Monthly Archives: May 2010

debating civic environmentalism

Yesterday, I helped to lead a kind of seminar for Tufts faculty at TELI, the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute. We assigned chapter 9 of Mark Sagoff’s Price, Principle, and the Environment, which is entitled “The View from Quincy Library or Civic Engagement in Environmental Problem Solving.” Mark Sagoff tells a great story about a group of citizens–environmentalists, loggers, and others–in a small California forest town who met in the library because people are not allowed to shout there, worked out a management plan for the surrounding National Forest, got it passed as an act of Congress, and were criticized by the national environmental groups (see a collection of documents, here). The legislation was never implemented because of litigation.

We divided the Tufts faculty into two groups to debate–literally–the pros and cons of civic environmentalism as represented by Quincy Library. The debate focused mostly on scale, and whether it is better to set policy at the local or national level. Expertise also came up, because experts tend to work at the national level and laypeople dominate at the local level. Each side cited this difference in its own favor.

I see some other important issues in the Quincy Library Case. Above all, the national policy debate involves corporations and nonprofit groups, each of which has a fiduciary obligation to seek certain kinds of outcomes. Because they have opposing goals, they are drawn to litigation or constant lobbying over legislative amendments. They are better off with unresolved issues than with compromises, because they can keep on fighting as long as there is no resolution. And they use science strategically, commissioning and highlighting scientific findings that benefit their cause.

In contrast, people came together in Quincy Library as citizens with a problem–the forest was liable to go up in flames any day. Although they differed in values and interests, their differences did not define them. After all, they had overlapping as well as contrasting interests. Thus they had incentives to deliberate, i.e., to discuss values and goals, including aesthetic and moral ones as well as the purely means/ends reasoning that science can handle. They reached consensus. That was not inevitable, but they had a motive to try, which is not the case in the national debate.

I could take the critical side in the debate. I would note that the Quincy Library plan was only acceptable because national environmental laws had stymied loggers and forced them to the negotiating table. I might assert the right of American citizens who live elsewhere to influence their National Forest in California. And I might observe that certain issues–such as climate change–are of overwhelming importance and need to be settled by adversarial politics, command-and-control regulation, and science. Yet I think we are unlikely to see good policies at the national and international level until people can do their own civic work to defend the local environment, as they tried to do in Quincy.

where is the public on climate change?

Our views of our fellow citizens tend to oscillate. If we’re upset about something, we pessimistically assume that most people are stuck on the other side, or else we optimistically want to change their opinions with skillful “communications” and new “messages.” We quickly shift from hope to despair depending on the latest polls or election results.

The reality is surely more complex. People differ a great deal in how much they know and care about any given issue. And most people go through a slow but significant process of learning whenever a new issue arises on the agenda. Their average opinions shift in response to evidence and argument–but not overnight. For instance, if they believe false critiques of the recent health care act, they will not change their minds because of one news program or advertisement. But they will learn the truth over time.

The Public Agenda Foundation has been watching this process develop on the topic of energy and has developed a theory called the public’s “Energy Learning Curve.™”. Public Agenda finds that people currently favor the easy policies (like tax benefits for individuals who conserve energy, supported by 81%), but they oppose more painful and effective policies (like gas taxes to fund renewable energy: 52% against). That’s the current snapshot, but Public Agenda notes, “there are reasons to wonder how well this consensus would stand up under pressure. Our research shows the public does not know critical facts about the problem.” For instance, “52 percent thought that by reducing smog, the United States has come ‘a long way’ in addressing global warming.”

Looking more closely, Public Agenda finds the public divided into four groups, “the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent) and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).” So what we have is not a public opinion on energy and climate change. There are many opinions, some grounded in fact and some in prejudice, some passionately held and some that are off-the-cuff responses to the pollster. These opinions will change; in which direction remains to be seen.

naive and sentimental art

These are two works of European Gothic architecture that epitomize the charm of the middle ages.

Bonafatius Bridge, Bruges

Chimères on the roof of Notre Dame de Paris

The Chimères were made and placed on Notre Dame in the 1800s. The Bonafatius Bridge was designed and erected in 1905. There are, of course, thousands of other examples of Romanesque and Gothic art and architecture from all over the world that were built between 1820 and 1950. Big Ben, Yale University, the National Cathedral in Washington, and the Cinderella Castle in Walt Disney World are famous examples. But most people presumably realize that an American cathedral was not actually built in the middle ages. The examples shown above are notable because they can easily fool viewers; one could almost call them “counterfeit Gothic.”

I used to regard authenticity as a high value, and I would dismiss a Victorian Gothic structure while admiring even a rather crude work genuinely made before 1200. If that preference is defensible, I think the underlying principle is some version of Schiller’s idea of naive and sentimental art. Naive artists do what they think is right or best. They don’t see themselves as having a “style” but as making objects that are beautiful and true. In contrast, sentimental artists imitate the styles of other times, admiring their authenticity. After sentimental art arises, naive art becomes impossible.

Thus nineteenth-century European and American architecture is almost all “revivalist” (neogothic, neoclassical, neo-Egyptian, etc.), with the exception of structures that were perceived as functional, such as railway stations and bridges. We see those functional buildings as naive but impressive; we recognize that the Gare du Nord has a style even though its builders just thought they were covering railway tracks. As for the neogothic works, we reject them as sentimental fakes–especially when they infiltrate genuinely medieval places like Bruges or Notre Dame. They may be OK in Orlando, but not in Paris.

But that judgment is contestable. Schiller’s distinction between naive and sentimental art is itself a product of a certain time. Placing a high value on authenticity (as he did) is characteristic of Romanticism. One could instead see Victorian Gothic art as very fine, at its best. One could celebrate the spirit of play that sometimes animates it. And one could recognize an authentic impulse in the devout attempt to replicate a defunct culture.

I write all this now because I am reflecting on my visit to the Palácio Nacional da Pena, near Sintra, Portugal, which appears Moorish/Gothic but was really built in 1842-1854. Crowning a steep mountain, it overlooks a real Moorish castle that was itself heavily reconstructed in the same period (deliberately to look like a Romantic ruin).

Pena is fun. Because it was meant for play, everything is designed for maximum entertainment, not for any serious purpose. For instance, there are fortifications meant simply to be walked on for the view; they have no defensive purposes. Inside, concrete walls are painted to look like wood. Even the trees on the mountain’s slopes were carefully planted by a monarch of German extraction, to resemble a Teutonic forest.

This kind of example exposes the decadent currents in revivalism, the real pitfalls of inauthenticity. Play is fine; we are homo ludens. Gothic woodcarvers engaged in play when they depicted magical beasts on misericords. But when you tax people to build expensive seats of government, you had better be at least somewhat serious. Pena is furnished in a cluttered, Edwardian style, just as the last royal family of Portugal left it when they fled republican rebels. They deserved to be kicked out of a place so frivolous and so costly. I thought the parts of Pena that remain from a medieval monastery (namely, a small chapel and a cloister) were far more satisfying that the pseudo-Gothic additions, not because the craftsmanship was better in the former, but because excellence requires a degree of seriousness.

My bottom line: fine art needs an authentic motivation, but imitating another culture can be done with authenticity.

young voters in Kentucky

Two belated notes about the Kentucky Senate primary from someone who studies youth voting. First, Rand Paul did well among young Republican voters. They were his strongest constituency, backing him by 61%-19%. His second-strongest constituency was the generation of retirement age; he barely won the adults between age 35 and 64.

According to Hubert Humphrey, “It was once said that the moral test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” It would seem that the first two groups have a special fondness for libertarians or paleoconservatives who would cut funding for the services that they receive. But of course, the sample of Republican primary voters in Kentucky doesn’t represent the state’s population, let alone the nation’s. This result simply illustrates that there are pools of libertarian and other non-mainstream young voters (e.g., strong environmentalists) who matter when the total number of votes is low.

Second, I happen to know the guy whom Paul defeated, Trey Grayson, because he has been a strong leader for civic education and youth civic engagement. He focused on that topic in graduate school and then worked hard on it as Kentucky’s Secretary of State. I think Democrats are better off with Paul on the ballot in November, although it’s a risky business. For proponents of youth engagement, Grayson would have made a great Senator. Ironically, young people from his own party helped deny him that opportunity.

three Europes

1. A steep and crooked alley, armspan’s width, cobbled; a tiny car squeezed between walls of stone or stucco that are studded with iron grilles, draping flowerpots, drying towels, and sleeping cats.

2. A soccer field reached by a pedestrian bridge that spans four lanes of traffic; giant billboards at the roundabout; terraces of apartment blocks rising on the hills opposite with anarchist graffiti on their lower walls and satellite dishes on their roofs.

3. Long, cool corridors, subdued indirect lighting, brushed steel and blond wood; panini, quiche, and bagels at the cafe; quadrilingual instructions on the assorted recycling bins.

I know there are many more Europes; these are the three that stick in my mind on my first day back in the US.