Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypothesis. There are moments in history when the status quo fails. Political systems prove insufficient, religious ideas unsatisfactory, social structures intolerable. These are moments of crisis.
Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into conversation and torn apart inherited ideas, dethroning truths, combining old thoughts, and creating new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.
Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours warrant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?
Anderson: We’ll be exploring these sorts of questions through conversations with a cross-section of American thinkers, people who are critiquing some aspect of normality and offering an alternative vision of the future. People who might be having The Conversation.
Saul: Like a real conversation, this project is going to be subjective. It will frequently change directions, connect unexpected ideas, and wander between the tangible and the abstract. It will leave us with far more questions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dreaming about the future.
Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re listening to The Conversation.
Aengus Anderson: And here we are, beginning another episode.
Micah Saul: Carolyn Raffensperger, the executive director of The Science and Environmental Health Network.
Anderson: She’s in Ames, Iowa but the Science and Environmental Health Network is spread across the country. We discovered Carolyn through her work on the precautionary principle, but she’s done work on a series of other really interesting and innovative legal ideas about rethinking our relationship to the environment. She’s also published precautionary tools for reshaping environmental policy and protecting public health and the environment. So, she’s written a large variety of things. She’s an active speaker, she’s got a TEDx talk that you can find online if you’re interested in hearing more about the precautionary principle. But in this conversation, we also go into some of her newer ideas about the legal rights of future generations, and a lot of other questions about the environment.
Saul: One thread that I think needs to be brought up in advance is… You talk about him a lot in the conversation but, she has a…strong response to More. In fact, Max More mentioned in your conversation his idea of the proactionary principle as being against the precautionary principle. Finally, we’re getting back to that.
Anderson: Yeah. It’s funny. It took us the better part of four months at this point to get back to what Max More was responding to.
Anderson: And in this case it’s nice because, having talked about the proactionary principle (and you may want to go back and revisit More’s episode), Carolyn responds pretty vigorously to him, and to a lot of other tech optimists that we’ve spoken to thus far on the project.
Saul: So, things to keep in mind as you’re listening. And this is Carolyn Raffensperger.
Carolyn Raffensperger: You know, there’s so many places you could start that story. The one of my childhood, where my father was Surgeon in Chief at a hospital in Chicago, and came home and said that the babies he was operating on, he was seeing all of certain classes of birth defects and all of certain classes of childhood tumors. He was the world’s expert. And they increased over a short period time, over his career. And he said they were caused by pollution. And I said, “Well…do something about it.” He was a very powerful man in my eyes. He could recreate bodies. He could heal. He could do so much. And he said, “I can’t prove it.”
I could tell that, or I could tell the story of being an archaeologist in the desert Southwest, and Ronald Reagan appointed a Secretary of the Interior. And that Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, wanted to put radioactive waste near Capital Reef. And I loved that landscape as much as I loved anything in this world. And that we would desecrate it was something intolerable to me. And I didn’t know how to say no. And I set out to figure that out. And that led to rage and despair, because in the environmental world it was always saying “no.” And so no, you can’t put in this radioactive waste. No, you can’t put in this garbage fill. No, you can’t log the entire— No, you can’t dump in the ocean. No, no, no.
And that’s wearying at a soul level. It’s a soul wound to say no like that all the time. And so to say, “Yes, this is the world that we want,” was a turning point. And how I got there was through discovering these ideas of the precautionary principle. But I think of that, in some ways in a Biblical sense, that there are two kinds of voices. There are more than this but for the kind of work I do, there are often two kinds of voices. The prophetic voice that does say, “No. No, we are in deep trouble. You are in deep trouble. Fear. Turn the other way. Repent.” And I think we hear a lot of that out of the environmental movement.
And then there’s the angelic voice that says, “You’re in deep trouble. We’re in deep trouble. Turn the other way. Fear not. Fear not.” And times when I feel rage, I can switch over to the the prophetic voice. But it’s so much more satisfying to be light like an angel. To point to another way and to say, “We can do this. Fear not. We can turn this over in better shape than we got it. No, we don’t know if we are going to succeed. We do not know, but it’s worthy work. Let’s try.” And so to the extent that I can do that now that I’m older, that I can see another way, then it’s not the soul wound. And I think it’s a voice, not of comfort, but it is cutting the brush from our immediate view so that we can see at least three steps ahead.
Aengus Anderson: Is that what drew you to law?
Raffensperger: I went into law because I was working for the Sierra Club. And I’d been lobbying. Most of what we were doing was reauthorization of old law. So, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. And that did not seem like a future to me. So I looked at the future of environmentalism and said, what is it? What is it? So I thought well, it’s enforcement. And I applied to law school and got in, and I didn’t even know what I did well at the time. My experience of myself now at my age is that I have extraordinary gifts. They’re deep. They’re unique gifts. And they’re so limited. They’re not things like I write well, or I speak well, or you know, something like that. They’re something very unique. And I think that my gift is oh, every four or five years, I come up with an idea that has big implications. And I often see all of their implications at once.
So while I was in law school, I came up with a new standard for law, the respectful person standard rather than the reasonable person standard. And related to things I’ve worked on like the precautionary principle, which is another idea—it was was out there, but that I knew what to do with. I coined the term “ecological medicine.” This work on guardians of future generations, and the rights of future generations. I’ve known what to do with them.
Like, almost any lawyer’s better than I am at a lot of this, but nobody’s better at what I do. And fulfilling my role within the larger community is my responsibility to stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else who is seeking to take action in the world to leave it in better shape.
Anderson: Implicit in all of that is the idea that there is something we’re facing now. What are we talking about here? What is the challenge that we face?
Raffensperger: I’ve had so many debates about that, you know. And I’m probably a lumper rather than a splitter. But the problem that I am dedicating myself to, and the solution that I’m dedicating myself to, is defined by what we want to leave to future generations. There are a lot of good things that we’re leaving to future generations, whether it’s marvelous art, or Yosemite and Yellowstone. All of those things that we are leaving to future generations.
But it’s become obvious to me that we are not just leaving things to the seventh generation. And we’re not just leaving good things. We are leaving really horrific tragedies to generations so far out that we have no experience of that kind of time. And never before in human history have we caused change at that level.
And so when I look at mountaintop removal, or certain kinds of mines, or certain kinds of radioactive or toxic disasters and wastes, we are leaving tragedies to what I conceptualize as the ten-thousandth generation. So how do we remember? How do we make it so that we leave a legacy of health and beauty instead of tragedy?
Anderson: Let’s just for a moment take a look at where the current system is, and where it goes if nothing changes.
Raffensperger: I’m going to step back and talk about a rude idea before I do that. We haven’t talked about the ideas that are invisible. That are almost prison-like. And one of the ideas I think that restricts action and that defines so much of how we got into this mess (and the mess is that we’re going to leave the planet trashed) is utilitarianism. The whole Constitution, our whole regulatory structure, is based on the greatest good for the greatest number. But the greatest good for the greatest number means that 49.9% get breast cancer from some chemical, we’re still going to leave it on the market because it’s good for the economy and for 50.1%. Or if killing the ocean is only bad for 49.9%, we’re still going to go forward.
That leaves out future generations, and it is essentially why we assume that the market is the arbiter of everything. Because the greatest good is measured in dollars. So we privilege private property. The free market is assumed to be the great problem-solver. It’s why the right has a coherent theory of government, which is that it gets in the way of the market. Yet if you look at whether that’s been successful— Are people healthier? Is the world healthier? Do you have more equality? When we start to look at the owners of Walmart having more money than all of their customers put together, then we’re talking about something that maybe hasn’t worked.
So by all the things that I care about, equality, public health, health of the planet, a sense of the sacred, a sense of meaning, it hasn’t worked out. And measuring the sacred, measuring meaning, in terms of dollars doesn’t work. Utilitarianism has driven environmental law. It’s deeply embedded in our world view in such a way that we cannot imagine another way of making decisions.
The alternative to that, for me, is that the environment and environmental law be moved out of free market utilitarianism and moved into a domain of an inalienable right. If I have a right to clean air and to clean water, and I have a right with you and with future generations, so we begin to imagine a law that’s no longer the individual, my right to, but our rights with, we begin a whole new set of ideas around the environment and the role of government.
Those root ideas that are invisible to most of us, how utilitarianism, how free market, shapes our conversations about climate, biodiversity, or mining, or any of these other environmental problems, it’s always put our jobs against the environment. You hear those either/ors all the time, so reframing the conversation and making those invisible ideas visible seems to me to be a fundamental start in allowing us to take action and head a different direction.
Anderson: And something I think about with that is also the idea of quantification. Does that come along with that type of utilitarianism? And maybe it’s also woven in with capitalism, but the idea that we do tend to quantify and compare everything, and that maybe we quantify things that can’t be quantified, or we try to.
Raffensperger: It’s not just quantification. Who can quantify, and that’s the expert. So we’ve immediately undermined democracy by making quantification the basis for decisions. So it’s—
Anderson: How does that undermine democracy?
Raffensperger: Because the way that we’ll make an environmental decision, you watch this. They’ll say, “There’s no science to prove that’s harmful. There’s no science. You’re just emotional. That you think fracking is going to cause a public health problem? You think it’s going to… There’s no proof. There’s no proof.”
So then we turn it over to scientists, and it’s really difficult to prove harm. And when the public cannot prove that the oil company is going to cause damage, then we’re not allowed to say, “Nevertheless, the risk is not acceptable.” So we have turned it over, the decision, to the expert. We have taken it out of the hands of the community. And then when we say we want community input, we hold a public hearing, and the experts sit up at a table. And then the grandmother who does not have a graduate degree, she’s not allowed to say, “Here’s what I’ve seen. Here is what’s happened in my community. And that’s not acceptable.” Her view is not taken because she’s not an expert. And so we’ve taken away the right for self determination and for community determination.
So I got a new idea about, this that’s just emerged in the last little while. And that is that you have a right after Nuremberg and the Nazis not to have a medical experiment performed on you without your free, prior, and informed consent. And they cannot inflict that experiment on you, or you have had a fundamental violation of your human rights. And the work that we’re now doing on community law, this right that we share the commons, these rights that we have with each other that go beyond private property rights, one is the same right as a community for free, prior, and informed consent, before some entity comes in and it affects your future.
Anderson: If the current system goes on in its current form, what does our world look like? What are future generations going to get? I kinda want a vivid picture of what we’re looking at here and why we change.
Raffensperger: I don’t think I need to do that, particularly. And I think that it’s if you’re listening to this and have followed this this long, and you know that we’re going to have essentially a tater tot planet, hot and crispy, and we will have lost so many of our fellow travelers. There won’t be whales in the ocean, we won’t have these big trees, we won’t have pollinators. And there are places in Japan that are hand-pollinating every pear tree, because they’ve lost the pollinators. That’s not a world I want to live in, nor that I want to describe.
But what I’d rather do is backcast. And backcast is, “where would we like to be?” match that up with where we are, and map out a route. And so the world I would like to be in is one where we have been able to reverse the damage, where we have skills in restoration, in living well with the other creatures on the Earth. And part of what I think will get us there is essentially moral maturity as a culture.
So, cultures are designed to do two things. One is to help us relate to each other. But the other thing a culture is designed to do is to regulate our behavior with the natural world. So every successful culture has had rules for harvest, rules for keeping your waste away from what goes into to you, so you don’t shit in water. Which we do. Every culture has had very careful rules of etiquette for keeping this relationship with nature harmonious. And the shamanic role is not necessarily just, you know, the spirit world, but it is to make sure that we are well-behaved vis-à-vis the natural world.
And when you look at our culture, our culture regulates our behavior with technology. And so your big rite of passage, what every sixteen year old looks forward to, is not going out and finding a vision, a name, connection with an animal or a plant, how to a live in the world. You get a driver’s license. And so the future that I see is a moving away from primarily regulating our behavior to technology, and regulating our behavior with the natural world. That we find a way to become morally mature. That we have greater understanding of how we should relate to each other, and how we should relate to all of our our fellow beings on the Earth.
Anderson: Let’s then talk about what I’ve been wanting to talk about the whole time. Let’s talk about the precautionary principle.
Raffensperger: I came across the idea when a graduate student asked to do a collaborative dissertation, and sent me a dissertation proposal that named the precautionary principle. And I knew at the time that it was the answer to a question those of us in The Science and Environmental Health Network were trying to ask, which is, is there a different way to regulate our behavior in the world than risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis, which are the direct tools of a utilitarian idea.
When I read about the precautionary principle, which says that you take action in the face of harm and scientific uncertainty to prevent that harm, I said, “This is it.” So I set out to figure out the “now what,” and I’m in 1998, we held a conference that’s probably now fairly well-known, called the Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, and out of that work came up with five ideas.
The first is that you heed early mornings. I could describe all the warnings that the ocean is becoming more acid, that the planet is heating up, you know, we could go through all the trends and all I’d have to do is draw a line on a chart and they all go the same direction, right? They’re going the wrong direction. So you heed early warnings. You pay attention.
The second is that you set goals. Can we reverse those trends? How do we set new goals for the kind of world we want to live in?
And then we look for the best alternatives. Okay, so we’ve got harmful activities. I think that looking for the best alternative is a conversation that’s flourished around climate change. And that’s driven some of the law on the precautionary principle. So, San Francisco adopted the precautionary principle, and they use the search for the best alternative to drive their precautionary policies. This has been remarkably successful.
Anderson: How do we determine things like “best alternative?”
Raffensperger: It depends on if you are operating out of the utilitarian free market kind of approach, because then the best alternative is going to be the cheapest, right? But if you target your goals… We want healthy people, we want healthy land, you know… Then there are other criteria for evaluating the best alternative. That’s why setting goals is so important.
So the three that I’ve mentioned. Heeding early warning, setting goals, identifying and choosing the best alternative.
And then reversing the burden of proof. And reversing the burden of proof is a legal idea about who has to put forward information. Who has the responsibility for uncertainty or doubt? And so in most courts of law, and most regulatory agencies, it’s the public, and it’s the individual who’s been harmed or who wants to prove harm that has responsibility to demonstrate that it could cause harm.
But when we reverse the burden of proof so that the person who wants to put it on the market or wants to increase the public’s risk, they’ve got a responsibility to compare alternatives. To put up a bond if that’s going to pollute. They have a responsibility to pay if they do cause a mess. But essentially what we have is a casino now, with risk. We accept industry’s bet. “No no no, our giant mine is not going to cause any problems.” And we’re going to accept their bet, and then who pays when they do pollute? The public will pay. And, so under reversing the burden of proof, we say, “No. The polluter has a responsibility to at least test their product.”
And then the last is that because this is not just science that we leave to the experts to quantify, it’s up to people who have a stake in the outcome, and to have a voice at the table. And I told you earlier why I thought that that wasn’t very satisfying to me, the way that it’s rigged. But I do believe that by recognizing free, prior, and informed consent as a right of community, that we can change that.
Anderson: This opens up a lot of interesting lines of inquiry. I think probably the first one I’m curious about, and I know you’ve heard this a million times before but I think it would be good to bring it into the series, is the idea of choice and innovation. And I think another big invisible idea that I’ve been interested in is sort of our faith in progress as a country or as a world. I think we have a belief in sort of a teleological incremental improvement, and for us science, even though we wouldn’t explicitly say it, is often measured as this kind of progress. And so I think for a lot of people when they hear about the cautionary principle, and they think about “science is progress; this slows science; this slows human choice and creativity” and you get the analogies like, “God, if we had the precautionary principle would we have ever developed fire?”
Raffensperger: As if we developed fire.
Anderson: But that’s actually been mentioned in this series, by Max More, who was talking about the proactionary principle. And that’s something I’m curious about. Those ideas are floating out there.
Raffensperger: You know that sounds like? That really sounds like the fifteen year-old who thinks that they know everything and can drive the car after they’ve been drinking and a rainy night, and their mother’s going, “Noooo, bad idea.” And they’re saying, “What? You [whining sounds]” It’s…I think mark of immaturity to argue that we understand the consequences of things at such a large scale. You know that now with technology able to have such a global, and beyond global reach… And when we invented chlorofluorocarbons, we thought, “What a great idea. Stable. They don’t react. That’s why they’re so safe.” And we didn’t even know there was an ozone layer up in the upper atmosphere when we created them. We didn’t even know that.
So when they say, “Well, you know, you’re going to block all progress,” first of all, it’s going to redirect the idea, and it’s going to define it, what progress is. And it’s gonna redirect science. So it’s going to open up creativity to identify harmful technologies, and to look for better alternatives.
So nobody’s argued about the microwave. You know, it saves energy. We’re not saying ban that. So there are things that I think the precautionary principle opens up for increased creativity, increased innovation. But it directs it towards what will be true progress and doesn’t destroy the planet, ultimately. When we look at the structure of science having been wholly taken over by corporate interests, by design, by design…
So, when we had World War II, we had this incredible collaboration between universities and government to develop all the technologies we needed for the war. And after the war a man named Vannevar Bush wrote a paper. And he said, this was remarkable, and if we want to transfer these technologies to the public, then what we need to do is form a partnership between government, the university, and corporations. And out of that paper and that thinking, we created a series of laws that legitimized those partnerships. So every university—we’re sitting near Iowa State—have patent offices, we federally fund that kind of research, we patent it, and restrict it, and we give it to corporations. So what we’re privileging with our science are not the questions that the public needs answers to. What we’re doing is looking at ways to make corporations wealthy. And we have a couple goals. One is to increase the GDP and to increase our role in global trade. It is not a reconception of science as increasing the commons, increasing the well-being.
One last comment on that. In 1998, then-president of AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called for a new social contract for science. She said, “We now have a human-dominated planet.” And she gave all the statistics on it. We’ve altered the nitrogen flows, the geochemical cycles of the earth. And then she said, “We fulfilled that we wanted to cure infectious diseases. We have explored new territories, the space program. All of these things. We now have new challenges before science. And I believe that they’re the ones that are revealed by the precautionary principle.” And so I think it’s a call for a new direction for science. And it’s an exciting program, where we can use the most imagination and the brain trust that a science has, to solve these public problems.
Anderson: I think you just pointed out another one of those big invisible ideas, which I think is really important to remember. It’s sort of the social context of science as an institution that has priorities, and has funding sources, and has things like that. That’s something that hasn’t actually come up as much in this project, because I think it’s often hard to see. We do see science a sort of a monolith, often. This is interesting because in a way, by looking at science as a social institution, we’re not casting aside the notion of science per se, when we’re talking about the precautionary principle. I’m think of my conversation again with Robert Zubrin who I think would probably characterize the precautionary principle as anti-humanist. Because for him unfettered science is the human enterprise, and current science is seen as unfettered, right, if you don’t examine it within its cultural context.
I’ve spoken to other people, though, who sort of look at all of our current problems…I’m thinking of a primitivists named John Zerzan, and he would say, “This is just what you get when you get science. It doesn’t really matter who is in charge. Science is always creating these new technologies, and in its very operation, by revealing all of this stuff, it is creating problems.” His answer, of course, is to have none of it. And it seems like we’re sort of, in this conversation, plotting a course down between these two extremes, on one side of no science and on the other side of unfettered science driven by the market. Are we having cake and eating it, too?
Raffensperger: I’m intrigued by both of those, but I view science as a conversation with the world. Someone told me, it was Terry Tempest Williams… I’m not going to get the quote exactly right. But she said the precautionary principle is reverence. And I think that one of the things that great science does, is lead to awe and reverence. That that conversation with the world, that Einstein’s ideas, or Stephen Hawking’s ideas, leads to awe. And that’s a form of meaning that leads to other things like gratitude. Gratitude that these trees give us oxygen. And I think that science that leads to arrogance, science that leads to blindness, to consequences, is immature, childish, and dangerous. And in the end, anti-human.
I’m not saying that awe and reverence needs to drive everything. But using respect as a gauge for our behavior in the world, not just with each other, but with the natural world, and respect for what we don’t know, not just what we think we know, I think would go a long way to a morally mature culture.
Anderson: It seems like we’ve got another big invisible idea here. Where we getting these morals, and what do they mean? I’ve spoken to a lot of people who don’t see any of these things as moral. They may be strong anthropocentrists. I’m thinking of Robert Zubrin, who I interviewed over at The Mars society in Denver. Or Max More, who’s a transhumanist writer and thinker. And for both of them, the world is just matter. Meaning is generated only through people, us attributing meaning to things. And so the things that we’ve been tired here don’t click with them at all, because they would say there’s no baseline of normality to lose.
So that’s that’s one big visible idea beneath them. There’s a big invisible idea beneath our conversation here, too, which has an idea like these, things that we’re seeing outside of the window have value. The natural world has value. The entities within it have intrinsic value separate from us. Is that a fair characterization?
Raffensperger: Um, I don’t separate them from myself.
Anderson: Okay, so there’s no difference at all.
Raffensperger: I think that there are central ideas that I live by. Some of them were derived from my religious choices and spiritual choices. One is that I am only myself in community.
Anderson: What does that mean?
Raffensperger: It means that…well, I’m going to step back and define poverty.
Raffensperger: Poverty is not enough money. It is not enough friends. And it is not enough meaning. Just living all by myself, eating, reading, listening to music, it is a poverty. And I can tell you for a fact that I would rather die than live that way. And there was a time in my life when I was very close to that. And it’s not a life worth living. And when certain people came into my life and gave me meaning and were my friends, and I was myself, fully with them. And I don’t view that as any different than that robin out there, or the deer that brings her two fawns up to meet me. There’s a lemon tree out there that and has been part of my family now since 1961, my grandfather’s tree. And if I’m gone a long time, it drops its leaves, and when I’m home a long time she’ll bloom. And I am fully myself in the company of others. And yeah, I’m more human around that tree.
Anderson: At root, is this a spiritual movement?
Raffensperger: Hmm. It’s an ineffable movement. It has great mystery to it. I’m glad that I don’t know. I believe that there are things that I cannot see that have meaning. The people who are closest to me are indigenous and have a deep grounding in their own traditions. They don’t transfer very well. there’s not pan-Indian, you know. Arikara do not have the same world views the Apache. There’s some similarities, but. And I’m persuaded by some of their extraordinary power. And I am a persuaded by what I see when people come together in community, that there’s something greater than I am out there.
I come from a religious tradition that says you know, in some ways the divine sits where two or three are gathered. So I don’t know that the divine inhabits
Anderson: Do you think there can be a conversation between people who are fundamentally different? Like, someone who really doesn’t see the value in nature. Is there any conversation that can happen there?
Raffensperger: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be conversation that’s going to matter in that one. I don’t know if it can happen or not. My guess is the conversation will happen in someone else’s mind rather than between me and the transhumanist. It’s your listeners, then. That’s where the conversation will happen.
Micah Saul: Well, if that’s not a destruction of our central thesis, I don’t know what is.
Aengus Anderson: We put the hypotheses of this project forward as exactly that. It is a hypothesis. We don’t know if conversation is happening. We don’t know if conversation even matters. And I think Carolyn is probably the most vocal skeptic of that idea, pointing out that some people’s arational goods may be so distinctly different that conversation with each other is either not possible or not relevant. And kind of shifting the conversation onto the undecided. Does that sound like lobbying to you?
Saul: Oh, it absolutely sounds like lobbying. It actually makes me think of the idea that Cameron Whitten suggested, that the way we we sort of change the story is through…advertising?
Anderson: Yeah, or David Korten. You change the myth. Jackson got into that, too. Sort of like, you’re working to change the underlying ways that people who aren’t asking the big questions interpret the world. Is that elitist?
Saul: Well, it brings us back to that four month-old question. Is our project elitist?
Anderson: And I think in Carolyn’s case it isn’t. Because she’s talking about, people need to just make up their minds about this. And her argument will either feel right or it won’t.
Saul: She’s giving the general public credit for a lot more agency than a lot of other people, perhaps.
Anderson: It’s interesting that part of the agency she wants them to have is to come to an appreciation of sort of the intangible good of the environment. And that isn’t something you necessarily arrive at through reason. That’s something you arrive at through feeling.
Anderson: Do her statements about value feel right?
Saul: As with so many other fundamental goods of various people you’ve talked to, that is arational.
Anderson: Yes. And in a lot of other cases it’s more actively cloaked.
Anderson: But in this case, she’s right up front about it.
Saul: Yeah. She’s very honest. There is a spirituality to her sensibility that she is right there fully admitting it. She is only herself in community.
Anderson: That was a great line, wasn’t it?
Saul: It’s a fantastic line, and extending the definition of community to all that is around her.
Anderson: You know, we’re always thinking about these big poles in the background, and one is the individual/community, pulling people back and forth. And it felt like she articulates the need for our community in a way that is… I wouldn’t say it’s a fundamentally new idea, but it is very radical at this point in time we’re living in.
Saul: It connects her up with…two jumped out at me immediately. Gabe Stempinski, who very much wanted to talk about community. I’d also even closer connect her to Zerzan, because she’s not just talking about human community, she’s talking about the natural world as her community.
Anderson: And in both of those cases there’s a real sense that again, community has intangible benefits. Though if we were to talk about Laura Musikanski there, she would probably tell you about the very tangible benefits of it. And Colin Camerer might jump in there too. But, I mean, community’s been a huge theme. And it means so many different things. And it’s interesting to think about how Morton does not talk about community, but Morton talks about…probably more closely than all of the others, a sense of being with all other things.
Anderson: But for Morton, it’s not the sort of feel-good you’re one with all things, it’s very much, well…it’s Morton. I mean, it’s disquieting.
Saul: It’s…ooky feeling. It’s uncanny.
Anderson: And I would actually love to know his thoughts on this conversation, because his ideas are at once so similar and so different. And actually, speaking of the community/individual tension, what did you think of her critique of utilitarianism? Boy, John Stuart Mill, he gets some punches thrown at him.
Saul: Yeah, so… I’m not sold on her use of the word utilitarianism, actually. She starts by defining it as this idea of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There’s a definition of good that isn’t being provided here. And if you look at what she’s actually critiquing, I think what she’s really critiquing is free market. She actually even says, “in our society good means money.”
Anderson: Yeah, there is a conflation with that critique and the critique of utilitarianism as a philosophical idea.
Anderson: Right, because isn’t the precautionary principle—and this is something that I was thinking about in retrospect and I wish I was a sharper guy and picked this up at the time—but the precautionary principle is a form of utilitarianism.
Saul: The precautionary principle can even be defined in the same words as her definition of utilitarianism.
Anderson: What are we changing out? Well, we’re changing out the idea of the good it’s seeking, and we’re changing out the actors involved.
Anderson: Broaden the actors beyond people to other creatures and also to natural things that are perhaps inorganic, and change the definition of good from money or GDP, and swap it out for well-being. Or, there’s a whole variety of other definitions of the good that are non-monetary.
Saul: Yeah. I had the same thought. In the precautionary principle, there’s the idea of always looking for better alternatives. Again, there’s another just completely ambiguous phrase, like the concept of the greatest good. I mean, better alternative, greatest good…those sound pretty similar.
Anderson: Right. In both cases they draw on an assumption [crosstalk] of the good—
Saul: Of value. Right.
Anderson: —which is coming from an arational place.
Saul: In Carolyn’s world, this is again that sort of environmental spirituality.
Anderson: Right. And if you talk to someone more like Max More, who could use… For a guy who espouses the proactionary principle, he still operating in sort of a utilitarian framework. And he’s just defining the good differently than Carolyn is. From a place that he ultimately admitted was arational.
Saul: So, isn’t it sort of interesting that you could still make the argument that they’re operating under the same principle? They might call it different things, but if you sub out each of their versions of what good is, it kinda ends up being in the same thing.
Anderson: I mean, it reminds me of the question that Max asked at the end of this conversation, which was, what’s your process for making better decisions? I mean, that’s what the precautionary principle is, it’s an attempts to offer a process to make better decisions. And yet yeah, with both of them having those underlying arational assumptions, it’s like we got the same equation, we’ve solved for x twice, and we’ve got two totally different answers.
I mean, this is a project that’s interested in commonalities, and the commonality here seems to be that there’s sort of an underlying logic that the two share. But beneath that there is an arational assumption. Because they share a logic, is there maybe more of a chance for a dialogue than Carolyn suggests at the end of our conversation? Does the Conversation really matter?
Saul: I like to think so, obviously. The question then becomes are you willing?
Anderson: Or which is greater, the system of thought which may be in common, or the arational assumption of good?
Saul: I think we have our work cut out for us, because I think that’s still what we’re trying to solve. And obviously it hasn’t been answered yet.
Anderson: [laughs] No. I’m feeling cynical now, and I’m thinking God, with the arational assumptions that different, it is just jockeying for the most support of the undecided. And yet, for us to find these sort of commonalities in the way people are thinking, I’m excited to see what else this project turns up. And I’m excited to visually map it at some point, and see the things that we haven’t even realized yet.
Saul: While we’re on that, another commonality I wasn’t expecting to see here. There’s a definite connection to to Zander and The Long Now. There’s something about that number, 10,000, that just seems to be really appealing to people that are thinking long term, right. The 10,000 year clock. 10,000 generations down.
Anderson: Not only do they both mention the number 10,000, but they also mentioned that we are dealing with a scale beyond our cognitive ability. Again, here’s a Morton echo, as well. And there’s a lot that we can’t know.
Saul: But then she says we can’t know what 10,000 generations from now, what they’re going to be like, what they’re going to need, where they’re going to live. The world around them will be completely different. But what we can do is say that they have just as much right to make choices. And we should go out of our way to leave them as many options as possible.
Anderson: I mean, that could be a verbatim Alexander Rose quote.
Saul: Which is I think an interesting way of looking at long-term thinking.
Anderson: It is. Is that an impossibly high bar? Is our entire society based on making choices that to some extent limit the choices of future generations?
Saul: So, this is probably an excellent point to bring up something else that I think both you and I noticed on second listen. I think deep down, Carolyn is still… She still believes in the transformative power of technology. She is still a tech optimist. And that of course begs the Zerzan critique, is science and technology fundamentally detrimental to the environment?
Anderson: We’ve gotten a lot of useful things out of Zerzan, and I think this is probably one of the most forceful points he made, and definitely one of the the strongest critiques of environmentalism. Can you believe that the technological enterprise as a social thing can have value or redemptive or transformative powers regarding the environment, without sort of tracing it back to all of its energy and mineral resources? And I don’t know. I mean, Carolyn mentioned something that I didn’t have time to include in this piece, but she mentioned that ultimately she felt art was a more human endeavor than science. And so I wonder if she couldn’t see a future in which we did say goodbye to some of our technology on behalf of environmental preservation, and shift our creative energies into art in a way that I think Wes Jackson was really up front about in his work. You choose what technology you keep. I think again there’s a question of what sphere of the public are you acting in? And if you say, “To save the environment, you have to give up your Prius?”
Saul: It’s a hard sell. Certainly not something you say at TED.
Anderson: [laughs] Don’t worry, we’re never going to say anything at TED. Well, let’s close it out here. Our next episode is going to be a conversation with Frances Whitehead. She kind of defies my ability to define.
Saul: She sort of embedded herself as an artist into municipal government in really cool, interesting ways. And I think she’s very much having some small part of the Conversation, every day.
Anderson: We talked in two sections, for seven and a half hours, and she completely blows up the idea of what an artist is. And blows up a lot of other ideas. And connects every other idea in the project and…well, what more can you say than everything?
That was Carolyn Raffensperger, recorded on July 26, 2012 at her house in Ames, Iowa.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.