An outbreak of thinking has occurred at the Guardian. In response to George Monbiot’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, Steven Poole observes that the ‘pastoral literary genre has long been a solidly bourgeois form of escapism’, and that it reflects a regressive form of politics.
Poole doesn’t make too big a deal of the politics, but highlights a parallel between the hand-wringing about invasive species, and immigration. It seems Poole’s point, however, is less that this congruence has any major significance, but that it’s riddled with contradictions and inconsistency — as so much nature-worship surely is — and is a bit, well, daft.
What irks Monbiot about the insatiable hunger for lebensraum of “invasive species” is, finally, just that they will make everything duller to the eyes of naturalist aesthetes. “There is a danger,” he writes, “that ecosystems everywhere come to contain a similar set of species, making the world a blander and less surprising place.” Indeed, the spark of his desire for “rewilding” is, as he readily confesses in his intellectually generous and disarmingly enthusiastic book, that it would bring him more aesthetic pleasure. He came to the idea in the first place because he felt “ecologically bored”. What could, on the other hand, be less boring than seeing the sabre-toothed tiger roaming the streets of Shoreditch, the hippo snoozing outside the Hippodrome?
Monbiot, on cue, is livid at having been compared to racists. ‘I love nature. For this I am called bourgeois, romantic – even fascist‘, he complains. But to be fair to his critics, Monbiot did discover his ‘bourgeois inner self‘ only last Christmas. This leaves him trying only to defend himself against the charge of romantic fascism.
But there is a strange tension in this defence. On the one hand, Monbiot wants to hold with the aesthetic view of nature…
I see a love for the diversity and richness of nature as an aesthetic and cultural impulse identical to the love of art. It is a form of culture as refined and intense as any other, yet those who profess it tend to be regarded as nerds, not connoisseurs (that’s true snobbery for you). Poole and people like him position themselves among the philistines – those who see no value in the wonders with which others are enchanted.
… but on the other, Monbiot is saving the planet…
So those of us whose love of the natural world is a source of constant joy and constant despair, who wish to immerse ourselves in nature as others immerse themselves in art, who try to defend the marvels that enthrall us, find ourselves labelled – from the Mail to the Guardian – as romantics, escapists and fascists. That, I suppose, is the price of confronting the power of money.
… from the power of money.
So George’s aesthetic preferences are given global, and political signifiance by nothing more than his emotional attachment to an idealised account of nature. Whether or not that counts as ‘fascism’ depends on how far he is willing to defend this notion of a wild nature. He doesn’t say. But it’s certainly Romantic, nonetheless, with just one exception — Monbiot’s appeal to science.
Comparing those who describe [invasive species] to racists is the intellectual equivalent of stating that evolution through natural selection is a coded attack on the welfare state, or that the first law of thermodynamics was hatched by green campaigners intent on conserving energy. It is to see the words but not to understand the science they describe. This fallacy – mistaking scientific findings for cultural concepts – was deliciously ripped apart by Alan Sokal’s satirical paper Transgressing the Boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity.
It is something of an irony that Monbiot would admit that his aesthetic preferences for nature is equivalent to a love of art, but then invoke Sokal’s criticism of those who conflate scientific and cultural ‘concepts’. The nature Monbiot witnesses is scientific fact, he protests. The further irony being that biological determinists like Monbiot, are bound to reproduce the excesses of postmodernism in perfect mirror image. All culture is, on the biological perspective, nothing more than the expression of some gene or other. After all, it is environmentalists like him that want to impose a political order, seemingly determined by science, over all culture, including, of course, money.
I find it hard to let the problem of invasive species ruin my sleep. They are, in reality a problem for some government department or association of people whose lives it may affect — most likely farmers. They are not front page news. They are a fact of life in a world in which geography matters less, as does the ‘balance’ of nature, if it ever even existed. They’re a side effect of the most incredible period in history: the expansion of transport and technology — things that make Monbiot’s indulgence of the natural world possible. Without them, he’d find nature, as ‘red in tooth and claw’, and his life, ‘nasty brutish and short’.
Someone else with a comprehensively daft view of the world is Stephen Emmott. Geoff Chambers did a good job of debunking Emmott here a while back, and has continued at his own blog with some more posts following the media’s thirst for his Oxford-University-accredited doomsaying.
As many have observed, Emmott’s prophecy shouldn’t cause much concern outside padded cells. It’s tempting to say that it’s sufficiently nutty for the Guardian to have realised it. Indeed, The Guardian have reproduced Chris Goodall’s fairly comprehensive criticism of it, from his Carbon Commentary blog. Says Goodall:
Stephen Emmott’s book on global ecological challenges is attracting much attention. The work is extremely short – perhaps about 15,000 words – and is in the form of notes that provide terse commentary on a series of graphs. It is little more than a Powerpoint presentation turned into a slim paperback. Although any attempt to increase mankind’s alarm at the threat from climate change is welcome, Emmott’s book is error-strewn, full of careless exaggeration and weak on basic science. Its reliance on random facts pulled from the internet is truly shocking and it will harm the cause of environmental protection. As might be expected, the best sceptic bloggers are already deconstructing its excesses line-by-line.
This blog is in its seventh year of line-by-line deconstructions of the excesses of environmental alarmism. They have all been unpicked. The only thing that seems new in the climate debate is that it is now the case that some environmentalists seem to be taking their less cautious colleagues to task. But the value of this new reflectivity amongst the environmentalists is limited. They want to sustain their cake and eat it:
Things are indeed pretty bad. The steps to address climate change are lamentably slow and ineffectual. Biodiversity is in sharp decline in some parts of the world. Water supplies are becoming tighter in many countries. The pressures on global forests are declining but still acute in some places. Air quality is appalling in big cities in Asia and quite bad in major Western capitals. But we don’t help solve these problems by exaggerating their seriousness and picking up gobbets of data from dodgy sources we found on the web.
It’s as though these were new problems. It’s as if no human had ever thought about water shortage or air pollution. These problems have solutions. Where they have been experienced in other parts of the word, they have been remedied without the need for restraint. And in spite of Goodall’s call for arguments to be constructed from more reliable provenance, there is no interrogation of environmentalism’s concepts, such as ‘biodiversity’ — as nebulous and pseudo-scientific an idea as has ever been conceived of.