Thursday, August 11, 2011


I have now moved to The Current Moment

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Dennis Perrin: Will To Power

For pure shits and giggles, this post by Dennis Perrin on the Samantha Power affair is not to be missed. It's also pretty much all that needs to be said.

A Cold Wind Blows

For the same reason that rising temperatures in the 1990s is not proof positive of pending climate disaster, this winter's intense global chill isn't straightforward reason for to warm up the skeptic arguments. In fact, I think the debate over this bit of evidence misses the important point. What's important about the devastating cold snaps of the past few months is not that they discount the global warming science, but that they discount the argument over the science itself. In the report linked above, it is mentioned that:

"In Afghanistan, where they have lost 300,000 cattle, the human death toll has risen above 1,500. In China, the havoc created by what its media call 'the Winter Snow Disaster' has continued, not least in Tibet, where six months of snow and record low temperatures have killed 500,000 animals, leaving 3 million people on the edge of starvation."

The same weather events would not have had the same impact in the US, or in any other industrial society. With our greater resources, we are able to dampen the impacts of these weather events. And when we don't, it is due to social and political neglect, as in Katrina, not due to any necessary threat the weather poses. The social and political change indicated by these weather events is the same indicated by any extreme weather event. Industrial development is not the problem, it is a partial solution - one whose potential is only fully realized in conditions of social and political equality. We must look to the social, not natural, causes of natural disasters.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Environmentalism and the Left

(Readers: sorry for the absence - jury duty and paper-writing got in the way)

Climate-Resistance has a nice post on the difference between the left and environmentalism, or at least, on why criticism of environmentalism is not inherently conservative. (Shameless self-promotion, they also quote an article I wrote.) The question of whether environmentalism is conservative or radical is I think one of the most important questions for us to think about these days. Environmentalism is the dominant ideology on the left, but it crosses political boundaries with ease, and draws as much of its thinking from the status quo as from any challenge to it. It's not just that mainstream institutions like the Nobel Prize committee and the United Nations have celebrated its ideas. It is also the embrace of its ideas by downright conservative politicians, like John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in the United States. Both the rapidity with which environmentalism was accepted by the mainstream (essentially one generation), and the ease with which it crosses traditional divides, contrasts strongly with left wing thinking of the past. Socialists, for instance, had to struggle for decades even to win small victories and to spread their ideas; and they were never accepted on the right. A thorough-going critique of environmental ideas from the standpoint of left political thinking is still wanting, but Climate-Resistance is right to emphasize the point that "the Left is not characterised by opposition to economic growth; its goal has been to distribute its riches more rationally amongst those who actually generate capital, rather than just those who simply own it."

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Latour Redux

After I posted a review of Bruno Latour's lecture on Ecology and Democracy at the blog 'French Politics,' an observer of the French scene wrote:

"I'm pretty skeptical about the PP, which to my mind has always been a peg to which all kinds of political posturing can be attached. The recent banning of GMO corn is a good example. José Bové and his minions went on a hunger strike, it was making big headlines, so Sarko jumped all over his own review panel and strong-armed the chair into saying that there was "sufficiently grave doubt" to invoke the PP and ban the stuff. Easy enough to do, since it accounts for less than 1 pct of French corn production and all of it was going to Africa anyway. And who likes Monsanto, an American corporation. So, for me, this "democratic" use of the PP was just a cover for "screw the Yankee corporation" and shut up some troublemakers at low political cost. But Bové is the head of an authentic social movement, so I guess if you want to call that democracy, I'd have to agree.

Meanwhile, the Rhône is so polluted with PCB that you can't eat fish from it anymore, but nobody's about to invoke the PP to shut down Péchiney, DuPont, Alstom, CGE, etc.

Where I agree with the commenter is on the difficulty of doing what Latour argues. While there is merit to the way the precautionary principle forces us to think about the uncertain and unpredictable side of human intervention into nature, a democratic appropriation of the PP is a bridge too far. Not only is it too closely wedded to the pessimistic 'precautionary' ethos of environmentalism to be prized away, towards a more humanistic approach. The other side of the political spectrum for the PP is, as the commenter notes, not democracy but opportunism. Nonetheless, if Latour is wrong to suggest we can democratically re-appropriate the PP, he is right to argue that the discussion needs to be less about what scientific experts tell us (though not ignorant of science), and more about the values and ideologies that often hide behind the science.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A New Low

I happened upon this clip of Obama last night handling a ridiculous question from Tim Russert about Louis Farrakhan declaring his support for Obama. (In case you missed it, watch it before reading on.) I have always thought that Tim Russert is a mediocre journalist, but this was a new low for him, and for the campaign as a whole. On top of which, Hillary couldn't help herself, opportunistically invoking 'principle' ('I stand on principle and reject people who make anti-semitic remarks') when it was transparent that she was trying to score a few cheap points. Clinton wouldn't know a principle if it slapped her halfway across the country. Any reader of this blog knows how I feel about Obama, but in this case he was not the problem. The base problem here was the obscene (and irrelevant) choice presented between Obama 'denouncing' Farrakhan and 'rejecting' him. It's not just that these idiotic and superficial games over symbolic politics gets in the way of a serious discussion of actual political issues (ie, what exactly do they think should happen in the Middle East - essentially no difference between them.) In this particular case, it was also about banishing a segment of the population from the public sphere. Obama's response was about as appropriate as can be. He didn't look for Farrakhan's support, but isn't going to tell Farrakhan to hold his tongue like a parent instructing a child. Russert, Clinton and whoever takes the thought police position of 'rejection' isn't just trying to embarrass Obama, but attempting to remove a voice from the public sphere, as if that removal did anything to contest the views expressed therein.

Moreover, in this particular case, Clinton and Russert are perpetuating a kind of symbolic identity politics that only exacerbates differences amongst groups by making appearances matter far more than they should. Everyone could read between the lines and see what Clinton , by jumping on Russert's question, was trying to do here. She wanted to make it impossible for Obama to give the reasonable response, which would not offend Blacks, while still appealing beyond the Black commnity. She was forcing a difference and defensiveness where division did not need to be. One has to believe that any Black person, regardless of whether supportive of Farrakhan or not, watching the debate must have felt on the defensive, and felt resentment for such an opportunistic attempt to create differences where there aren't any. I felt that way, and I'm not even Black. This episode also suggests to me that Clinton has failed to understand why Obama is winning. In the middle of opportunistically seizing on these little moments, Clinton reveals that she offers nothing in the way of overcoming the petty and superficial differences that have dominated American politics. At the end of the day, that seems to be what matters most to people, and why Obama comes out looking good. After all, people know they aren't going to get real change - neither Obama nor Clinton represent anything truly new or different. So voters ratchet down their expectations, and least want lack of substance to come with less empty partisanship.

One more thing. I don't like or agree with much anything Farrakhan has said - but that's also how I feel about Clinton and Obama. If offensiveness and 'dangerousness of views' were the criteria for whose support we should reject, I can think of a far far longer and more important list than a few marginal players in African-American politics.*

*An addition to the original version of this post: In terms of active, ongoing discrimination (a term severely under-stating the actual situation in the Middle East), on wonders why walling the entire Palestinian population in, so that to get basic supplies like food and medicine they literally have to break down those walls, doesn't warrant at least five minutes, to the ten that Farrakhan got. Not that there is any difference between Clinton and Obama on that subject. But apparently the distinction without a difference between 'reject' and 'denounce' is more important than what actually goes on.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Latour and Frankenstein at Columbia

(This post is cross-posted at French Politics, a blog run by Art Goldhammer, and the best source, in English, on all things French.)

It may be unfair, but when a speaker is introduced as zany and unconventional I steel myself for an unsystematic exploration of incomprehensible thoughts. (It is probably an American prejudice of mine that this is especially the case when the speaker is French.) So it was with special trepidation that I sat down for Bruno Latour’s lecture on ‘Ecology and Democracy’ last night after hearing Michael Taussig introduce Latour as “a zany, a really zany, and original thinker.” It was with even greater pleasure, however, that I then sat through one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time. Latour is on to some extremely interesting, absolutely reasonable, but quite original thoughts about the relationship between environmentalism and democracy.

Latour’s premise is that awarding Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is proof positive that environmental ideas are mainstream. The question to be asking is not “whether environmental concern” but “how and what environmental concern.” Using the “Death of Environmentalism” book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as a springboard, Latour spent the hour giving an unconventional answer to the question. The puzzle, for Latour, is that there is a contradiction between the hopeful, future-oriented, emancipatory thrust of democratic politics and the doomsday, philosophy of limits, pessimistic cast of environmentalism. The rhetorical means by which environmentalism has won the day has undermined its ability to generate a democratic attitude towards nature. “It is strange,” said Latour “that just at the point when we are about to achieve our dream [control of nature] we should be afraid of it.”

Although these opening thoughts seemed exactly the right question, none of it sounded that original at first. Where Latour really shined was his refusal to propose a simple synthesis between environmentalism and democracy. Instead he wove a complex argument about the problem both with environmentalism and its critics. It went something like this: Nordhaus and Shellenberger have rightly identified a deep flaw in the pessimistic attitude towards technology that plagues environmentalism. However, the problem goes deeper. For Latour, environmentalism has introduced some very important ideas about the way in which we can have a democratic relationship with nature. Through the idea of the precautionary principle, environmentalists have introduced the idea that political decisions about new technology cannot be grounded on scientific guarantees of certainty. This explodes, for Latour, the specially French idea that Reason, in the form of science, can provide us with absolute guarantees of the rightness or wrongness of a policy. For Latour, the classic French attitude towards science is undemocratic; not only does it remove real choice from politics, and reduce disagreements over value to scientific questions of facts, it also deludes itself into thinking we do not need to confront the uncertain character of human action.

What the precautionary principle does, according to Latour, is reintroduce politics into our relationship with nature, because it makes uncertainty, rather than certainty, the defining issue. It demands, as Latour put it, that “we follow through our actions through all its consequences.” (Latour made the interesting claim that it is only in France, where the religion of reason is so developed, that the counter-reaction has also been so developed – hence the adoption of the precautionary principle into the French Constitution.) However, the environmental right hand taketh away what the environmental left hand giveth. Environmentalists have also championed the idea that there are “natural limits” to what we can get from nature, that we have caused endless suffering in our quest for dominion over nature, and that the lesson of the past is that if we continue in this way we walk straight into catastrophe. Here is where Latour really got interesting.

First, he pointed out that this reintroduced the idea that science and nature impose limits on us – the very error of Reason turned on its head. Questions of value and possibility are transformed into the ineluctable fact of catastrophe. This is why, according to Latour, the precautionary principle is misinterpreted as an inescapably environmentalist tool for restraining technology, and never intervening in nature. Second, and even more interesting, Latour thought the proper position is not simply to reject his as unfounded pessimism, but rather to embrace the unknown: “we must bring emancipation and catastrophe together.” Environmentalists have learned the wrong lesson from Frankenstein. In Latour’s telling, the story of Frankenstein is not of creation gone wrong, but rather that Dr. Frankenstein repented for a sin he did not commit and failed to repent for the sin he actually committed. It was not creation that was the sin, but that he abandoned his creation: “why, why father have you abandoned me?” This, according to Latour, is what is wrong with the current environmentalist attitude. At the very moment when we have brought into view the unintended consequences of our intervention in nature; once we have become aware that our freedom entails not absolute, certain mastery, but a messy, risk-laden process of intervention and experimentation, we have suddenly run screaming from our powers of creation. In doing this, we simply run from ourselves, from our own freedom, and from democracy.

I took Latour’s argument to be for a democratic appropriation of the precautionary principle. Instead of allowing decisions about science and technology to be decided either by technocrats or misanthropes, we should embrace risk and uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity rather than a danger. There was much more to Latour’s presentation, and I will admit to not understanding all of it. But as far as I know, nobody has put the argument quite this way. It is, of course, indeterminate. Does this mean we should embrace stem-cell research and not worry so much about climate change? I don’t know, and I don’t think it was Latour’s intention to give us anything so concrete. Instead, he performed a much more important service: navigating the Scylla of technocracy and the Charybdis of environmentalism in the name of democracy itself.