Event Report: Ecology as the Opium of the People

MCFly co-editor Marc Hudson attends a meeting with muscle relaxants mentioned in the title, but comes away neither relaxed or impressed.

Wrap your thinking gear around this quote from the eco-thriller “Zdt”

 Wrong. Nature in the Middle Ages was a hierarchy, a chain of being, a pyramid from the many at the base to the One at the top. A description that mirrored the society that described it. For the first industrialists and the Age of Reason it was a machine, an engine, a thing of many distinct parts held together by checks and balances like the American Constitution, and expected to work like a clock or a factory. For Charles Darwin Junior, for AFI, Nature is a state of war, of endless ruthless competition between the strong, and repression and exploitation of the weak by the strong. But what is she really? An endlessly, incomprehensibly complex web of interactions, of dependencies in which the whole is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts, and where no parts are intrinsically more important than any of the others. Is that really what she is? Or is that Nature the way a socialist society might want to see her? Deep thoughts, and, of course, because of them, I lost the way…
page 290 of Zdt by Julian Rathbone

There. I’ve just saved you sixty minutes of numbed buttocks and tenderised eardrums. At the final pre-Easter “Lecture and a Curry” put on by the Manchester Environmental Students Society, Professor Eric Swyngedouw took that long to get that far (the quote is not from his lecture, btw). Fortunately we were “saved by the bell”, since there was no particular end in sight. Unfortunately, as we had to vacate the room, there was no time for discussion. This shortly after we were told that more important than being environmentalists was the task of “reclaiming democracy as public space, organised under a presumption of equality.” Quite.

Sixteen people (male to female 11:5) had had the immense privilege of sitting through what the good Professors said was his standard presentation. It contained slabs of white text (often 20 or so lines) against a bright blue background. There were no illustrations. These slabs of text, often pure academese, were then read out to us.

There was not a single concrete example of the sorts of ‘depoliticisation’ via appeals to “Nature” that Prof Swyngedouw quite rightly warns about. The pages of the business press (The Economist, the Financial Times) are full of glossy adverts for technocratic solutions (wind farms, carbon capture and storage, nuclear) that create a vision of nature in harmony with humans’ rapacity and stupidity. The mainstream environmental NGOs often perpetrate similar “we can have our cake and eat it” lies. But instead of a few scanned images that would help the audience to understand what was being critiqued, they got more slabs of text, more Zizek, more sentences like “Nature becomes symbolically charged. Not neutral in its performativity but mobilised to express a multitude of functions.” I don’t disagree, but I know for a fact that smart people present in the room had not a scooby what was being propounded. And propounding it again and again, louder and louder, didn’t – oddly enough – change that.

Look, Donna Haraway has said all of this, with more verve and nuance, twenty years ago. This tonight was, imho, Roland Barthes reheated by Frank Furedi.

Don’t get me wrong, there were good and original bits to this. Unfortunately, the good bits were not original and the original bits were not good. All the usual suspects were invoked – Badiou, Derrida, Zizek.  It was like playing pomo bingo.

Expecting a raid from the irony police
There is a very unintentional irony here, and not for the first time. That irony is of someone proclaiming loudly that politics matters while being relentless anti-political. What do I mean by this? Well, politics is surely about dialogue, no? And dialogue needs time. So when there is an hour for an event, and instead of taking up a third to a half with your presentation, you take up every single second with your own monologue, I call that pretty anti-political

Suggested for implementable improvements
Have a pre-presentation “talk to the person beside you/behind you” for a minute or three.
Cap any lecture at a maximum of two thirds of the available time (e.g. 40 minutes), allowing a decent amount of time for comments, questions etc. This shouldn’t even be necessary for me to type this, but apparently it is.
Make sure that quotes ascribed to “a climate scientist” come from, um, a climate scientist. Not from historians who have never ever claimed to be climate scientists. Google, much? Just saying.

Things to track down
Neil Smith and the concept of “nature-washing
The New Spirit of Capitalism Boltanski and Chiapello 2007

Concepts worth a look
Ecological modernisation (see MCMonthly #3)
Post-ecological thinking (see MCMonthly #4)
Green Confucianism (Ecology, Class and the Green Movement)

Videos to watch as the algae grows on your fur
Mind Your Language

1. Imagine the print edition cover of MCMonthly # 3, only even worse, and without even our lame excuse of lack of time and the self-awareness that it is an aesthetic crime, a crime we say,  to be that crap that consistently.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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