Friday, 11 October 2013

Back to Nature? Unspoken Politics and Feral Critics: The Monbiot Poole Spat

In mid July this year I completed a month of solitary weekend hikes with a Lakes-Dales double-bill. Day one saw me set off from Ennerdale lake up to Red Pike, along the ridge to High Crag, before descending back to Ennerdale and walking the circumference of the lake to return to my start point. About 19 miles of Lakeland Fell and (not really very-)"Wild Ennerdale". The next day I walked a 20 mile circuit around the villages of Grassington and Kettlewell in the Yorkshire Dales, over moorland, passing limestone scars and pavement, and through dramatic ghylls. I find solitary hiking an exceptionally rewarding experience, meditative, uplifting, and satisfying in a way that few other activities are. Much of this is, I believe, down to having escaped the urban environment. I am away from my computer screen, away from traffic and roads, away from billboards. 

I am getting back to nature.

There I said it... But what do I mean by that? In covering some of the most beautiful scenery the Lake District & Yorkshire Dales National Parks are said to offer I passed stepped fields, which were fashioned as such centuries ago by early strip farmers. I passed old lead mines, long since abandoned but dating back to the early 17th century industry that is largely responsible for the existence of the village of Grassington. I walked across moorland on which sheep have been farmed for centuries, thereby ensuring the maintenance of the sheep-scorched earth that is the sheep-farmed environment: a desert to pretty much all but the sheep (and rabbits). And I walked through the ancient woodland of Grass Wood, in which one can find the remains of an Iron Age fort, Fort Gregory, and the settlement that surrounded it.

That paragraph might be read as me saying something like "hey, not so fast! If we think that we're getting back to nature in following the routes taken that weekend from Ennerdale and around Grassington, then we need to think again. What we see as nature is simply the remnants of centuries of human activity in various stages of decay" (or in the case of the sheep-scape, institutionally celebrated, subsidised, managed vandalism. More later.) On the other hand, one might simply see my use of the word "nature" in the sentence following the opening paragraph as gaining its meaning through its implicit opposition to, or contrast with, "urban". In this sense, "nature" is the contrast class to "urban": where the urban environment is that which we have created/constructed and actively maintain, the natural environment is anything where there has been no urban creation OR where the urban environment has been abandoned to natural forces or processes of decay. In this sense, "urban" is the word doing all the semantic work, as it were, and "natural" gets its sense through its opposition to "urban". And here I am broadly in agreement with Rupert Read over at Talking Philosophy. This is, I believe, the standard use to which "nature" is put. 

When I returned to my computer on the Monday morning, I was a little surprised to find two public intellectuals, for whom I have a lot of respect, on opposing sides of a minor Twitter storm. I have admired George Monbiot's work since I first picked-up Captive State in the late 1990s. Many of his articles have found their way into my teaching, often because they are powerful examples of good argument, advanced in the service of matters on which I find myself frequently in agreement with George. (There are exceptions. More later) Similarly, I was so impressed by Steven Poole's book Unspeak that I decided to teach the text to my first year Critical Thinking, Argumentation and Rhetoric students; as it enters its tenth year since publication the book still has a week devoted to it on the course, while it has also spawned an internet video channel. In 2010 I invited Steven to speak at a conference on argument and rhetoric, chiefly because of his book's popularity with our students. Steven took his place on the conference programme alongside academics from the fields of philosophy and argumentation theory. I also invited Jamie Whyte, as author of Bad Thoughts. Whyte has since become the BBC's 'go-to' right-libertarian talking-head and one of the many ideologically motivated and financially incentivised climate sceptics writing for the Wall Street Journal. I guess we all make mistakes... .  Inviting Poole was no mistake, he was the star turn, popular with members of the public in attendance, the undergraduates and the academics. His recent writings on scientism chime closely with my own views on these matters and we have remained in contact since 2010. This said, it then seemed, in mid-July this year, that if George was to be believed, Steven Poole had embraced the sort of stance that Whyte had embraced. This thought troubled me.

If the recent Chomsky-Zizek spat had all the significance of my maternal grandfather saying something not all together positive about my paternal grandfather, the Monbiot-Poole fight was like watching my parents go through a messy divorce. While I fail to find anything of genuine interest or significance in Chomsky and Zizek being prompted into being less than complimentary about each other's work, Monbiot and Poole was different. It mattered. Poole had been critical of Monbiot's book Feral in the Guardian reviews section, and Monbiot used his Guardian blog space to respond in, what struck me as, a surprisingly defensive manner to those criticisms. Monbiot followed-up by advertising his contempt on Twitter. Poole Tweeted questions regarding what he considered to be an assumption behind Monbiot's disdain: that human activity was somehow to be excluded from an analysis of ecosystems. The questions went unanswered, and as the Twitter storm swelled Monbiot added to the accusations of "ignorance" and "philistinism" by repeatedly implying and stating that Poole was not qualified, as a humanities graduate, to criticise a book that was basically science; shoot, George even invoked the Sokal hoax, and thereby employed it as a rhetorical hand grenade. (-sound familiar?-) As it was, the promised storm really failed to materialise as the elements failed to interact in the manner required. As the initial swell dissipated, I couldn't help but feel that we had been left with little more than inclement twits.

As I've already noted, the whole thing troubled me. I was troubled not only by the falling-out, but because important issues were raised which keyed-into long-running discussions. Unfortunately, these issues went largely untouched as nothing worthy of the label 'dialogue' ensued. Two related matters seemed to be at stake: the meaning of the term 'nature' and the extent to which the language of ecology--"native" and "invasive", for example--employed by Monbiot echoes the language of right wing (even fascist) politics and whether such echoes have political significance for Monbiot's wider claims. 

I've already said a little about the term "natural" and given what I said there the question would then seem to be: why should we value the natural, such that we should intervene or change our practices so as to promote it? Well, let us say, following on from my remarks above, that what we denote as "natural" is any environment where either a. the urban landscape is not being maintained, or b. a desert-like environment is not being maintained. The natural environment then can be any locale in which ecosystems appropriate to the local abiotic and climatic conditions can flourish un-managed. Crucially, it really is us humans who, having done quite a lot of "a" --creating and maintaining urban environments--and "b"--creating and maintaining desert-like environments--will in the first instance have to midwife in to being these flourishing ecosystems, so as to bring about the rebirth of the natural world. While the science of ecology can tell us much about how such ecosystems function, what elements are required for them to flourish un-managed and so on, ecology cannot tell us why we should midwife them back into existence, and why doing so is something which would be of value to us in a non-instrumental way. This brings us on to the discussion of ecosystems. 

Central to Monbiot's argument in Feral is the observation that in light of recent advances in our scientific understanding of ecosystems, we now realise that complex systems rely on trophic cascade effects if they are to avoid terminal degeneration, resulting in landscapes such as the aries-genic 'deserts' we somewhat perversely preserve as national parks in the UK. What the work on trophic cascades demonstrates is that large predators and/or herbivores are more important to the flourishing of an ecosystem than had hitherto been thought, in so much as they might serve to alter traits and control the population levels of their prey and/or autotrophs, and/or have significant impacts on the geomorphology, in the way that, for example, the beaver dam (an instance of biogeomorphology) has impacts on the functioning of a system.

One of the consequences of this are that, given evolutionary time--that is the time it takes for traits to evolve--the removal of certain species from ecosystems and the introduction of others can have dramatic, even cataclysmic, effects on the system (we shall not here go further and consider the variation in evo-time between, say, small insects such as mosquitoes and large mammals, but this is, of course, relevant to any serious analysis). Traits which have evolved over millennia to enable a species in an ecosystem to co-exist, and even co-flourish, with predators and herbivores might offer no protection, or even make them particularly susceptible to, species newly introduced to the ecosystem. Monbiot seeks to persuade us that certain sorts of complex ecosystems are desirable and that we should seek to re-establish these, where human action has, either directly (e.g. hunting) or indirectly (e.g. habitat depletion or introduction of species alien to that system), led to the collapse of those systems. While this argument about trophic cascade effects is at core based in the science of ecology, and is the centre-piece of the book, Monbiot's argument in Feral goes much further than merely being a work of pop science that serves to report for the layperson on recent work in ecology. 

Monbiot's book contains a number of other strands, which he weaves together in the advancement of a political project of re-wilding. So, to be clear, the project of re-wilding is not entailed by the current science of ecology, and its insights into the significance of trophic cascade effects. And in that respect, one might be misled by some of Monbiot's remarks made in response to Poole. Monbiot's book is not exclusively science, and nor does George, in the book at least, claim it to be so. Feral alternates between chapters which are a kind of testimony of Monbiot's search for personal re-engagement with the wild and chapters which are the more traditional Monbiot non-fiction fare. While this will do as a rough and ready depiction of the book, it should not lead one astray: the testimony chapters, where the reader is treated to George's Adventures, do have embedded in them arguments, and where they don't, what Monbiot writes there is in any case essential to the argument contained in the non-testimony chapters. You see, in order that he might propel the arrow of re-wilding from the science of ecology to the political project in which he is inviting us to join him, there are two further strands to Monbiot's bow. These I found particularly striking and are best characterised as speculative evolutionary-cognitive (evo-cog) psychology and aesthetic judgements. To be fair to Monbiot, when these strands are up for explicit discussion in Feral, he is characteristically careful not to present them as anything other than based in his own speculation or judgement. However, on the other hand, one can come away after having read the book feeling that all the same, Monbiot's interweaving of those strands with his discussions of trophic cascades, plays a crucially important rhetorical role. Monbiot's honesty about the speculative nature of these strands can seem akin to the barrister's retraction of a remark made in court, which had been made knowing very well it would be formally struck from the record and that the jury would be instructed to discount. The barrister knows all too well that her words will have an impact on the outcome of case, despite her formal retraction, because of the rhetorical impact of those words on the audience (judge and jury). 

Speculative Evo-Cog Psychology
There are a number of moments in the book where Monbiot reports something akin to a primal flashback or recall. Now, he is careful not to present these in some kind of quasi-mystical way, George has never been a 'dreamcatcher' kind of green, who rests his commitment to environmentalism on 'New Age' mysticism and the like, but he does suggest that these 'flashbacks' might well owe something to redundant cognitive architecture: evolved neural or cognitive traits which are now largely redundant as the environment they evolved in response to, to adapt us to, has largely disappeared. One instance Monbiot relays to the reader is an occasion on which he drapes the still-warm carcass of a recently murdered deer over his shoulders. Monbiot conjures-up for the reader the thought that he is subject to a kind of jolt into another cognitive dimension, where long-latent, because largely redundant, cognitive processes are awakened, and in being so produce in him a kind of connection with the world he had rarely before experienced. Another occasion is precipitated by his stalking of a flat fish, spear in hand, through the sand banks and pools of an estuary.

You can see the grounds Monbiot will cite for his speculations hereabouts, right? Think of the point I made above about evolutionary time. So, traits evolved over millennia are rendered redundant as hunter-gathering gives way to agriculture and then to industrial society. Because evolutionary time moves far slower than (relatively) recent human socio-economic time, changes in modes of production have brought humans to a point in late or post industrial society where they are saddled with a bunch of traits for which there is little use, and which thereby either become dormant or are triggered by aspects of the environment they did not evolve to be triggered by. Let us just for now entertain the thought that someone employed this argument in defence of re-wilding (We can remain agnostic on whether Monbiot means to do this or not). There are a number of problems, which I will here be satisfied to merely suggest.

1. While these kind of evo-cog stories have some plausibility there are numerous other candidate explanations for Monbiot's experiences on these occasions. Now dormant cognitive traits being triggered into action by environmental cues is one theory. Another explanation is that Monbiot likes this kind of thing, and that having written on the topic and thought about this for so long, he has internalised these pleasures in a way that makes them seem automatic and thereby innate responses. These pleasures have become second nature to Monbiot, part of his, as the Germans put it, Bildung. So, the evo-cog story is not the only plausible explanation. But, this only captures one part of the problem hereabouts. In addition to there being a number of candidate explanations for such experiences as Monbiot reports with the deer carcass, there is also an issue regarding the assumptions about certain types of experience. Moving from the immediacy of an experience to an assumption that this immediacy indicates such experiences are based on 'hard-wired' or evolved traits draws upon a widespread conflation: affective or automatic-seeming responses are assumed to thereby be innate or hard-wired, where-as reactions involving ratiocination, where we entertain beliefs about what we're doing and how we're feeling as part of the doing and the feeling, are assumed to be learned, and therefore unlearnable. I suggest that there are no grounds for these assumptions. As I have written elsewhere, the gag reflex, which can be triggered through disgust or an oral insertion, can be learned and unlearned, for example. Similarly, the startle response can be overcome to a lesser or greater degree, for otherwise a machine gun would not be a more effective weapon for killing lots of people but instead counter-productive (if only!), as the rapidly repeated gunfire led to repeated reflex-like body movement characteristic of the startle response in the person pulling the trigger. To return to Monbiot, therefore, George has these emotional reactions--to the deer carcass draped over his shoulders, for example--in a manner that just seems to strike him out of the blue. He therefore assumes this equates with some evolved trait when there is little grounds for assuming so, pending further evidence at least.

2. If we accept the evo-cog story for now (and only for now) as correct or likely, then what of this? I mean what logically follows from that? Does this evo-cog explanation of Monbiot's experiences on these occasions serve to give those experiences more significance than if they were part of his second nature, or his Bildung, or even simply very enjoyable and rewarding for George? The point is that there is a logical gap between the explanation one might provide and accept for George's experience and the desirability of making such experiences more widely practised or available. This is because the explanatory and the normative are logically distinct categories. One (the former) is about explaining what something is: in this case what explains George's experience as he drapes over his shoulders the carcass of the murdered deer. The other, (the latter) is about establishing what ought to be the case. Its not that these need never be related, but that there is nothing in the explanatory which entails a particular normative proposal. Consider this from another more concrete, less abstract, perspective; what if, in addition to those George suggests, there are other dormant pieces of cognitive architecture that are associated with behaviours we now (rightly) deplore, or that disgust us? You see, maybe such architecture is what helps atrocities take place. Because, even if we accept the evo-cog story, and even if we identify some long-dormant architecture, the question of the value we attach to, or find in, the re-awakening is important. And one here might consider the difference between my choice to describe the deer as having been murdered and George's way of describing the same deer carcass.

Aesthetic Judgement and Shifting Baseline Syndrome
Monbiot hates the barren landscape of the lakeland fells fashioned by centuries of sheep farming, while he adores the wild forests of Slovenia where the pre-agricultural complex ecosystems have begun to re-establish themselves, owing the absence of humans over a period of decades since the second world war. Here there is an interesting explanation proposed for why Monbiot's hatred seems to be so at odds with the views of his contemporaries and with conventional wisdom regarding the lakeland fells. How can someone hate the most beloved natural landscape in England? Well here's the thing, it's not natural and we only think it is (if we do) because of a phenomenon called shifting baseline syndrome. This is a phrase coined in in the mid-1990s for a tendency to assume the baseline for what is the natural state of an ecosystem or population to be not what it actually was, before human impact led to degradation, but what it was in living memory (or maybe photographic memory). You see, no-one remembers a pre-aries, forested, Lakeland; we don't have photographs of it in such a state, nor even drawings or paintings. We assume, therefore, that the state it is in now is its natural state, even though it is widely and uncontroversially understood among ecologists and natural historians that this is not its 'natural' state. The state it is in now, is by comparison to the 'true' baseline, one of enforced and maintained near-desertification. We have become so used to the sheep-scape of Lakeland and the Dales that our baseline for what we take to be its 'natural' state has shifted up to meet it.  This frames our whole way of meeting our landscape, it fixes the horizons of what we assume possible and desirable. So, shifting baseline explains for us how one can rationally hate, aesthetically, a landscape which has an almost mythical status based on the extent to which other writers have seen in it beauty. Other writers have assumed this is the natural landscape, and have thereby adored it's exposed fells and wind-swept moorland. 

Shifting baseline syndrome is therefore invoked by Monbiot as a sort of bulwark to support his identification of 'nature' with the complex ecosystems he champions and to underwrite his withholding of the term from its use to describe the contemporary lakeland environment. In this sense, Poole's depiction of Monbiot as a contemporary spokesman for the romantic pastoral tradition misses the mark. Indeed, pastoralism might well be said to be George's target. He hates the way in which pastoralism has contributed to the shifting of the baseline. The question is, therefore, if we treat the syndrome, if more people become cognisant of the 'true' baseline, will they thereby come to share Monbiot's aesthetic judgement regarding the barren Lakeland fells?  

Monbiot proposes a re-wilding: a reintroduction of long-departed large predators (such as wolves) and herbivores (such as wild cattle (aurochs)) and a removal of invasive species such as George's ecological nemesis, yep, you guessed it: sheep; and ecology's 'go-to' floral-bette-noire: rhododendrons. So, in short, re-wilding is about the reintroduction of long-departed members of now tattered food webs and the removal of invasive species whose attributes make them particularly destructive for those food webs. In pursuing this policy we will re-establish complex ecosytems which are currently in late stages of degeneration, and put them into a state whereby they can flourish without human intervention. 

We could arrive at this point and think that what we have in Feral is a weaving of science (ecology), speculative philosophy of mind (evo-cog psychology) and aesthetic judgement based on awareness of the true, as opposed to the false, baseline. And the way I have talked of 'strands' might be taken to feed into this thought. Thought of in this way, we might therefore assume that where Monbiot might have had good grounds for dismissing Poole's criticisms of his ecology, the book as a whole amounts to more than science and is, therefore, fair game (like the deer?), as it were.

But this would be to misrepresent matters. The final point I want to make is about ecology, as a science, and specifically about the problem of boundaries which figures prominently in that discipline. The point is as follows: an ecosystem is not, somewhat paradoxically, a natural kind. Where one draws the boundaries to an ecosystem is a matter of judgement, because energy-flows penetrate boundaries and species migrate across boundaries. Put another way, the boundary of any ecosystem is a function of the ecologist's (or team of ecologists) focus of study, and the focus might be constrained by the population which are of interest to the research project or the extent to which timespan determines the research project's interests: for example, energy flows below a certain threshold and therefore measurable only in decades or centuries, might not be counted as relevant in establishing the ecosystem's boundary. And that's the point: relevance. What is identified as an ecosystem, where the team of ecologists who have established a project of study decide to identify the boundaries, comes down to what they consider to be the relevant boundaries given their specific set of interests. My point here is not that the extent to which ecosystems are not natural kinds means that ecosystems don't exist. It is rather that the desire to be clear about their existence should not lead one to overstate, scientistically, their ontological status: ecosystems as studied by ecologists have boundaries, and these boundaries are arrived at through the ecologist having in play criteria of relevance for their study. To deny this aspect of the ecologist's craft is to deny what actually goes on in scientific practice because one thinks awareness of this aspect might weaken the force of the conclusions of those studies.

Why does this matter? Well it does so because it demonstrates that while wholly scientifically legitimate given the purposes of specific research interests, the exclusion of human populations and their impacts from a discussion of specific ecosystems, or identification of those as alien, is undertaken, where it is, as a matter of judgement based on invoking certain criteria of relevance. When one is extrapolating from ecology to a political project, as does Monbiot, one is not simply reading-off the science of ecology, reporting what the data entail, but one is, to an extent, reading back into the ecology one's own prejudices. Now, it is important not to see what I here write on ecosystem boundaries and the role of relevance-criteria as an attempt to present myself as a kind of postmodernist matador taunting a bullish Monbiot. I am not employing the term 'prejudice' in a pejorative manner, but to rather draw attention to what I have said about the role of judgement and 'criteria of relevance' in identifying ecosystem boundaries. Awareness of this aspect of the practice of ecologists shows that when one talks of ecosystems as part of a larger project and identifies human impacts--whether direct or indirect--as alien, or invasive, then that talk is to a significant extent a function of the criteria of relevancy that was established so as to draw-up the boundaries of the ecosystem in the original study.

For Monbiot
This said, why do I still subscribe to Monbiot's project? Well, I largely subscribe to it as a political project. I think there are good reasons, many of which are to be found in Feral, for thinking re-wilding has importance beyond a romantic or purely aesthetic attachment to certain kinds of environment. We currently transfer huge amounts of money, via Farming subsidies, into the hands of already very wealthy landowners so as to subsidise an industry which renders much of our non-urban landscape a desert-scape. Why? As Monbiot points out, re-wilding Lakeland or parts of the Welsh valleys would actually generate more jobs and more wealth, without the need for any subsidies. And George has provided further support for the project in follow-up work. But it is a political project and one that is not entailed by the science of ecology. Moreover, I think there something deeply problematic in claiming scientific status for what is a political project (and in this sense there really is, I hate to say it, an echo of fascism's attempts to package up politics as science).

For Poole

Having said I largely subscribe to the project, why do I think it important to defend Poole and criticise Monbiot's overstatement of his project's scientific credentials? Well, two reasons:

1. The Sokal hoax is important, but the lesson is not that only scientists can criticise science, or that humanities graduates are the enemies of reason, but rather the lesson is one about the intellectual virtues, specifically intellectual honesty and integrity. I find it quite remarkable how some authors seem to think that the hoax invalidates everything ever written by a whole generation of French intellectuals, and anyone who might have had pause to appreciate the work of one or other of them. But here's the problem: if you think the lesson one should learn from the Sokal hoax is that one can engage in hand-waving dismissals of humanities grads when they step outside literary criticism or that one has been granted license to engage in knowing nods and smirks at North London parties when someone makes a disparaging comment about a writer you have never read but you hear that they're associated with a particular group, then you really have missed the point. I'm put in mind here of a self-proclaimed champion of evidence based practice who argued with me at length to defend his right to dismiss someone as a post-modernist, in the process citing Sokal, despite me having presented him with evidence that that same person had published a book which approvingly cited Sokal and criticised post-modernism.  In so much as I might need support for my claim here about the lesson to be learned from the Sokal hoax I would cite... ... ... ... Alan Sokal and his co-authors on a recent paper. Because, contrary to opinion which now seems popular among a number of public intellectuals, it's not just those who are influenced by French literary theory that forgo the intellectual virtues it is also those who are eager to wrap speculation and supposition in a veneer of science so as to satisfy the scientistic urge. Arbitrarily attaching numbers to ideas, theories and values is big academic business if you're willing to get involved (as my colleague Michael Loughlin has pointed out in his critical work on Quality of Life measures). 

2. It is important to be clear about the role of conceptual frames in scientific enquiry. My observations above regarding the role of judgement and 'criteria of relevance' in establishing the boundaries of ecosystems does not in any way serve to undermine the status of ecology as a science. It is rather simply to remind one to be cognisant of how a team of ecologists must frame their investigations, how these frames are arrived at. The point is to remind us all that science is conceptual work in addition to being empirical and mathematical work. Ignoring the conceptual aspects of any area of investigation brings problems and can mislead one when one seeks to interpret and act on any conclusions. 

This last point is the point I want to say a little more about by way of bringing this post to conclusion. I want to say a little about nuclear power. Here again boundaries are important. It is often remarked that objections to nuclear power are based in ideology or prejudice (this time used pejoratively), that science tells us that it is not only statistically-speaking very safe but that it is also our best low-carbon bet, as it were, in the battle against anthropogenic climate change. These are the reasons why environmentalists like Monbiot and Mark Lynas have embraced the technology. But the safety claim depends on how one frames the investigation: do we frame those investigations in such a way that we can take account of the relationship between weapon manufacture and nuclear power production (not only nuclear warhead production but also the use of depleted uranium in armour-piercing shells)? Do we frame those investigations about the safety of nuclear power in precautionary terms? Do we think only of human deaths, or do we think of the disruption of people having to evacuate their homes, and of non-human animal deaths? Do we frame our investigation in to the merits of nuclear power as a low-carbon source of power by comparing it the current status quo (fossil-fuel heavy) or by comparing it to a possible world in which there is massive investment in renewables, energy saving and reduction measures, and the promotion of lifestyle changes (a move to largely vegan diets, for example)? Fine, if you believe along with Monbiot and Lynas that nuclear is our best chance and that the risks are worth it, then go ahead and argue for it, as they both do. But ... and here is my concluding thought ... do not pretend that science is exclusively on your side, or that the science entails your view. Do not pretend that those who disagree with you must thereby be anti-science. And don't talk about the Sokal hoax.


1 comment :

  1. The thoughts your writing portray exemplify a concept I've struggled to find a word for for years; a mix of beauty and efficacy, wherein the beauty is derived FROM the ephemeral efficacy, and the two aspects actually constitute a single attribute. It's an intellectual pleasure to read such coherence in expression.