Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Rosia Montana: Consumerism and its Disconnects

An admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and a working engineer who is proud of having always earned his living, Lovelock also supports nuclear power. He sees this as the only realistic way, in the short- to medium-term, of generating enough energy to meet our needs whilst not contributing further to climate change. He admits that this is not an ideal solution but is dismissive of claims that sources such as wind, tide or solar power can fill the gap.

This has occasioned a furious debate with fellow-environmentalists, many of whom spent their formative years fearing the worst during the Cold War. Nuclear power, for them, is not the answer to anything � and as we will see their position is not easily dismissed. Lovelock’s support for this technology can indeed come across as na�ve, or, worse, pour épater les écolos. His answer to the vexed question of waste disposal is that a large wildlife reserve be set up – since few wild animals live long enough to feel the effects of such levels of background radioactivity. He has also offered his own back garden as a storage facility for nuclear waste, so low, he claims, is the risk of contamination.

A friend of Lovelock’s, though an opponent of his on the nuclear issue, is the philosopher Mary Midgley. Trained a classicist at Oxford, she has spent most of her working life raising a family, teaching moral philosophy at university-level and writing a series of influential books. What has made hers such a distinctive voice in British public life is a competence over many areas of thought combined with genuine depth of learning. In a culture which does not always value its free-range intellectuals, she has established herself as a stylish and formidably well-informed voice.

She wrote her first book 1978, aged 54, after a year at Cornell University. It was about ethology – animal behaviour- and its implications for the study of human behaviour. It appeared at the same time as the first works by prominent socio-biologists like Edward O. Wilson at Harvard and Richard Dawkins at Oxford. From the outset it involved her in debates about the application / misapplication of Darwinian theory to wider debates about society or religion or psychology. She has argued that Darwinism has been largely misapplied by Dawkins and Wilson and their followers in areas well beyond the competence of professional biologists. And their effect, she argues, was to lend intellectual respectability to the competitive ethos and aggressive individualism of the Thatcher / Reagan years.

Politically, also, then, she and James Lovelock are coming from very different places. And yet she chairs the meetings of the ‘Gaia Network’, a small group of thinkers on the implications of the theory, which includes scientists, theologians and philosophers, as well as Lovelock himself. To find out where they agree we have to look into Midgley’s work on consciousness and the philosophy of science. For to her, the scientistic excesses of the socio-biologists are simply the latest manifestation of a tendency in science which was there from its C17th beginnings. And it is the job of the philosopher to ‘take up the floorboards’ in one of her best known metaphors, and examine the ‘conceptual plumbing’, which has caused this unfortunate application of the scientific method in areas where it is only partially helpful or nor helpful at all.

Certainly that method has ‘mapped’ the world around us to an unprecedented degree. The benefits of this are hardly deniable and the liberation from religious doctrine, which it both drove and was made possible by, is hardly to be regretted. But for Midgley, what Bacon and especially Descartes also inaugurated was an idea of human consciousness as curiously detached from the material universe, which it studied and reduced to theoretical order, but for which it felt no particular empathy.

This elevation of science, as sole ‘impartial’ arbiter of truth, and of a correspondingly isolated human consciousness, is, Midgley argues, by now causing us serious problems. The material world, once we had relegated it to the status of inert stuff, was ready for conversion into those ‘raw materials’ which drove the Industrial Revolution. The shift in ideas during the scientific revolution prepared the way for the later industrial society. Such, she argues, is the genealogy of modern consumerism.

Midgley has explored other scientific visions, such as that of Marsilio Ficino’s Commentary on Plato’s “Symposium”<(1466), which ultimately lost out during the Renaissance to Bacon’s more abruptly empirical scientific method. She might have chosen others. It is a rapt contemplation of the natural universe which formed the core of Giordano Bruno’s interpretation of Copernicus and of his own philosophy in De gli eroici furori (1585). Tomasso Campanella’s Citta del Sole (1623) was likewise presided over by a magnificent temple dedicated to the earth.

But the materialist theories which ultimately prevailed – at the Renaissance, at the Enlightenment and then during the Industrial Revolution – have left us with a heavy legacy. Any country which has endured a Marxist government knows all about that. But countries which have had better historical luck know more about it than they realise. One of Midgley’s recurring themes is the way that opponents in any given dispute have a tendency to become more and more like each other. By fixing on one or two points of genuine difference, and in their relish for the fight, they leave unexamined all the underlying assumptions which they share.

She has argued, for example, that the materialism, the primacy of economics central to both Communism and Capitalism means they had much more in common than they ever cared to admit when they were competing for hegemony. This tendency was noted by Andrei Sakharov already in the late Sixties. Now that that contest is over, the ease with which formerly Communist elites adapted to Capitalist conditions ought perhaps not to surprise us. A party like the PSD as led by Adrian Nastase was very much on the same ‘philosophical’ wavelength as the directors of a company like RMGC.

Let us hope things are beginning to change. Because the one issue to which neither system has proved equal is that of the environment. That consumerism which equates freedom with the aspiration to a certain life-style, whatever the environmental costs, is the product of a mentality which is already as hopelessly out of date as the Marxist-Leninism it replaced 17 years ago in Eastern Europe. Whatever Chevrolet or RMGC might claim.

As we will see, there is much in that ‘consumerist’ way of life which is not only worthwhile but could be re-organised so as to reduce its environmental impact. But Midgley’s main drift is that our present difficulties have their origin deep down in historically conditioned assumptions about how we relate to the world around us. That longer historical perspective suggests to her that alongside the technological solutions to climate change – clean energy, improved public transport, carbon sequestration � there is a change required at the deeper conceptual level.

The ‘ecological footprint’ measures the average per capita consumption of the world’s resources in different countries and is compiled each year in the Living Planet Report ( This report takes the biologically productive area of the earth’s surface, about a quarter of it, and divides this by the world’s population, to reach a figure of how many ‘global hectares’ each of us should aim to use. It works out at about 2 global hectares each.

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