samedi 6 septembre 2008

reflections on reading Chis Turner: The Geography of Hope

I recently began reading Chris Turner's "The Geography of Hope: a tour of the world we need", Random House Canada, 2007, 439 pages + source notes and index.

Turner's thesis is interesting, not least because, he agrees with our own analyses posted in this and several other discussion groups. (This proves that no matter how crazy you are, there's always someone, somewhere at least as crazy..)

Turner argues, as many critics of conventional environmentalism are saying these days, that exclusive emphasis on the negative side of our interactions with nature has become counter-productive. Pointing out the damage we have done to the environment is a disincentive, dissuasive force akin to a Skinnerian "negative reinforcer": it 's intended goal is to turn society away from a suicidal, ecocidal way of life. It's the "stick" used to beat public opinion into mending its ways. Greens want to shame the public into behaving morally toward the rest of living nature and responsibly toward the fate of unborn generations. So far so good! But, says Turner, the PRACTICAL RESULTS of this policy have not been impressive. Moreover, time is running out. We have to find a better way to turn things around.

If environmental "doom-saying" is the "stick" of the argument for Sustainable Development (SD), then the Golden Opportunities offered by SD constitute the "carrot" which will entice the public to actively embrace SD: clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy, transport systems and industries that do not pollute, new jobs and career opportunities in the expanding Alternative Energy market, a chance for global peace as LOCAL populations throw off the yoke of foreign economic domination and learn to harvest nature's wealth SUSTAINABLY AND EQUITABLY in their own back yards,.. Such are the promises Turner holds out.

And he may not be lying !! The text is based not on academic or corporate sponsored think-tank "scenarios" but on visits the author made to communities where people have actually chosen to live sustainably, to reduce their carbon footprint, to leave an intact planet to their descendants. Turner, in essence, is calling for a space age high tech "return to the earth". This is what James Lovelock - inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis - called "The Awakening of Gaia": human consciousness FULLY INTEGRATED into the workings of nature as PART OF the evolutive process which is Gaia herself.



1- Terms like "post-Darwinian evolution", "self-organization" or neo-Christian "co-creationism" (in which man is seen as God's partner in the creative process) are sometimes used to characterize the "new world order" emerging. Such "philosophical intuitions" go back quite a few years. Charles Péguy (died in WW I), French Catholic writer and social critic, held that God needed man to fufill the creation of the world. The work of the revisionist Catholic theologian, Pr. Teilhard de Chardin, expressed similar views and may even be seen as a precursor to the emerging "Gaian" world view. Chardin's major works date from the 1st half of the 20th century. A more Nietzschean, "bourgeois" view is probably reflected in the "transhumanist" movement which aims to "transcend" our (flawed) humanity through technology.

At the limit, all these views merge at the center (where they overlap). They can be seen as representing divergent - or "mutant" -tendencies within a much larger, global, emerging World Paradigm ("Paradigm of Everything" - a new "Road Map of Reality"). The very existence of such variants is actually more of a testimony to the strength of the emerging paradigm than to its weakness..

In retrospect, this current movement to "re-enchant the world", this re-insertion of man back into the cosmos as an active agent, only continues a trend that began in quantum physics in the early years of the 20th century: there can no longer be "disembodied observers", each act of measurement ("measurement" without intent to modify) alters the process which is being observed. The observer is no longer separate from that which s/he observes..
Continues the review of Chris Turner: The Geography of Hope

In chap 1 Turner provides a case study of Sustainable Development (SD): the Danish Island of Samso which, over a 10 year period, reduced its carbon footprint to less than zero (by exporting windpower). The island uses a variety of innovative yet available - "off the shelf" - technologies to achieve sustainablility. ("Sustainability" is defined a bit loosely. Fossil fuel consumption on the island is offset by energy exports. The islandrs have, with a bit of "creative bookeeping" attained a sustainable ecological footprint.) Grasses are grown to produce steam for community domestic heating, solar panels and windmills provide power for local use and commercial export.

One of the interesting points Turner makes is how LITTLE the life of the villagers of Samso has changed. The Danish government wisely involved local communities in planning and development of SD projects, working with THEIR human resources. Islanders thus "owned" the projects they were implementing, instilling pride-of-place and local commitment. "Top-down", imposed, approaches, Truner warms, must be avoided at all costs if the Green Revolution is to work! "Decentralization" is the word of honor in SD.

Theoretically, this makes a lot of sense. Simulations in the emerging study of Self-Organizing Systems (SOS) shows that the most gneral, efficient, robust approach is to develop / evolve control systems with a high degree of MODULARITY, HIERARCHICALLY ORGANIZED. Each "module" serves a function relating to the whole system and is regulated by commands from the top, but is quite AUTONOMOUS in how it goes about organizing and regulating its own internal behaviors. Generally, info flows BOTH ways: not only do commands flow from the top to lower levels but lower level modules feed info to higher levels to help the "command" levels formulate and correct overall goals. One can argue that the Soviet Union collapsed, in part, from botch-ups created by upper levels of the command structure attempting to micro-manage all lower levels of the economic machine.

I remember our Economics 101 prof telling our class about a factory in Siberia which, for some 15 years, continued to crank out gigantic lfet side wheels for a locomotive series that had been discontinued. Some bureaucrat in the Kremlin had messed up and forgotten to send a telegram to the factory manager in Siberia !!

Turner isloates the following principles as crucial factors for any equitable, decentralized, Sustainable Development (SD) project:

1- HOPE: (which in the words of one American activist "renders the present supportable"). I formulate this principle a bit differently: we must do what is right because it is right (not because it is popular or "is on the winning side").

2- MEANINGFULNESS: "Discover your life project" say the Existentialists. "Engage in right livelihood" say the Bhuddists. Our livelihoods should be SANE (as opposed to the suicidal non-sustainable status quo). They should be "ennobling", "worthy", "meaningful" (different people will find different emphases..). We should leave behind us a world at least as intact to our children as the one we received from our parents. We should do nothing to consciously diminish the chances of life of those yet unborn.

3- WILL: Not the (pseudo-)individual will to make a fast buck and prove that one is "better than the Jonses" but the collective (political) will to leave behind a better - or, at least, equivalent - world to future generations. The collective Will to engage the "Grand Project" of SD.

4- COMMUNITY: FUNCTIONAL COMMUNITY IS THE BASE OF ALL EFFECTIVE ACTION. This is why the neo-cons went after the "base communities" of the Liberation Theologians in Latin America with such vengence. One the other hand, when it comes to "mobilizing the masses" for THEIR objectives, the neo-cons indeed go for the "grass-roots", exploiting the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War era to create a collective climate of fear, hate and intolerance. See, for example, Lisa McGirr: Suburban Warriors

The results of this exercise are telling: it is liberalism that, despite its former successes, got beat all hollow while the neo-cons have hardly looked back since the glory days of Nixon-Reagan. Without the support of local communities, the Green Revolution will simply not occur.

As a concluding, personal note, for this installment, I would suggest that activists acquaint themselves with the odd, confusing mixture of brutalizing pseudo-individualism and paranoid group-think that appears to be the hallmark of fascisms (of all stripes and colors): JP Stern: "Hitler, The Fuhrer and the People is a good place to begin.