As suggested by the pompous header, this is my imaginarium for making sense of our shared social and political life in a natural world. Easily seduced by ecology and easily nauseated by economics, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make these disciplines speak to a world with a precarious climate by working through philosophy of science and politics instead.
The world needs generalists, now more than ever. Most of us are trained to think and work in one world – economics, ecology, the law, etc – and to negotiate ceasefires with the other worlds when they are too powerful to be dominated. Environmentalists begrudgingly tolerate the inevitable human cancer, economists quietly accept that they don’t know how to price the spotted owl, and lawyers realize that it’s very difficult to appeal the melting of an ice sheet. But each field maintains their perfect vision for how things would run, from the completed market to the globalized French salon of the Enlightenment where people can exchange arguments in peace.
Anything less is, to them, a regrettable compromise – a tenuous stalemate in what’s otherwise a holy war. Nothing shows this more clearly than the mainstream conflicts over oil pipelines; environmental and economic gods are invoked and the barricades are erected. We live in a totaler krieg – a state of all-out war between competing transcendent visions.
Coming to terms with a changing climate gives us the opportunity to get over seeing these pauses as stalemates and instead see them as the possible locations for a meaningful integration. It becomes just as obvious that free trade deals can undercut sustainable agriculture as it does that an environmental mysticism about ‘the unity of nature’ isn’t far off from totalitarian politics. Pull a string here and it unravels over there. Everything is tied up with everything else and there is no perfect vision, no transcendental point of view worth pursuing. The war could just end.
This is both the simplest and hardest thing to understand about getting on in our world. At first it seems so obvious: of course everything is connected. But giving up on a universal, transcendent ideal is hard work; we all live in Plato’s shadow. If we work up the courage to escape it, some pretty big stuff disappears. A god’s-eye-view is the first to go. What else? Moral absolutes? A philosophical phantasm. The deliverances of pure rationality? Just as bad. Even ‘nature’ itself may have to go so long as it connotes a mute realm of facts ‘somewhere out there’ (this is maybe the hardest pill to swallow, but it is an idea that is gaining currency in an epoch we are starting to call ‘the anthropocene’.) But, of course, most environmental science and activism is animated by concern for this privileged realm called ‘nature’. Can we respect this duty while also avoiding the transcendentalism which locks us into a holy war and stymies progress? I don’t know. Like I said, getting out from under Plato’s shadow is hard work.
Trying to keep our feet on solid earth, staring our problems in the face and planning our next steps. This is the urgent work of generalists and is the work I plan to entertain on this site. Most of my posts will probably be simple or silly. There will be a peppering of book reviews as I work through that paper plinth beside my desk which just seems to grow. There will also probably be poetry. For now, this site will probably be a solipsistic chatter into the void, but I look forward to starting a conversation with you other internet dwellers.