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At Pop!Tech Stewart Brand described three broad categories of environmental thought,: romantics, scientists, and engineers. All three are essential. As is perhaps to be expected at a conference on leading edge technology, Brand emphasized the important contributions the last two categories of environmentalism can make. And he is right. But, and this is an important but, I am concerned that Brand has accepted a framing of environmentalism largely devised by its enemies, and in doing so misses some very important issues.
He defined romantic environmentalists as being neither scientists nor engineers. That certainly includes most environmentalists in the romantic camp. This group, he said, is typified by John Muir and David Brower, and distrusts what is “unnatural,” being focused instead on experiencing and protecting nature as a place of intrinsic value. Ultimately they are not the cutting edge because of their distrust of technology, and technology, Brand argues, is what will make the world sustainable.
I have two strong problems with this way of putting the issue. First, it creates a straw man image of environmental “romantics.” I think this straw man was originally devised by opponents to environmentalism, people who for one reason or other had strong objections to the environmental movement. I have encountered it in many critical places, some honestly wrong, some in the pay of large corporate interests. They took attitudes on the part of some in the environmental movement and argued they characterized the movement as a whole. As such this description is calculated to discredit the people and their message by attacking their motives. I am sure this is not Brand’s intention, but he is playing into the hands of those who wish him and those like him ill.
I urge Brand to walk into Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, California, not far north of where he lives. Watch the people who come in. Many of the customers who patronize the store and others like it probably qualify as romantics. They are buying solar cells, and other sophisticated equipment to lighten their impact upon the land. Most romantics in the sense of experiencing nature as a place of intrinsic value are in fact not anti-technological. They support appropriate technologies. In fact, they are the customer base for the products devised by the engineers. What makes a technology appropriate is hotly debated, but wind and solar power, for example, do not hark back to tribal times.
I have a second point. Romantic environmentalists are also doing something just as important as the tasks facing engineers and scientists: working at integrating a fundamentally ethical relationship with the natural world into the use of modern technology. In this process technologies are evaluated on ethical criteria as well as their ability to get a more narrowly defined job done. I think this double sided evaluation is essential.
Many scientists and engineers are drawn to protecting the natural world because they perceive it as a source of value, although their professions deny the efficacy of that kind of language. In their hearts, many are romantics. Brand noted that the scientists who were central to environmental concerns were disproportionately field naturalists or former field naturalists. This to me says quite a lot. Aldo Leopold was a field naturalist. He was also a romantic, but that side of his motivation was not easily described in the language of modern science. He did capture it in his wonderful essay “Thinking Like a Mountain.” I discuss that issue here. Or download the same article, “Deep Ecology and Liberalism” on this site under the “ecology” link directly under the trees.
Romantic environmentalists perceive something the scientific approach offers no purchase to get a handle on: that the natural world is a world of value. We perceive, indeed we directly experience, value in nature rather than imposing it on the world. The most sensitive among us in this regard perceive more than value, we perceive presence. Nature is not inert, and both our bodies and our minds evolved to be at home on this earth.
For untold thousands of years our technologies were very simple by modern standards. But those societies’ perceptions of Nature’s inner dimensions was often far more developed than is the case today. Shamans were the virtuosos in this kind of perception, but sometimes every member of these societies would engage in practices opening them up to Nature’s inner dimensions. This was the case with practitioners of Native American vision quests.
Modern science focuses with unparalleled insight on the surfaces of our world because scientists seek universally reliable knowledge. Measurement, prediction, and experiment are wonderful for gaining this kind of knowledge. But none of these methods penetrate to inner dimensions of awareness or mutuality. We cannot easily gain universal and reliable knowledge about individual characters. This is not because character does not exist, but because scientific modes for knowing are ill suited for obtaining that kind of insight.
Consider the scientific study of human beings. Scientists seek knowledge about what we share in common, and about common principles that, when applied to biographical differences among us, can explain and hopefully predict individual variability. This is valuable work. But few would say this kinds of knowledge penetrates to the core of our humanity, either individually or in terms of what we share in common. This is why we generally draw a line and say certain kinds of knowledge seeking are inappropriate because they violate this core, even if they might yield useful data.
For example, what scientist would experiment on his or her own children to study how much deception must be perceived by a child before their trust is destroyed? Doubtless research such as this would be useful to governments and corporations, as well as psychologists. But such work would be universally regarded as inhuman, and rightly so.
Human beings are subjects more basically than they are objects. But subjectivity resists scientific investigation. At best, and this is very good, certain physical states can be correlated with certain subjective reports. But causality often appears to go in both directions. When they study nonhuman life forms many scientists have even been resistant to acknowledging they have any interiority at all.
If science has such problems studying the subjectivity of living beings, small wonder it has greater problems yet in discovering the subjectivity of the other-than-human world. And those of us who have studied shamanic practices for many years know experientially that Nature does. This point has very important policy implications.
If we look at history, many societies have failed at sustaining the environmental conditions necessary for their flourishing. Some who succeeded have been lucky, as with Egypt, whose lands were refreshed by Nile floods while those neighboring civilizations whose agriculture was based on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates saw their irrigated land decline in fertility with the gradual rise of irrigation-derived salts in their soil.
Of societies that survived and needed more than luck many, perhaps all, saw their relationship to Nature in ethical as well as in instrumental terms. I mentioned the Native peoples of the northwest and their relation to salmon in my previous post. The U.S. destroyed those runs in well under a hundred years, even though we possessed the science necessary to preserve them. The chief difference between the original inhabitants and the EuroAmericans was not in the greater technological power possessed by the latter, but in their utter lack of any ethical sense towards the natural world.
Environmental ethics appear to be a necessary element in long-term environmental stability. Ethics is a source of restraint on the use of power. Self interest and knowledge alone appear insufficient to overcome the allure of short run benefits, but ethics can. Brand’s scientists and engineers by themselves cannot provide that needed ethical foundation. At most they can provide better technical means for making whatever decisions we do make.
Romantic environmentalists, in fact a great many romantic environmentalists, are needed to create the cultural conditions for environmental sustainability. They can provide a demand that our technological solutions to problems also satisfy our belief in what is appropriate behavior with regard to Nature. That over a million environmental organizations exist, dominated we would assume by romantics, is a very hopeful sign for the future.
Answers to technical questions alone are not the answers that will save us. This is not the place to discuss GMO crops. I haven’t the time to do the matter justice. Perhaps later. But technology located within large corporations is technology utterly divorced from an ethical relationship to the natural world. Corporations are explicitly organized to value only information that will make them money. They are as close to institutionalized sociopathy as we can come. They are not immoral, they are amoral.
To the degree that GMO has promise of assisting long term sustainability, the corporate institutional model is not well suited to discover it. Brand’s retort at Pop!Tech that the Amish like GMO technology is about as convincing an argument on its behalf as defending their theology which, as I understand it, is human-centered and not world-centered. Its persuasiveness depends on accepting the argument that what makes eco-romantics tick is a love of old times. But plenty of technologically simple agricultural peoples ruined their land by the use of inappropriate technologies. Ask the people of Sumer or the Mayans.