Monthly Archives: June 2009

Visions of progress: A surprising glimpse inside the mind of the technocrat

Progress is a powerful concept that is called on by politicians of all persuasions; indeed, we might argue that much of our everyday political debate is fundamentally about the meaning and desirability of progress. The details of what constitutes progress seem to capture the essence of  various moral and ideological divides. One person’s idea of medical advancement might well be another person’s idea of unethical meddling; where I see social progress, you may see the interference of the nanny state; in my desire for environmental regulation, you might see needless restrictions on economic growth.

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The social organisation of denial: Understanding why we fail to act on climate change, and what we can do about that.

Kari Marie Norgaard has written a useful research paper for – perhaps surprisingly – the World Bank. (Cognitive and Behavioral Challenges in Responding to Climate Change)

She investigates how denial, operating as a social process, is hindering our ability to take effective action on climate change despite growing concern and awareness of the risks. It is not a complete analysis – I would recommend that readers keep in mind the insights about social change, consumerism,  and values highlighted in the WWF ‘Weathercocks & Signposts’ report discussed here, and analysis of the dynamics of consumer capitalism such as those discussed here and here.

Norgaard’s report is forty-something pages of body text and tables. The following is my attempt at an Executive Summary.

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Carnegie’s Ghosts

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was born into a poor and politically radical artisan family in Scotland, became a ruthless and extremely successful industrialist and businessman in the United States (twice as wealthy as Bill Gates, in contemporary terms), and then, having decided it would be shameful to die that rich, retired from business to give it all away – becoming ‘the world’s leading philanthropist’ and a tireless campaigner for world peace.

Carnegie was a complex and confounding character. In many ways, his internal contradictions reflected the contradictions of capitalism, contradictions we in the world’s wealthy nations still live out, collectively, of course, but also individually – though mainly on a much smaller-scale than Carnegie! [The average yearly income at purchasing power parity of a Haitian is U.S $1,300, compared to an average yearly income at ppp for a New Zealander of U.S $27,900 -Estimates, 2008, source CIA Factbook, retrieved 16 June 2009]
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Degrowth: Putting the economy back in its place

In France, where the concept originated and where it has had considerable impact, it is decroissance; in English it is degrowth, and in any language it is a significant symbolic challenge to the “tyranny of growth.”

Degrowth activists in France have formed a political party, and publish a monthly magazine; sadly for English speakers such as myself, this French language material remains largely inaccessible. Fortunately, a very useful summary of the politics of degrowth has been provided by Valerie Fournier in a paper currently available here.

Here I’ll pick up on some of the points that caught my attention.

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Green politics in the era of the post-ecologist paradox

This is the era of ‘post-ecologism.’ On the one hand, we have:

“a general acceptance that the achievement of sustainability requires radical change in the most basic principles of late-modern societies.”

And yet, on the other hand, there is

“a general consensus about the non-negotiability of democratic consumer capitalism – irrespective of mounting evidence of its unsustainability” [1].

This crazy paradox is, undoubtedly, an accurate summation of the societal self-deception we live with: “a realm where the management of the inability and unwillingness to become sustainable has taken centre ground.”  And so the disturbingly ambiguous politics of unsustainability holds sway [1].

Well over a year ago now, Barry wrote about how irony is the only sane response to a world of paradox and ambiguity. But it is a response that is easier to manage at a personal level than at the level of organised politics. So how are green parties coping with this situation?

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