Wednesday, January 28, 2009

ANT and "The Death of Environmentalism"

Here's an attempt to use some of the rules and principles from Science in Action to analyze a paper written about the environmental movement. It's not a perfect 'fit', but may give you an idea of how you could apply his ideas... References and links to the articles are at the end of the post.

Rule 1: Study science & technology (technoscience) in action, rather than as "finished" science.
Here let's simply substitute the environmental movement (EM) for "technoscience". Obviously, the EM is not "finished", but what this rule suggests is that we not look at the EM in its current form. Rather, we should look at its development.

The environmental movement in the U.S. is frequently traced back to Henry David Thoreau and his colleagues in the early conservation movement. Many of these early environmentalists held a romanticized view of nature as something semi-sacred that should be kept separate from the human sphere. Others took a more utilitarian approach, and advocated sustainable resource extraction (again, with nature separate from civilization). These two strands of environmental philosophy led to the formation of the National Park and National Forest systems, respectively (with the caveat that limited human activity in nature [i.e., National Parks] would lead to a greater appreciation of it, and hence to stronger support for conservation).

In the middle part of the nineteenth century, several events brought pollution (among other environmental problems) into public consciousness; these included the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 (on the effects of chemicals in the environment), the catching on fire of the Cuyahoga River in the late 1960s, oil spills off the coast of CA in the 1970s, and birth defects among the Pacific population exposed to fallout from nuclear testing. At the same time, scientists like Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner introduced concerns about the impact of human population growth. The EM gained massive support among the public as an alliance of scientists and grassroots organizations. In the 1970s, the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act were passed; these acts (and later ones) are the foundation of current U.S. environmental policy. Coupled with these events was an alternative vision of humans as an intrinsic part of nature- not separate from it.

According to one view, after the success of these massive policy changes, the EM lost cohesion; the big threats had been addressed, and now the many environmental groups could focus on smaller ones. In an essay entitled "The Death of Environmentalism", Shellenberger and Nordhaus say that "modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world’s most serious ecological crisis" (global climate change) because of its focus on "promoting technical policy fixes like pollution controls and higher vehicle mileage standards — proposals that provide neither the popular inspiration nor the political alliances the community needs to deal with the problem." (6) Needless to say, this view is highly controversial in the environmental community. However, it does represent a starting point which we can use as inspiration for a way we might apply Latour's rules and principles for analysis (Latour has also addressed the arguments of a later, longer version of their paper).

Principle 1: The fate of what we say and make is in later users' hands.
A conclusion must be cited positively by the next "generation" of texts many times in order to become a fact. One example of this in the EM is the acceptance of Rachel Carson's conclusions in "Silent Spring": her research showed that the pesticide DDT caused bird eggshells to thin and break (thus the ominous prediction of a "silent spring"). Once this conclusion was widely accepted, the use of DDT was banned in the U.S. In another example, Shellenberger and Nordhaus' arguments are widely discussed in the EM (whether viewed positively or not), so in this sense they have had an effect.

Rule 2: Don't look at the intrinsic qualities of a statement to evaluate it; instead, look at its later transformations by others.
One can also read this as "our statements will be either "black-boxed" or "unpacked" by later users". As an example, the scientific consensus that CO2 is increasing in the atmosphere is based upon decades of observations at several locations worldwide. The statement that this CO2 is primarily from human sources is based upon similar interconnected observations, as well as computer modeling. Latour says that, for a scientific argument, the more dense the interconnections and types of data used (e.g., tables, graphs) the stronger the text is. These scientific statements of fact are black-boxed by the environmental movement, which uses them as support for its own agenda. However, climate change deniers unpack these statements as a rhetorical tactic to cast doubt on the scientific consensus.

In their paper, Shellenberger and Nordhaus unpack the EM's methodology: "... first, define a problem (e.g. global warming) as “environmental.” Second, craft a technical remedy (e.g., cap-and-trade). Third, sell the technical proposal to legislators through a variety of tactics, such as lobbying, third-party allies, research reports, advertising, and public relations." (9) They suggest instead a broader vision relating human health and economic growth to green industries.

Principle 2: Allies used to back up position can include other scientists as well as experimental results, etc.
The EM as it stands today formed because of alliances between local community groups (who bring in anecdotal data and emotional drive), scientists (who bring in experimental results and data collected using set methodologies), and public policy experts and lawyers (legal experience). Both these human allies and different parts of the environment itself are actants in this network.

Rule 3: Since the settlement of an argument is taken to represent "Nature", one can't use an appeal to "Nature" as support to win an argument.
We have to base our arguments on the social and environmental situations we observe, rather than an appeal to a theoretical romantic (or strictly utilitarian) view of how the environment should be. These specific situations are put together by the connections between them to define our understanding of "the environment".

Principle 3: Associations are all there is- "Science", "Society" and "Technology" are not separate entities.
According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, "...environmentalists suffer from a bad case of group think, starting with shared assumptions about what we mean by “the environment” – a category that reinforces the notions that a) the environment is a separate “thing” and b) human beings are separate from and superior to the “natural world. ...Why, for instance, is a human-made phenomenon like global warming — which may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century — considered “environmental”? Why are poverty and war not considered environmental problems while global warming is?" (12) Instead of focusing on the environment as a thing, they suggest highlighting the connections between the environment and human lifestyles; for example, flooding leading to a refugee crisis, heat waves killing the urban elderly, warm winters allowing the spread of tropical diseases, or the possibility of more hurricanes. This sort of appeal to the explicit interests of different actants is how Latour suggests we enroll allies in our networks.

Rule 4: Since the settlement of an argument is taken to represent "Society", one can't use an appeal to "Society" as support to win an argument.
As in Rule 3, society is defined by the connections between actants and our understanding of these connections. Rather than saying society is to blame for our past environmental excesses and must now limit itself, Latour suggests "no longer seeing a contradiction between the spirit of emancipation (from nature) and... catastrophic outcomes, but to take it as the normal duty of continuing to take care for the unwanted consequences all the way" (9).

Principle 4: The more technical the inside of a specialty is, the more outside support must be drawn into it.
Inside/outside distinctions are a key problem of the EM movement, according to Shellenberger and Nordhaus: "Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed “thing” – “the environment” – than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”" (9) In this situation, the EM is constantly working to fundraise and litigate, rather than articulating a grand vision for everyone.

Rule 5: When analyzing a network, don't try to decide what is "social" and what "scientific"- focus on listing all the connections.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus say: "The tendency to put the environment into an airtight container away from the concerns of others is at the heart of the environmental movement’s defensiveness on economic issues." (29) Rather than defining EM as a movement springing from specific social conditions, they believe there are ways to enroll many different actants into the EM network (as a historical analysis of the early movement shows).

Principle 5: "Irrationality" occurs when people are operating in a short (simple) network- this is not "bad" because "soft" (everyday) facts suffice in most situations (and, because all knowledge is sociological, one can always work towards enrolling them in the longer networks of "hard" facts).
Environmentalists can view non-environmentalists' decision-making as irrational. Hence "the question of alliances, which goes to the core of political strategy, is treated within environmental circles as a tactical question — an opportunity to get this or that constituency — religious leaders! business leaders! celebrities! youth! Latinos! — to take up the fight against global warming. The implication is that if only X group were involved in the global warming fight then things would really start to happen." (Shellenberger and Nordhaus 9)

Rule 6: When a rule of logic has been broken, don't look at the structure of logic or "societal difference" to explain it- rather, look at the length and type of network.
According to Shellenberger and Nordhaus, "Issues only matter to the extent that they are positioned in ways linking them to proposals carrying within them a set of core beliefs, principles, or values." (32) The EM, with its focus on specific issues rather than a grand vision, is a short network, and ineffective.

Principle 6: The history of technoscience is the history of the inventions that have accumulated to make action at a distance possible.
In the EM, we can consider these "inventions" to be the laws and regulations, but also the social mores and opinions, that have surrounded the movement. According to Latour, "N&S’s book ... relate(s) four elements" which have damaged the EM: "a stifling belief in the existence of Nature to be protected; a particular conception of Science; a limited gamut of emotions in politics; and finally the direction these give to the arrow of time." (4) (Note: these are some of Latour's main themes in his more recent work.)

Rule 7: Technoscience can be explained by connections; only if this fails should you talk about minds.
According to Latour, "in the name of indisputable facts portraying a bleak future for the human race, Green politics has succeeded in depoliticizing political passions to the point of leaving citizens nothing but gloomy asceticism, a terror for trespassing over Nature and a diffidence toward industry, innovation, technology, and science. ...N&S are right on one essential feature: no matter how important the work that has been done so far, ecological questions are still taken as peculiar to one specific domain of concerns, not as the core of politics. Never are these issues treated with the same sense of urgency and centrality, with the same passions, the same moral energy than the rest of public issues. At the very least, they don’t mobilize in the same ways the democratic ideals so essential to the pursuit of civilized life." (2). In failing to emphasize the connections between nature and human society, the EM has not chosen the most useful tactic.

Bruno Latour. "'It's development, stupid!' or: How to Modernize Modernization." Essay from Postenvironmentalism, Ed. J. Proctor, 2008.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World." The Breakthrough Institute, 2004.

For more info:
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus can be found at the Breakthrough Institute.

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