Tuesday, July 1, 2014

thwap vs. George Monbiot & His Optimism

Commenter "greg" (or someone anonymous) sought to challenge my pessimism and defeatism by hepping me to this George Monbiot editorial, entitled "An Ounce of Hope is Worth a Ton of Despair." and it's subtitled "We cannot reach people by terrifying them; there has to be a positive agenda."

I've like George Monbiot for a long time. It's kind of odd actually, that my pessimism and defeatism is being countered with something from Monbiot because he's one of the leftists I respect for actually proposing concrete plans for the world's problems. He doesn't just take a whole book to explain why everything is wrong, but spends about the same amount of time (or more) proposing what we should do about it.

Well, regardless, let's go through the essay and see what he has to say.
If we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we’ve been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better. This is how I feel, looking back on the past few decades of environmental campaigning, including my own. 
I'm not entirely sure what he means. But I admit that I'm not your typical North American, so I don't know how alienated I should be by environmentalists. I suspect it has something to do with stereotypes about how we're going to have to wear burlap sacks and eat wheat-grass if the planet isn't to be destroyed. (All the tofu and wheat-grass is going to have to be distributed by government-owned, goat-drawn wagons, because hardly anybody will have jobs.)
This thought is prompted by responses to the column I wrote last week. It examined the psychological illiteracy that’s driving left-wing politics into oblivion(1). It argued that the failure by Labour and Democratic strategists to listen to psychologists and cognitive linguists has resulted in a terrible mistake: the belief that they can best secure their survival by narrowing the distance between themselves and their conservative opponents.
 Psychologists don't exactly have great track records as predictive scientists. And I've never before heard that cognitive linguists have been vainly trying to get the attention of center-left parties before. But I, personally, have been bemoaning this "move to the center" (which is far to the right of where it used to be) in contemporary politics. I do so because the policies of the right-wing are both inhuman and they debase those who practice them, and, what makes that debasement all the more tragic, they don't fucking work.
Twenty years of research, comprehensively ignored by these parties, reveals that shifts such as privatisation and cutting essential public services strongly promote people’s extrinsic values (an attraction to power, prestige, image and status) while suppressing intrinsic values (intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action). As extrinsic values are powerfully linked to conservative politics, pursuing policies that reinforce them is blatantly self-destructive.
 That's interesting and I did not know that.
One of the drivers of extrinsic values is a sense of threat. Experimental work suggests that when fears are whipped up, they trigger an instinctive survival response(2). You suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests. Conservative strategists seem to know this, which is why they emphasise crime, terrorism, deficits and immigration.
Well, that's true I suppose. And while I've never thought about it that way before, I think I've been in agreement with it for a long time. I think we should dust-off the old liberal idea that people are improvable. That "the people" can be reasoned with and that they are decent. My own "Workers as Citizens" was based on faith in the collective wisdom of people will improve the economy and the environment and the political culture. I have always believed in empowering democracy and reducing autocracy. I believe that the vast majority of people would prefer dignity and stability over avarice and instability.
“Isn’t this what you’ve spent your life doing?”, several people asked. “Emphasising threats?” It took me a while. If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet(3), I’ve been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years.
Well, then it's hard to fault political parties for having ignored the same advice you were. And, anyway, I don't think it was a bad thing to alert people to a devastating crisis by pointing out the disastrous consequences of inaction. I actually believe people are more intelligent than they're being presented here. The whole "burlap sacks and poverty" concept, coupled with the (now that I think of it) some environmentalists to indulge in self-loathing contempt for homo sapiens as a blight on the planet, coupled by the seeming indifference of many environmentalists to advocate practical steps of any kind, coupled with the domination of the media and the culture by short-sighted, greedy freaks, is probably more important than this extrinsic/intrinsic dichotomy.
The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there’s no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.
Sounds reasonable.
It’s an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature(4). “Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue,” but “these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue.” People respond to feelings of insecurity “by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts”.
Well, that sounds reasonable too.
Where we have not used threat and terror, we have tried money: an even graver mistake. Nothing could better reinforce extrinsic values than putting a price on nature, or making similar appeals to financial self-interest(5). And it doesn’t work, even on its own terms. A study published in Nature Climate Change, for example, tested two notices placed in a filling station(6). One asked, “Want to protect the environment? Check your car’s tyre pressure”. The other tried, “Want to save money? Check your car’s tyre pressure”. The first was quite effective, the second entirely useless.
That sounds strange. More studies needed. People always try to save money.
We’ve tended to assume that people are more selfish than they really are. Surveys across 60 countries show that most people consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power(7). But those whose voices are loudest belong to a small minority with the opposite set of values. And often, idiotically, we have sought to appease them.
That's true. An article in Harper's had a writer talking to people from different income groups, from a Haitian refugee working as a bus-boy in an American restaurant, doubling incomes all the way up to a billionaire. Of all of them, it was only the billionaire who felt really aggrieved and put upon by the world. (The Haitian bus-boy just wanted to be treated with respect.)
This is a form of lying – to ourselves and other people. I don’t know anyone who became an environmentalist because she or he was worried about ecological impacts on their bank balance. 
 No. But I do know people who would reject environmentalism if it negatively impacted their employment and standard of living.
Almost everyone I know in this field is motivated by something completely different: the love and wonder and enchantment that nature inspires. Yet, perhaps because we fear we will not be taken seriously, we scarcely mention them. We hide our passions behind columns of figures, and if sometimes we come across as insincere there’s a reason for it. Sure, we need the numbers and the rigour and the science, but we should stop pretending that these came first.
Ugh. Now he's starting to sound like some New Age air-head. "Love and wonder and enchantment give me a thrill. But Love and wonder and enchantment can't pay my bills! Just give me ..."
Without being fully conscious of the failure and frustration that’s been driving it, I’ve been trying, like others, to promote a positive environmentalism, based on promise, not threat. This is what rewilding, the mass restoration of ecosystems, is all about, and why I wrote my book Feral, which is a manifesto for rewilding – and for wonder and enchantment and love of the natural world(8). But I’m beginning to see that this is not just another method: expounding a positive vision should be at the centre of attempts to protect the things we love(9). An ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair.

Part of this means changing the language. The language we use to describe our relations with nature could scarcely be more alienating. “Reserve” is alienation itself, or at least detachment: think of what it means when you apply that word to people. “Site of special scientific interest”, “no take zone”, “ecosystem services”: these terms are a communications disaster. Even “environment” is a cold and distancing word, which creates no pictures. These days I tend to use natural world or living planet, which invoke vivid images. One of the many tasks for the rewilding campaign some of us will be launching in the next few months is to set up a working group to change the language. There’s a parallel here with the Landreader project by the photographer Dominick Tyler, which seeks to rescue beautiful words describing nature from obscurity(10).

None of this is to suggest that we should not discuss the threats or pretend that the crises faced by this magnificent planet are not happening. Or that we should cease to employ rigorous research and statistics. What it means is that we should embed both the awareness of these threats and their scientific description in a different framework; one that emphasises the joy and awe to be found in the marvels at risk; one that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.

Above all, this means not abandoning ourselves to attempts to appease a minority who couldn’t give a cuss about the living world, but think only of their wealth and power. Be true to yourself, true to those around you, and you will find the necessary means of reaching others.
Well, that was interesting and all. But it really has nothing to do with the sources of my pessimism and defeatism. Monbiot's talking about doom-and-gloom environmentalists and I'm talking about how progressives are incapable of establishing a goal and working efficiently towards it.

I've been called cynical. I think if you read this blog you'll see that I was anything but. If anything, I placed more hope and faith in my fellow Canadians and our institutions than most people and I'm heartbroken that my faith was misplaced. I've been told that my pessimism is discouraging the left-wing troops. I must ask: Discourage them from what exactly? Marching out to pointless rallies or voting Liberal? (Or NDP?)

I mean, let's just consider the answers to the following questions:

1. How successful was the peace movement at preventing or monitoring or ending the Canadian occupation of Afghanistan?

2. What exactly have Canadian progressives done to "Stop Harper" and how successful has it been?

3. How effective have Canadian environmentalists and progressives been at blocking the devastation of the Tar Sands project?


Anonymous said...

I already told you, I'm not "Greg". Anyway, I'm glad you read the article, and I realize it applies more to environmentalism than left-wing/progressivism, but I still think the same idea applies to a lot of people on the left who focus on doom and gloom, like yourself. Here's a challenge for you, why don't you try an talk about something happening in the world that does give you hope? I'm sure it'd be a welcome change for your readers. And if the answer really is nothing I have to ask why you even bother to blog at all?


thwap said...


I asked first. Don't change the subject.

Why do I bother to blog at all? Partly out of narcissism, and partly to try, o' lord try, to get people like you to stop it with the comfortable generalities and actually get down to brass tacks.

"Local victories can build into larger victories."

What the fuck does that even mean? What kind of local victories? How SPECIFICALLY, do they build to larger victories?

I ask three clear questions about three very big foci of progressive effort where we had no discernible impact.

The war in Afghanistan, the menace of stephen harper, the tar sands. Before you tell me to force myself to find some positive actions somewhere, I want YOU to account for our almost total failure on all 3 of these very important files.

If you try to do that, you might get a sense of my frustration. You might find something more than glib accusations of cynicism.

Or, of course, you can stop up your ears and say "I can't hear yooooooo!"

Cognitive Dissonance.

greg said...

He's right. He's him and I'm me.

thwap said...


I'm glad that's cleared up.

But tell me; do you think it's better to do something, anything, or do you think it's a better idea to stop doing things that don't have much effect and to think hard about what sorts of actions could have more of an effect?

greg said...

Totally agree. But it's so haaaard. And my show is coming on. Seriously, though I'm caught between being paralyzed with fear and ....no that's it.

Okay, it's about mobilizing people. I'm not even sure you can get university students together. I was holding a sign saying cut GHG's. I had to change the sign cause they kept on asking what a GHG was. Goofy Hedge Gopher. Granny Has Glasses. None of them are funny.

thwap said...


Dana says it's hopeless. And given that we past the tipping point long ago and GHG are only going to accumulate and accumulate, civilization probably is doomed.

But if there's any hope at all, I think the environmentalists' message would be better served by less human hatred and less negativity, and more about the benefits of a better world.

And you might find it bizarre that I'm calling for less negativity, but the left's delusional state and the best way to champion environmentalism are too completely different things.