Who speaks for the environment? Two Guardian writers slug it out

In the Guardian, George Monbiot and Steven Poole have recently put forward contesting views of environmental writing.

Monbiot’s riposte to Poole’s critical review of a Romantic strand of contemporary nature writing is pinging round t’internet. Affronted by Poole’s criticisms of his book Feral,  Monbiot asserts that Poole is some kind of Tory/Mao Tse Tung/Red Guard hybrid, a humanities graduate dupe of postmodernism and, above all, a philistine.

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Why might anyone care?

Maybe because this is about who gets to speak about environmental issues? And what kind of dominant environmental discourse we end up with.

Of course, controversy is good for selling newspapers – and books. And in opinion pieces, it’s normal for writers to overstate their case and indulge in rhetorical flights, as Monbiot does in his  riposte to Poole’s article.

Straight off, Monbiot launches a personal attack, accusing “those who attack nature lovers” of “ignorance” and philistinism”. He returns to elaborate this personal attack at the end of his article, accusing Poole of “Red Guard philistinism”.

Having just published Feral, Monbiot naturally would want to protect his writing by attacking anyone who criticises it – just as a mother goose recently chased off my son’s dog when he paused on the tow path to look at her flock of goslings paddling in the canal.

The entirely lovely Marley

In his fierce defence of his own writing, Monbiot’s rhetorical ploys include arguing by a deliberately false analogy – only pointing out its falsity at the end of that section of his article, after it has done its rhetorical work.

Then, after smearing Poole’s criticisms by associating them with both the Tories and Mao Tse Tung – and accusing Poole of doing the Tories’ evil work for them – he presents what seems to me to be a false interpretation of Poole’s argument, and attacks that.

Monbiot writes that Poole’s criticisms of contemporary, middle class nature writers working within the Romantic tradition are a philistine attack on

“nature lovers…whose hearts are broken by the heedless destruction of the natural world.”

Having discredited Poole as a philistine, and portrayed himself as a hapless victim, Monbiot then accuses Poole of being a postmodern dupe with a lamentable lack of scientific knowledge, who mixes up cultural and scientific codes in his argument that ecologists’ concerns about invasive species can be coded as right wing ways of talking about human immigration.

Poole seems to me to be doing various things, none amounting to an attack on nature lovers. First, he identifies a strand of contemporary writing – including Monbiot’s new book Feral – that is clearly within the Romantic tradition, treating the environment as the source of  sublime experiences for the solitary onlooker.

Poole then extends his critique of this strand of middle class environmentalism to the observation that ecological concerns about “invasive” or “non-native” species can be coded as a kind of dog whistle appeal to anti-immigration, UKIP-type politics.  Monbiot takes this as unmistakeable evidence that Poole is scientifically illiterate and the dupe of a postmodern confusion of categories of knowledge.

When people say others shouldn’t mix up different categories – like politics and sport, or culture and science – it’s worth looking at who did the mixing up in the first place. Around  1970, annoyed middle-aged Tory blokes used to remonstrate with us anti-apartheid protesters that we shouldn’t put politics into rugby, by disrupting Springbok matches. But, as we pointed out to them, who decided that apartheid South Africa’s rugby team should be all white? Not us.

Likewise, when ecologists starting noticing that some imported species were damaging the ecosystems into which humans had introduced them, who started calling them invasive or non-native species? I’m only asking, because I genuinely don’t know. But you’d think that, with the vast vocabulary of the English language, whoever it was could have chosen words that were less culturally and politically loaded. I mean, what’s wrong with calling them imported species? That’s what they are, the term is accurate. It puts the responsibility for the species’ presence with the importer, not with the species. It’s far less politically loaded than invasive or non-native species.

Origins of ecology – far from scientific?

Monbiot’s wounded response seems to miss the point of Poole’s questions about the political subtext that the language of contemporary environmentalism lends itself to – the point being, that it’s possible that Poole’s questions are driven by a concern for the environment that is a real as Monbiot’s – just coming from a different political position.

Poole isn’t the only commentator to have noticed that ecological discourse can carry and mask dubious political agendas. Adam Curtis  has written about

“a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.”

Curtis traces the origin of this understanding of how ecosystems work to a

“ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s”

One was Arthur Tansley, who seems to have coined the concept of  ecosystems through a process of applying an engineering concept of systems to the natural world – arguing from Freud’s analogous idea that the human brain is a kind of electrical machine around which energy flows. Curtis says that  “Tansley admitted that he had no real evidence” for his argument that all ecosystems – and all other systems that made up his vision of the world – tended towards a state of equilibrium, which he considered to be a “great universal law”.

The other man battling over the shape that the discourse of ecology would take was Field Marshal Jan Smuts, who ruled South Africa for the British Empire. When he was not calling in planes to bomb Hottentot people for refusing to pay their dog licences, says Curtis, Smuts was walking around naked on hilltops, dreaming up his philosophy of holism.

Curtis outlines Smuts’ holist philosophy as being based on the idea that the world is made up of

“lots of ‘wholes’ – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places.”

The Fabian socialist Tansley, and others, attacked Smuts’ holist philosophy as a construct that justified the British Empire’s divide and rule policy of splitting the world into a number of separate wholes and subjecting them to overall imperial control. And they had a point. Just as Smuts had articulated his holist philosophy of a place for everything and everything in its place under one Emperor, he made a speech that laid the foundations of apartheid in South Africa, advocating a law that would segregate blacks from whites.

Tansley’s and Smuts’ ideas about ecosystems and holism, detached from their historical origins, continued to fly around the world for the next 90 years, justifying all manner of cultural and political movements and experiments, in the same way as Poole sees more recent ecological ideas as lending themselves to, or being shaped by, coded racist assumptions.

Foraging for intellectual weeds

History can be read as the story of unintended consequences. Similarly, any writer must realise that a large part of what they write has escaped their conscious control. Monbiot recognises this in his riposte to Poole, suggesting that Poole’s arguments arise from an unconscious internalisation of the neoliberal world view that puts the market above everything.

Monbiot doesn’t apply this insight about the workings of the unconscious to his own writing, but defends his radical credentials as a kind of caped crusader digging dirt on the environmental degradation caused by the rich and powerful. He doesn’t consider the possibility that this may not be all that is going on in his writing.

Or, that there may be other, possibly more effective ways of reversing environmental degradation than a solitary caped crusader’s muckraking, valuable though this is.

Ways that are less to do with Feral’s self-centred search for ecological thrills (a Romantic, bourgeois individualist position, if you want to use the languages of cultural criticism and class politics, and why not?) and more to do with a practical, collective determination to change the social relations that feed on environmental depletion and degradation.

In the nature of things, it’s very unlikely that Monbiot has a monopoly of environmental wisdom. Why can’t he admit this? Poole’s critique  may be muddle headed (although I’m not saying it is). But why dismiss his questions as a Tory/Red Guard Communist/postmodern/humanities graduate’s melange of philistinism and ignorance?

Even eruptions of intellectual weeds from people without science degrees might repay consideration.

Meanwhile, back in Hebden Bridge, members of the public are working with another set of knowledge controversies. Under the guidance of PhD geography student Shaun Maskrey, we are working on a six month project to create a model for flood risk reduction in the Hebden Water catchment, that will be able to show how certain it is that different flood risk reduction measures are going to work.

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