Wednesday, 3 February 2010

On Refusing a Mess of Cabbage

Cabbage from Bulgaria, by Biso at Wikimedia Commons - released by author into public domain I used to be right active in Green politics - indeed, that is where I honed a lot of the ideas that were to lead me for the second and decisive time towards libertarianism. Actually, that's where I found several of them. Why is the Green movement so often headed in directions I dislike so deeply now?

The Green worldview has one great virtue - its fundamentally ecological understanding of how important things can work: decentralized, diverse, massively parallel independent agents, fluidly co-operating and competing to evolve an emergent whole that tends towards self-correcting stability and slow enrichment. There are other words for the beautiful, yet highly practical, notion of harnessing these virtues in human affairs - 'free market', 'civil society', and other things like that. We shall come to why so many Greens fail to appreciate their best intellectual treasures presently.

Deep Greenery also has a corresponding defect - its tendency to assume that natural is necessarily good, and that the end-state with the minimum 'artificial' (i.e. human-caused) deviation from the natural state is the best. The concept that art is as natural as any other strategy within Nature cuts no ice here.

Now, the temperamental opposite of nature-enthusiasm is not the orcish case of tree-trashin', whale-nukin' nature-hatred, but rather the passion for progress over conservation, planning over pious hope, reason's light through the forest's shade. It is, in fact, the love of Art itself: the choice of that which we shape over that which shapes us. It is the indomitable, hubristic, forward-facing spirit of the engineer. Where it does fall for trees and flowers in a big way, it would make of the world not a wildwood, but a well-ordered garden.

The Engineer's virtue is to know and trust that the world can be made better, and that it is men and women who must make it so. Is the Lion-God ravaging us for our trespasses? Lion-God, meet big pointy stick. Will the world scourge us with cholera? We will scourge the cholera with bread-mould. Do our lords' shadows shut out the starlight? Listen: Once was a man with three daughters...

The Engineer's vice is to believe that the best way to improve everything is to control it, and important things are best managed top-down according to a good plan. If the plan fails, then either a better - and probably more detailed - plan is required, or else the fools and saboteurs who are trying to substitute their own bad plan need to be eliminated from the equation... Aye, there lies the desperate part of it. All rulers are by nature engineers of a kind, for their function and strength is to control people. Those who are bad at it, don't stay rulers long.

The vice of the social engineer is pretty much the voice of the people, we have lived with it so long and been trained by it so tediously. Try running for office some time, and telling an inquirer that your Obesity Strategy is to do ten push-ups in the evening and stop summoning take-out pizzas. By the time the howls of outrage and ridicule have died down, you'll have lost ten pounds to pure annoyance, and half your votes to Fascists For Fat Fit Camps.

The Greens' problem is this: the vices of both sides are deeper ingrained, and more easily attained, than their virtues. When a lot of people started worrying very hard about the imminent departure of the world from a quasi-natural tolerable state into a doomsday tribulation state brought on by incompetent artificiality, they understandably felt pressed to do something about it. So they turned to the Greens and said, "Well?"

And some of the Greens were consistent, and offered weird hippy ecologic solutions that gave them no particular power even if anybody listened. In particular, all those solutions where the proposed Planetary Obesity Strategy involved the government's doing slimming exercises and stopping summoning extra-beefy regulation manuals - were never going to be natural winners.

And many of the Greens noticed this, and seeing as Doomsday Tribulation is such a uniquely important issue, adopted their opponents' vice of method, whilst keeping their own vice of vision. Of course, since they grew up in this charmingly technocratic society, most of them had never pulled quite free of the central-planning vice in the first place!

That bunch were, at least in the short term, pretty much destined to win out.

But consider how the combination of these two bad tendencies is inherently more vicious, tyrannical, and misanthropic than the sum of each in isolation. To a profound and often superstitious pessimism about general humanity and its arts, we weld an equally profound and thoroughly hubristic faith in the beneficence of just rulers and their wise counsellors. This is just the age-old priestly conservative cat's water in a shiny new green bottle, and it must be poured away as soon as poss. in order to make room for something better.

What would that better thing be?

Why, surely the precise reverse of it: the ecological analysis and methodological humilty of the Deep Green, combined with the humanist temper and glittering invention of the High Engineer. If the vices of the two tendencies can be combined for short-term strategic advantage, why not the virtues for long-term attractiveness and achievement?

Some people might dream such a dream for purely Green reasons, others for purely technophile or libertarian ones. I honestly couldn't care less.

That would be a vision I'd call more Green than it is cabbage-looking!

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