THE NEW BATTLE: RESISTING THE ANTHROPOCENE
by Lorna Salzman
From March 1-4, 2013, I participated in a roundtable conference in San Francisco on Techno-Optimism, sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, the Center for Food Safety, and Foundation Earth. The organizers were Jerry Mander of the IFG (author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and In the Absence of the Sacred), and Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety, with the backup and support of Doug Tompkins, of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. About thirty people from various disciplines offered papers and Power Point presentations on the global ecological crises followed by group questions and discussion.
Suffice it to say it was fascinating and informative, and especially encouraging to see that everyone essentially agreed on the seriousness of the crises and the urgent need to come together to confront them. The bad news was that the presentations confirmed everyone's worst fears about the intractability and growth of the crises. But defeatism was not in the mix; another conference on strategy is planned for the fall and in 2014 they hope to present another all-day conference under the same sponsorship as the earlier ones in NYC and at the 1999 anti-WTO protest in Seattle.
Of special concern was and is genetic engineering and biotech (including the growing problem of the use of nanoparticles), and the inevitable crisis in food supplies that could, along with loss of biodiversity, be the most serious imminent crisis of all because it will affect most of the world. The food and agriculture issues were eloquently and forcefully presented by Wes Jackson, head of The Land Institute (he developed a perennial grain that will soon be available) and an amazing farmer from upstate New York, Severine Tscharner-Fleming, founder of The Greenhorns, who had all of us smacking our heads in amazement at her knowledge and energetic activism. Pat Mooney of ETC in Canada gave a power presentation on the nanoparticle threats of which no one is yet aware. Of special note was the eloquent clear presentation by economist Lisi Krall, of Syracuse University, demonstrating that yes, some economists can speak clear coherent English. Eileen Crist and Tom Butler took on the Anthropocene promoters (see below). And Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute and author of numerous books on energy, astounded with both a presentation on energy and a solo violin recital.
My presentation focused on the disturbing prevalence of anti-science attitudes of the general public, enhanced by the leftist and post modernist academics in our universities. Their senseless attacks on science and medicine have given science a bad name, and have also given credibility to the deniers of climate change, something that evolutionary biologist Michael Soule addressed in his important essay, The Social Siege of Science, as part of an essay collection, Reinventing Nature. I believe that these sentiments are potential obstacles to intelligent public discourse and policy making, to put it mildly. To put it strongly, we should all be scared stiff.
The recent flap over Napoleon Chagnon's book, Noble Savages, gave me the opportunity to address these reactionary forces emanating from the left. Among the purveyors of untruths must be included the Break Through Institute (Nordhaus and Shellenberger; see my web site for my critique of their reports), Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog, the original technophile and space colony guru, and Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy. Together these and others are promoting the notion of the Anthropocene, in which human needs trump the rest of the natural world, in a technocratic nightmare that is welcome news to corporations and polluters, who now have supposedly "credible" scientific experts on their side to defend their destruction of the natural world, its species and its resources.
(A lengthy paper by Alice Dreger about Chagnon is available for those who want more details on the Chagnon controversy, at Springerlink.com)
Here is what I wrote for the SF group:
The controversy over Napoleon Chagnon's book Noble Savages and his work among the Yanomami is not only fascinating for the insights into the political and ideological motivations of the cultural anthropology community but because it addresses the topic of evolution and where the human species fits in with the natural world.
In the field of science and technology today, there are some issues that have particular relevance to public policy in the environmental sphere and whose resolution one way or another will have a major impact on human societies and the natural world. One of these is genetic engineering and biotechnology. Another is the loss of biodiversity. Because of their gravity and implications for humanity and the natural world, it is doubly important that the ordinary citizen be informed and involved in these debates. But such involvement necessitates a basic understanding of the evolutionary process.
It also requires a mind open to free inquiry and unpleasant truths.Above all it requires a view of the human species that does not set it apart from nonhuman nature or confer on it a superior status which will inevitably lead to an instrumental view of the earth as a fount of resources to be exploited solely for human benefit. In this respect the views of some recent thinkers are relevant; they have fatalistically accepted the adverse consequences of technology by downplaying their risks while simultaneously inventing a new technology-dominated rosy future in which all aspects of life on this planet are managed by humans rather than being allowed to follow their own evolutionary paths.
This view has deemed this brave new world the "Anthropocene", in which humanity dominates the earth however it sees fit. What is not discussed at length is just who will do the managing and with what criteria and purpose. Looking at our present situation, it appears likely that the same institutions, forces and motivations now governing the world will be the ones in charge. This is not a pretty picture nor is it acceptable, because it is these same groups and forces who have left in their wake the vast poverty and inequality in most nations of the world, not to mention dangerous technologies, pollution and destruction of habitat, ocean fisheries and species.
It is imperative that the criminals be blamed and named. But some on the left would smother the very thing we need to counteract and rebut these anti-nature forces: science. The post modern Marxist view of how we solve social injustice rests on an anti-science precept that views economic relations as the determinant of social progress and human interaction. These same forces have expanded this economic determinism into a broader cultural determinism so as to fight the long battle they initiated decades ago: the battle to sabotage the discipline of science and make it conform to their ideological model. Their sabotage targets scientists as being the culprits behind colonialism, racism, sexism, imperialism and all those who have inflicted harm on all the oppressed peoples of the world. Their complaints have not always been verbal; they have physically attacked respected scientists like Edward O. Wilson on several occasions (though he was not harmed).
These Marxists and post modernists have infected the social sciences to the extent that these academic disciplines have been put on the defensive and effectively prevented their own theories from getting a fair hearing, with some scientists like Chagnon and Wilson slandered personally, in an ideological orgy that closely echoes the purges of Stalin in the Soviet Union, where deviation from the official line could end in exile at best but more often in execution. The Stalinist line on evolution was created by Lysenko, who revived the notion of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Today's post modernist leftists may believe in evolution and natural selection but they have decided, by a vote rather than by scientific evidence, that humans are not subject to evolutionary pressures or laws but are in a special category where they are free from the constraints of Nature and thereby can create their own culture and values from scratch without a second thought about biology or evolution.
The logical outcome of this is of course that whoever is in power at any given time makes the rules, mandates the values and literally creates the culture......to his or her liking of course. It is a comfort to them to know that humans need not defer to Nature in any way. It is a double comfort to imagine that their (the left's) model for human society has the potential to control the earth and all its inhabitants. Now, not all cultural anthropologists may be thinking along these grandiose lines. But in their own limited sphere of the campus and academic research and publications, they have many possibilities of asserting and imposing their own ideology. This is what the cultural anthropologists attempted to do when they started smearing the work of Napoleon Chagnon, an evolutionary sociobiologist. Their slanders and lies are the modern manifestation of Stalinism, as today's debate over Chagnon's latest book proves.
This is a Science War of the most urgent kind. It is not just an obscure debate on the mating practices of bonobos. It goes to the heart of what we were given by the Enlightenment: the freedom of inquiry, of dissent, of hypothesis, of the very practice of science and in particular the science of evolution that is most needed to reconcile humans to their role in Nature and their future there, if they have it. The understanding of evolution is not that of pop science, of "Nature red in tooth and claw", but that is how these cultural determinists portray it, because it plays on the heartstrings of good compassionate liberals who commiserate with "primitive" peoples who they see as constantly struggling against colonialism....even when they are living out their lives, like the Yanomami, as they freely choose.
If we do not acknowledge the supreme importance of evolution, we can never solve the problems of ecological degradation. If we are to protect and restore the damaged ecosystems of the world as well as the damaged human systems, we will need to draw on our understanding of evolution. The pretense that humans, once they pulled away from their primate ancestors, could make the world in their image is at the intellectual and philosophical core of the global crisis. We must resist the term Anthropocene with all our might. And we can start this battle by supporting Napoleon Chagnon, who is on the front lines facing those who would destroy science in the name of their ideology.