Cliff Top

March 12, 2013

Cliff Top

“Cliff Top” (November 2008), acrylics on canvas, 30” x 30”

For a better view of this painting, see here.


The Scythe, Modernity and The Crash To Come

March 12, 2013

For those of you who are keen on fighting back against the tyranny of modern technolgy, you could do a lot worse that read Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth.  It is a fairly long piece (by internet standards) but worth every minute you spend with it.

Each summer, Kingsworth teaches the use of scythes in England and Scotland and in this article he uses the scythe as a surrogate for other simple tools when compared to modern machinery.  He explains the delight one gets in using a scythe, but remarks that most people use brushcutters these days:

“Brushcutters are not used instead of scythes because they are better; they are used because their use is conditioned by our attitudes toward technology. Performance is not really the point, and neither is efficiency. Religion is the point: the religion of complexity. The myth of progress manifested in tool form. Plastic is better than wood. Moving parts are better than fixed parts. Noisy things are better than quiet things. Complicated things are better than simple things. New things are better than old things. We all believe this, whether we like it or not. It’s how we were brought up.”

He really hits the nail on the head when he confronts critics who claim that he and those like him are simple-minded back-to-the-earth idealist dreamers:

“Romanticizing the past” is a familiar accusation, made mostly by people who think it is more grown-up to romanticize the future. But it’s not necessary to convince yourself that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived in paradise in order to observe that progress is a ratchet, every turn forcing us more tightly into the gears of a machine we were forced to create to solve the problems created by progress…

Critics confuse “a desire for human-scale autonomy, and for the independent character, quirkiness, mess, and creativity that usually results from it, with a desire to retreat to some imagined ‘golden age.’ It’s a familiar criticism, and a lazy and boring one. Nowadays, when I’m faced with digs like this, I like to quote E. F. Schumacher, who replied to the accusation that he was a ‘crank’ by saying, ‘A crank is a very elegant device. It’s small, it’s strong, it’s lightweight, energy efficient, and it makes revolutions’.”

Kingsnorth looks closely at the “green movement” of the last century, noting how badly it failed:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing.”

Worse, he says, we now have neo-environmentalism, often described as simple “ecopragmatism” but which is “something rather different” as described by the PR blurb for Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, one of the movement’s canonical texts

For decades people have unquestioningly accepted the idea that our goal is to preserve nature in its pristine, pre-human state. But many scientists have come to see this as an outdated dream that thwarts bold new plans to save the environment and prevents us from having a fuller relationship with nature.

Or, as Peter Kareiva, says:

“Humans degrade and destroy and crucify the natural environment, and 80 percent of the time it recovers pretty well.” Trying to protect large functioning ecosystems from human development is mostly futile; humans like development, and you can’t stop them from having it. Nature is tough and will adapt to this: “Today, coyotes roam downtown Chicago, and peregrine falcons astonish San Franciscans as they sweep down skyscraper canyons. . . . As we destroy habitats, we create new ones.” Now that “science” has shown us that nothing is “pristine” and nature “adapts,” there’s no reason to worry about many traditional green goals such as, for example, protecting rainforest habitats. “Is halting deforestation in the Amazon . . . feasible?” he asks. “Is it even necessary?”

Kingsnorth responds:

“If this sounds like the kind of thing that a right-wing politican might come out with, that’s because it is. But Kareiva is not alone. Variations on this line have recently been pushed by the American thinker Stewart Brand, the British writer Mark Lynas, the Danish anti-green poster boy Bjørn Lomborg, and the American writers Emma Marris, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Schellenberger. They in turn are building on work done in the past by other self-declared green “heretics” like Richard D. North, Brian Clegg, and Wilfred Beckerman.”

Kingsnorth argues that these neo-conservatives are misunderstanding the problem, probably deliberately:

“What do we value about the Amazon forest? Do people seek to protect it because they believe it is “pristine” and “pre-human”? Clearly not, since it’s inhabited and harvested by large numbers of tribal people, some of whom have been there for millennia. The Amazon is not important because it is “untouched”; it’s important because it is wild, in the sense that it is self-willed. It is lived in and off of by humans, but it is not created or controlled by them. It teems with a great, shifting, complex diversity of both human and nonhuman life, and no species dominates the mix. It is a complex, working ecosystem that is also a human-culture-system, because in any kind of worthwhile world, the two are linked.”

“The neo-environmentalists, needless to say, have no time for this kind of fluff. They have a great big straw man to build up and knock down, and once they’ve got that out of the way, they can move on to the really important part of their message. Here’s Kareiva, giving us the money shot in Breakthrough Journal with fellow authors Michelle Marvier and Robert Lalasz:

Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people. . . . Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.

There it is, in black and white: the wild is dead, and what remains of nature is for people. We can effectively do what we like, and we should.”

He looks at the future through the eyes of the past:

“Look at the proposals of the neo-environmentalists in this light and you can see them as a series of attempts to dig us out of the progress traps that their predecessors knocked us into. Genetically modified crops, for example, are regularly sold to us as a means of “feeding the world.” But why is the world hungry? At least in part because of the previous wave of agricultural improvements—the so-called Green Revolution, which between the 1940s and 1970s promoted a new form of agriculture that depended upon high levels of pesticides and herbicides, new agricultural technologies, and high-yielding strains of crops. The Green Revolution is trumpeted by progressives as having supposedly “fed a billion people” who would otherwise have starved. And maybe it did; but then we had to keep feeding them—or should I say us?—and our children. In the meantime it had been discovered that the pesticides and herbicides were killing off vast swaths of wildlife, and the high-yield monoculture crops were wrecking both the health of the soil and the crop diversity, which in previous centuries had helped prevent the spread of disease and reduced the likelihood of crop failure.

It is in this context that we now have to listen to lectures from the neo-environmentalists and others insisting that GM crops are a moral obligation if we want to feed the world and save the planet: precisely the arguments that were made last time around.”

“What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history. Some kind of fall back down to a lower level of civilizational complexity. Something like the storm that is now visibly brewing all around us.”

This is a sad pass we have come to.  Humanity has been too clever by half.