Thursday, March 26, 2009

Problematizing Progress

Brendan O'Neill argues that we should sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires:

If you want proof of the miserabilist, misanthropic outlook of contemporary western society, look no further than the curmudgeonly reaction to the launch of "the People's Car" in India yesterday.

The Nano, developed by Tata Motors and costing a mere 100,000 rupees (around £1,200), will make the dream of car travel a reality for tens of thousands of Indians. Yet its launch was greeted by a collective groan from western observers, concerned that if the developing world plays "catch up" with us – what used to be known as "global equality" – the planet will fry in a hellfire of greedy car-drivers' making.
This collective groan is an ugly symptom of "eco-imperialism," which is much like classic imperialism, except that instead of traveling overseas to beat or starve foreign populations into submission, you sit at home and fret over the environmental impact of cheap consumer goods. As such, it's one of the most fearsome weapons in the armamentarium of liberal fascism, and can't be criticized harshly enough.
We have become incapable of judging new developments and breakthroughs by any criteria other than their projected carbon emissions. The fact that the Nano will increase many Indians' mobility, their choices, their personal freedom to travel where they want and when they want – a freedom many in the west have enjoyed for decades – is simply overlooked....

Immeasurable benefits to humanity have been usurped by pseudo-measurable levels of planetary destruction.
By which O'Neill means that these benefits would be usurped, if eco-imperialism actually got its way, for once. But fortunately, no one with any real power seriously believes in the miserabilists' pseudo-measurements of atmospheric CO2, polar ice, animal populations, rainfall, glacier loss, ocean acidification, and related phantasmagoria.

It's easy enough to point out that O'Neill is a flaming asshole. But if we were to concentrate solely on that fact, we might overlook the really interesting aspects of his argument. "Western environmentalists" are worried about the Nano; that's a given. Does this mean that Indian environmentalists and scientists aren't worried? Of course not: environmentalists and climatologists all around the world are brooding over "pseudo-measurable levels of planetary destruction" even as we speak, instead of banishing dull care by riding an ATV through a protected wilderness area. That's what makes 'em miserabilists, regardless of race, color, caste, or creed.

But if O'Neill acknowledged this little detail, he'd have to forego the pleasure of turning what little remains of white liberal guilt against itself, by invoking the horrors of imperialism as an argument for free-market dogmatism. He understands that Westerners are a bit more sensitive than they used to be about dictating terms to the Wogs, and so he figures he can score a few points by painting the IPCC as a new East India Company. Of course, this theory requires us to view Indian culture as monolithic, scientifically backwards, and implacably self-centered...but what matter the victims if the gesture be beautiful?

No one "overlooks" the benefits of the Nano. The people who are worried about it, here and in India, simply see the negatives as outweighing the positives. By contrast, O'Neill and his ilk refuse to concede that any meaningful negatives exist (hence all the talk of "pseudo-measurement"). This tactic is not just necessary, but enjoyable, because once the science is out of the way, there's all the time in the world to dream up neoliberal just-so stories:
In the past it was argued that the developing world was poor because there simply wasn't enough to go around or because Indians and Africans hadn't quite got the hang of this capitalism thing.

Today, the key cultural justification for continuing inequality is the idea that if the south becomes like us – with just as many cars, factories, roads, homes – then the planet will perish.
It's fascinating how many young journalistic firebrands have adapted the language and tone of radical critique to the purpose of blessing things as they are. O'Neill expects us to feel pious outrage at Western arrogance, while suggesting that development in India must follow the Western model or be damned, and that anyone who worries about the consequences is a fraud or a terminal mope, and that India doesn't have competent scientists, diversity of opinion, and a strong and courageous environmental movement. When it comes to purging ourselves of Western arrogance, like apparently cures like.

The funny thing is, O'Neill doesn't seem to believe this gibberish himself. No sooner does he accuse the West of scheming to maintain global inequality than he backpedals, and claims that the real concern is that we're allowing our silly Western guilt to interfere with the Hindoos' progress towards Civilization. This is known as "problematising progress." No, really!
This is a moral righteousness built on privilege rather than principle. The anti-Nano brigade, and all of the rest who problematise progress in the developing world, know the destructiveness of everything but the value of nothing. Just because we have become uncertain about technological progress, guilt-ridden about our luxuries, and cavalier about the feeling of freedom brought about by car travel, that doesn't mean Indians should stay put in their rickshaws.
Of course, it doesn't mean they have to buy a Nano, either. There are other possible vehicles, and wiser forms of progress, and Indian experts who can tell you all about them. (And of course, there are also Western countries that could be setting a good example by cutting their own emissions and working seriously to create a low-carbon economy.) But O'Neill seems to be problematizing every single one of these options except the Nano, for no better reason than that the Nano exists here and now, and environmentalists and climate scientists have dared to measure its carbon emissions instead of hailing it as the salvation of the downtrodden.

So once again, freedom boils down to scrambling to buy what the market offers, instead of demanding what it doesn't, or creating a solution oneself or with one's neighbors. Achieving "global equality" turns out to be a matter of individual access to adequate cash or credit, just as our best and brightest always suspected. And anyone who proposes that there are greater goals or more pressing duties than consumer choice is an Enemy of the People.

This would be a colossally dismal view of human possibilities even if there truly were nothing more to climate change than pseudo-measurements and eco-imperialism. Since O'Neill's theory also happens to be deadly lunacy, it's not hard to understand why he finds his dreary faux-radical boosterism running afoul of "miserabilists."

(Photo: "Roads in India are already congested with traffic." Reuters/Krishnendu Halde.)


Anonymous said...

They equate freedom, seems to me, with the right to blow their cigar smoke in your face. And the equation of 'progress' with auto transport might, in the light of experience, be, at least, rethought.


Anonymous said...

Phila - As usual, another devastating argument and a very thoughtful (and thought provoking) post.

Perhaps I'll try using some Brendan-logic the next time someone challenges one of my projects in a staff meeting (rather than deal with the substance of their comments): "Why must you always problematize the progress I'm trying to make for the organization? What's wrong with you?"

Yeah ... I can see that going over well.

jazzbumpa said...

The whole idea of cheap car = mobility for the common man is a sham. Even in our country there are places - NY City and Chicago spring readily to mind - where there is no need for a car, and in fact, it is a liabilty.

Beyond that, the cheap Tata is probably a death trap. The price increase for the proposed European version is at least 3X.

But, as you said, O'Neill is a flaming ass hole.