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The quants and the poets

If, a century ago, the keenest talking heads of the age (who would that have been, I wonder: Chesterton, Shaw, Belloc, Jo Chamberlain?) had battled it out amongst themselves about the future of infrastructure and energy, what would that debate have looked like? If, say, they had all agreed on the importance of rolling out a massive, global plan stretching decades into the future, based on endlessly argued-over scientific ‘facts’ which themselves disguised a lot of underlying political, cultural and social assumptions about the way the world is – what would they have been arguing over? Precisely how many ostlers would be needed by 1950? The importance of a large-scale dung clean-up operation on the streets of major cities? A research and development programme to investigate the plausibility of time machines? Sourcing the funding for an urgent nationwide rollout of dirigible charging stations?

Thoughts like these have been drifting into my head, then drifting out again, for a few weeks now, as I have observed the predictably bitter squabble going on in the green community – and, inevitably therefore, in the media – about Fukushima and the future of nuclear power. I am, it is safe to say, no scientist (something I have in common with most of those who hold strong opinions on nuclear power, by the looks of it) and I have no real idea what is currently going on in those Japanese reactors (ditto) I don’t know, either, whether the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl will turn out to be the high-water mark of the global nuclear industry – something which would apparently be a triumph or a catastrophe depending on which pundit you’re listening to.

But I do wonder whether it is a high water mark for the greens. For a long time now, the green movement has been in retreat, and that retreat now seems in danger of turning into a rout. From a standing start four decades ago, the greens have seen some of their ideas (mainly the ones about using ‘our resources’ ’sustainably’) spread widely and sometimes deeply into popular and political culture. They have also, inevitably, seen those ideas watered down. I have covered this subject before and don’t intend to do so again here in any detail, but it might be worth reflecting a little bit on the bind the greens are now in.

We all know by now how big, and unstoppable, the global industrial machine is. We know that the global economy relies on resource consumption like a fish relies on gills, and we know that when this imperative is combined with accelerating technological change, a rising human population, the virus-like spread of consumer values, a mass extinction event, a changing climate and resource scarcity in a number of (admittedly contested) areas, the results do not look pretty. When we add all this up we also know, if we are being honest with ourselves, that we are not going to be able to prevent the crash into the buffers – which has already begun – from getting very messy indeed.

At this point, things get complicated. If we are highly politicised people, whose values and self-image are predicated on being ‘activists’ in the cause of preventing such terrible things, we may simply not allow ourselves to be honest about this. This is understandable and I know what it feels like, having been there myself for quite a long time. At this point, we have to lie to ourselves – to go into denial for the sake of our psychological health. So we might pretend to ourselves that ‘one more push’ (ie, doing the same thing yet again) may do the trick. We might tell ourselves that The People are ignorant of The Facts and that if we enlighten them they will Act. We might believe that the right treaty has yet to be signed, or the right technology yet to be found, or that the problem is not too much growth and science and progress but too little of it. Or we might choose to believe that a Movement is needed to expose the lies being told to The People by the Bad Men In Power who are preventing The People from doing the rising up they will all want to do when they learn The Truth.

Whatever the story, it will be a story based on the need for an external event or events, which can only be brought into being by way of more ‘action.’ This way, we can tell ourselves that the only thing to do is to keep on keeping on. After all, the alternative must be ‘giving up’ and watching the world burn.

This is where the greens are today. It is a hard place to be, and it is a place made even more fearsome by the single-minded obsession with climate change that has gripped environmentalism over the last decade. The fear of carbon has trumped all other issues – so much so that is now common in popular culture to see ‘green’ ideas represented simply as arguments about carbon emissions. Everything else has been stripped away. All that matters now is cutting carbon.

It is in this context that the nuclear rumpus has occurred. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami ripped apart a nuclear power plant, and with barely a day’s grace the pundits were swooping on the place. Most of them seemed to see this tragedy simply as an opportunity to forcefully restate their existing positions on nuclear power – It will kill us! It will save us! – even as the fuel rods were still melting. Some people – like our very own George Monbiot – used Fukushima not to restate their case but to change their mind. But whatever the argument, the growing – and understandable – sense of desperation was the same.

The greens are in a corner. If you believe that climate change will wreck the Earth and that the only way to prevent that from happening is to ‘reduce emissions’ in a fantastically short time period, then you are in a very perilous place. It’s not that this argument is necessarily wrong – it probably isn’t, though the lack of certainty is always worth highlighting. But it is so obviously impossible to do what it is claimed Must Be Done to stop it that futility or despair can end up being the only places to turn.

My feeling is that the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ’study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly.

In this, the mainstream green movement is only reflecting and feeding upon wider societal trends. We live in a remarkably literal-minded and reductionistic culture. I’m struck listening to or reading the news, for example, by how nothing is seen to be ‘real’ unless it is sanctioned by the priesthoods of either Science or Business, and preferably both. A culture in which Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan are seen as intellectual guiding lights is the kind of culture which produces an environmental movement made up of frustrated, passionate people who feel obliged to act like speak-your-weight machines just to be heard.

If we want to move beyond the futility and despair imposed by the cold narrowness of this worldview, where do we look? What is missing here is stories, and an understanding of the importance of stories in getting to the bottom of what is really going on. Because at root, this whole squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all – it is about narratives.

The fight between the pro-nukers and the anti-nukers, for example, is actually quite archetypal. Though both sides pretend to be informed by ’science’ and ‘facts’ both are actually informed primarily by prejudice. Whether you like nuclear power or not is a reflection of the kind of worldview you have: whether you are a confident embracer of the Western model of progress or whether it frightens or concerns you; whether you trust science or tend not to; whether you are cautious or reckless; whether you are ‘progressive’ or ‘conservative.’ On issues ranging from GM crops to capitalism, these are the underlying stories that actually inform the green debate. That they are then supported by a clutch of cherry-picked facts – easy to come by, after all, in the age of Wikipedia – is a footnote to what’s really going on.

The mess that the greens have got themselves into is at least partly due to them paying more attention to numbers than narratives. Green political thought, in its early incarnations, was radical and challenging. It was about the stories we tell ourselves about the world: stories about progress, industry, the conquest of nature and many of the other narratives that the Dark Mountain Project exists to highlight. The early greens challenged these stories with others, drawn in some cases from ecotopian imaginings about better future but in many more cases from the stories of existing non-industrial societies: the Kalahari Bushmen, for example, who lived for 35,000 years in a culture which managed to survive in remarkable harmony with non-human nature even with lions prowling outside the huts of its people (a story touched on in Dark Mountain book two). You want ’sustainability’? The Bushmen were the longest-recorded human culture. They were genuinely sustainable for longer than we can imagine. Industrial society got them in the end, like it gets everything, but the example remains.

This kind of thing, of course, was what made it so easy to attack the greens as Romantics and primitivists (which some of them were and still are.) In response, environmentalists decided to get ’serious’, so as to be listened to in the corridors of power. They started wearing suits and pretending to be economists and speaking the language of business and science. It was a perfectly sensible approach in many ways, and it yielded many clear dividends.

But it may also have doomed the greens in the longer term, for now they find themselves caught in a narrative of other peoples’ making. Almost by accident, mainstream green politics and argument threw out most of the alternative stories it grew up with, like a child throws out his old teddy bears: that was then, but this is now, and now we are Grown Ups. This approach has left environmentalism in a position where its advocates now find themselves unable to do anything but argue about which machines they would prefer to use to power an ever-growing industrial economy. Any sally outside this tightly-controlled ghetto sees them rained with bullets from all sides: accused of wishful thinking if they talk about zero-growth economies; called snobs and hypocrites if they criticise consumerism; attacked as terrorists if they engage in direct action to protect wild nature; called naive idealists if they ask whether planning for a future much like the present is really such a good idea.

This has always been the case, of course, but now the greens are being heard in the corridors of power the stakes are much higher. A global anti-green movement now exists and is growing in power and influence. Meanwhile, the greens have been taken over from within by smooth-tongued purveyors of business-as-usual without the carbon. The message is clear: stick to arguing about the machines, and you’re welcome to play with the big boys. But drop all the other nonsense, alright? This, demonstrably, is how radical movements die.

I’m currently trying to get my head around exactly how the current economic crisis has happened, and in the cause of doing so I am reading John Lanchester’s book Whoops! which explains it in terms that even people like me can grasp. This evening I was reading Lanchester’s description of how banks have changed in the last few decades. When his father worked in banking it was a staid business populated mostly by non-graduates. Today, if you don’t have a first-class maths degree from Oxbridge you’ll find it hard making it in the industry. This, Lanchester suggests, is part of the problem: banking has become so specialist, so complex, that most people – including many bankers - simply don’t understand how it works.

The maths geeks who now run the futures and options operations in banking are known as ‘quants’. One MBA student quoted in the book reported that on his course the students were required to identify themselves as either ‘quants’ or ‘poets’. That is: did they do numbers, or did they do words?

These days, the green movement is being taken over by quants. It’s easy to see why. Quants present easy, numbered, labelled arguments which may sometimes require a maths degree but don’t require a rewiring of your worldview or an examination of your narrative. A green quant might be telling you to change your lightbulbs or come out on the streets in favour of a nuclear power plant or a windfarm, but he’s not asking you to examine your values or your society’s underlying mythology. And if you talk to him about this, it is very easy indeed for him to laugh and tell you loftily that this is all very nice but is hardly comparable to the serious business of saving the world one emission at a time.

This is the context in which the nuclear squabble is being played out. Here, for example, is an article which claims that renewable energy can’t meet ‘our energy needs’? But our needs for what? Coffee machines and fast broadband, or clean drinking water and living ecosystems? Middle class life in a consumer democracy or a liveable human existence? Or do we now think these are the same thing? If you really want to see where a green quant is coming from, simply catch him in the middle of one of these arguments and ask him (and it usually is a him) to define ‘need’. Then watch the narrative spooling out like film from a broken cannister.

As a poet, of course, I have a vested interest in objecting to this, and I often do, but I don’t do it without empathy or without some doubt. I know why it has happened. This, after all, is an approach designed to produce clear and concrete results – something which is undeniably useful in an age of ecocide. But what narrative framework are the results being produced in? Because it’s that framework, in the end which will determine where those results take us.

Too many green quants, then, and not enough green poets? I think so. Or rather, I think that the poets have been cowed into silence by the dominance and urgency of the quants’ narrative. How to reassert the importance of stories, then, is perhaps a key question now. Green poets might perhaps start by observing that worlds are not ’saved’ by the same stories that are killing them. They might want to observe that saving worlds is an impossible business in the first place, and that attempting to do so is likely to lead to some very dark places. Or they might try and explore what it is about how we see ourselves which reduces us to this, time and time again – arguing about machines rather than wondering what those machines give us and what they take away.

The friction between the quant and the poet could be represented by focusing on a few bickering individuals, or by trying to divide the greens up into Two Cultures. But it could also, perhaps more honestly and productively, be represented as a tension that is present within all. None of us is wholly, or even primarily, rational and analytical, and none of us is quite devoid of poetry either, though it is sometimes hard to find it. These divisions are themselves stories that we, in this particular culture, tell ourselves about how humans work. The quants and the poets are both needed, but I would argue that, right now, the poets ought to take the lead – if indeed that is ever something that poets are capable of. We have no shortage of arguments about numbers and machines, but we do have a great shortage of workable stories. That is to say: stories that don’t just have happy endings, but have convincing plots as well.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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