February 18, 2010

Poem For Josh About Not Writing Poems For Josh

Momentum, relentless & calcified
Leaves strength for little else.

Passing lies secondhand
Seems always the easier course.

February 6, 2010

Killing Mother Nature for Good

Slajov Zizek*:
I think ecology, the way we approach ecological problematics is maybe the crucial field of ideology today, and I use ideology in the traditional sense of an illusory, wrong way of thinking and perceiving reality. Why? Ideology is not simply dreaming about false ideas and so on; ideology addresses very real problems, but mystifies them, often almost imperceptibly.

[. . .]

It's common to read ecology as a punishment for human hubris, excessive development. Like we wanted to dominate nature, we wanted to become masters of the universe, we forgot that we are just modest humans on the earth, and nature, God, whoever, a higher agency, is punishing us. That is why I claim that ecology will slowly turn into the new opium of the masses - the way, you know, Marx defined religion. [. . .] The function of religion is to appear as an agency of ultimate authority. If you can justify a measure, a prohibition, an injunction as part of a divine commandment, there is no debate. I think today, more and more, ecology is starting to function as the ultimate agency of control.

This brings us to another paradox: the conservative nature of ecology. Today, I claim, ecology is taking over more and more the role of a conservative ideology. Whenever there is a new scientific breakthrough, cyrogenic development, whatever, it is as if the voice that warns us not to trespass or violate a certain invisible limit - like "Don't do that, it would be too much" - that voice is today more and more the voice of ecology. Like don't mess with DNA, don't mess with nature, don't do it. This basic, conservative, archideological mistrust of change, this is, today, ecology.
This is not, as a cursory reading might lead you to believe, the rantings of an anti-global warming zealot. Zizek takes environmental degradation as given, as well as the fact that humans have a major role in that degradation. As a matter of fact, that is at the very core of his point: the environmental problem is not man v. nature, and as long as we conceive it as such, we will never make any progress. The environment is a dynamic, complex system with man as one primary driver. And, the environment is far from a harmonious system:
The ecologists' idea is "Let's not disturb the existing balance, whatever we might do; there are unknown risks and we might lose the balance." It's really the implicit premise of ecology that the existing world is the best possible world, in the sense that it is a balanced world undisturbed by human hubris. So why do I find this problematic? Because I think that this notion of nature, nature as a harmonious, organic, balanced, reproducing, almost living organism, which is then disturbed, perturbed, derailed through human hubris, technological exploitation, and so on, is, I think, a secular version of the religious story with a fall. The answer should not be that there is no fall, that we are part of nature, but on the contrary that there is no nature.

A lesson that we should all learn from good Darwinists like Stephen Jay Gould is that nature is not a balanced totality, which we humans disturb. Nature is an unimaginable series of catastrophes. We profit from them. What is our main source of energy today? Oil. Are we aware of what oil is? Oil reserves under the earth are the material remains of unimaginable catastrophes. We all know that oil is composed of remains of animal life, plants, and so on. Can you imagine what kind of unthinkable catastrophes had to happen on earth? So that's good to remember, that nature is crazy in itself. Nature is not this harmonious natural rhythm; nature is fundamentally imbalanced.
I would note here that by citing "catastrophes" Zizek overplays his hand somewhat - begging the question "catastrophic for who, or what?" - but the point remains: when we talk about change, evolution, we tend to think of a smooth, logical progression, when any current evolutionist will tell you that that is far from being the case. The pop ecologist's acceleration of environment from a concrete system to an abstract ideology not only takes it from the real to the theoretical, but, in a standard, moralistic way, it strips it of all complexity.

At the same time, by making nature other, by making it some abstract, ideological God substitute, the new ecological moralists give their detractors reason to reject environmentalism, a reason that need not be based on observation or available science. Put simply, they reject environmentalism because they will not allow it to replace the God they already have, be it the Judeo-Christian God, Allah, capital, or whatever. They are already addicted to a system of guilt, and they are not ready to trade it in for a new one.

When we project environmentalism as an ideology, our problem-solving takes place more on the ideological level than on the concrete level. Take recycling, for instance: on a concrete level, it's obviously good to repurpose waste, but is that the really the reason we do it? No, we do it because it assuages our guilt. We do it because we feel we are supposed to do it, and it's real benefits are for our consciences, not for the environment. Functionally, recycling is deeply ambivalent at best: we put our recyclables into our little orange containers, and once a week they are hauled away . . . exactly like our non-recycled garbage. We shunt away our used objects, recycled or not, and they are no longer part of our consciousness. Recycling is a mechanism to deal with the guilt primarily, and the objects secondarily. As long as we have fulfilled our moral obligations by recycling, the objects can safely be removed from our consciousness without any residual guilt.

Far from moving us closer to nature, recycling reinforces the artificial dichotomy of man and nature. Though it may be masochistic for us to live right in the middle of our garbage, it is nonetheless necessary for us to realize that garbage is part of our world, and more, to recognize it as garbage, not some distant, nebulous thing that we have somehow rationalized away. Man is not more or less alienated from nature, man is nature, as is everything around him. We can no more be alienated from nature than we can our own bodies. We don't deal with diseases in our bodies by filing them away and ignoring them, we attack them. We shouldn't deal with diseases of our environment by compartmentalizing them away, by "restoring natural balance", we should attack them. As the riotous cells of cancer become part of us, so pollution has become part of nature. Solving the problem then becomes concrete, rather than abstract: it is a problem, not a moral dilemma.

Not that this paradigm adjustment makes environmentalism any easier, mind you. Wryly quoting Donald Rumsfeld, Zizek talks about "known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns". We know things. We also know that there is information inaccessible to us, the known unknown, and for these things we can theorize, predict. It's the unknown unknowns, that which is unforeseeable until it actually happens, that make the system so complex . . . and make it possible, back on the ideological level, for the anti-environmentalists to question the science that is at the core of environmentalism (though, of course, this is a bogus attack, because it takes place not on the concrete level, but on the ideological level). Zizek cites a famous example of unforeseen consequences: in the early 50's, the Chinese communist party started a campaign to eradicate sparrows that were eating the seeds out of fields in order to increase food production. The unforeseen consequence is that the sparrows were not only eating seeds, but also worms and insect parasites who actually damaged more of the crops than the sparrows ever did, so eradicating sparrows actually hurt the crop. Unknown unknowns make the system chaotic, and they also mean that mistakes will be made. We have to live with this fact.

It is, in a sense, the eternal Pandora's box of human existence . . . or, as William Burroughs said, "Evolutionarily speaking, the one direction you can't go is back." We are where we are, and no amount of "getting back to nature" will stabilize the system. All we can do is buy time for ourselves the best way possible, and that can mean relying on some of the very same technological concepts that got us into trouble in the first place:
So I think what we should do to confront properly the threat of ecological catastrophe is not this New Age stuff of breaking through from this technologically manipulative mood to find our roots in nature, but, on the contrary, to cut off even more our roots in nature. I claim that it is our roots in our natural environment that prevent us from taking seriously things that we already know: that all this normal life we see around us can disappear. We can imagine it, but we do not really believe it - I mean that we don't effectively act upon it.

So again my paradoxical formula is: ecology is the greatest threat, but to confront it properly, we need to get rid of the very notion of nature, meaning nature in its ideological investment, nature as some kind of normative model of balance and harmonious development. We should become more artificial.
By "more artificial" Zizek means, of course, that we have to really on technological fixes and artificial environments (among other things) to survive ecological catastrophes of the future. There is no super system called "nature" outside of man, no "natural balance" that can be restored . . . unless, of course, you take man out of the picture altogether and let the dust settle as it may.

We have to start with the understanding that environmentalism, at its very core, is about how to create the most hospitable environment for man. It is only about "nature" inasmuch as nature affects, or is a part of, man. If, rather than as God-like other, we take the environment as an extension of our selves, then we will be in a better position to solve the very practical problems that we all face.

* Again, from Astra Taylor's Examined Life. A nice conversation starter, if nothing else.