April 25, 2012
April 25, 2012
A specter is haunting the French humanist mind these days–a radical ecology movement that threatens to replace the idealization of humanity with an idealization of nature. Already we see “the passing of the humanist era,” writes Luc Ferry, a philosopher at the Sorbonne and the University of Caen, in this prize-winning critique of that movement, a book all environmentalists ought to read. It is by turn witty and sneering, brilliant and disturbing, wildly alarmist and, in the end, surprisingly conciliatory. Ferry recognizes that we need a new relationship with nature but hopes we can get there without sweeping changes in Western humanism and liberal society. Yet he exaggerates the danger radical environmentalists pose and resists the changes that are needed.
In 1587 the village of Saint-Julien brought suit against a colony of weevils attacking the vineyards. The villagers lost in court, the judge declaring that the insects, being creatures of God, possessed the same rights as people to live in the place. Ferry is amused that such a trial could ever have occurred, but he is not amused by today’s animal liberationists, deep ecologists, greens of the left or right, or ecofeminists, all of whom seem to have too tender a regard for weevils, even to the point of preferring them over humans. Ferry calls this brigade the “ecologists,” a term that refers not to the quantitative science of ecology, with its computer models of plant and animal dynamics, but to a moral philosophy that would give rights to the whole ecosphere, the entire natural environment.
The origins of this specter lie in “the Anglo-Saxon world,” a quaintly out-of-date phrase used by French politicians as well as intellectuals to refer to England, Canada, and the United States (though mainly the latter, an irrational country prone to sudden strange enthusiasms), which together constantly challenge France’s cultural hegemony, and in Germany, the old nemesis, the dark home of anti-modern romantics. Ferry acknowledges that these foreigners have their French counterparts in writers like Michel Serres; nonetheless, he fears that it is France itself, the great font of modern humanism, that is under attack by the eco-revolutionaries.
THE NEW HUMAN BEING
A major source of the global environmental crisis, say the radicals, is the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which promoted a new vision of human beings as set apart from, and above, the rest of nature by their capacity for reason. Through reason, humanists sought to transcend the earth in two ways: an ethical triumph over brute egotism and a technological domination over nature that would make human life richer and more comfortable. Although these ideas sprang up all over Europe–and it was near Edinburgh that one of the most important figures of the age, Adam Smith, the founding ideologue of capitalism, appeared–France was certainly a world center of the Enlightenment. From its philosophe-inspired revolution of 1789 emerged a modern democratic society enshrining the rights of all humankind, or, as Americans like to say, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The utopianism in that revolutionary era was palpable. A new human being was expected momentarily to arrive. Freed from tradition, which Ferry describes as “second nature,” akin to natural instinct and just as confining, that person would make up his own ethics, without divine guidance, becoming as it were his own god.
Ferry still believes in that noble dream. We humans have no nature, he argues, but are proudly “unnatural.” We alone have a history. We alone pursue a future, constantly tearing down the old, moving on to the new. Unique among species, we create moral ideals and try to live up to them.
While no thoughtful person would disagree that humans are distinguished from the rest of nature by their moral consciousness, the history they have made over the past 200 years has not demonstrated much realization of Ferry’s ideal. Ecologists have not been the first to make this point; it has been gathering force for a long time, through a succession of world wars, totalitarian regimes, and, most recently, weapons of annihilation. The hydrogen bomb, that dreadful and arrogant product of some of the most intelligent minds ever, has been particularly hard to square with humanism. Following hard on those events have come dying rivers, lakes, and forests, the wholesale extermination of species, and global warming. Unfortunately for nature, there are now six billion of us gods around, swallowing resources at a ferocious rate; our vaunted economic freedom has been won at the expense of all other living beings. Is it misanthropic to see and regret such destruction, or to question the Enlightenment project of environmental conquest, or to denounce that old notion of freedom when it is unchecked by compassion or responsibility? The religion (if such it has been) of humanism has shattered against the dark facts.
I SUFFER, THEREFORE I AM
The first section of Ferry’s book deals with the crusade for animal liberation, which has little to do with ecology, aimed as it is at protecting individual animals rather than the integrity of the ecosphere. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer argues that because animals can suffer, or have their “interests” damaged, they should be given legal rights. Ferry disagrees, holding that animals cannot be liberated at all because true freedom involves rising above instinct. Animals can be let out of their cages, but they cannot become other than what they are. Yet he understands that they deserve better treatment than having their eyes poked out by callous experimenters or their pain made into sport. We need rules to stop unnecessary cruelty–protective rules for animals, rights for humans. It is a fine line, and the courts are likely to find it harder and harder to draw.
The animal rights advocates are merely illogical, Ferry believes, confusing distinct categories of being, but the radical or deep ecologists advocate a truly dangerous set of doctrines that threaten a new tyranny. They want to overturn modernity itself. They look on nature as sacred. They teach that humans are only one species among many, that the earth is greater than any single part. They have no tolerance for democratic procedures. Seizing on a few paragraphs in a handful of texts, however, Ferry fails to do justice to the movement, especially its more mature leaders.
Deep ecology’s leading voice is Arne Naess, a Norwegian philosopher, who feels that environmental concerns should go beyond purely human matters such as public health or long-term economic viability to the preservation of all living organisms and ecosystems. “Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive,” he writes, “and the situation is rapidly worsening.” Curtailing that interference would require a drastic reversal of the growth in human population and consumption. Radical thoughts, yes, unlikely to gain wide acceptance anytime soon. Yet how could such a change of thinking, if it came, pose any danger to the human spirit or to freedom?…
April 25, 2012
Just weeks ago, every major network was breathless for George Clooney and news from Sudan. The Clooney left the building and predictably, so have the dozens of cameras and breathless interns, who waited for a glimpse of or a glance from the actor and activist who took Washington, DC by storm. After a trip to Sudan and South Sudan, Clooney delivered impassioned testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His firsthand account included a powerful video, where the suffering of the Nuban people was highlighted with graphic, inescapable clarity.
The Nuban people, of the Nuba Mountains, have been a self-sustaining society since Biblical times. Agricultural and pastoral by nature, they are now targets of Sudan President Omar al Bashir’s ethnic cleansing campaign. Like Darfur, the Nuba Mountains are ground zero for a genocide in the making. Bashir’s forces use rape, destruction of infrastructure, blockading food production and aid delivery in concert with aerial bombardments and shelling with Chinese made rockets. Across the Nuba Mountains, to South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei, suffering is choreographed by Bashir and his henchmen like Ahmed Haroun who shares Bashir’s distinction as an indicted war criminal.
Beyond the brief uptick in coverage that surrounded Clooney’s visit, the reality is this: he and his Satellite Sentinel project have done more than President Obama, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, acclaimed anti-genocide activist and NSC Multi-Lateral Affairs Director Samantha Power, and the entire Department of State combined.
Once upon an inauguration, the president’s rhetoric seemed so powerful. His team kept former President George W. Bush’s feet to the fire during all eight years of his presidency. They excoriated him and shamed him, his administration and the leaders in Britain and France and at the United Nations until they took action. Thousands displaced, thousands suffering, thousands dead. When George W. Bush took action it resulted in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, a cessation of much of the violence, and put South Sudan on the path toward status as a sovereign nation — which they became July 9, 2011. From Obama’s team there was a brief moment of acknowledgment before they returned to talking points accusing Bush of not doing enough.
If so many lives had not been lost, the hypocrisy of President Obama and his team declaring how he has restored America’s reputation in the world might be comical. It is not. Because in Sudan, war crimes and mass atrocities and the tools of genocide are deployed daily. On Obama’s watch, even as the U.S. has the presidency of the United Nations Security Council this month, there is no action. Only a few statements and discussions of sanctions. Nothing tangible.
In particular, Samantha Power’s silence on the subject is deafening. Once a person who wrote eloquently about “Bystanders to Genocide,” she now works closely with Susan Rice who was one of the “people sitting in offices” that Power once critiqued for inaction. The contrast is beyond a disappointment; she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, on the very issue of U.S. inaction.
Her own words, from The Atlantic in 2001:
Why did the United States not do more for the Rwandans at the time of the killings? Did the president really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?
Despite the absence of leadership from Power or Rice or President Obama, advocacy has continued. Act for Sudan, the Enough Project, Clooney’s Satellite Sentinel, United to End Genocide and many Sudanese diaspora groups have continued their work…
April 25, 2012
New York City has become too dependent on the financial industry. In 2008, 44 percent of Manhattan wages were earned by workers in finance and insurance; the following year, even after the financial crisis and economic downturn had battered the industry, that share stood at a still-enormous 37 percent. And the track record of one-industry towns isn’t good. No matter how loudly Chrysler’s provocative Super Bowl ad heralded Detroit’s comeback, the Motor City’s population dropped by a quarter over the last decade and now stands at 39 percent of its 1950 peak. In Russia, Soviet-era monocities like Norilsk, a mining hub, are emblems of urban decline. Economic data, bearing out what those examples suggest, show a positive link between industrial diversity and long-run urban success.
New York shouldn’t try to hold finance back, of course, but it should try to reduce the cost and regulatory barriers that limit the growth of other sectors. If Gotham hopes to keep playing its historical role in leading the world’s economy, it needs to welcome companies in other fields—most likely, technology, business services, and a broad range of information-intensive industries.
I spent my childhood in Manhattan, from 1967 until 1984. New York’s economy was far more diverse then than it is today. My friends’ parents were hardly a proper cross-section of the city, but they nevertheless represented a remarkable array of different industries: there were editors and philosophers, art dealers and jewelers, judges and doctors. Show-business parents, including Broadway composers and a character actor best known for a modest role in Shaft, added glamour. Developers and landlords added grit. I can’t recall a single investment banker in the bunch.
But then, the city had been diverse for centuries. New York’s first big industry, back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was sugar refining. But sugar was never going to dominate the city the way steel came to dominate Pittsburgh, because refined sugar couldn’t be shipped very far, which limited the size of the market. Similarly, printing and publishing—New York’s second big nineteenth-century industry—could grow only so much, since demand for the printed word in frontier America was limited. No such barriers limited the expansion of New York’s third and greatest industry, garment production, since clothes are portable and represent a significant share of household budgets. But even then, New York’s economy remained diverse: in 1950, at the height of its power, the garment industry represented only 8 percent of city employment.
The most important reason for New York’s continuing economic diversity was the city’s massive scale, which generated plenty of homegrown entrepreneurship and attracted entrepreneurs from elsewhere as well. New York was an early hub of automobile production and the film industry, for example, and though they eventually left town, they helped make the city diverse during their early years. Even when companies were born in the Midwest, their chieftains often moved their headquarters to New York to be part of a great agglomeration of business services and financiers, as John D. Rockefeller did with Standard Oil in 1885. The oil industry’s presence in New York infused the city with a little prospecting swagger and gave the oil industry a taste for culture, explaining why Mobil financed Masterpiece Theater programs for years.
Most of America’s older ports—Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco—shared New York’s industrial variety. America’s inland cities were another story. Most of them exploded in the nineteenth century because they offered a huge natural advantage that couldn’t be ignored, such as nearby coal mines or cornfields. St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Minneapolis, all in the grain business in a big way, were dominated by agriculture-related firms.
These inland cities became even less diverse in the early twentieth century, when the country moved to manufacturing. Industry located in the inland metropolises for several reasons: sometimes to be near local entrepreneurs, like Henry Ford; sometimes because the older ports were too pricey for the acreage-intensive manufacturing of large industrial products; and sometimes because industry needed local inputs that were easily available in the Rust Belt. The steel industry in Pittsburgh, for example, relied on nearby coal mines. So did Buffalo’s steel industry, which also took advantage of iron ore from Minnesota shipped along the Great Lakes. Michigan’s abundant forests provided the wood for Billy Durant’s Flint Road Cart Company and later for his car company, General Motors.
The twentieth century’s heavy industries faced few natural limits to growth, and falling transportation costs meant that their products could be sold throughout the country, if not across the globe. By 1950, the midwestern cities found themselves heavily dominated by one or two large industries. Automobile production boasted 28 percent of Detroit’s total employment; metal and machinery manufacturing claimed 20 percent of Cleveland’s. Again, New York’s garment industry, massive though it was, represented less than 10 percent of the city’s total employment.
Finance has existed in New York for centuries, but its current dominance dates to the late 1970s, when it was a crucial component of the troubled city’s resurgence. Over the next few decades, Manhattan financiers pioneered innovations—quantitative approaches to evaluating risk; ever-larger leveraged buyouts; the securitization revolution—that made finance considerably more lucrative. Just as Henry Ford’s immense success had led automobile production to dominate early-twentieth-century Detroit, Wall Street earnings meant that finance played an ever-larger role in late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century New York.
And just like Detroit’s auto industry, New York finance became concentrated in fewer, bigger firms. In 1998, Manhattan had 7,313 establishments in the narrower financial sector that the U.S. Census calls “securities, commodity contracts, investments,” and each employed an average of 22.4 workers. By 2008, Manhattan was down to 4,919 firms in that sector, with an average of 40.3 workers apiece. During the same ten-year period, the number of companies in that sector with more than 1,000 workers rose from 19 to 33.
As finance’s success drove up rents, many businesses in other sectors had to leave Manhattan. Between 1998 and 2008, the island lost more than 75,000 jobs in manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, and wholesale trade. Offsetting that decline was a gain of more than 100,000 jobs in consumer industries— retail, food and accommodation, and arts and entertainment—catering to well-heeled residents and tourists. (While that’s diversification of a sort, it’s hard to imagine that Manhattan can sustain itself primarily as an entertainment hub.)…