Tuesday, September 7, 2010

I live by manipulating symbols so I am a politically correct environmentalist

US Urban geographer Joel Kotkin refers to ‘gentry liberals’: high-income inner city liberals who vote Democrat. In the rest of the Anglosphere, we can reasonably refer to ‘gentry progressives’ – high income, typically inner city, progressives who vote Left (Green, New Democrat, Labour etc).

This group shares various characteristics, one of which is that they typically live by manipulating symbols rather than making, moving around or shaping stuff. It is surely no accident that, as such jobs have become more common and more important, we have had the rise of political correctness – an ethic which puts enormous importance on getting words right: that is, on “correct” manipulation of symbols. A concern where, not only do symbol manipulators become advantaged in public discourse, but their prime skills become of dominant ethical importance.

It is also no accident that the rise of the symbol manipulators has coincided with the rise of environmentalism. By this I do not mean environmental concern as such, which well predates environmentalism. There is a clear pattern in human affairs where industrialisation leads first to rising incomes and rising environmental degradation but – when incomes reach a certain level so that the next meal is no longer quite such an urgent concern – there is increasing demand for environmental amenity and environmental degradation declines. In particular, air and water quality improves – such improvements began in the developed world well before the advent of modern environmentalism from the early 1970s.

What I am referring to is the nexus of attitudes and outlooks reasonably described as ‘environmentalism’: the placing of enormous importance on humans not “interfering” with nature, on discounting human claims “against” nature. In essence, seeing human interaction with nature as presumptively destructive.

This serves the purposes of the symbol manipulators very well, since symbol manipulation is inherently not intrusive on nature in itself (we can leave aside things they use to live, for the moment, though the contradictions between the lives they lead and their moral claims probably does generate significant emotional angst, as Victor Davis Hanson has suggested). So, for someone who lives by manipulation of symbols, environmentalism offers few costs and many benefits. A sense of purpose, meaning, an empowering ethic – all the things religions typically provide. (Environmentalism has become the “religion substitute” in public education, for example.)

It also provides a sense of status: one is clearly “superior” to those who live by creating and making “Gaia-wounding” stuff. Just as being politically correct provides an empowering sense of moral status because one gets language right (and displays conspicuous compassion). The gentry progressives typically also have comparatively high discretionary income, and so can relatively easily afford to be “green” consumers.

And not only an empowering sense of moral status: cognitive status as well. In both being environmentalist and being politically correct, one is showing one “understands” so much better than those moral and cognitive lepers who do not “get it”.

This status game is very destructive. It not only poisons public debate, it also leads directly to bad public policy. Because it means that anyone who reacts against political correctness or environmentalism is “guilty” of moral and cognitive “sins” and so is not worth seriously engaging with. On the contrary, they must be “shown” the “patent” error of their ways. Indeed, their very motives are clearly suspect, so “obvious” is the moral truth they are denying.

Which blocks from serious consideration of all sorts of information that actually matters for public policy. Once you turn political debate – including debate about public policy – into a status game, you will become disproportionately an advocate and source of bad (even disastrous) public policy. For it will not become a matter of what actually works, but of what supports the status game. In particular, access to problematic or contra-indicating information will be blocked.

One can see these processes operating quite clearly in recent decades. For example, it is clear that Australia has avoided the worst of the Global Financial Crisis and Great Recession. This is the result of waves of economic reform since 1983 that gentry progressivists opposed, often virulently. In part, the success of the reforms occurred because progressivists were split: a well-placed progressivist minority supported (indeed helped drive) the reforms. But they did so by adopting the language of consequence rather than of mere intent. (And some of said advocates moved “rightwards” as they followed the concern for consequence where it led them, and reacted against the self-righteous waving of intent – one’s own “good” intent and other’s “bad” intent.)

Most gentry progressivists hated the reforms and condemned them – and their advocates – in the most strident terms. Revealingly, these condemnations were phrased in terms attacking the motives, morality, moral character, intellectual understanding of reform supporters. In other words, in ways that claimed higher status.

The anti-reform progressivists were largely defeated because the reform alliance was too broad and the issues too important for too many people. Ensuring that Australia had a sustainable welfare state – the aim around which the reform coalition coalesced – simply mattered to too many people since it incorporated higher economic growth, less unemployment, better targeted welfare, and so on.

Where the progressivists were much more successful was in indigenous policy. This mattered to far less people, so progressivist perspectives got much freer reign. The result was social disaster (if limited to a small minority of the population). Indigenous policy was defined in terms that helped the status claims of the symbol manipulators – that the central problem was racism and the solution was building up of indigenous identity and ostentatious anti-racism, including grand public apologies.

In fact, the central problem was the difficult in moving from being hunter-gatherers to being successful participants in an agrarian-industrial society in so few generations while suffering massive cultural dislocation. Racism aggravated the problems thereof, but did not cause them. But, by defining movement towards mainstream patterns as “attacking indigenous identity”, and defining mainstream Oz society as the problem, policy was directed away from what was needed – intelligent bridging of differences – and to what made things worse: imposition of patterns on the basis of “anti-racist” display. Such as imposing permanent full-time work (a social form with no equivalent in indigenous cultures) as the only legally permitted form of pastoral work, “dropping” free housing on people with quite different social expectations about shelter and resources, and so on. There was no sense that indigenous cultural patterns might actually matter. As distinct from indigenous “culture” merely being a status totem, “respect” for which was to be waved about. After all, suggesting that some aspects of indigenous cultures might be problematic for achieving mainstream success showed a lack of “respect” and Western “triumphalism”.

There is something to a connection between higher intelligence and moral concern. There is considerable research evidence tying higher IQ with:
sophisticated ethical thinking, altruism, planning for the future, political awareness, adherence to informal community standards of behavior, and cooperation for the greater good
But that is an ideologically neutral point, as such behaviour exists across the political compass. Nevertheless, casting status and interest claims in altruistic terms makes them resonate far more effectively – and insulates them from criticism (or even self-awareness).

What is striking is how much environmentalism is environmentally destructive. Because there is a real difference between environmental concern – where consequences matter – and environmentalism – where signalling adherence to the appropriate markers of concern (based on human action being presumptively destructive) matter.

While the arguments over DDT are particularly fraught, the attempt to ban ivory trade entirely when giving local residents elephant ownership rights to harvest ivory had proved much more effective than outright bans is a classic case of premises over consequences. In my own state of Victoria, the opposition to active management of public lands, the restriction on property rights (regarding tree clearing) and the opposition to dam building (despite a 30% increase in population since the last major dam was built) has (predictably) created water shortages and increased bushfire hazards.

Global warming becomes the perfect issue for the inner city symbol manipulators, since it is both grandiose (an alleged looming global catastrophe) and the ultimate sign of the “wickedness” of the Gaia-damaging stuff producers. Leaving aside the science, the abusive heresy-hunting, the attacks on motives, the sneering, the conspicuous concern flag-waving that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming advocates engage in is precisely the same behaviour that was displayed in the opposition to economic reform and in the advocacy of disastrous indigenous policies. (There is a reason that indigenous leader Noel Pearson is such an acute critic of progressivist thinking.) Not reassuring examples.

But very revealing ones.

Alas, since the symbol manipulators typically live in a world of intent and moral display, not consequences, they never accept any responsibility for past failures, so the pattern just keeps recurring. Though perhaps pleas for civility, such as this call to stop bullying (via) might eventually get through.

ADDENDA: An analysis of the occupational and industry basis of voting in Australia: manual workers no longer identify with the ALP, managers vote Coalition and the Greens are strongly connected to Arts/Recreation, IT/Media and Education industries. As my analysis above would predict.

FURTHER ADDENDA: Former ALP Senator John Black has some fascinating comments on the polling data about Green voters in Australia, and the difference between Green voters and Green activists. He makes the points that Green voters have the highest average incomes of the voters of any major Party, that Green activists have somewhat different views than most of their voters and that having two or more children insulates inner city female professionals (otherwise a strongly Green group) from continuing to vote Green. His comments are compatible with my analysis--so, for example, having children creates a concern more powerful than their work perspective.


  1. Please keep thinking because i love listening

  2. Hope you don't mind, I posted a link to this in a discussion I was having on the Armour Archive.

    Great post.

  3. I certainly don't mind, and thank you :)