Comments On Ecology and War

Robert Greer has a doubly provocative guest-post at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen under an appropriately two-part title:  “The Arctic is Utterly and Unavoidably Doomed — and Conservatives Were Right All Along.”

My own view is that the post’s first part – doom – is unfortunately somewhat more persuasive than its second part. Greer’s doom-saying is based on accessible and criticizeable calculations which Greer provides in some detail. His “conservative answer” depends on the familiar claim of a more truly conservative conservatism that present-day American political conservatism, among other things identified with climate change denialism/skepticism, has largely left behind:

In the face of such […] insoluble worries, conservatism offers a wiser set of prescriptions: skepticism of centralized action, restraint, and personal responsibility.  Instead of forcing the planet to fit our liking (which would very likely only create more drastic externalities), we should adapt to its new state and await the globe’s self-corrective measures.

He moves almost immediately from this “skepticism of centralized action” to calls for implicitly large-scale collective responses, including “plans to relocate or evacuate people in low-lying coastal regions” and the near-total eradication of our current “hydrocarbon economy.” Considering the massive investment in the latter, and not just in the U.S., it is hard to see how the general and timely adoption of his “conservative” alternative can come about without vast and coordinated action.

The discussion brought out political-conservative ecological skeptics or denialists as well as solution-oriented believers, some more optimistic than others. I took the opportunity to put forward my own view in a set of comments that I’ll archive and somewhat expand upon here, with a view to further discussion, consideration, and revision as time and input permit.

Believer/solution-seeker Bob Wallace writing in view of some alarming news items regarding possibly climate-change induced drought and crop failure emergencies, calls for “prevention.” I responded as follows (“wardsmith” is the screen-name of a climate skeptic):

Your own example shows that we haven’t and we won’t start practicing prevention until it’s no longer definable as prevention strictly speaking. That is, we won’t start practicing comprehensive and systematic prevention until we’re preventing more of something that even the wardsmiths of the world – or most of them – are no longer bothering to argue against, or are too embarrassed or afraid to argue against, while their counterparts in the real world are too embarrassed or afraid to campaign and fight.

Our system and the world system such as it is are designed that way – to block comprehensive, systematic, sovereignty-infringing, inconvenient and costly action until the consensus for it is more or less overwhelming, and consensus of this type is unlikely to arise until externally motivated. This would be true not just because it will take external and concrete events to convince people, but because it will likely take fear to motivate people to fight and defeat likely violent resistance from the un-convinced.

Seems to me the only two alternatives are 1) you’re wrong, and the effects won’t really be very dramatic, so no big whoops and never mind, or 2) a miraculous change of human consciousness and human nature globally.

Wallace misunderstood me to be suggesting that those were the only two alternatives at all, when I meant that they were the only alternatives to “desperate action,” which I ended up numbering “3,” for consistency. I think it corresponds to the actual situation as Wallace and Greer see it, and also to my own view of human nature – what it would be natural to expect ahead of any great change, whether induced by climate catastrophes or by some other inevitable convergence of de-externalized externalities (the modern project discovering its actual limits).  A fourth alternative might be “unnecessary miracle”: We get the harmonic convergence even though we do not really need it.

I ended up with the following summary position:

What I’m suggesting is that people who are convinced that crisis is coming within a relatively short time frame might want to prepare for #3 in its various dimensions rather than focus on measures that are either un-serious or extremely unlikely to be adopted, though I recognize that proposing prevention that “would have worked” and that seems almost doable can still serve a function.

I was writing the above also in reflection of a skeptical view of human political possibility  – the inability to act ahead of incurred and generally perceived, collectively and consensually verified significant damage. I was also writing against the libertarian presumptions of most LOOG participants, which may be why the following thought received no response:

If and when the catastrophe is well under way, when we are taking casualties, here and now among “ourselves” and therefore perceive the threat to be real, then and only then will we “get everyone on board.” If history is any guide, and assuming the eco-catastrophical projections are more or less correct, the relief from the burdens a peculiar model of freedom will be seen very positively by most participants, and subjective tendencies in that regard will be strongly reinforced. After however many years of collective action – typified by what today’s so-called conservatives call socialism, statism, totalitarianism, etc., names for those ideas whose deprecation also defines the system whose limits have palpably and destructively been demonstrated – if a new steady-state has been secured, then overcompensation in the other direction might become possible again.

Wallace did finally move on his own to the “war” concept when responding to those hopeful about alternatives to hydrocarbons, but concerned that they were too dependent on subsidization to win out economically, a view that presumes the sustainability and necessity of market-economistic presumptions. Wallace counters with the logic of de-externalization leading beyond those presumptions – virtual war overriding the putative laws of economics:

[A]s with just about any decision, there’s more than just the simple math. We need to include the cost of more climate change. We have a choice between slowing and eventually reversing the climate change we have caused or continuing to make the problem more extreme, possibly driving the climate to a place where we would have trouble surviving.

When confronted by an enemy we don’t wait for prices to drop before building planes and ships. We recognize danger and spend what we must to protect ourselves.

I hold that we are in the situation right now at which we must take significant protective action. We must defend ourselves against what promises to be the most dangerous enemy mankind has ever faced.

Wallace’s comment provided me an opportunity to look at the “need to make it a war.”  (“TVD” and “wardsmith” are political-conservative climate skeptics):

If you think of it like war or any other great and uncertain undertaking, you can expect its actual course and outcomes to be very different from anything that could be anticipated at its outset. If we could have known in 1941 what we knew in 1945 (much less in 2005 after decades of careful study and re-consideration), we might have fought the war very differently, but knowing in 1941 what we came to know by 1945 or 2005 is an absurdity. Once the human race committed to the cause, much of what needed to be done at least initially would be little more than an act of will, certainly minimal compared to the sacrifices of soldiers on the front or civilians under aerial bombardment, for example, but it would require us to give up on or suspend or reverse certain precious notions about who and what we are, and replace them with other ones, but that’s the problem: We need either nature or wardsmith and TVD, or all, to be making war on us in order to summon from us the required effort, the required unity and energy in effort. Just in the U.S., Wardsmith and TVD and Jim Inhofe and the Koch Brothers and Rush Limbaugh and the AEI and on and on don’t seem ready to give up without a fight. We did after all spend the entire Cold War prepared to destroy the planet rather than sacrifice our Exceptional Way of Life. On another level, it seems to be human nature to seek and need the terror. It’s what makes things real, and serious, and undeniably valuable to us. We don’t just want to have a bright cheap energy future. We want it to mean something. We want to be proud of the effort it took to get there, of the painful and near impossible struggle in which we overcame great odds and our greatest fears etc. We generally want myths as meaningful and flattering to us as the Americanist myths that wardsmith and TVD believe in are to them, fiercely believed legends and sacrifice-commanding, thought-stopping and discussion-ending symbols that connect us to each other and to greater things. Probably they would have to be created retrospectively, not manufactured ahead of time, however. We prefer to trick ourselves, or stumble into creative desperation or “world’s most efficient water pumps” [Wallace’s reference to the man who must pump water out of his boat or drown]. Not sure whether it would mean “conquering nature all over again,” or “really conquering nature,” or “conquering human nature,” or “conquering the will to conquer nature.” May depend on the eye of the beholder.

The thinking is somewhat derived from, or supported by, Kojève’s reading following Hegel of the bourgeois revolutions, and his explanation for terror in the service of revolution. It can also be related to Kahn’s “sacred violence” and Schmitt’s concept of the authentically “political.”

I am not asserting that conquering the will to conquer nature, or conquering human nature, or ending conquering, etc., whichever or whatever it comes to, must entail great violence, nor am I calling for it. I am however recognizing that violence would in some sense be normal, because whether or not you or I call for it, many seem fully prepared to demand it. Even and especially the most committed pacifists would therefore still be asked to risk their lives at least, and to be entangled in risks of life borne by others. In another sense, we, or some of us, are already undergoing or engaging in violence. The catastrophe is indeed very well under way if, along with acts that cause human suffering as normally understood, we treat habitat destruction, species extinction, factory slaughter, and so on, as forms of industrialized warfare against natural life. In that sense, it’s too late for “peaceful change,” though it may not be too late for less violent change, or even for less and less violent change.


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6 comments on “Comments On Ecology and War

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  1. Interesting post. In a way, it’s your answer to Curtis White’s The Barbaric Heart. I’ll state what I consider to be a simple fact. It’s based on what I have read about doctors who have to tell people they must quit smoking or die within six months. What I’ve heard is that doctors using negative reinforcement rarely succeed in getting through to patients. What works better is positivity. So doctors who say things like, “You’ll still be around to go to ball-games with your grandchildren if you quit now” have better luck with smokers. This would then refute the contention that people will listen when things get bad enough with the environment, and considering how many people continue committing a slow form of suicide through cigarette smoking, at this point, we just may be facing the result of our suicidal environmental behavior because I don’t know how we go about telling everyone something collectively positive enough to motivate the kind of change that’s necessary. Yoga anyone?

    • Right – but the positivity will tend to be uninteresting to the smoker who has not received and processed the death sentence first. If it was, he never would have become or stayed a smoker in the first place. So the x-rays or coughing or circulatory problems or impotence is Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, then, sure, the new recruits have to believe they can win.

      • Doctors say that news of the death sentence is ineffective. It may even encourage people to keep smoking. The positivity comes in replacement of the death sentence because the death sentence doesn’t work. Yoga would be the positivity. The “you’ll be here to play with your grandchildren.” As my old in-laws would put it, “I don’t know from Pearl Harbor.” I guess I see the whole environmental crisis as the violence. It’s a Pearl Harbor that leads to a death sentence. Yoga anyone?

        • I was writing too loosely. It’s not a pure death sentence, it’s a conditional death sentence, a death threat. May not have to be made more than once. If it’s simply a death sentence, then why not do whatever? Pearl Harbor wasn’t a death sentence. It was pain and a death threat. It “got our attention.” “You’ll be here to play with your grandchildren” doesn’t mean anything at all if the patient hasn’t internalized the possibility of not being here. It’s still a two-stroke engine, however much the second stroke needs to be emphasized for the sake of effective therapy.

        • Also, a war is a different phenomenon than a diagnosis or quitting smoking, even if there are parallels. If you’re fighting a war or fighting a disease, and the only answer is a radical alteration in lifestyle, that’s much more and different from “just quitting smoking.” The reminders of the enemy’s existence and the enemy’s counter-moves come on their own. The man with the water pump and the sinking boat will give up once convinced he can’t succeed, and maybe with the majority people it would be better to focus on remnant hope than on fear of drowning, but without the danger, there’s no pumping at all.

  2. “TVD” is more accurately described as a “climate agnostic,” the egregious behavior of the professional warmists being one reason, the other being the Romans growing grapes in Scotland.

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