Paving the road to hell?

Tuscan hill

Tim Forsyth, the LSE’s Senior Lecturer in Environment and Development, cuts an interesting figure, both challenging and reassuring, mixing the inquisitiveness of the scientist and the certainty of the academic. His class on the Politics of Sustainable Development was a far cry from the environmental Doomsday scenarios we have become accustomed to today. In a nutshell, he put forward the Orthodox vs. Constructivist approach to sustainable development:

  • The former is firmly rooted in physical sciences’ method, arguing that scientific knowledge about the environment (and the effects on it by human activity) should inform the way we develop policies. Its commonly heard views include: Land Use Cover Change (LUCC); concerns about commercialization and the environmental impact of economic growth; and the separation of science and politics.
  • The latter stems instead from the social sciences, and looks at the social influences of how truth claims are made. More specifically, constructivists argue that ideas about the environment (and how to deal with it) are a historical product, and reflect the cultural context in which they were developed – close to home, for example, Tuscany is thought of as an untouched paradise, when in fact it’s an entirely man-made environment and its aesthetic qualities are clearly a construct.  

This raises some crucial questions:

  • Are scientists – even if subconsciously – feeding us information which is in fact political in nature?
  • Are we being fed images of ‘truth’ to legitimize other policies – for example a preservation of the natural ‘beauties’ of the South to maintain the current economic supremacy of the North?
  • Are we living inside the Matrix?
  • If so, should I take the blue pill or the red pill?

This really calls into question a lot of assumptions about what we think we know about the environment, something I personally feel very strongly about. I need to ask myself: are my strong feelings on the matter a social construct themselves?

But if this is the case, what stops us from relativizing absolutely everytruth we know? This has even more far-reaching ethical consequence. Relativism is the best breeding ground for extremisms of all sorts: when no truth holds, it is the one that asserts itself with more strength that prevails. If applied for example to religion in politics, we already know what the consequences of this situation might be.

Food for thought and heated debate…

Meanwhile, I have done some blog-hopping on the subject, and via Margot Wallstrom’s blog, which has just posted an entry on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, I came across this interesting blog on climate change. Worth keeping an eye on.


7 responses to “Paving the road to hell?

  1. According to constructivists everything is a social construct. The very idea of ‘idea’ is a social construct, as are ‘strong feelings’. Being a social construction, however, does not preclude them from ‘conforming’ to the ‘truth’ – according to those who will still allow for a critically re-analyzed ‘truth’.

    Specifically, this notion has philosophically been carried through in post-structuralist thought, although I think that historicity (the historical nature and ‘trace’ of concepts) plays a larger role in post-structuralism than it does in constructivism.

    I commonly hear from environmentalists that biodiversity was highest in the 17th/18th type rural landscape, usually to justify an interventionist role of man as a guardian of nature. The idea that this countryside is in some way pure nature does not live among them, but they do tend to view it as harmonic. ‘Orthodox’ environmentalists will be most concerned about the countryside in their own nation, for reasons of sentimental attachment and because of the ‘think global, act local’ credo.

    The economic domination line is just paranoid.

    P.S.: Did you catch any note on what the constructivist approach has in the way of a positive agenda? If it only consists of criticism of the ‘orthodox’ view, it can’t really be juxtaposed as an alternative approach. Not criticising you here, I’m genuinely curious about the constructivist proposals.

    P.P.S: There is actually no single ‘orthodox’ view and certainly not one that romanticises the purity of Tuscany. That’s a view the general public may have, but it doesn’t live among environmentalists themselves. The more ‘orthodox’ of the environmentalists actually favour a hands-off approach (stay away from nature!), whereas the more mainstream view now is that mankind has a calling to care. (I’m a fusion of horizons type of environmentalist on this one, or still searching for that new paradigm – to put it less romantically).

  2. Paranoid? Not so sure. At the UN Conference on Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, while Indira Gandhi reminded people that ‘Poverty is the world’s greatest environmental threat’, the US opposed a register of toxic chemicals and nuclear testing, but supported a ban on whaling.

    Martin Khor (Third World Network) & Anil Agarwal are of the same opinion. See also this article on Orion Magazine.

    As for a ‘positive’ constructivist approach, he offered the example of Cultural Theory by the likes of Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson and Aaron Wildavsky.

  3. Interesting article! I still think that it’s a bit rich to claim that this is about perpetuating western economic domination, though. Perhaps some politicians want that, but it doesn’t seem to figure in the ideas of the environmentalists. Maybe some of the conservationists put nature before the people, but that’s a different thing.

    Cultural Theory, from what I could find on it, would seem to be broader sociological theory on risk perception and its implications. Sustainable development doesn’t directly figure in it. It’s interesting that it criticises environmentalism from somewhat the same perspective as free-market advocates do.

  4. It is indeed, and I have some serious problems with it and its relativist approach.

    And I do agree with you, the idea that there’s this big conspiracy by environmentalists to keep the developing world from developing (while trying simultaneously – according to some US neo-cons – to slow down the US economy) is just untenable.

    But I guess the whole point of this perspective is to help us think outside the box, and to stop assuming that the tree huggers are goodies and the TNCs are baddies… sort of…

    Interesting blog you’ve got there btw. And thanks for your insightful comments!

  5. You’re more than welcome, and I would reply the felicitations. Good blog and pretty at that.

    Thinking outside the box is definitely helpful. I’ve always thought that there was something useful about postmodernist analysis since I’ve first bumped into it, but I haven’t found any practical framework in which I could use it in a consistent way. Other than the metaphorical ‘laughter of the gods’ at our human follies. But that definitely keeps you on your toes…

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