Trying to create an ideal world by precautionary design carries utopian overtones of a nostalgic streak, also known the pastoral ideal that is so well described by Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden. Scientism is one aspect that caters for this utopianism. Another aspect that feeds this nostalgia is the so-called environmental and ecological degradation we have to bring to a halt on a global scale. Already in 1972, a less known report than the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, saw the light of day that stated that
pretentions to national sovereignty have no relevance to perceived problems, nations have no choice but to follow the course of common policy and coordinated action…If this vision of unity—which is not a vision only but a hard and inescapable scientific fact—can become part of the common insight of all the inhabitants of planet Earth, then we may find that…we can achieve just enough unity of purpose to build a human world. In such a world, the practices and institutions with which we are familiar inside our domestic societies would become, suitably modified, the basis of planetary order.
The EU and the UN (especially through the IPCC) try to materialise this vision of Ward et al. that was penned down some 40 odd years ago. So far, this attempt has been more or less unsuccessful with respect to its overarching viewpoint. But fear of ecological destruction has been instilled quite effectively in Western world citizens since the 1960s, and most are completely immersed in the dismal and alarming ecosphere of Greenpeace cum suis.
Precisely this is, as so many have identified, the utopian dialectic. The utopian dream of the future—safe, green, sustainable, organic, small-scale, and so on—implies the dystopian nightmare of the present. (Recapping the dystopia that predated the present one of climate change: acid rain and Waldsterben that was called an ecological Hiroshima—sic!) However, this is not truly related to the actual contemporaneous state of the world but rather to the ostensible potential to improve upon it ad infinitum. Really, do I suffer, and I mean actually suffer, from climate change as portrayed so apocalyptically in the media and by numerous NGOs? Remember, I live 2,5 meters below sea level.
The grossly simplified administrative ordering of nature and society (the systems analyses we now know so well from climate modelling that fail time and again), the high-modernist ideal, the starry-eyed optimism of the possibilities for comprehensive planning of human society, the rise of an authoritarian state that is willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being, and, last but not least, the rise of a prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans, deliver, I suggest, the substratum for the development of a fearful and dystopian precautionary culture.
The mood of a present dystopia quite a few 20th and 21st century films aptly portray. Alpha Ville (1965), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Soylent Green (1973), Logan’s Run (1976), Brazil (1985), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Dark City (1998), Serenity (2005), The Road (2009), and Watchmen (2009) are just a few examples that depict dystopias of varying sorts. Or, to stick to the real world, let me cite Al Gore’s Nobel Prize lecture as a classic example of the utopian dialectic that reads like part of a film script that could have been incorporated in that abysmal movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004):
We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency—a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst—though not all—of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly…We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.
The man-made dystopia of the present is immediately followed by the Utopia of tomorrow, which will be constructed by a transformed and redeemed humanity. Whatever it is in human behaviour or human society that is responsible for the misery around us, according to the global reformers (take your pick out of the long line of ‘famous’ reformers, old and new), can be remedied. In a word: rational and destructive Homo economicus (or something similar) can and will be transformed into empathic and constructive Homo ecologicus (or something similar), although this transformation remains unexplained and of course is highly dubious.
The primary moral response of old to suffering is notably found in the Good Samaritan: doing what we can to stop the suffering, to help those in need. Global reformers are different from Good Samaritans. Global reformers mean to remove the human defects that produced the evil in the first place. Disagreement is not an option, of course; utopians are always right. Nevertheless, Ecclesiastes (somewhere in the bible) sums up the long-term prospects for global reform utopian style: ‘I observed all the happenings beneath the sun, and I found that all is futile and pursuit of wind; a twisted thing that cannot be made straight, a lack that cannot be made good.’
We try to grasp life, our own lives, through those issues we think we can control, oddly even up to the global climate. (Talk about the hubris of social engineering Karl Raimund Popper truly abhorred, and not just philosophically.) That is what precaution, in the name of sustainability, seemingly commands. Small wonder that the demand on science to deliver the goods with respect to the sustainable future and the dangers on the road thereto has resulted in the scientific ‘accidents’ we have seen the last couple of years. The IPCC is now very hard-pressed to deliver abler scientific tidbits. Nevertheless, a scientific community—the high priesthood of our day—encapsulated by some utopian ideal about the future, loses more than its allure, with or without a Nobel Prize.
If the term priesthood seems misplaced, Al Gore refers to his co-receivers of the Nobel Prize as follows: ‘The distinguished scientists with whom it is the greatest honor of my life to share this award have laid before us a choice between two different futures—a choice that to my ears echoes the words of an ancient prophet: “Life or death, blessings or curses. Therefore, choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”‘
This brings me back to Tolkien. His critical reflections on the development of Western world culture strike deeper than just the myriad consequences of industrialisation, science and technology as such, good or bad. But then we have to go to one of his famous works that lie outside the immediate public eye of ‘Jacksonite’ rewriting. I am referring to his On Fairy Stories, which, at the closing of this series of blogs, I will here quote without further comment but with great appreciation:
The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function. The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
Read Part IV
Bourke, J. 2005. Fear. A Cultural History. Virago Press, UK.
Der Spiegel. “Wir stehen vor einem ökologischen Hiroschima.” 14-02-1983.
Gore, A., 2007. Gore Lecture (last accessed on the 10th of January 2012). Italics added.
Scott, J.C. 1998. Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, New Haven
Stump, E. 1994. The Mirror of Evil. In: Morris, T.V. (ed.) 1994. God and the Philosophers. The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 233 — 247.
Tolkien, J.R.R. On Fairy Stories.
Ward, B., Jackson, L., Dubos, R., Strong, M.F. 1972. Only one Earth: the Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet. An Unofficial Report Commissioned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, London.
Dr. Jaap C. Hanekamp is a chemist at the Roosevelt Academy, Netherlands.