The “Politics of Possibility”, Part 2

…the continued review of “Break Through” by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.

Reading this book reminds me of the Design Studies course we took in the ITPD program at the University of Southern Denmark, Sønderborg. One of the class sessions was dedicated to framing an idea. I took away the lesson that the framing of an idea is at least as equal in power as the actual supporting evidence.

In “Break Through,” the authors do not deny the “traditional” evidence of the environmentalist movement, such as the destruction of the rainforest, pollution of natural resources, and extinction of indigenous species. Instead, they argue against the framing of the gradual destruction of the environment as humans imposing on Nature.

Rather than dissolving the distinction between humans and Nature, environmentalists reverse the hierarchy, arguing that humans are still separate from but subordinate to Nature. This reversal is motivated by the view that our perfectly healthy and natural desire to control out environment is a sinful desecration of Nature. But it must be asked: can human societies exist without, in one way or another, controlling Nature? (134-135)

It’s a subtle shift to say humans are a part of nature as opposed to imposing on Nature. Yet, the actions warranted by each frame are nearly opposite. If humans are imposing on Nature (aka the “natural order” of the world), then the solution to our prolonged destruction of the environment is to severely limit our use of natural resources and “reduce our impact”. However, if, as creationists and evolutionists would agree, humans are a part of nature, then the goal should be to redirect our development in a positive, less harmful direction.

The growth of human society and development of technology are not inherently bad activities, necessarily sending the whole planet towards oblivion. Rather, they are facts of human existence than can easily be pointed in a positive, healthy direction. Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to change and to use acquired knowledge to improve and grow upon the past. The recent evidence for global warming is not a harbinger of our impending doom, but rather support to focus our efforts in a new way and to consider the global impact of the technologies we develop and policies we enact.

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One Response to The “Politics of Possibility”, Part 2

  1. James says:

    I can definitely remember that design studies class.

    Our self preservation trumps all of our other actions, as the economist John Maynard Keynes said “we are all dead in the the long run.” The considerations necessary to make the massive changes to curb any of the adverse effects of global climate change may be beyond our nature as humans. Re-framing the perception of how humans fit into “nature” may be a start, but it will be going against centuries of thought: a difficult proposition. The humans who had the right ideas, namely the native Americans, have been all but killed off.

    Now, we as humans have the ability to adapt to our environment, but, as I see it, we are more likely to adapt to a changed climate/absence of oil/destroyed environment than we are to fix the problems before they fully play out.

    I am also concerned by the “less harmful” proposition, because it is still harmful. The best attitude I have heard so far is that of William McDonough: that we should not strive for less bad but for good.

    It sounds like Nordhaus’ book is a great addition to the body of thought concerning the human relationship with the environment. I’ll try to pick it up in my next bookstore visit.

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