Property and Freedom by Richard Pipes, and The Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto are two excellent examples. Both implicitly support the view that environmental law should maximise human welfare.
Klaus Bosselmann and David Grinlinton, of Auckland University’s School of Environmental Law, reject the “anthropocentric” view that environmental law should focus on managing adverse effects on the environment in order to maximise human welfare. This “anthropocentric” view, reflected in the concept of sustainable management within the Resource Management Act (RMA), assumes that there is not much point in being rich if you cannot swim in the sea, breathe the air, or drink the water.
Instead, Bosselmann and Grinlinton’s collection promotes an “ecocentric” world view which assumes “that nature with all its life forms has intrinsic value independently from any instrumental values for humans.” The ecocentric view assumes that nature exists in stable harmony and that extinctions and similar catastrophes can be prevented by human action — or inaction. Unfortunately, nature does not see it this way. As John Gribbin explains in Deep Simplicity, virtually all species are now extinct, and every surviving species is at equal risk of extinction at any time. We occupy a biosphere continually on the edge of chaos. The ecocentric view also assumes that the purpose of environmental law is to protect nature from human activity. We are the problem and our welfare ranks below the welfare of “nature”.
Most authors introduce us to Rousseau’s thoughts on property rights with the following quote from his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality: “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murder, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this impostor. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”
Rousseau’s assault on private property reflected his recent discovery of “the state of nature” enjoyed by “the noble savages” of Tahiti and elsewhere.
Rousseau clearly flagged that nature worship leads to an assault on private property in favour of communal ownership and governance. Bosselmann and Ginlinton appear to be happy with Rousseau’s position, and appear equally comfortable with contemporary equivalents of the “noble savage” who uphold their own ecocentric view.
Their collection includes a chapter by Andrea Tunks, lecturer in the Auckland University Faculty of Law from 1994–2001, which records her “indigenous vision” of sustainable development, which suggests:
“… indigenous peoples see ‘the West’ as responsible for cumulative environmental degradation and environmental catastrophe. This is due to its economic and political ideologies which do not have a holistic and spiritual understanding of the environment nor the humility attached to being one small part of a complex web of environmental systems.”
Ms Tunks then quotes from Maori Marsden’s Kaitiakitanga: A definitive introduction to the Holistic World View of Maori, written for the Ministry for the Environment in 1992:
“Man is the conscious mind of Mother Earth and plays a vital part in the regulation of her life support systems and man’s duty is to support and enhance these systems. The tragedy however is that when these first principles are forsaken and Mother Earth is perceived as a commodity and her natural resources as disposable property … man becomes a pillager, despoiler and rapist of his own mother.”
One wonders if Rousseau himself dropped in on early New Zealand and shared a few thoughts with the locals.
The Bosselmann and Grinlinton collection honestly acknowledges that ecocentric environmental law inevitably undermines private property and the freedoms we associate with the Open Society. The authors see man as a tool of nature and nature’s needs must determine what we can or cannot do. Once again, human beings are subservient to the state, but this time it’s “the state of nature”.
These ecocentric arguments are mounted by intellectuals sitting in the comfortable affluence of Western societies, which have generated sufficient wealth to allow them to promote the welfare of insects and rocks above the welfare of their fellow human beings. They can even afford to espouse the animist wisdom of indigenous peoples over the scientific traditions of the Open Society.
Hernando de Soto sees a different world. In the Mystery of Capital he asks why capitalism works in the West and fails everywhere else. De Soto is a third world economist who finds millions of people living short, brutish and poverty stricken lives within an environment which poses a continual threat to their health, safety and longevity.
These people have no great affection for their “state of nature” and want both the wealth and health of their capitalist neighbours. Traditional explanations for their failure to generate wealth have been either racist — bad genes, or culturalist — wrong beliefs. De Soto finds that their real problem is a lack of private property — both in lack of ownership of land and other assets, and in the legal framework needed to support secure property and to enable contracts and trade.
To the discomfort of the wealthy ecocentrists these people are increasingly raising their voices against the “ecoimperialists” who place the welfare of first world birds over the lives of third world children.
In his book Risk Society, Towards a New Modernity (1992), Ulrich Beck proposes that society is in the process of moving from the culture of the “Industrial Society” to a “New Modernity” which he calls the “Risk Society”.
I am not convinced that this is a universal movement in which Beck’s Risk Society will finally prevail. Once again, I see this new conflict as just as another example of the ongoing conflict between the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
Beck characterises the “Industrial Society” and the new “Risk Society” as follows:
The Industrial Society
- The Role of Science: Science is the keystone of the Enlightenment Tradition — science is in the service of man and generates wealth for all.
- The Major Concern: Having generated so much wealth the major problem is how to distribute the wealth among the people, and among different communities and nations.
- The Nature of Risk: Risk is an external factor subject to objective analysis. Risk analysis is one of the triumphs of mathematics. We manage risk by weighing benefits against risky side effects.
- Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is safe and Nature is dangerous. The aim of the Industrial Society is to tame and harness nature for the benefit of people.
- Democracy: Industrial Society exports democracy along with the benefits of the Industrial Economy.
- Awareness of Risks: Members of the Industrial Society are aware of the risks they must deal with — such as loss of job, accident, and death, and these risks are assessed and managed by experts.
The Risk Society
- The Role of Science: Science is the destroyer of the environment and society. Science is the problem. Science has no monopoly on “truth”.
- The Major Concern: How to deal with the undesirable abundance and dangerous knowledge generated by unconstrained science. Waste is the problem.
- The Nature of Risk: Risk is internal and an outcome of modernity — rather than an external and manageable problem. These threats are global and unknowable — and all risk must be eliminated (eg the zero molecule approach).
- Civilisation and Nature: Civilisation is dangerous and Nature is safe. The key task is to protect nature from humanity and preserve its harmony and balance.
- Pollution: Industrial society exports pollution to underdeveloped societies and puts all at risk.
- Awareness of Risks: “Victims” cannot determine their level of unknowable risk. Hence risk is assessed by “self knowledge” and internal conviction. The precautionary principle protects us from the unknowable risks of change. Chernobyl is the turning point. We calculate the future dead rather than count the existing bodies.
At the root of Beck’s manifesto is the fear of a world “out of control”. The Socialists believed that the economy was too fragile to be left to Smith’s invisible hand or “spontaneous order”. Environmentalists and planners (by definition) believe the biosphere is too fragile to be left at the mercy of selfish individuals. Beck declares: “Society has become a laboratory where there is absolutely nobody in charge.”
As always, hordes of willing “controllers” are waiting in the wings.
There is a measure of truth in Beck’s comparative schema. The Industrial Society removed us from a human condition where naturally occurring hazards (disease, flood, famine, and the like) — along with social hazards such as invasion and conquest — moulded the fate of individuals and groups. Members of the Industrial Society take control of their own fate by deliberately undertaking risky behaviour for the sake of the benefits conferred. Achieving these benefits requires technologically mastery of nature. So far, so good.
Thereafter Beck’s arguments get murkier. His key position is that Risk Society begins where nature ends. We switch the focus of our anxieties from what nature can do to us to what we have done to nature.
Surely in the age of Aids, BSE, Sars, as well as earthquakes and eruptions, we are still subject to nature’s hazards. Nature is NOT safe.
The food supply is far safer than it has ever been, mainly because we are now protected against naturally occurring deadly toxins such as botulism.
How real is Beck’s assumed novelty of the “global dimension of risk”? The Mount Pinatubo eruption vented as much particulate matter into the atmosphere as the entire history of industrialism to date. Beck ignores such “global” impacts of nature’s handiwork.
Many of the “new modernists” aspire to zero risk or perfect safety, and yet we know that if we pursued this to its logical conclusion we would ban all human activity including conception. Indeed, life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.
The State of Harmony
The idea that Nature is in a state of harmony and balance underlies much of the resistance to human activity. And yet this view is surely anthropocentric. Our surroundings appear stable only because we look at the world through the eye-blink of a human lifetime.
The idea of the stable fragile globe was hugely reinforced by those early Nasa photos of the Earth as seen from the Moon. These photos encourage modern stasists to believe that when our satellites tell us that sea levels are rising at about 2 mm a year on average then this is what is happening everywhere around the globe.
Local district plans are rushing to confirm that every beach in New Zealand is going to sink beneath the waves (a few hundred millimeters in a hundred years’ time) and hence we must withdraw from the coast and huddle behind the walls of inland towns, watch Coronation Street, and ride in trains.
Whakatane’s new plan is full of the problems of rising sea levels. I pointed out that the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Science’s measuring devices confirmed that the tectonic plate at Whakatane is rising over the Pacific Plate at a much faster rate than the sea level is rising, which adds up to an overall fall. In my submissions I pointed out that if someone in Whakatane had a sea view they were much more likely to have the floodwaters come through the back door than the front door and that this could happen next week — rather than in a hundred years’ time. Unfortunately, nature decided to appear as an expert witness on my behalf and delivered floods and an earthquake to Whakatane only a few weeks later.
The Conflict of the Culture Clubs
The new Romantics reveal their greatest inconsistencies when they deal with cultures, and tribal cultures in particular. On the one hand they oppose globalisation but are all for global government. The late Alistair Cooke’s favourite placard at an antiglobalisation rally read “Join the International Movement against Globalisation.”
Global government is espoused on the grounds that the air does not need a passport and only global government can enforce Kyoto protocols etc.
But the Romantics’ attack on reason draws on a conviction that scientific knowledge is just one human construct and that because all cultures are valid then all belief systems are valid. They conveniently overlook the fact that some seem to work better than others.
However, the Romantic nature worshippers’ attack science for several reasons — not the least of which being that they always have. Rousseau argued that the way we see the world depends on our upbringing and our cultural heritage and hence there is no single “truth”.
The Fascist Romantics have always turned to the forest people or völke whose deep wisdom was deemed to be superior to that of the rational thinkers, or elite — especially those of Europe, who just happened to be Jews.
The nature worshippers now turn to the indigenous peoples of the world because they are seen as maintaining a holistic view of the world as opposed to the hated reductionism of the Open Society, which rests on a foundation of science and democracy (which are two sides of the same coin).
The late Karl Popper, in The Open Society and its Enemies, reminded us that holistic thinking is the handmaiden of fascism. Although he wrote that while here in Christchurch I suspect it is seldom quoted in those halls of academe where social sciences prevail.
The irony is that not long ago we were encouraged to believe in “the family of man” and to overlook the differences in our colour, race, creed or religion. In these post-modern times we celebrate the difference between cultures and especially the difference between tribal cultures and the culture of the Open Society. Indeed these cultures are now regarded as “indigenous species” which must be protected from the impact of the Open Society.
Many RMA documents, and the documents which surround them, argue that Maori culture is essentially unknowable to non-Maori. These views are strongly challenged by Pinker in The Language Instinct but they have gained much traction. Again, the cultural anthropologists emphasise the differences between our “tribes” at the same time as the biologists are finding that genetic differences between races are trivial.
The latest challenge comes from Germaine Greer, who, from the comfort of her home in England, is telling Australians that the only way they can gain an identity is to become aboriginal. As Nicoless Rothwell writes in the September 2004 issue of Prospect, “Greer assumes that ‘being aboriginal’ is straightforward, and that you can almost think yourself into that state.” I am not sure if the half million aboriginals would appreciate the impact of 20 million Aussies suddenly “thinking themselves” into being aboriginals, and just whose identity would finally prevail. On the one hand we are supposed to cherish these unknowable cultures and on the other we are supposed to embrace them — presumably without knowing what we embrace and even whether the indigenes actually look forward to the embrace.
What is remarkable is that this mythmaking gains any traction at all. But it does. Our Environment Court has concluded that the Maori holistic view of the world means they make no distinction between land and water. I find this hard to believe. Certainly the Maori who live around me seem to know when to turn off their outboard motors to avoid running aground. Indeed I suspect that the difference between land and water was central to the conceptual framework of the ocean-going Polynesians who settled so much of the Pacific.
But should we worry? We have done remarkably well and most of our great achievements have been in recent times. It’s not that long ago that there were only two of us. Now there are six thousand million of us. And yet as PJ reminds us we are richer, longer lived, healthier, better fed, and better educated and enjoy more creature comforts than at any time in history. If any of you have a hankering for the good old days, PJ reminds us to consider just one word — dentistry.
Owen McShane is director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies. He lives in Kaiwaka.