Monday, April 13, 2015


What do you do in a postmodern age when a zillion opinions weaves a tapestry of voices threatening to drown out what's important? Well, you reassert the truth! Truth is the voice with the strongest evidence, the plainest facts, and the clearest logic. It is this perspective that rules over the others.

A German neologism comes to mind: it's Deutungshoheit; that's 'interpretation' (Deutung) plus 'highness' (Hoheit), as in 'your royal highness,' 'majesty,' or, figuratively speaking 'authority'. Deutungshoheit is the one perspective that rises above the tapestry, like the one ring to bind them all. It may not necessarily settle all the issues but essentially frames the debate.

The survey of big-picture perspectives that started with a systems-approach to sustainability and continued with the State of the World reports should be completed with the most authoritative readers of the crisis, with those interpreters who have Deutungshoheit. They're not necessarily climatologists, since holistic interpretation of information in the data fog depends on the art of synthesis more than on the rigors of analysis, and synthesis is an expertise all of its own. In the English-speaking world, Lester R. Brown would probably make the top of almost any such lists, or range very high on them, and he certainly tops mine. He's called an 'environmental analyst,' but this reflects a shortcoming of the English language--everybody understands what an analyst is, but the more appropriate word 'synthesist' remains obscure in this culture of cognition. Blame the Scottish Enlightenment. Anyway, Lester Brown is number one.

Next up are the eminent biologist and myrmecologist (ant-specialist) Edward O. Wilson. Places three and four of the Deutungshoheit list go to two social critics: Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. On place five is the superb environmental economist Jeffrey B. Sachs. There's no place six, but honorable mention goes to the critic of surburbia, Jim Kunstler.

Each of the top five, from Brown to Sachs, consistently articulates commanding and well-informed viewpoints of the crisis. Also, each of them represents a primarily empirical viewpoint that's accordingly outside philosophy. But I think that the empirical cannot be marginal to the project of climate philosophy. Climate philosophy aspires to wisdom grounded in biospherical reality, which requires a de facto reliance on substantive interpretations of empirical information. So these viewpoints, albeit empirical, belong to the climate-philosophical groundwork. Each of them is laced with a good does of criticism. The critiques are quite different in each approach, but they're all driven by the same moral commitment, which is also part of the foundation of climate philosophy: the value of life; that is, the value of collective existential flourishing. Confronted with the way things are, it is other things that trump flourishing, and these other things boil down to capitalistic profiteering, market forces unleashed, and the drive for ever more expansion, development, and growth--all in the name of 'economic rationality'.

It doesn't take a philosopher to adopt an ethos of humanism and biophilia, to apply its values to the socio-economic matrix, and to articulate its biospherical implications. This ethos is the point of contact of interpreters with Deutungshoheit and climate philosophy. The synthesizers and climate philosophy accordingly relate in two ways, by a shared set of values, and by the former grounding the latter. A philosophical orientation in the crisis must proceed from the wisdom of the classics as much as from a grounding in facts. This empirical groundwork finds completion with synthesizers of information and critics of the status quo. In the next post I'll say more about my top five list of Deutungshoheit-interpretations. For now I close with the honorable mention: James H. Kunstler.

Jim Kunstler is, in many ways, an artist. He majored in theatre before turning to architecture and design and eventually becoming a writer. His 1994 The Geography of Nowhere is a superb indictment of American suburbia. Suburbia represents a flawed design, and the flaws are infrastructural inefficiency and anthropological soullessness. The former matters to the energy wastefulness of the suburban lifestyle, which, as Kunstler rightly recognizes, constitutes a structural vulnerability in the coming austerity. The latter is the result of the solipsism, autism, lonelines, and narcissism that define the radically individualistic and paradoxically uniform lifestyle of American suburbia. Kunstler pits suburban soullessness against what the Wikipedia entry on him calls his "small town ethos". Both flaws matter as indications of a vastly larger maladaptation whose biospherical symptom is the climate crisis. Unsettling about this maladaptation is that it is worst in the very society that stood for progress in the past century. What does this imply for a transformation to a sustainable future? And where will this leave the United States?

This cultural maladaptation moves front and center in Kunstler's fabulous 2005 The Long Emergency. Its subtitle nearly says it all: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Convergent Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Grove, 2006). Here's a quote (p. 187):
Under the banner of free-market globalism, the chief side effect of oligarchical corporatism making its money piles bigger was the systematic destruction of local economies and therefore local communities. Thus, the richest nation in the world in the early twenty-first century had becoming an amazing panorama of ruined towns and cities with broken institutions and demoralized populations--surrounded by Wal-Marts and Target stores.
Kunstler's perspective meshes with the 2014 State of the World theme of failing governance due to regulatory capture by corporate interests. Kristin Shrader-Frechette, in What Will Work: Fighting Climate Change with Renewable Energy, Not Nuclear Power (2011), raises an important question about the context of energy (and manages to use the word 'leadership' three times in the same breath, p. 246):
Why has the US allowed other nations--such as China, Denmark, and Germany--to make massive profits from their global leadership in renewable energy, while the US continues to lose this leadership by subsidizing outmoded technologies, like fission and petroleum, that provide no future economic leadership and no sustainable power?
Kunstler considers such questions rhetorical and doesn't mince any words in his conclusions. Here's a sample:
America's moment of being kicked to the curb by other nations is at hand.
This is fun but may be too rash an inference. The problem with Kunstler's intellectual angle can be summed up in one word: pessimism. Calling this a problem, on a blog called 'blistered orb,' whose former subtitle was 'notes on the coming Darwin award," may sound ludicrous, but let me explain. Of course there's ample reason to feel gloomy about the climate crisis. That's why it's called a crisis! But emphasizing the gravity of the situation we're in is not quite the same as being a pessimist. In Kunstler's case, this pessimism is of a political, cultural, and ethnic sort. It is of the sort that defines a conservative. Although he's far from being a Republican, Kunstler is like a Republican in his nostalgia for the 'good old times' of mostly white rural America. Against this I wish to pit a progressive attitude. Progressives, in the ideological, leftwing sense, are optimists by default. One doesn't have to go into the details of historical materialism, but the basic idea, in Marx, Engels, and elsewhere, is that it's no great loss that the past has passed, that the present is better anytime, and that the future holds the promise for even further improvements. Hence 'progress'. Kunstler is what they call a doomster instead.

Conservative pessimism doesn't fit into a progressive outlook--the only outlook compatible with environmentalism. There's also a racial and generational pessimism in his perspective. Kunstler shows little understanding of the sensibilities, energies, and creativity in non-white America. He doesn't get Afroamericans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and other minorities. He echoes rightwing sentiments in his repeated complaints about the lack of culture in Afroamericans, without giving any thought about the legal, material, and economic factors for the blight of Afroamerican communities. In this he sounds like a typical American rightwinger: the lack of the 'proper' values is to blame, but the lack of social security and the lack of equality before the law never catch his attention.

He doesn't get young people either (he only complains about their fashion and tattoos, which is simply beside the point). Befitting a cultural conservative, he doesn't get LGBTQ either. These are three limitations in his interpretive synthesis, and they're significant, for they show Kunstler still thinking inside the box. He's a great wordsmith, and The Long Emergency is a visionary piece of work, but in some sense he's the intellectual version of a cranky old white man. Too much pessimism, too little hope. Contra Kunstler, I say there's hope, and it lies with alternatives, the very ones he dismisses--the young, the non-WASP, and the non-breeders. This is why Kunstler fails to make the list. Yet his earlier critique of suburbia, his indictment of the automobile- and carbon-based infrastructure, and his lucid exposition of the links of American oil to misguided policies deserve an honorable mention.

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