Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Strange Paradox of Libertarianism

Reading the section in Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma about Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm is making me have some thoughts on libertarianism. Polyface Farm is an exemplary model of alternative agriculture—alternative to the mainstream military-industrial model, that is. Instead of reducing everything to machine-manageable monocultures, Salatin’s farm is run on the basis of the fairly simple idea that letting plants and animals act like themselves is the best way of creating healthy, sustainable food. Instead of getting cows to eat corn while standing ankle deep in their own shit, for example, let them eat grass and roam around the fields a little bit while they’re at it, so that they and the grassland both work together as key parts of a complete ecosystem. The ins and outs of how Salatin applies this principle to grow tons and tons of food with virtually no inputs aside from chicken feed, all while improving the health of his land, is covered in detail in Pollan’s book. Naturally, he does a much better job of explaining it than I would.

No, the problem I have with Salatin’s views on agriculture have nothing to do with the agriculture itself, but rather on the way he sees libertarianism as the solution to the global deck of cards that is the modern industrial food system. Like a lot of rural types, Salatin’s libertarianism comes from his personal experiences and the accumulated wisdom of his rural heritage. On the personal experience side of the coin, his particular frustrations have arisen from those points where the implementation of his agricultural principles has come up against government regulations that are designed to regulate gigantic corporate feedlots rather than small, decentralized farming communities. His desire to process and sell his own beef, to cite only one example, has been kaiboshed by the regulations regarding the slaughter of food animals. Because his agricultural model works so well, every time he comes up against a regulation that prevents him from implementing it as fully as he would like, he understandably becomes somewhat more soured on the idea of centralized government—the government, it seems to him, is not only complicit in the perpetuation of the military-industrial approach to agriculture, but it is also one of the major forces impeding small farmers’ attempts to put into practice alternatives that are more sustainable, less polluting, less dependent on fossil fuels, more environmentally friendly, and more delicious than the mainstream approach.

To the maximum extent possible, Salatin and his family have opted out of the mainstream approach. From an agricultural perspective, they hardly have any reliance on external inputs like seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and from a personal perspective, a huge proportion of the food they consume on the farm, not to mention the buildings and machinery, are produced or manufactured right there on their property. This ideal of self-sufficiency is a cornerstone of libertarianism, and it’s no surprise that rural types, who have a firsthand perspective on the production of sustenance from the land, are more inclined to libertarianism. (A person from the city might have a harder time imagining being self-sufficient, if they’ve spent years and years picking up plastic-wrapped chicken breasts from the local Walmart Supercentre.)

When questioned by Pollan about the possibility of this small, local, polyculture-based farming system eventually overtaking the military-industrial approach, he indicates his belief that “all we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse”—dispensing with the government altogether, I suppose, much like his own family has done to the maximum extent possible. In fact, he believes that the process of mass opt-outs has already begun, as evidenced by things like the increase in the number of farmer’s markets, the rise of metropolitan buying clubs, and the growth in popularity of “artisanal” approaches to production among, say, readers of Mother Earth News. What he seems to forget is that the ideals embodied in the Whole Earth Catalogue in the sixties—a similar attempt at opting out of the  military-industrial mainstream—had as good a chance of ensnaring the mainstream of America then, and look how that turned out. (In fact, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma to see how that turned out.) At least back then, the movement had a convincing veneer of soul—farmers markets are also increasing in popularity here in Vancouver, but it probably has more to do with people opting in to our thriving economy of guilt-free, greenest-city-in-the-worldTM goods than it does with a popular desire for a new form of social and economic organization. Indeed, this is the city where the ex-president of Happy Planet juices—”a company with soul”—went on to become God’s gift to Canada’s most gentrification-happy property developers.

In Salatin’s case, though, it appears that one of the major problems with his kind of libertarianism is that by opting out to such a degree, he apparently ran the risk of losing touch with the realities of the rest of the world. It’s only because he has opted out so vehemently, in other words, that he can take this perspective on the future of agriculture. (“There were plenty of books in the [Salatins’s] house,” Pollan writes, “but, aside from the Staunton daily newspaper, which devoted more space to local car crashes than the war in Iraq, little media (and no television) penetrated the Salatin household.”) From the perspective of someone living in the city, such as myself, it’s hard to see Salatin’s viewpoint as anything other than hopelessly utopian—especially as more and more people flock to cities all over the world. By opting out to such a degre, Salatin is privy almost exclusively to the negative aspects of government—the overbearing regulations, the complicity with the industrial economy, the centralization—or, at least, the aspects of government that he is privy to are grossly out of proportion.

I would never try to argue that the government’s regulatory systems are perfect, or even that they’re significantly better than mediocre, but I do see these regulations as one of the few things that are (barely) keeping the industrial system from burgeoning right out of control. The regulations may inhibit some of Salatin’s activities, because of their narrow scope or other flaws, but they also regulate the activities of a lot of massive organizations, much more massive than his, that have the potential to cause a great deal more harm than they’re already causing. Think about what BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and ChevronTexaco want to do in the National Arctic Wildlife Refuge, for instance, but can’t because of government regulations.

This is what leads me to believe that rural-style libertarianism is essentially a selfish political philosophy. It’s a philosophy characterized by willing ignorance. You don’t like what goes on in the cities and the industries, so you just choose to ignore it altogether, to leave it out of the equation when you’re thinking about how to make things better.

What strikes me as particularly bizarre about someone like Salatin disparaging the role of government in inhibiting his freedoms is that the same rhetoric is routinely proffered by people like Charles and David Koch. When he ran for vice-president of the Libertarian Party in 1980, David Koch ran on a platform of intense deregulation, including the outright elimination of regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labour Relations Board (not to mention the public school system—the Salatins have opted out of that too). The reasons for this aren’t difficult to figure out—if companies like Koch Industries and Cargill don’t have to worry about environmental, health, labour, or trade regulations, then they can make a lot more money by cutting wages, abrogating decent working conditions, dumping waste into creeks, drilling for oil in Canyonlands National Park, doing away with sanitation measures and safety equipment, firing people indiscriminately, lying to consumers about what’s in their products, and so on. These are all things that companies want to do right now, and by and large the only thing stopping them is government regulations. It’s certainly not scruples and good conscience. As John Ralston Saul observes in The Collapse of Globalism, it has been shown time and again since the beginning of the industrial revolution that “market leaders, if left to themselves, would, on average, act badly,” largely because market leaders tend to prioritize money making over everything else.

This view, at least in relation to the hippie generation, is shared by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter in The Rebel Sell:

The hippie counterculture shared many of the individualistic and libertarian ideas that have always made neoliberalism and free-market ideology such a powerful force on the right wing of the American political spectrum.

Aspects of Heath and Potter’s book are compromised by their tendency to overgeneralize and equivocate, but I do think that Salatin’s case serves as an apt illustration of their thesis that people tend to get caught up in utopian ideas about social reformation to such a degree that they overlook, even as temporary measures, shorter-term, practical reforms that can be implemented right away to make things better than they are now. “After the holocaust,” argue Heath and Potter,

the left began to distrust many of the basic building blocks of social organization, such as social norms, . . . laws and bureaucratic forms of organization . . . . As a result, the left has found itself mired in insuperable collective action problems, and unwilling to use some of the basic organizational methods that all human beings must employ in order to overcome these difficulties. The preference for individual consumer activism in response to environmental degredation, rather than state regulation of externalities, provides the most clear-cut example.

Whereas Salatin’s model of agriculture is right on—there’s no question about that—his belief that it’s going to spontaneously catch on and eventually overtake industrial agriculture is hopelessly naive. And the salient point here is that by opting out of mainstream society, he has entitled himself to take this viewpoint. He’s like Heath and Potter’s survivalist living on a compound in Montana with a generator and a shotgun—he may have it figured out for himself, but his political philosophy really only extends to the boundaries of his property. This is the paradox of libertarianism: Salatin’s approach to ecological sustainability in agriculture is spot on, yet he ends up supporting policies—like deregulation—that have the potential to destroy the very thing he’s fighting so hard to protect. A system of smart and effective regulations has the potential to do vastly more good right now than Salatin’s approach does, and if an agricultural utopia comes next, then that’s a bonus.

(Disclaimer: Everything I’ve said about Salatin is based on Pollan’s book, and I recognize that the book may not be a complete characterization of Salatin’s philosophy. Again, I’m not criticizing Salatin’s farming practices, just his political philosophy.)

The Narcissistic Ape

Since last fall I’ve been simultaneously compiling and reading my way through a list of classic nonfiction books, which is an endeavour originally prompted by my receiving a copy of The New New Journalism many years ago for Christmas. Naturally, after I finally got around to reading it, I had to follow up by reading Tom Wolfe’s classic anthology The New Journalism, and the rest is you-know-what. A recent recipient of the proverbial check mark was The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris:

The Naked Ape, by Desmond Morris.

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, is a now-elderly English zoologist-turned-anthropologist (and later -turned-surrealist-painter), who apparently became concerned about the rapidly escalating rates of human population growth and decided to do something about it in the form of a zoologist’s take on the human animal. An odd choice of action for someone concerned about population growth, perhaps, but although his reasoning is convoluted, is is extant nonetheless: he believes that it’s our ignorance of our limitations as animals that leads to our substituting sappy humanistic sentiment for good ecological or evolutionary sense. “There is no hope of shrugging off the accumulated genetic legacy of [man’s] whole evolutionary past,” he argues, and man “would be a far less worried and more fulfilled animal if only he would face up to this fact.”

“Ladies love my fleshy earlobes.”

Of course, the book is couched at first as more of an expression of the ecstacy of scientific exploration, and it’s not until the end of the book that Morris admits the political nature of his motivation:

Sooner or later we shall go, and make way for something else. If it is to be later rather than sooner, then we must take a long, hard look at ourselves as biological specimens and gain some understanding of our limitations. This is why I have written this book, and why I have deliberately insulted us by referring to use as naked apes, rather than by the more usual name we use for ourselves.

This insult was received largely as he intended; the book received a lot of criticism, enough that dust jackets of subsequent editions hailed the book as a “controversial classic.” Morris posited that our simian heritage is frequently a source of embarassment, and there’s little doubt that in conceiving of the book the way he did, he was aiming to generate some bad publicity for himself (which is to say, good publicity) by hitting Homo sapiens below the belt. Russell H. Tuttle, of the University of Chicago, said of the “unfortunately chosen” title:

Morris states on page 15 that “At this point and without further investigation, it is justifiable to name this species (viz. man) the ‘naked ape.'” One suspects that “further investigation” stopped shortly after it was realized that “the naked ape” would make a catchy title for the book.

Some humanists chomped on this bait as expected. George Gaylord Simpson, in reviewing the book for the New York Times, opined that “the overt intention of treating man as a zoological species or a biological specimen is not only unobjectionable but is also admirable,” yet he ultimately objects to the book because of his conviction that “man is not an ape, not by far.”

Actually man is an ape, and Morris was right in trying to pull some of the wool away from our eyes. Next time you scratch an itch, think about how that reflex helps to keep bugs from crawling on your skin, and realize how clumsy an animal you really are. The problem isn’t that Morris treats humans as apes, it’s that his approach to doing so is predominantly bad biology; large swaths of the book read like nothing more than drawn-out, rambling hypotheses, with little in the way of evidence. If such and such is the case about humans today, he’ll say, then perhaps so and so is the explanation. Hypotheses are fun to think about, but they’re hardly science unless they’re followed by experimental verification. In the cases where he does draw on existing research, his conclusions are mostly audacious and his generalizations are indefensible.

Morris’s goal, as stated, is clear—to elucidate our biological limitations. Yet throughout the book, he tends to vacillate between knocking humans down from their “grandiose ideas and . . . lofty self-conceits” and lifting them up as prototypes of evolutionary success. At times, in exchange for a theological anthropocentric view, Morris substitutes fitness as a measure of a creature’s rank on the Great Chain of Being. This latter tendency is inherent in Morris’s teleological account of evolution—many of his hypotheses are posited as though certain adaptations were devised as solutions to some kind of problem. Thus, he writes things like, “As the battle was to be won by brain rather than brawn, some kind of dramatic evolutionary step had to be taken to greatly increase his brain power.” Or, “The males had to be sure that their females were going to be faithful to them when they left them alone to go hunting. So the females had to develop a pairing tendency.” This isn’t actually how evolution works; see Wikipedia for details.

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding leads him to imply in a lot of cases that certain creatures are more highly evolved than others. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this mistaken view of evolution, and the aspect of the book that’s most worthy of criticism, is in Morris’s ranking of human cultures in terms of evolutionary fitness. Most of Morris’s hypothesizing is derived from research conducted on whiteys from Western Europe and North America:

Most of the detailed information we have available stems from a number of painstaking studies carried out in recent years in North America and based largely on that culture. Fortunately it is biologically a very large and successful culture and can, without undue fear of distortion, be taken as representative of the modern naked ape.

Note the appeal to biological success: white people are numerous and powerful, and therefore they are the purest manifestation of the naked ape’s evolutionary goals. Nevermind that when the book was written, North Americans constituted just 220 million out of 3.5 billion people on earth. Morris justifies this leap of faith by characterizing other, non-white cultures as backward failures:

The earlier anthropologists rushed off to all kinds of unlikely corners of the world in order to unravel the basic truth about our nature, scattering to remote cultural backwaters so atypical and unsuccessful that they are nearly extinct . . . . The work done by these investigators was, of course, extremely interesting and most valuable in showing us what can happen when a group of naked apes becomes side-tracked into a cultural blind alley . . . . The simple tribal groups that are living today are not primitive, they are stultified.

And later:

Only if a culture becomes too rigid as a result of its slavery to imitative repitition, or too daring and rashly exploratory, will it flounder . . . . We can see plenty of examples of the too rigid and too rash cultures around the world today. The small, backward societies, completely dominated by their heavy burden of taboos and ancient customs, are cases of the former. The same societies, when converted and ‘aided’ by advanced cultures, rapidly become examples of the latter.

I might note that two of the worlds biggest religions, Christianity and Islam, are burdened with taboos and customs, and they constituted about half the people on earth when this book was written. Clearly his regard of the cultural East and economic South is so low that he can write them all off—two or three million people in Africa, a couple billion Asians, about two hundred million Central and South Americans—as being no more typical than the people of Papua New Guinea. This isn’t necessarily an impediment to Morris’s worldview, though, because culturally sophisticated, relatively wealthy white scientists like himself are even purer expressions of evolutionary destiny:

Certain types of belief are more wasteful and sultifying than others and can side-track a community into rigidifying patters of behaviour that hamper its qualitative development . . . . A belief in the validity of the acquisition of knowledge and a scientific understanding of the world we live in, the creation and appreciation of aesthetic phenomena . . . , and the broadening and deepening of our range of experiences in day-to-day living, is rapidly becoming the ‘religion’ of our time.

Not surprisingly, these assumptions—that upper-middle class 1950s America is more or less representative of the entirety of humankind—bleeds over into his discussion of work and leisure.

When the pseudo-hunter is relaxing he goes to all-male ‘clubs’, from which the females are completely excluded. Younger males tend to form into all-male gangs, often ‘predatory’ in nature. Throughout the whole range of these organizations, from learned societies, social clubs, fraternities, trade unions, sports clubs, masonic groups, secret societies, right down to teenage gangs, there is a strong emotional feeling of male ‘togetherness’ . . . . Females frequently resent the departure of their males to ‘join the boys’, reacting to it as though it signified some kind of family disloyalty. But they are wrong to do so. All they are witnessing is the modern expression of the age-old male-grouping hunting tendency of the species.

Indeed, going to all-male clubs is part of our nature, so get over it, woman!

“Excuse me while I express my primitive hunting urges.”

When you conceive of evolution as a process designed to meet certain goals, and your goal is to produce an organism exactly like Desmond Morris, it’s inevitable that your examination of humankind will come out looking like The Naked Ape. Overall, Morris’s goal to turn his pen on Homo sapiens to provide a much-needed account of the species from a zoologist’s perspective was unmet–there’s very little in this book to tempt a practicing zoologist. But his goal to make a name for himself by inflaming passions worldwide, in a style that would later be adopted by people like Anne Coulter, was wildly successful; the book has sold over twelve million copies, and Morris went on to apply his money-making formula to a number of subsequent books, like The Human Zoo and The Naked Woman, that I have no intention of reading.

Use-Value of Scientific Knowledge

Rationally Speaking is a podcast created by Dr. Massimo Pigliucci and Julia Galef of New York City Skeptics. Dr. Pigliucci is currently a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York, but he also holds two other PhDs in genetics and botany. Ms. Galef is a writer and public speaker with a BA in statistics, who has a particular interest in science, technology, and rationality. In their podcast entitled “Is anthropology still a science?” they respond to the American Anthropological Association’s decision to remove all references to science from their mission statement—an interesting topic, and their discussion is worth hearing, but I’m particularly interested in a short exchange about the use-value of knowledge.

First, Dr. Pigliucci distinguishes between advocacy and science using ecology as an example (since he spent a considerable amount of time earlier in his career studying invasive species):

If you study the environment, you are an ecologist, but if you are advocating on behalf of particular, you know, types of defense of the environment or managing of the environment then you are an environmentalist or you are interested in policy and things like that, so you’re not doing science anymore . . . . If I publish an article as an ecologist, I’m expected not to do advocacy; in fact, the article would very likely be rejected if I started doing advocacy in a scientific journal, because the editor would correctly point out that what the science of ecology is about is to find out how things are, not to make value judgments or suggestions about value judgments . . . . That doesn’t mean that the same person cannot involve himself or herself in both activities, but it does mean that the two activities are, it seems, distinct . . . . If you want to make your department or your association or your journal mostly about advocacy, then you really ought to be, in fact, decoupled from the science branch.

Julia responds, “I’d like to talk a little bit more about the question of whether the knowledge in anthropology is generalizable or not . . . .” She refers to a comment on the Rationally Speaking blog from a grad student who asks, “what is the purpose of anthropology if not to produce generalizable knowledge? Of what empirical use is anthropology to anyone if it doesn’t produce this kind of knowledge?” Elaborating on this idea, Julia asks, “are the questions that it asks specific questions, like describing this particular society or this particular culture, or . . . are we trying to get at general principles of why things happen the way they do?” And later, in clarification, “what is the use, I mean, should anthroplogy be asking these specific questions, or should anthropology be trying to answer general questions?”

Dr. Pigliucci replies:

Why is it that certain people . . . see ungeneralizable knowledge as [un]worthy of science? I don’t think that’s the case. . . . There’s a lot of knowledge in science that is not actually generalizable . . . [such as] almost anything you get out of evolutionary biology. . . . One of the problems with the study of invasive species is precisely that it seems very hard to find any generalizable conclusions. It seems to be the fact that invasive species behave in a fairly idiosyncratic way. . . . But that doesn’t mean that that research is useless, because, for instance, if it comes to managing a particular species that is invasive in a particular area, . . . well, then you want to know a lot of specific knowledge about that particular system, and it doesn’t really matter whether that knowledge is generalizable or not–you have a problem to solve, and you’re solving it upon scientific grounds, you’re not solving it in a nonscientific manner . . . . It’s pretty clear,

he goes on,

that science is a highly heterogeneous kind of enterprise that addresses a variety of questions at a variety of levels, and these questions may have different degrees of generalizability, and some of the specific questions may be actually more useful, frankly, than general questions. We may come up with some general platitudes about, for instance, again, the behaviour of invasive species, but if they’re not particularly useful in terms of managing the species in the field, then it seems to me that we haven’t gained that much.

This is an interesting exchange, to me, because it implies that even scientific knowledge has some kind of use-value, and that the use-value of the knowledge is more or less the point of creating that knowledge. This is particularly interesting coming from Dr. Pigliucci, who argues for the importance of distinguishing the creation of scientific knowledge from the use of it. (I will note that it’s not a foregone conclusion that all or most scientists would agree that the purpose of creating knowledge is for its use-value; even Dr. Pigliucci seems to suggest that the goal of generalizable knowledge, as opposed to specific knowledge, is to contribute to the development of overarching theories—as is the case in physics, for example. Still, it’s not clear what the point of such a theory would be.) I agree from a practical perspective that what’s published in a scientific journal should be science, as opposed to advocacy, but I don’t think journal articles are the be-all-and-end-all of science as it’s practiced. If a scientist’s job is merely to produce scientific knowledge, but we argue that knowledge is produced for its use-value, then whose responsibility is it to make use of that knowledge?

An anthropologist who also commented on the Rationally Speaking post suggested that in the case of anthropology, at least, advocacy cannot really be separated as cleanly from science as Dr. Pigliucci would like. He suggested that a picture of anthropology that ignores the use-value of the knowledge it creates (i.e., “tak[ing] all of our research data and go[ing] up into the Ivory Tower”) doesn’t accurately reflect the nature of anthroplogy. Thus, although I agree with Dr. Pigliucci about the distinction between science and advocacy in principle, I’m not sure that looking at a field such as anthropology through that lens gives an accurate or complete picture of what’s going on there (it might give a picture of what should be going on there, but that’s not a scientific approach to studying anthropology). Nor does it give an accurate picture of what’s going on in ecology. If we look at science as it’s practiced, I think both ecologists and anthropologists are equally likely to use their knowledge for advocacy purposes as part of their jobs, and in the case of anthropologists, this occurs under the auspices of the American Anthropological Association.

To give a concrete example, here is the goal of some ecological research that was conducted by a friend of mine:

. . . to determine if channel geomorphology controls (a) the sensitivity of small streams to the altered rates of terrestrial inputs that result from riparian management, and (b) the extent to which these changes are conveyed downstream.

Is this science or advocacy? Or both? Maybe it makes more sense to look at certain applications of science as a part of advocacy, rather than an activity done by a discrete group of people to create knowledge that’s used by another discrete group of people. In this case, a problem is identified with our current forest management practices, some research is carried out to determine the specifics, some recommendations are made, some regulators are lobbied, some policies are changed. And in practice, as Dr. Pigliucci acknowledges, several of these steps might be done by the same person. But this doesn’t mean that the articles produced by this project were motivated by value judgments, and I don’t think this is grounds for “decoupling” the scientific part of the forestry department from the advocacy part, even though the forestry department is ostensibly “mostly about advocacy.” (Forestry, according to the Association of University Forestry Schools of Canada, is “the art and science of protecting, conserving and managing forests.”) I’m inclined to think it’s more likely that the invocation of such a distinction in a discussion about anthropology is a result of some kind of bias.