Sunday, February 21, 2010

Al Gore, Kurt Vonnegut and the siren voices

At the very start of his 2009 book, Our Choice, Al Gore, Nobel Prize winner and darling of so much of the environmental movement, quotes the message Kurt Vonnegut suggested we should leave behind for any passing aliens who may happen upon the wreckage of planet Earth. ‘Carved in great big letters on a Grand Canyon wall’, it would read:

We probably could have saved ourselves, but were too damned lazy to try very hard… and too damned cheap.
When you have stared at our current environmental problems for long enough and marvelled at how little we seem to be willing to do to save ourselves or our children, it is tempting to go along with Vonnegut. But both he and Gore are wrong. We are not too lazy or too cheap and the solutions on offer from Mr Gore will not solve our problems. Neither the problems we face nor the solutions that will deliver us have much to do with technology or making business and governments account for the true cost of energy, manufacturing, agriculture, transport, etc., mass individual action, or any of the other things Gore advocates. Yet it is in many ways a very good book.

The real problem is not our inability to understand or act upon our present problems. It is rather that we are already committed to another way of doing things that prevents us from taking up any of the credible solutions to our environmental problems. Perhaps it’s worth quoting Aldous Huxley again here:
In the nurseries, … the voices were adapting future demand to future industrial supply. ‘I do love flying’, they whispered, ‘I do love flying, I do love having new clothes, I do love…’
The siren voices of growth, consumption, free markets, entrepreneurship and all the rest are busily pointing us in quite the wrong direction. The resources and system needed to fix our problems are under the control of processes, systems and institutions and in the hands iof nterests that would be completely undone by actually carrying the solution.

So the political powers-that-be, who have spent the last three decades abandoning the idea that the world could be a better place only if it were a different place, would have to perpetrate a genuine revolution to get us onto the right track.

Perhaps the single most important thing is to stop thinking of the problem as primarily reflecting personal selfishness (even of investment bankers). Personal actions are certainly part of both the problem and the solution, but it will only have a peripheral effect so long as we fail to also think of both problem and solution in systemic terms. Vonnegut was writing as a novelist and entitled not to be read too literally. But those who fail to understand the nature of our economic system, and the necessities and pressures it places on individuals, institutions and other systems (e.g., the entire social and political systems) are merely standing on the beach trying to bail out the ocean while the tide is coming in faster and faster.

Remember, Odysseus was forced to listen to the Sirens only because there were no other options open to him. Likewise we have few options that will in any way improve our environmental predicament - unless we change our ship and the ocean we sail. Likewise, even our most venal bankers were only following the system. Given a different system, they might not have had the option of running the ship onto the rocks (oops, different part of the Odyssey).

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