A Fringe Environmentalist Speaks

Welcome to the politics of resentment from the left instead of the right; Christianity by other means; what Nietzsche called slave morality. What strikes me here is how similar Charles Eisenstein sounds to right-wing apocalyptic crackpots who salivate to predictions of global market crashes.


I’m not saying that the world doesn’t need (in homeopathic doses) activists, prophets, and underground men. But Eisenstein’s performance above feels to me like nihilism draped in sincerity; a feigned concern for the higher good of others couched in barely concealed existential resentments. At one point, for example, he seems outraged at entropy–entropy! (Toilets get dirty and have to be cleaned by, well, someone.)

If you want people to be punished for their stupidity, bad choices, and sins against the environment–and you relish the thought of witnessing their lives imploding–at least have the courage to not be passive aggressive about it, but to bring that emotion into the light. Schadenfreude is not another name for a righteous cause.

And what Eisenstein is promoting is not even good for the environment. Life–including human life–possesses a singular imperative: grow; increase power. To long, therefore, for contraction of the global economy is to long for death. Global environmental problems will be solved, if they are to be solved, with economic growth, not its absence.

If we are environmentalists–and I am one–we should be hoping for faster global economic growth, not slower. In the royal train of Wealth comes the marching band of Problem Solving. No one who really loves humanity and the environment should be wishing for the collapse of the global economic system.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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40 Responses to A Fringe Environmentalist Speaks

  1. GAH! That first video made my spine tingle. Not one fact stated, just heresay and second hand opinion. At the end he claims we have had thousands of years of technology blah blah… clearly this guy is not a historian.

    By the way, you owe me a new bullshit detector, that just broke mine. It’s laying in pieces all over my office now from the explosion that this video caused.

    Thanks for the warning!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I wonder if you can get a new bullshit dectector cheap at a big box store like Walmart.

      One of my local Walmarts, by the way, is piloting a green energy innovation called a “bloom box.” It also has windmills in the parking lot.

  2. Des Carne says:

    I thought he made eminently good sense, and nothing redolent of leftishness. Methinks you don’t ‘get’ climate change yet. The metasticising growth of climate changing infrastrucure and lifeways is physically unsustainable. Trapped as we are in such a ‘world system’, the impermissibility of pessimism in public discourse severely constrains the articulation of the facts and reality of the clear and present danger climate change poses for economic and social stability – collapse is inevitable – the fate of every material ‘civilization’ that paints itself into a technological and finite resource dependent corner – so better te figure out how you will survive it. Every inroad a human, gift economy can make on the money economy is indeed the only sustainable source of hope.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m not trying to be overly simplistic, and your caution about global warming is a fair one. Global warming poses serious challenges. But human nature, being what it is (acquisitive; focused on friends and family and increasing personal power), means that democratic governments and the global economy will continue to grow, not contract, every decade. People on average will be richer 30 years from now than they are today, and richer still 60 years from now. And more people will live in democracies. Absent a plague or nuclear war, these are facts. The conditions are present for greater wealth, health, and public participation.

      The solutions, therefore, to global environmental issues, will all be largely invisible to the end users. You won’t be pissing them off with anti-growth policies or anything in which they will vote you out of office. Leaders won’t be disrupting their citizens’ lives. In other words, the solutions will be technological. They’ll come from science. They’ll come from creative public policy that structures the urban environment (for example) around the pleasurable use of, say, public transportation. Architecture will be green and beautiful.

      But all of these solutions can only come from prosperous societies where the luxury of thinking and innovation is possible. It’s not going to come if people are fighting like blind moles over a shrinking resource pie. One sure thing that would accompany a global economic collapse is war (large ones and small). You don’t want to hope an economic stall on the global economy (for both humane and environmental reasons).

      • Des Carne says:

        I don’t believe there is such a thing as “human nature”, so I don’t agree to the inevitability of growth, personal acquisitiveness and power.

        Humanness is not natural, in fact it is anti-natural because we must carve out of nature a place where, freed from most necessities for sustaining life, we have the freedom to engage in the project of making ourselves or becoming human.

        Humanness is therefore a cultural artifact: every culture develops social templates or guide-rails for the attainment of this imaginary status. Humanness is a property of the imagination not of biology – that is the ideological error of cultures whose social templates prescribe primarily physical rather than metaphysical cultural objectives.

        Economic growth is a new phenomenon, a metastasis, an infantile stage of cultural evolution – plenty of cultures flourished without it, and left untreated it will kill everything in its power, even itself. It is the mistake of amateur anthropologists to think that affinity with nature is an inferior, mistaken or subhuman level of culture – arguably it is precisely this quality that lends its cultural objectives metaphysical and moral properties.

        If there is any nature to what is human about our individual or collective lives it is the nature of drama, which is argument – for our lives are drama: who but a hapless sheep, hiding in the herd, lives an entirely predictable, competent and successful life? Whatever the placid chapters and tumultuous mishaps that punctuate our lives, in the end we each are an argument for that for which we are prepared to live and to die – you bet your life on it. Our models, templates, heroes, religious exemplars, all show the way to attain the human status we aspire to, whether asymptotically or by dramatic self-sacrifice.

        Climate change is no mere suite of serious challenges. It may seem so to those of Promethean disposition, whose appetite for infinity plainly contradicts the reality of the finite planet we inhabit. As if to confirm this, the preferred refuge of wealthier Prometheans is to flee to other planets, to “terraform” them, having screwed up so spectacularly here. Study the science – previously cautious authoritative institutions now offer predictions the implications of which are inescapable – climate change at the supra-geological rate (3-4 orders of magnitude) we are inducing it will put an end to everything we know and think places us above our predecessors whose primarily metaphysical cultural pursuits accounts for 99% of “human” existence here. Of course a diminishingly small elite will behave as you predict. One hopes that like the Mayans they in the end destroy themselves and our humble descendants, like the Mayan descendants of today, continue to people the earth.

        I see no halcyon future 30 or 60 years from now – quite the opposite – maybe several thousand when our planet has had time to recover from our current assault on it.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        In my view, your reasoning fails from your rejection of human nature. Of course human beings are not blank slates.

        And the way of life of primitive tribes is not competitive (in terms of appeal) with what modern life offers. In terms of natural selection, which is how life comes to settle into an ecosystem in the first place, primitivism is obsolete.

        And if the world returned to primitivism because of, say, an asteroid strike or nuclear war, what makes you think, in 10,000 years, civilization wouldn’t reinvent itself (and the errors you think it consists of)?


  3. pauladkin says:

    Sorry Santi, I have to agree with Eisenstein here. He is making an anti-nihilistic call for real purposefulness… I’m sure Nietzsche would have applauded him as well, for there is nothing Nietzsche despised more than nihilism.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Well, I think Eisenstein is too obviously delighted at the thought of global collapse–too given over to apocalyptic fantasy (akin to Christians hoping for Armageddon)–to be anti-nihilistic.

      But I’ll meet you halfway. Emotionally, he no doubt feels the tug of both his idealism and his nihilism. That’s human. That’s true of all of us. Maybe I’m being unkind to Eisenstein. Creation and destruction partake of Dionysian energies (that too is Nietzschean).

      As to Nietzsche’s anti-nihilism, I agree with you that he despised nihilism–most especially the religious nihilism of priests who made this world unimportant.

      But Nietzsche was focused on a couple of things that would have caused him to hate both the liberal Eisenstein and the liberal Santi. Nietzsche was focused on the increase of power of Supermen. You shouldn’t live for your neighbor next door, but for your most distant descendents–those who would transcend current humans and become Supermen. Or you should live for your own power and growth enhancing creative projects (if, for example, you are a Beethoven). If you are capable of mastering your world, you should do so, and you should live with an eye on the Supermen to come, not the losers surrounding you today.

      For everyone else there is herd morality (concern for one’s neighbor, vulnerable animals in one’s environment, etc.). That’s where Nietzsche would locate Eisenstein (and me). We are much too infected with Anglo-French Enlightenment humanism and environmentalism for Nietzsche. (Nietzsche once likened the idea of a universal and leveling concern with humanity as a whole to the ugliest of ugly grandmas). For Nietzsche, humanists and environmentalists are expressions of Christianity transferred from religion to politics. And Nietzsche regarded Christianity as nihilistic; it disvalues the world as it is.

      I think Eisenstein is guilty of this. He’s shitting on the power-acquisitive project (which is the project of life, all life).

      And Nietzsche, politically, was a war monger (something super bad for the environment as a whole). He thought people should wish in their lives for a short peace and a long war (as opposed to the opposite).

      So no, Nietzsche wouldn’t have applauded Eisenstein or me. He might have laughed, though.


  4. Staffan says:

    There is something weird about how we can attach electrodes to a brain that can then control a robot arm, and yet we can’t make an automated toilet cleaner. Perhaps someone should clean our toilet or wait at our table just to maintain the social hierarchy?

    Anyways, I think eternal growth is impossible. We will see this when oil becomes obsolete. Then we have 1.5 billion Muslims with nothing to live on. It’s like in nature, a population growths beyond its limits and then the population gets “adjusted”. This adjustment will make austerity seem like a blessing.

    I know I sound like a apocalyptic guy wishing it to happen but it’s more that it’s going to happen anyway so can we just have it over with already.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Absent nuclear war or plague (both made immensely more probable in economically stressed times), there will be no collapse in the human population. It won’t be adjusting down. And green energy breakthroughs through science and technology are coming in our lifetime. Most people–90% of humans at century’s end–will live in clean eco-friendly cities if the global economy keeps growing at 2-4% per year on average. But if you want an eco-dystopia, hope for global economic contraction.

      In the future, people will live better and use less oil than today because of innovations from green architecture, urban social structures, technology, etc.

      I’m not trying to sound ecotopian or optimistic. These are simply the facts if the global economy is growing and human beings are free to think and innovate. The global environmental crisis won’t be solved by the Eisensteins of this world, but the Einsteins of this world (science geeks at MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Silicon Valley, etc.). More important than oil wells (by far) are our university mind wells. That’s who we’ll tap for “green prosperity.” These two things–“green” and “prosperity”–are not mutually exclusive. “Green prosperity” is not an oxymoron. Splitting them (as Eisenstein does) is the oxymoron (the idea that you can have one without the other in the contemporary world).

      Green and prosperity go together like a horse and carriage (to echo Frank Sinatra about love and marriage).


  5. pauladkin says:

    Santi, I think you are confusing the increase of wealth with an increase in the amount of money. There is more money in the world than ever AND also more poverty than ever. The trend is to create more wealth and more poverty. As for the Superman he will transcend economics. The Superman will live in a world in which money is unnecessary… Made obsolete by technology. Just think of Star Trek, is economics ever a question on the enterprise?, does the Federation have a currency?

    • Staffan says:

      As an example the lowest fifth earners in America had an average income of 8024 dollars, or 19856 dollars adjusted for inflation. Their income 30 years later is 20262 dollars, so they have 400 dollars extra to play with. And that period includes the booming 1980s. Back in 1971 they had 21105 dollars – more purchase power than today.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Paul and Staffan,

      I don’t buy the idea that poverty is increasing in the world for the poorest people. It may be for some subgroups (such as the lowest fifth of Americans, though I doubt it), but I’m referring to the global average.

      The average Chinese person now has an income equivalent to that of an Italian in 1960. Not bad for a nation with a billion people.

      With regard to Americans, I simply don’t think you can compare apples (the 80s) with oranges (the 2010s). Why? Because, for example, a phone in 1980 is not a phone today (though they may cost the same and both be called “phones”). The technology and variety of products and services that the poor enjoy in the United States are better than in the past and ought to be factored into the equation of which group (lowest fifth of Americans 80s vs. 2010s) is better off.

      Crime is also down in the United States as compared to 80s levels, and that also contributes to quality of life. And the Internet is something the 80s didn’t have. In short, if you had to choose you would want to be in the lower fifth of American income and living today than in 1980.

      And my bet is that in the 2040s, even the poor of that time will live substantially better than those in the middle class today. Part of the reason is that they will have access to technologies and medications that rich people would pay millions of dollars to have now.


      • Staffan says:

        Take a look at this NYT article. According to it, white women without a high school diploma lost 5 years of life expectancy between 1990 and 2008. How would you explain that other than in some form of lower life quality. Are they getting clumsier and falling in the bath tub?


        Naturally things are going well in China but they are dependent on the Western nations they export to. Once robots start manufacture more stuff their export will decrease. Then they have a huge population that relies on imported food not to starve. And like I said before, when oil runs out or is replaced you have 1.5 billion Muslims with IQs averaging 85 and no way to make a living. You never talk about what they will be doing in your utopian future.

        Note that these scenarios rely on the technological progress that you think will fix so much. Yes, there will be surf pads and maybe even similar devices controlled directly by your brain, but there will also be starvation and extreme poverty. And pandemics when everyone lives in large cities and travelling between these cities all over the world.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        In the New York Times article you directed me to, I would highlight this part:

        Some cautioned that the results could be overstated because Americans without a high school diploma — about 12 percent of the population, down from about 22 percent in 1990, according to the Census Bureau — were a shrinking group that was now more likely to be disadvantaged in ways besides education, compared with past generations.

        Professor Olshansky agreed that the group was now smaller, but said the magnitude of the drop in life expectancy was still a measure of deterioration. “The good news is that there are fewer people in this group,” he said. “The bad news is that those who are in it are dying more quickly.”

        In other words, the healthiest part of the cohort has moved out of it, leaving the most intransigently problematic portion of the group behind. You can’t compare a larger and healthier group 20 years ago with a smaller and unhealthier group today and then declare the difference a trend. You would have to go back to the 1990 group and somehow identify the least healthy and lowest IQ portion of that cohort and ask what their life expectancy was and whether that compares favorably or unfavorably with the cohort today. The sheer fact that this poor cohort has declined by nearly HALF suggests improvement over the past 20 years, not decline.

        I’m not trying to minimize the suffering of poor whites in the United States, or to suggest that the new global dynamics won’t create losers. There are groups that will be put under unusual stresses, but a richer world overall means that we might actually have the money, over the long term, to address the problems the new order generates. For example, if one of the reasons poor white women in the US have a declining life expectancy has to do with health care access, maybe we can afford to fund better health care to them. That’s a political decision; something we could collectively choose to do as the economy grows and we can afford it. But if the economy isn’t growing, then the political will to address the issue is less. People don’t feel they can afford to be generous or concerned about others. The same principle holds for the environment. As the economy grows, investment in green technology grows.

        The engine of growth is not the problem (though it creates problems). Its functioning is part of the solution.

        As to Islam, I think that by the time the oil seriously starts to run out, we will have renewable energy technologies and efficiencies of design that will keep the global economy from stalling. Governments in Muslim majority countries will continue to feel the pull of modernism and will, slowly but surely, move toward it. With democracy spreading, how can they not? People will vote out governments that don’t grow the economy. Growth is life; people will always vote for it and try to figure out ways to arrive at it.


  6. Luke says:

    I have a great idea to address stagnant wages. Let’s attack the productive classes, denounce them as oppressors and confiscate their wealth. After the redistributed money is spent on Air Jordans and rap albums, we will truly have an equitable and just society.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      The productive members of our society are not having their wealth “confiscated” just because their marginal income tax rate goes up a bit after a democratic election. And what taxes the wealthy do pay doesn’t just go to the poor and elderly in the form of redistribution; it goes toward paying for such things as the military (which both poor and rich directly benefit from).

      The rich in this country always have their say, are heard, and their interests are taken into account whenever a decision is finally made. They have an entire national party (the Republican Party) that is focused like a laser beam on protecting their interests to the exclusion of just about everything else. They are in no serious danger of losing their place in the hierarchy. Life is good for them, and is getting better for them. It probably always will be. Why wouldn’t it? If the global economy grows by 2% a year on average for the next century, the rich will be several orders of magnitude more wealthy and numerous than they are today.

      Your paranoia, cynicism, and resentment of the poor appears to be based in reading too much Ayn Rand and not looking around you at the world that actually exists.

      And think about. If it is true (and I agree that is) that tax rates on the rich can become too high, and reduce the country’s productivity and growth, driving it into permanent recession, wouldn’t it follow that the political party that brought the country to such a state would be quickly dispatched in the next election (and the policies reversed)?

      In other words, democracies have a bias toward growth policies. They vote for them. When majority of people feel tangibly poorer in an election year, they look to the party out of power to fix what the party in power goofed up. The rich in the United States, to the extent that they keep the economy growing by at least 1-4% per year, are pretty secure. Democratic elections will not result in the confiscation of their wealth to any substantial degree because it hurts what majorities always want: a growing economy. You don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.


      • Luke says:

        If what you said is true, Barack Obama would not have been re-elected. He has presided over a woeful, slow-growing economy but won the presidency by promising to tax the rich. He does not care about growth, he cares about fundamentally changing our society. You may not be old enough to remember the band called Ten Years After. The lyrics of their biggest hit went something like this: Tax the Rich, Feed the Poor, Till there are no Rich no more! . What they neglected to mention that once the rich are no more, the poor will starve.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Barack Obama won for a variety of reasons, but there would have been a tipping point at which economic factors would have swamped everything else. We didn’t reach that tipping point last year because the economy was growing by about 2%, the stock market has been pretty high, and unemployment has been trending down.

        What I think you’re not acknowledging is how nicely coupled democracy actually is with economic growth. Something that ought to function as a leveler and hurt economic growth actually serves the interests of the wealthy (because democratic majorities will tend to favor growth policies). You should, therefore, relax a bit. The world is not going to hell in a hand basket. Democracy acts as a buffer against anti-growth policies, and pro-growth policies favor the rich. You should be happy.

        On the other hand, I shouldn’t be too glib either. Democracy can, in extreme cases, harm growth. You can get dynamics going in a country where populists can demonize the rich (or immigrants, or some other outgroup) or can start a war, all with democratic support. But once things start to go badly, the next election cycle always offers a corrective (so long as democracy itself is still functioning).

        Hugo Chavez is an example of a democratically elected leader who then subverted the democratic process and became an authoritarian leader. Hitler, a totalitarian, is another. But these examples do not remotely describe Barack Obama. In four years, Republicans will have the same ability to make their case as they had this past year. Obama is not, by fiat, abolishing term limits (as Chavez did).

  7. Des Carne says:

    The distinction “primitivism” vs “civilization” expresses an a priori bias in favor of material culture, as if that alone were the measure of human moral attainment or happiness. Daniel Everett’s illumination, for instance, from spending decades with the Pirahã, show this to be a facile assumption.

    I agree with political historian Colin Tatz argues that a universal definition of civilization should distinguish it from culture. Based on the distinction first articulated by Ernest J Hull SJ in 1916, civilisation is defined as “the reign of social law” .

    “Civilisation” describes a people “governed by a code of laws prescribing the limits of conduct of individuals within the social group, and the penalties for transgression, as well as regulating external relations with other groups. It also incorporates a socially developed code of manners outside the margins of obligation and law.”

    Culture, on the other hand, refers to
    “the objects to which humankind applies its faculties; for instance, intellectual culture (literature, science); technical culture (industry, technology, material development); ethical culture (religion); aesthetic culture (art); physical culture (cultivation of the body); and so on.” (Tatz 1972, 88).
    Culture then, both material and social, unlike civilisation, can change. Civilisation, as the reign of social law, is simply a state of human social existence: its presence is manifested as the domain of social order, its absence as the domain of savagery or barbarism.
    (Tatz, Colin. Aboriginality as Civilization. in Whitlock, G. & Carter, D. (eds), Images of Australia: An Introduction to Australian Studies , UQP 1992.) pp 75-93.)

    Civilization, then, can as easily exist in a materially affluent culture, even though its material substructure may be less sustainable over time, as in a so-called “primitive” materially frugal culture. Barbarism, the absence of civilization, far more easily flourishes, and may behave as a mass contagion in the great material civilizations – indeed the materially/technologically more powerful the more barbarous, going by 20th and 21st century experience.

    A good example of this distinction can be seen in Rolf de Heer’s film The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil – which poses the question , which of the protagonists/cultures/races depicted is savage and which civilized? It addresses the residue of Australian delusion that their colonial forebears were the purveyors of “civilization” to “uncivilized” savages.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The distinction you’re making between civilization and culture is interesting. I’ll have to think about it.

    • Alan says:

      Consider the study ‘War before Civilization’ by Lawrence H. Keeley: Very brief summary – on average, pre-state societies have a roughly 30% homicide rate!

      • descarne says:

        I know, this argument is made very persuasively by Stephen Pinker. There is also the anthropological “Heisenberg effect” whereby colonial observers of pre-state societies have already influenced what they are observing. I don’t subscribe to either extreme – to naive romantic views of natural man nor to the conceits of moderns whose superiority nonetheless leaves a legacy of a polluted planet denuded of much of its biodiversity, and reduced much of the human population to poverty and dependence. My argument is that it is not useful to think in terms of something called “human nature” because humanity and nature are mutually contradictory, and that we have much to learn from pre-state societies about ‘meta-physical’ cultural projects that eliminate far less of the nature we nonetheless need to to make ourselves into human beings.

      • Santi Tafarella says:


        You can’t escape evolution and genealogy. Human beings are a subset of nature. Nature made us.

        And nature is born in competition and cooperation (strategic alliances), as are human beings.

        So I don’t know what you imagine you’re harmonizing with, exactly. Everything in nature is already in us.

        If your argument is that we should be concerned with how we interact with the environment because we should value ourselves and other organisms more than we do, I don’t disagree. But we shouldn’t pretend that we are in any way freaks of nature. We are nature.

  8. Staffan says:

    I got the figures from the US Census Bureau and the adjustment for inflation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I noticed that I actually used the upper limit of the lowest fifth, but if you look at the mean household income the figures are more or less the same,


  9. descarne says:

    “You can’t escape evolution and genealogy. Human beings are a subset of nature. Nature made us.”

    Everything you say flows from that assumption, and is so limited by that use of language. It’s not an argument. I neither suggest nor assume we escape evolution. Indeed that we are so limited argues my case:-

    My argument is that we are primates with the peculiar faculty of imagination and a capacity for language and abstract thought. That does not make us “human”. It simply makes us exceedingly clever and dangerous primates, still dumb enough, especially in large numbers, to destroy or fatally degrade the natural world we depend upon to live and to become what we hope to be.

    Humanness is an abstract concept, a cultural artifact, and because we are not yet human, we strive to and are enjoined to do what we need to do, by way of a set of rules or moral precepts, or by practical examples (‘social templates’) to become human.

    Just because we emulate the behavioral repertoires of our primate cousins (be they murderous chimpanzees or promiscuous bonobos) does not limit humanness to the nature of primates.

    Because we (in every culture) imagine what it is to become that ideal, namely human (other cultures, chauvinistically, are often designated by ‘nature’ or by some perceived deficiency the barbarians, the primitives, the subhumans &c), every individual is engaged in a real-world drama of becoming, having to make moral choices every step of the way. We asymptotically approach or approximate, in fact incarnate, our ideal of being that exalted creature, a ‘human’ being.

    The nature of the drama that we each are, is argument (rather than, I argue, primate biology). The assumption that humanness is a biological property is a relatively modern idea, reflective of a materialist culture with an idolizing fixation on technology, rife with tendentious ideas of progress and advancement, and a totalising drive for control of the natural world and other groups of people.

    I am not harmonising with anything or anyone – if anything I am taking ideas from Ortega y Gasset in philosophy, Geddes in anthropology and Noble in religious and science history, and developing my own synthesis.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      There’s nothing wrong with the intellectuals you mention, and of course culture and the way we talk play a large role in what makes us who we are, but how about meeting me halfway? Human beings are what they are roughly for reasons genetic (about 50%) and environmental (50%).

      That, at any rate, is what all twin studies seem to suggest to us.

      That means, therefore, that if one expects to get from point A to point B, yet discounts or ignores half the equation (either on the genetic side or the environmental side), one is not likely to reach your goal.

      I want what you want (an ecofriendly world; “shiny happy people holding hands”), but I think there are some real constraints on human nature that rational elites (who will ultimately solve the problems if they are to be solved) must work around.

      Put another way, you don’t have to change the behavior of human beings writ large, you just have to fund science and architecture. It is the scientists and architects who will structure the world in a way that human beings, without changing their behaviors, can live in a sustainable manner.

      I don’t think (as you seem to) that the idea of human nature is a cultural construct. I think it is something that the anthropological and social sciences have discovered–that there really are human universals just as there really is a moon in the sky. It’s a less obvious scientific fact than the moon, but it’s still there. Pinker’s book, “The Blank Slate,” is excellent on discussing this.

      In any event, my ecotopia incorporates huge cities and capitalism because these are things that will not go away (because they efficiently answer to the aspirations of human desires and human acquisitiveness).

      Few will ever live like Thoreau and John Muir (though their lives are dazzlingly inspiring). Most will live in cities. (90% of humanity will live in cities by century’s end, according to demographers.) That means that our most clever humans (the scientists, the architects, the social scientists, etc.), will have to figure out how to make these cities run clean in a way that is largely invisible to the populace (who will have other concerns, such as love affairs, raising children, pursuing careers, going to movies, playing games in virtual reality centers, etc.).

      In those virtual reality centers, maybe there will be a Thoreau game in which you can play like you’re living at Walden Pond for a year. It will feel like you’re there, like Truman thought he was in an ocean when he was really in his dome.

      Cue the sun.


      • descarne says:

        I think climate change ahead rules out any ecotopia, sorry. Add to that the consequences of the grinding, gradual collapse of industrial “civilization” for its prisoners as our elites find new ways to barricade themselves from the rest of us by extracting and burning what’s left of the only fuel that can sustain their “civilization”.

        I think the big techno optimists, for instance recent convert Mark Lynas or institutional authority Barry Brook (Brave New Climate), who beleive largely carbon emission free nuclear power can save us from climate change, are having themselves on – they understand neither the nature of the historical drama they would be protagonists in, nor the biological consequences of their materialistic conception of “human nature”.

        Oddly biologists and ecologists like Bill Rees for instance, who you’d expect to share your biological concept of human nature, seem to see the problem with unusual clarity. Like climate and paleo-history scientists they see we are but a petri dish adrift in space, with a host infection of it’s once pristine substrate by a dominant species knowing no other imperative than to multiply to its biological and economic entelechy.

        Maybe when the experiment of global “civilization” reaches its conclusion we might be able to construct human communities on a different paradigm – the earth will be littered with plenty of examples of the one that most recently failed. As an optimist I think it useful to imagine now what a sustainable future “human” paradigm might be, and to attempt to live it “proleptically”.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Well, your pessimistic view of global urban human civilization is a bit depressing to me. I take it to be an achievement, much preferable to hunter-gathering, rural nationalist blood-and-soil states, etc.

        And there are experimental green communes around. I wonder if you’ve ever thought of joining one. From what I’ve read, the average eco-commune stay is something like four years. In other words, people get fed up with that lifestyle, however idyllic, fairly quickly and move on. And very few people seem inclined to leap into that lifestyle.

        I think of Helen and Scott Nearing. They were two of the most awesome and interesting back-to-the-land people in the 20th century. If you don’t know about them, they’re worth discovering. But their lifestyle is definitely not something most would choose absent a calamity. And it’s far from clear to me that their lifestyle is more eco-friendly than that of an urban dwelling vegetarian using public transportation in an energy efficient city.

        And I’m not clear why you suppose that restless human beings would ever stay put at a stage prior to our current one in the first place. We’ve played that tape and ended up here.

        I’m not trying to be glib about either the dangers that adhere to the future or the bad aspects of human civilization as currently composed, but the way people lived in the Paleolithic era is not the human future.

        The human future is space exploration and living in cities that are ecological sustainable.

    • Staffan says:

      “The assumption that humanness is a biological property is a relatively modern idea, reflective of a materialist culture with an idolizing fixation on technology, rife with tendentious ideas of progress and advancement, and a totalising drive for control of the natural world and other groups of people.”

      “Human beings are what they are roughly for reasons genetic (about 50%) and environmental (50%).

      That, at any rate, is what all twin studies seem to suggest to us.”

      No, this what liberal textbook writers want us to think. In reality it’s 50 percent genes and 25 percent measurement error and 25 percent environment. On top of that more accurate measures tend to yield higher heritiabilities. For instance schizophrenia has a 50 percent heritability when measure as a distinct category but 80 percent measured as a dimensional trait. Same goes for IQ which is better in that there is no social desireability. Or impulsivity which is often measured by direct observation.

      And on top of that, there is no reason to assume that all of the maximum 20 percent left is about social experiences. You have pre-natal and epigenetic factors too.

      This is not an assumption, it’s doing the math.

  10. Staffan says:

    It’s not the 50 percent I argue about, it’s the fact that measurement error and environment are bundled together as the environment factor. The error could be genes just as well. And like I said, better measures tend to get higher heritabilities. The Minnesota study is based on self-reports. And then you have the non-social environmental factors. All in all, it seems very unlikely that social experiences account for more than 20 percent of the variation. Probably less. Don’t buy the 50 percent myth.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Fair enough. I don’t know about the measurement error issue of which you speak. And I’m not clear on how meaningful these percentages are, in the particular, anyway. For example, if there are genetic constraints on one’s height to within 12 inches and your identical twin ends up at seven feet and you are at six feet, what happened exactly? How does one untangle this? Did you get less food than your twin? And if the difference is that your twin ends up in the NBA and you work as a Realtor, is it genes or environment that produced these outcomes? It seems to me that contingency functions through both genes and environment in many subtle ways.

      In any PARTICULAR case, biology appears to be less destiny than contingency is. Biology, though establishing a possible range of outcomes, is a subset within a much larger contingency. The decisive thing may (for example) be a chance encounter.

      I think of Matisse. He didn’t have a clue he had an artistic gift until he ended up in the hospital at the age of 20 in a bed next to a guy who, while recovering, was doing drawings, which Matisse then tried as well. The trajectory of Hitler’s ridiculous and grotesque political ascent seems to have hinged upon his rejection from art school.

      What trait gets expressed, what remains dormant, and why? The reasonable rule of thumb and generalization seems to me closer to 50-50 genes/environment (rather than treating one or the other as destiny). And, of course, in any particular case, a tale of curious contingencies can always be told.

      “The pig finds the truffle.” If you have a strong inherited temperamental proclivity, the environment is likely to cooperate with your inclination (if it is urgent and persistent) sooner or later.


  11. Staffan says:

    Descarne: That was 20 minutes of how Westerners are arrogant and nonwestern civilizations clever and wise. Anthropologists have been saying that since ever. Not that I agree but it’s completely irrelevant to whether behavioral traits are inheritable or not. If you have nothing, couldn’t you just humbly say so?

    • Des Carne says:

      I thought this was about the politics of resentment, a characterization with which I disagree, notwithstanding Eisenstein’s purported “salivation to predictions of global market crashes like apocalyptic crackpots” of the other political opinion. I agree, the literary form, if you like, of his presentation does not well serve his rhetorical purpose but I see nothing resentful or apocalyptic about it – nothing to justify the harsh description or attribution of motive.

      I have no argument with the influence of biology and evolution on our species (I was trained to become a natural scientist, like my father and his predecessors, but I find evolutionary anthropology a more fruitful line of enquiry to illuminate our behavior) – where I disagree is to the notion that the behavior of our species is bound by our physical, heritable biological traits, that biology, or even contingency, is destiny. As Ortega y Gasset argues, a bull’s behavioral repertoire is limited to that of a bull – it cannot behave other than as a bull; and even if we would like to attribute to a chimpanzee, because of its likeness to us, the rudiments of an imagination, it behaves as what it is, a chimpanzee, even to murdering and cannibalizing its neighbors – we find no evidence that it wants to becomes something other than what it is. We, on the other hand, cannot rest till we become something other than what we biologically are, mere primates.

      Unlike these creatures, we are capable of behaving contrary to our biologically inherited traits – indeed that seems to be the characteristic of cultural or social templates that define what being “human” is in most cultures. Hence I suggest it is more useful to consider what is unique about our species, viz, our “humanness” is not a biological but rather a cultural property – something we imagine in order to become, not something we are. Cultures, including elements of material culture, mediate models for becoming any one of the 7000 (or many more) ways Davis suggests our species has devised to become human beings. Davis, by the way, remarks approvingly upon the technological genius of our culture, comparably with the genius of other cultures he has immersed himself in (the field method of my discipline).

      As to ecotopias and space travel, best of luck at terraforming other planets, because I see only contrary evidence (eg accelerating climate change and depletion of biodiversity and critical resources our current “civilization” requires) that they will ever be realized on this one. I find the logic of the Kurzweilian dream of technological progress or evolution to ‘trans-human’ status, and Paul Davies’ suggestion we colonize and ‘terraform’ Mars, to be fantasies of those utterly out of touch with reality. I’m more inclined to agree with you that “eternal growth is impossible”, especially when “oil becomes obsolete”, and there will be a population “adjustment” (but I think more the result of disease, climate extremes and resource wars).

      Since noone here shares my view that human ontology requires care in how we conceive of or articulate what we mean by “human” it seems I do have little to contribute to this debate, at least not in terms of the linguistic conventions and assumptions of the current discussion.

      I do not consider mine a pessimistic view: I agree most people today crave the stimulation of urban life and almost magical technology, but in the long term I think we’ll invent far more earth-friendly and fulfilling ways to become human through the 10,000 to 100,000 year climate whiplash resulting from our current Promethean hubris; http://www.themonthly.com.au/climate-whiplash-curt-stager-3385 There will be plenty of evidence littering the earth to remind us of our earlier mistakes.

      • Staffan says:

        “Unlike these creatures, we are capable of behaving contrary to our biologically inherited traits – indeed that seems to be the characteristic of cultural or social templates that define what being “human” is in most cultures. Hence I suggest it is more useful to consider what is unique about our species, viz, our “humanness” is not a biological but rather a cultural property – something we imagine in order to become, not something we are.”

        I think the idea of inerited behavioral traits that we can contrary to is a contradiction in terms. If it was mainly a matter of culture these traits would show a lower heritability. It’s true that an introverted person can behave extraverted and vice versa, but the mere fact that we still can identify them as introverted or extraverted tells us that sheer will power can only do so much. A man with 85 in IQ can imagine himself being a doctor but he can’t actually be a doctor. For the same reason you have no colleagues with such a low intelligence – a trait that is some 80 percent heritable and extremely resistant to external influence. Indeed, every single IQ point has a significance in terms of education and income at the group level.

        Or, since anthropology is your thing, consider why there are so many human universals, why, as Chomsky discovered, is language so limited in its structures? Why do stories all over the world have common archetypal structures? We can imagine ourselves being anything but the actual outcomes tell a different story.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Des Carne:

        I think I understand your position now. What you’re really referring to is consciousness, our infinite overgoing of our own primate nature, but you call it “culture.” Here’s where I think you hit the nexus of the issue:

        “[W]e find no evidence that it [the chimpanzee] wants to becomes something other than what it is. We, on the other hand, cannot rest till we become something other than what we biologically are, mere primates.”

        Yes, that is correct. We have the unique power to imagine the infinite and move toward the infinite. That’s not a cultural construct, that’s something that has curiously arrived with our vast powers of consciousness. It’s not learned, it’s in our species. You seem to think that this hubris and impulse to overgo is a mistake of evolution. I think it may be what the universe has been moving toward all along, the point where Michelangelo’s Adam touches the finger of God.


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