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Beyond Goodwill and Language: Why Ecopoetics Should Embrace Policy Wonks

21 Mar

(This post is part of conversation with poet and friend Moriah Purdy. The first post can be read over at Here Now, Myriads.)

Moriah has already provided some good working definitions of ecopoetics already, so I don’t have much to add on that front. My primary interest in ecopoetics is how it intersects with policy and political activism. I welcome responses from anyone, though I’m eager to hear the thoughts of my co-blogging conversationalist.

The oft posed questions surrounding poetry and practice run something like, “Does poetry do anything? Can ecopoetics help change environmental policy for the better?” These are often rhetorical questions or placeholders for future debates that don’t materialize.  I want to try to begin addressing them, and so I’ll offer what I see as the major limitation of ecopoetics (however defined): It doesn’t help us think about the environmental problems currently facing us.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if we’re focusing on ecopoetics as a poems themselves; poetry doesn’t pretended to offer the kinds arguments and evidence that essays or policy papers do, so it would be unfair to criticize ecopoets for not doing something they’ve never pretended to do. But much of the discussion surrounding ecopoetics seems to offer up questions without attempts to work through problems or offer potential solutions. An excerpt from Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice highlights my concern:

Consider another subject, which is beginning, at long last, to receive the attention it deserves, that is, the neglect and deterioration of the natural environment. It is, as is increasingly clear, a hugely serious problem and one that is closely linked with the negative effects of human behaviour, but the problem does not arise from any desire of people today to hurt those yet to be born, or even to be deliberately callous about the future generations’ interests. And yet, through lack of reasoned engagement and action, we do still fail to take adequate care of the environment around us and the sustainability of the requirements of good life. To prevent catastrophes caused by human negligence or callous obduracy, we need critical scrutiny, not just goodwill towards others.

Critical scrutiny is the key here, even though I think many ecopoets would argue that they are offering a kind of “critical scrutiny”—for example, by examining the ways we use language to talk about the environment. But I think that (much) of the critical scrutiny offered by ecopoetics is severely limited and often fails to address some of the most pressing concerns. This Tamiko Beyer post about the BP oil spill at the Kenyon Review blog is one such example¹:

I understand that to mean that the act of thinking through an ecopetics forces us to ask questions about the role and function of art/writing/etc. as we approach a critical ecological/environmental breaking point. The problems – as in the oil spill – are so huge and seemingly impossible to tackle – what use, then, poetry?

It’s a question that’s been asked before in many different contexts, but for me, it makes intuitive sense that an ecopoetics is a reasonable, appropriate, even vital response to ecological disaster. As one panelist pointed out (Iijima? Durand?) all poetry in some respect is ecopoetic: our language and language production cannot help but be influenced by and indicate the ecology that we exist in.

Given that, I want to think that we can start to reconsider our relationship with our ecology/environment by putting pressure on the language that is a manifestation of that relationship.

Though the problem is seemingly impossible to tackle, we already have a host of critical tools we can use to think about the problem: What are the environmental costs? What sort of regulation is missing? How have government regulators failed (or overreached)? What sort of legal remedies are effective/available? What kind of political action could communities muster to prevent future disasters?. It’s not that language is unimportant, it’s that the numerous disciplines that ecopoetics claims to include have spent some time thinking about these issues and these disciplines would be a great edition to the vocabulary of ecopoetics.  See, for example, Ryan Advent discussing the tension between environmentalists and the economic models which politicians and policy makers rely on to craft climate change legislation (or, as is the case with the US Congress, not make policy).

My feeling is that many ecopoets would nod along with some of these criticisms, admitting that, of course short term policy is indeed important, but that ecopoetics is playing a long game that is interested in changing the ways we think about the environment, breaking us out of status quo thinking and critical approaches (like economic models) which are too limited (or even damaging). I’m skeptical that many of these ecopoetic alternatives consider the full scope of the problem (global climate change is history’s greatest collective action problem–which problematic language game stands in the way of turning China, the US, and India into green nations?).  Which is why I’m interested to hear how others think ecopoetics can (or even shouldn’t) take into account some of the policy concerns of environmentalists and public debate.

fn.1: I don’t mean to suggest that Beyer is wholly unaware of other approaches to the oil spill besides language analysis; she says in the post that she hopes to revisit ecopoetic concerns in another post which, unfortunately, she didn’t write (only so many things you can address as a guest blogger). Perhaps she has since addressed similar concerns elsewhere.

Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

The Perils of the Low Information Voter

29 Sep

The bailout plan fails in the House. And hey, the Dow closes in -700 territory. So that’s exciting.  

On the political side, I can understand the behavior of representatives who claim to be receiving calls 100:1 against the bailout. They’re worried about protecting their seats and watching as their vote is painted as a taxpayer giveaway to billionares. But this is the one of the real-word consequences of the the “low information” voter.  The bailout is a complex and confusing morass that requires a lot of technical knowledge.  So we’re asking the voter–who hears “bailout” and “fatcat” thrown around like CNBC is covering a national game of Monopoly with the Fed playing the roll of Mr. Moneybags, complete with Depression-era monocle–to smile and put their faith in unelected technocrats. 

This is, in part, a trust and information problem. If more voters understood the problem, they might be inclined to support the bill. (I’ll also note that some of this blame could be shared by Congress and the Bush administration for not selling this better). If some voters had more information, they’d know enough to understand…that they don’t know enough. 

Instead, they call and complain to their local representative, allowing the House GOP to cry partisanship. Best comment comes from a friend in investment banking:

LOL. No! They’re [the Republicans] protecting the little guy by insisting on tax incentives for speculative investment. Wheeeeeeee! We’re all doomed!

What Obama’s Economic Argument Should Look Like: The Great Risk Shift

23 Sep

One of the things that seems to be missing from the Obama campaign’s economic rhetoric is a coherent narrative under which he can group his policy proposals .  Citing deregulation, the influence of lobbyists (with strong ties to the Republican party and John McCain’s campaign), and tax cuts for oil companies is a scatter-shot of political sins and policy failures.  But as Ezra Klein observed recently when critiquing an Obama ad, these things don’t really go together in the minds of voters:

But the substance of the ad, the solutions, are a string of disconnected, and fairly unconvincing, sentences. “Reform our tax system to give a $1,000 tax break to the middle class, instead of showering more on oil companies and corporations that outsource our jobs.” This would be fine if McCain were publicly advocating the “Oil Companies and Outsourcers Tax Cut of 2008,” but as he won’t admit to favoring these things, it just sounds like Obama is another politician promising Good Stuff, and no one really believes in Good Stuff. 

Jacob Hacker’s idea of “The Great Risk Shift” would be one, I think powerful, way of thinking about the current crisis and forming a positive argument.  It also has two major political messaging benefits:

  1. Like Bill Clinton’s 1992 message, it tells the voters what the Republicans are doing wrong (they’re shifting the burden of financial risk from other players in the system–who can and should assume their own risk–and shifting it to the middle and lower classes).  It’s the worst features of both Big Government and free-market fervor: regulatory capture, corporate patronage, and bailouts for those at the top combined with little to no oversight to keep markets running smoothly (even if you favor a “night watchmen” for regulatory oversight, it’d be best if that watchman wasn’t asleep on the job). 
  2. It offers a flexible range of policy responses.  The campaign doesn’t have to adopt all of Hacker’s proposals to make the case against McCain’s plans.  You could offer a more populist, John Edwards inspired package under the narrative of restoring safeguards for the American worker as easily as you could a more limited, “iPod government” initiative.

The message of the late 80s and early 90s was that “trickle-down economics” had failed to actually trickle down.  The message for the remaining days of this campaign should be that average voters deserve a governemnt that makes all players in the system assume their fair share of risk.

Sentences That Worry Me

15 Sep

Perhaps if I had more experience with financial markets, I wouldn’t be as concerned, but as it stands this sort of thing doesn’t sound good:

$$$ With Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns gone, everyone is asking whether Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs will survive as independent investment banks.

And these from Felix Salmon:

If you’re looking for silver linings, it’s clearly the investment banks which are most worried right now, not the big commercial banks in Europe or even in the US (Wells Fargo). When Wall Street’s alpha males stop competing and start cooperating like this, you know you’re living in historic times.

Hopefully not too historic.

Two Quick Takes on Canadian Politics

28 Aug

Well, not Canadian politics exactly, but the politics and views of Canadians.  From time to time, I like to click through the Canadian political blogosphere.  It’s an interesting contrast to the terms of debate in America–both the literal terms (the Conservative party is more moderate than the Republican right; the Liberal party is further left of center ) and which issues are a priority north of the border.  And then sometimes there’s a bit of dissonance:

If I am being branded a social neo-liberal, then I suggest the right do their homework a little more. I am a small “c” conservative, and I utterly reject social progressivism, except perhaps in the case of hereditary rights. I do not believe in progressive taxation, nor social security for employment, nor government control of free markets. I do not agree with surrendering 33% of my income toward social progressivism. As a classical liberal I believe in the free market, with restrictions only on collusive interests and foreign manipulation of domestic controls.

That’s right, free markets for everyone except in the case of”foreign manipulation,” because markets stop at the imaginary line we call borders.  And domestic controls, which might be things like safety standards or, well, I’m not sure what–sounds like nasty market regulation stuff to me.  And “bah” to foreigners and this “multiculturalism” drivel.  I mean, is labor really subject to market forces? Free markets for me but not for thee.

This isn’t really classical liberalism; this is favor for some open markets at the expense of others (as a corrective, see: all the work of Will Wilkinson).

Then there’s Jason Cherniak asking “What’s Obama scared of?“:

My concern is that the supposedly charismatic man of change seems, ultimately, scared of competition. When he ran against Hillary Clinton, he successfully destroyed her campaign by arguing that she would somehow be cheating if she were to follow the rules and try to win the votes of what we call “ex-officio delegates”. Now, when it came time to pick the number 2, he went with bland and boring. It is as if Mr. Obama wants absolutely nobody to ever forget that he is the star and whomever else might be around him is all but meaningless.

Bland and boring?  Evan Bayh is closer to Mr. Vanilla.  Kathleen Sebelius, despite her impressive perch as a Democratic executive in Republican leaning state, isn’t exactly a rousing figure.  Joe Biden, on the other hand, has that uniquely Washington problem of occasionally stating exactly what he’s thinking.  Biden is a pretty strong and well-established figure in the Democratic party–and yet Obama chose him to be his running mate (a man who also, as the McCain campaign has reminded us, said that Sen. Obama wasn’t ready to lead).  Hardly the behavior of a primadonna.

Allow Me

12 Jun

In order to alleviate any suggestion of concern trolling on Matt Zeitlin’s part, I’m going to take a shot at why this Naomi Klein piece on Obama’s economic advisers is such a mess. Klein’s continued obsession with Milton Friedman as a symbol of everything that is wrong with anything approaching a market solution causes her to not only flatten distinction between economists, but also miss a growing consensus among liberal economists that more has to be done to ensure social welfare and address inequality. First here’s what Klein has to say about Jason Furman:

Furman, a leading disciple of Rubin, was chosen to head the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, the think tank Rubin helped found to argue for reforming, rather than abandoning, the free-trade agenda.

In contrast to the Furman/Rubin position, Klein approvingly cites two economists:

The news is not all bad. Furman claims he will be drawing on the expertise of two Keynesian economists: Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute and James Galbraith, son of Friedman’s nemesis John Kenneth Galbraith.

So let’s turn it over to James Galbraith:

In a Washington Post essay published late last year, on the eve of the Democrats’ ascension to the majority, Senators Byron Dorgan and Sherrod Brown articulated a trade policy that typifies the consensus view of the party’s labor-liberal wing. They criticize “free trade,” call for strong labor and environmental standards in future trade agreements, and argue for aggressive policies to open foreign markets to American goods. Their critique reflects a genuine anger, and the concerns their piece embodies deserve to be met. Their program is populist, nationalist, muscular, and in tune with the mood of the Democratic base.

But it is not reality-based. As policy, it would not achieve the senators’ basic objective — namely, more jobs at higher wages in the United States. As politics, the danger is not that it will fail but that it might succeed. And then, progressives in power will repeat the pattern that conservatives set in 1981, pushing a program based on high expectations and illusions that ends in confusion, reversals, defeats, and an eventual lapse into incoherence and disrepute.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Klein’s anti-trade rhetoric. But what does the Rubin/Summers (and Furman, by implication) wing of economic centrists (part of Klein’s nasty Friedmanite cabal) think about the current economic situation? Here’s Larry Summers:

The domestic component of a strategy to promote healthy globalisation must rely on strengthening efforts to reduce inequality and insecurity. The international component must focus on the interests of working people in all countries, in addition to the current emphasis on the priorities of global ­corporations. […]

While labour standards arguments have at times been invoked as a cover for protectionism, and this must be avoided, it is entirely appropriate that US policymakers seek to ensure that greater global integration does not become an excuse for eroding labour rights.

Let’s be clear: the “Wall Street” and “Main Street” sides of economic policy (represented by Robert Rubin and Robert Reich during the Clinton years, respectively) are closer now than ever before.  Naomi Klein’s picture of the global economy is a caricature, and one that fellow critics of the Washington Consensus reject.  Anti-market screeds might be a winner for populist-minded voters, anxious about their financial security and the turn in the American economy, but it won’t make for good economic policy.  There are people out there who are gripped with by a Friedmanesque “free-market-in-all-things” ideology, but economists like Furman and Goolsebee aren’t among them.  The truly problematic ideology is Klein’s own.