Inventing a New Language of Dissent

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At a pivotal moment of Ian Mcewan’s new novel, Solar, the main character, Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who is trying to promote a technology for artificial photosynthesis, gives the following speech to a group of pension fund managers:

The basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime. . . . How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilisation and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two .   . . nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest . . . and the satisfaction of profit.

In a commentary perhaps on the idea expressed in this speech, or perhaps on his character’s greed, McEwan has Beard retreat backstage immediately after the speech and vomit.

At another point the novelist remarks of one of Beard’s girlfriends, “to take the matter [climate change] seriously would be to think about it all the time. Everything else shrank before it. And so, like everyone she knew, she could not take it seriously. Not entirely. Daily life would not permit it.”

Solar is supposed to be a comic novel, but what it satirizes is very serious indeed, namely, the games the world is playing with climate change; the tendency to assimilate this most epochal and apocalyptic of all threats into business as usual. How can we make daily life permit us to take it seriously? Pace Beard’s girlfriend, we must find a way to do that.

“We abuse land,” Aldo Leopold wrote, “because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” He holds that a change in our behavior may follow from a change in how we conceive of nature and of ourselves; a change in the way we live may follow from a change in how we see. He does not speak about changing behavior within the old way of seeing by altering incentives and changing the calculus of self-interest while still remaining owners and consumers of the land. He talks about moving to a new way of seeing altogether.

I wonder if we yet comprehend the importance of this distinction. I wonder if we still believe that such a gestalt shift in perception is possible? Let’s pay close attention to Leopold’s formulation and choice of words. This is a statement of profound opposition, which begins with a simple, powerful assertion—we abuse the land. He does not say, as he easily might in keeping with the tenor of his times and his profession, that we “misuse” the land. This is not a question of inefficiency, lack of good management skills, misaligned incentives, or economic externalities and market failure. This is a question of malignancy rather than misalignment. Having set up the fundamental opposition of abuse versus right relationship, he fills it out with the language of commodity and ownership, on one side, and the language of community, belonging, love, and respect, on the other. This is the language and resonance of prophetic, not managerial discourse: Thoreau, not Pinchot; Wilberforce, not Jevons.

Leopold is recovering and deploying a particular language of dissent. Today the responsibility to oppose the abuse of the land is as valid and as pertinent as ever. The imperative of opposition and dissent calls us as urgently as it called to Leopold’s generation. But do we have a serviceable language of dissent any longer? Can we recover it? Or, if, as I suspect may be the case, much of the resonance of the prophetic tradition upon which thoreau and Leopold could still draw is unavailable to us, can we invent it anew?

What change of vision is involved? The required vision, the content of the dissent at issue here might be described in the following way. Only human beings may have the capacity to understand and act in accordance with complex moral ideas and rules. But value in the world does not reside within human beings alone. The value in the world, for the sake of which ethics and morality exist in the first place, resides in the natural and biotic context of which human individuals and societies are a part. The content of human duty and the good for which we strive should be understood in terms of systems of interdependency, relationship, sustainability, and resiliency.

In seeing the need for a new vocabulary within which to articulate a dissent of this kind, we could do worse than take our bearings from the noted historian, Tony Judt. in a recent interview, talking about politics and society broadly and not just ecological and climate issues, he said:

We need to rediscover a language of dissent. It can’t be an economic language since part of the problem is that we have for too long spoken about politics in an economic language where everything has been about growth, efficiency, productivity and wealth, and not enough has been about collective ideals around which we can gather, around which we can get angry together, around which we can be motivated collectively, whether on the issue of justice, inequality, cruelty or unethical behaviour. We have thrown away the language with which to do that. And until we rediscover that language how could we possibly bind ourselves together? We can’t come together on the basis of 19th or 20th-century ideas of inevitable progress or the natural historical progression from capitalism to socialism or whatever. We can’t believe in that anymore. And anyway, it can’t do the work for us. We need to rediscover our own language of politics. (London Review of Books, 32, no. 6 [March 2010]: 19-20.)

In this issue of Minding Nature the theme of a new vision and a critical language of dissent from business as usual is approached from several different angles. Christopher Preston argues that the power of both an understanding of nature and an ethical vision have importantly to do with the physical nature of the place one inhabits and the ways in which one is shaped by the characteristics of that place.

Seemingly starting from the other end of the spectrum, Julianne Lutz Warren reflects on the power of “no-place,” utopia to reconstruct in the space of imagination something of the shaping power of material place. Few examples of the interaction between lived particularity and concreteness and an aspiration to a corrected fullness in our moral lives are more fruitful than the process described by Kathryn Kintzele in her reflections of the Biosphere Ethics initiative, and in particular the lessons of the BEI “relatos.”

Finally, the utopian aspiration takes on yet another shape in the subfield of biological research known as “synthetic biology,” for which Joachim Boldt provides both a roadmap and a set of concepts for the careful assessment of the implications of that particular form of humans and nature relationship. It is interesting to think about the respective worlds and endeavors that Kintzele and Boldt explore. The future of life in question, indeed.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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