Pit Schultz on Wed, 27 Nov 96 03:29 MET

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nettime: The Davis-Stahlman-Dialogue

[In this e-mail dialogue Erik Davis, an independent writer in Francisco,
who also contributed to Wired Magazine replies to Mark Stahlman, 
New York who wrote several pieces for Information World and worked 
on Wall Street, how jut finished his Big Picture of 'The English Ideology'
behind Net-Pravda) The thread goes along the main lines of ecology movement
vs ecofascism, the viability of pattern recognition vs conspiracy theory,
or simply with which kind of assembled subjectivity we could enjoy the puzzle
stadium without crashing against the millenial time-wall. read fast. -p]

Date: Sat, 23 Nov 1996 13:03:04 -0800
To:Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) <stahlman@radiomail.net
From:figment@sirius.com (Erik Davis)
Subject:Throw dirt in their face!

Mark (and hopefully other nettimers)

I am constitutionally allergic to conspiracies on the scale you propose,
but I am not responding to the entirity of your Wells-to-Wired scenario,
whose basic punch I quite enjoy. Rather it is this little bit of goofiness
you tacked on about the environment. To wit,

>The further problem is that a fundamental religious basis for this
>totalitarianism is already emblazed in our skulls -- the insane notion that
>the Earth is being threatened by humanity. Not only is there no science
>behind fear of eco-disaster (its a religion, remember) but by placing
>Nature at the pinnacle of creation and by being willing to sacrifice human
>progress at Nature's altar, we are sealing our fate.

Now, one problem with conspiratorial thinking is that it tends to reduce
complex, multi-leveled phenomena to singular stages of some sort of
abstract plan, and here is a rosey example. We must look a bit more deeply
at this "insane notion," and first make a series of differentiations about
ecological camps:

Popular eco-"religion," which motivates its activism on nonscientific
"sacred" values it finds in wilderness, old-growth forests, endandered
critters (Deadheads, tree lovers);

Hardass eco-terrorist monkey wrenchers, driven by a horror of industrial
civilization and a cranky disregard for the rules of property law;

Intellectual versions of these two camps, who philosophically critique the
axioms of modernity and technoscience in terms of a wide variety of
ecological positions (Naess, Zimmerman, late Heidegger, etc), many of
which condemn both the reduction of the material environment to a
"value-free" standing reserve of raw materials and the hubristic image and
consciousness, knocked into shape during the Renaissance, of "man as

Scientists and ecologists who compile loads and loads of stats and
studies, some of whom are activist and some of whom are simply interested
in maintaining the health of the standing reserve;

Institutional forces -- states, mining companies, journalists, developers,
bureacracies, dumb pop stars -- who use environemntal rhetoric for the own
power-seeking ends (we can put Gore in this camp if you like).

There are many other differentiations one could make; the point is that to
attribute all positions taken on behalf of the environment as coming from
one camp is not only wrong -- it is boring.

Now, for the "insane" notion. Only the most histrionic Gaians are claiming
that the Earth itself is threatened. The earth is a big molten rock with
stuff growing on it; if total thermonuclear war broke out tomorrow, the
Earth would keep on spinning and gurgling, and would keep spewing our
growing things until Sol goes down. What is threatened are various aspects
of the biosphere *as we know it*, a biosphere whose value we judge (both
quantifiably and qualitatively) from an irreducibly human perspective.
Desertification across the globe is real; the reduction of fish
populations are real; the ozone hole is real; the depletion of water
tables and the increasing scarcity of fresh water is real; the reduction
of biodiversity (which allows for a more resilient and open-ended set of
living things whose genetic differences allow for a more robust response
to unforeseen blights; note potato famine here) is real; major species
die-offs are real (frogs are going down as hard as tigers); the existence
of estrogen-mimicking toxins and the global reduction in sperm counts and
fertility is real (though their connection is debatable).

In order to claim that any of these (and many more) are not confirmable by
the evidentiary rules of science (with the arguable exception of the
biodiversity theory and the link between estrogen-mimicking chemicals and
fertility), is to be a conspiracy theorist -- i.e., all of the groups,
public and private, that cough up the stats are in league to lie to us. It
is precisely the kind of anti-science stance that presumably you would
reject, given your somewhat curious call for a return to "Renaissance
inventors of modern science" (why Renaissance and not Reformation, I
wonder; are you a closet Hermeticist?). If you sincerely believe that the
stuff you can read on the Web and in Nature is bunk, well, enjoy the
intellectual solitude visited upon conspiracy thinkers. If you are
assuming that science will *solve* all these problems -- well, that is
another argument (a Kevin Kellyish one), one that is admissible though
also borders on the miraculous, a new kind of divine intervention.

This is not to deny the enormous potential dangers in any sort of mass
movement based on the "intrinsic" value of nature, quantifiable or
religious. The spectre of Nazi nature rhetoric and examples like the
French Greens suggest that your vision of an Eco-Fascist state, which
would derive its totalitarian powers in the name of protecting what They
define as the Earth, is not an unalloyed fantasy. However, the
multinational world "state" that is shaping up is certainly not giving us
many signs of genuflecting before the idol of the earth Goddess. Let's
take GATT, and look at a few of the first cases of "unfair restraint of
trade" that other countries have brought against the United States in
whatever they call the world trade court. One was a South American oil
consortium mad at US regulations regarding the ability to clean up oil
spills; another was Mexican tuna fisherman, peeved at regulations
regarding the use of dophin-munching drift nets; a third was Mercedes
Benz, who really wanted to sell Americans a dandy auto that sank below our
minimum gas efficiency standards. All won. Environmental regulations, for
all the idiocy they court, are one of the ways that our cherished
nation-states keep themselves coherent in the face of the short-sighted
lowest-common-denominator practices that drive the global exploitation of
natural goods.

The question of a religion of ecology, and its own anthropology, is a
fascinating one, but in order for us to have that conversation you would
have to more upfront about your *religious* opposition to the notion of an
immanent power like Gaia.

What is more germane to the nettime list is how your refusal to
acknowledge the corrosion of certain basic dimensions of the biosphere
that humans have come to rely on (for resources and perhaps for meaning)
shuts off access to one of the handful of movements of any strength today
that is potentially positioned to help withstand the global juggernaut.
Having been nettiming for a while now, it seems to me that one of our
basic challenges is to create bulwarks against the intense velocity and
insidious heedlessness of the global trends of privatization, dismantling
of the nation-state, virtual slavery, false utopias, etc. It seems that
these bulwarks may be made of very different, even contradictory
materials: modernist rejoinders to postmodernism, a tenacious clining to
the nation state and certain socialized institutions, an intense focus on
local communities (which always have an environmental element), a
resurrection of class consciousness, a deflation of virtual mythologies
and especially the mythology of the "free market", refusal to simply
reproduce sociobiological paradigms of anthropology (a resistence that
could be waged on both artistic and spiritual fronts), etc. And
environmentalism has a lot of dirt to throw in their faces.

Think of the looming spectre of hardcore biotechnology, which fits in
cozily with both multinational "innovation" and ironic postmodern
celebrations of the "constructed," deconstructed, and mutant nature of
reality. A rigorously "whole systems" ecologist would recognize that we
have no idea of the long-term effects of introducing engineered DNA into an
incredibly interactive biosphere (here invoke the emergence of all sorts
of once-conquered flus in new, antibiotics-resistant strains); that the
reductionism that drives molecular engineering can be not only incredibly
short-sighted, but scientifically suspect (here invoke non-genetic
developmental causes, and the ruinous social health consequences of
genetic neodeterminsim).  Rewriting and commodifying creation on the
genetic level will conjure moral and ethical dilemmas that will dwarf our
already hamstrung attempts to weave technoscientific developments into a
humane world, wreaking havoc, for one example, on the subsistence farming
that a huge chunk of humans still rely on (insert reference to neem tree
in India, here).

In short, to deny that ecological consciousness could be a useful wedge
against our contemporary "business-as-unusual" is myopic. To claim that
anyone who puts forward such "insane" suggestions has no science behind
them is false. And to claim that ecologists seeking to expand the rhetoric
of values to include the physical matrix of the nonhuman biosphere are
just shills and patsies for the Brain Lords? That, my friend, is simply

Date: Sun, 24 Nov 1996 06:44:43 -0800 (PST)
To: figment@sirius.com (Erik Davis)
From: Mark Stahlman (via RadioMail) <stahlman@radiomail.net

Eric (and other nettimers):

It's good to hear from you and I hope that your life has been productive
since we met in Budapest.  Thanks for responding to my recent posts -- but
I confess that I'm not quite sure what you are refering to in much of the
"dirt" piece.  In particular, what conspiracy are you refering to?  Perhaps
you could clarify.

The world is filled with conspiracies (every business, government agency
and, probably, human association qualifies) and it's also filled with
"conspiracy theories."  While I, like you, have a serious distaste for
these mostly anti-theoretical "theories", we all have to live with the
actual conspiracies which animate those who project their own paranoia onto
the world.

The movement for a New Dark Age has, in fact, been called a conspiracy by
some of its principle sponsors.  From Wells' "Open Conspiracy" to
Ferguson's "Aquarian Conspiracy" some of the major actors in this drama
have correctly characterized their own activity this way.  Was this what
you were refering to?

On the issue of the environment, I don't recall "reducing" any complex
phenomena.  As you may recall, my schooling was in biology (evolutionary
genetics to be precise) as well as theology and I participated in some of
the earliest efforts to study "ecology."  I'm reasonably familiar with both
the science and the politics of the subject -- neither of which I was
speaking about in the fragment of a reply to another nettime post which you

I was speaking from a theological and political standpoint not a scientific
one.  The fact that the earth's ecology is changing is clear.  I don't
remember arguing this point.  It is supposed to change.  Are you sure that
you are refering to me in your accusation of denial regarding your
cataloging of eco-threats?  What I was speaking about is the way that
eco-disaster is constantly invoked (usually by people without any
familiarity with the sciences) as the ultimate motive and the ultimate
political statement.  It takes the form of "Given the looming eco-disaster,
we need to . . ."  This is religious not scientific talk.  And, it's a
false religion which, if followed to its conclusion, will surely pronounce
doom on the human population by ending scientific research, stopping
efforts to grow populations and economies and bestializing the remaining
human population.

Humanity has a unique capability -- consciousness.  This capability doesn't
make us just more "complex" or more "computationally rich" than other
phenomena.  We are fundamentally different.  We are of a different order
than the rest of Nature.  That difference is what gives us the
responsibility to progressively alter both ourselves and the rest of
Nature.  All philosophical notions which argue the opposite, from General
Systems Theory to "Great Chain of Being", seek to lump humanity into the
great cosmic soup as just another chunk of stew.  It is these philosophies
and their theological correlate that I'm concerned with.  It is these
humans-are-just-beast/machines worldviews which provide the foundation for
the utopians that we are now fighting.

I completely endorse and would actively support "ecological consciousness"
-- if, indeed, it is based on a recognition of the role of human
consciousness.  The recognition that human consciousness has a deep
responsibility towards Nature (which by our very nature as conscious humans
we must progressively alter) is one that we need to all embrace.  This
notion is probably better captured by "conservation" than the zero
(actually negative) economic growth theology which dominates the Green
movement, however.  Show me an ecologist (or activist) who understands the
basic need for overall population and economic growth and I'll be happy to
make them my ally.  Show me the one who says, "Oh, but we can't grow that
because eco-disaster looms" and I know that we are in trouble.  Growth does
not equal looting.  But, unfortunately, that equivalence is rampant.