Monday, December 12, 2005

I Am Not a Caveman

My older brother is always good for a laugh. He has this idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: upstanding Christian conservatives like himself, and liberal crackpots. Since I am not in the former category it follows, in his mind at least, that I must necessarily be in the latter category.

He never hesitates to tell me what I think.

Last summer, at a family reunion of sorts at a park in my home town, my brother informed me that, if it were up to me, "we would all be living in caves."

This struck me as an extraordinary claim, but his reasoning was transparent enough. The argument goes like this:
1. I am not an upstanding Christian conservative.
2. If I am not an upstanding Christian conservative, then I am a liberal crackpot.
3. If I am a liberal crackpot, then I am a rabid, tree-hugging environmentalist.
4. If I am a rabid, tree-hugging environmentalist, then I am opposed to Civilization as such.
5. If I am opposed to Civilization as such, then I would like humans to return to a time before Civilization (e.g., "Back to the Caves!").
Therefore, 6. if it were up to me, we would all be living in caves. QED.

Claim 1 is true enough: I am an upstanding (I hope), moderate secular progressive. Claim 2 is an obvious false dichotomy.

The grounds for claims 3-6 lie in what George Lakoff calls a "pathological stereotype." There is a pathological form of environmentalism that afflicts a few individuals and organizations at the fringe. These are the real crackpots who take literally the Earth First! motto, "Back to the Pleistocene!" (There may be many others who embrace the motto strategically, or ironically, or heuristically.)

Following the lead of political pornographers like Rush Limbaugh (on the right) and Mike Malloy (on the left), my brother has fallen into the trap of painting all environmentalists, and therefore all liberals, with the same brush. Thus a pathological form of environmentalism becomes a stereotype for all environmentalists and, by extension, for all liberals.

Logically, this makes no sense whatsoever: Some individuals who identify themselves as environmentalists want everyone to go back to living in caves (metaphorically, if not literally). Therefore, all individuals who identify themselves as environmentalists want everyone to go back to living in caves.

Any decent critical thinker from Aristotle on down can easily spot the fallacy of inferring a universal claim from a particular claim. But this is politics, not logic, so the rules don't seem to apply.

As it happens, I am an environmentalist, but I think that much of the point of environmentalism is to find ways to make civilization more sustainable, so that our grandchildren and their grandchildren can enjoy a range of opportunities at least comparable to what we have enjoyed. This may involve significant changes in how we think and how we live, in both our culture and the infrastructure that supports it. However significant those changes may be, however, going "back to the caves" would simply defeat the whole purpose, restricting our opportunities and our aspirations to mere subsistence.

Anyway, what brings all of this on is that the heat has been out in my house since yesterday morning, and the weather has been cold by Atlanta standards. The temperature in the house when I got up this morning was 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

There's nothing like a furnace breakdown or a power outage to make a person appreciate the fruits of civilization. At least we have some back-up systems: hot water, electric radiators, and extra layers of clothing are getting us through until the Vanguard of the Civilization Defense Force (a.k.a. the furnace guy) gets here in a few hours.

Still, it is sobering to think of what might happen in the future, as supplies of cheap natural gas and oil are harder to come by. The home heating crisis predicted in the wake of Katrina and Rita seems to be abating somewhat, but it seems only a matter of time until some major disruption in energy supplies leads to death-by-freezing for more Americans than we'd care to think about, and also to massive deforestation and particulate air pollution as more and more people turn back to wood as a source of heat. This, in very concrete terms, is what is at stake in developing sustainable energy policies.

I am not a caveman, and have no desire to become one. The simple, inescapable fact is that I will live or die with this civilization. It is not just that I entertain no survivalist delusions. It is that I would not want to outlive the conditions that make a civilized life possible.

(Thanks to Gordon Kingsley for the term "political pornographer.")

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