Picking fights with Dead White Men

05/07/2012 § 1 Comment

Nearly 20 years ago, I was in a pub arguing with a post-graduate student who was studying environmentalist movements. I maintained that environmentalists were/are millenarian, looking towards the cultural apocalypse that will retroactively validate their beliefs and activism. He said they weren’t, that millenarianism was old-school and they had become much more nuanced.

I recently picked up this publication from Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand, and what do I find but this:

A plausible but pessimistic alternative scenario … would describe chaotic confusion and hardship in New Zealand as well as the contribution of this country to the collapse and destruction of human civilisation as we know it, together with much of nature.

Cue the Four Horsemen.

This paper/booklet says that we are doing it all wrong, and Business As Usual (BAU) is just the road to annihilation. In making its arguments, it specifically targets:

  • utilitarianism, essentially from Bentham and Mill, and
  • Lockean political theory.

I’m no follower of either school of thought — they have their strengths and weaknesses and we should study them to understand where they take us. But — and here is the nub — these are theories from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries written by now-Dead White Men who were wrestling with the issues of their times. Let’s just take Locke. Consent of the governed? What a mind-flip! God didn’t ordain the social order and my place in it? The King doesn’t rule by Divine Right? I think I need to sit down.

Since these ideas were originally proposed, they have been debated and developed by economists, political theorists, and philosophers. They are recognisably old-fashioned in their original forms, but very challenging in their more modern incarnations.

The SANZ paper takes the easy way out by beating up on these DWM. Let’s see them take on someone more modern, like Nozick or von Neumann — still DWM, but more recent.

The most interesting thing about the fuss over the Cato Institute has been to see libertarian and liberal theory IRL — not in some museum case. The debate over sustainability would be much more vital and engaging (and probably effective) if organisations like SANZ weren’t shadowboxing with ghosts, but actually took on modern theorists.

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§ One Response to Picking fights with Dead White Men

  • JC says:

    “but actually took on modern theorists.”

    And in many cases modern science, updated ideas and current realities.

    JC

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