Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Iconoclast, or not?

This is a comment I wrote for the weekly paper at my home university at the request of its editor.  It seems appropriate for eco-myths as well.

I do not believe in anthropogenic global warming (AGW).  There, said it. Out in the open.  There are lots of reasons really but they are irrelevant to this essay.  Because this essay is not about AGW or climate change or environmentalism.  Instead, this essay is about thinking.  And what it's like to profess something at a university  outside of the mainstream of accepted thought.

Iconoclast.  That's a label I could live with.  But it's not one usually applied to me.  I am a "denier", an "ideologue", an idiot, a joke.  This is an essay on why I am not considered an iconoclast at my university and what it is like to work in an atmosphere that is intolerant of individualism.

An iconoclast is a nonconformist, a rebel, a dissenter or radical who attacks cherished beliefs and traditional institutions as being based on error or superstition.   It is a term of respect and most often used in the arts or humanities for individual thinkers who inspire others to view the accepted paradigms of a culture in new and challenging ways.

So why am I not an iconoclast?  Well academia has this propensity for embracing radicals only from the left, those that espouse socialist politics.  Those that advocate social justice and the overthrow of the accepted evils of capitalism.  Those that embrace the mantra of established radicalism i.e. intellectualism.

Me? Well my politics are the politics of Jefferson and Locke, of Hayek and Milton Friedman.  I am a dynamist (not a term familiar to most).  O.K., a libertarian then.  Well that gets some recognition but the explanation most jump to is the less useful and more sweeping label of right–winger.  To which they then add their own descriptors: capitalist, corporatist, etc..  Their views reflect a perspective that maintains that the left is a diverse and complicated political spectrum, but the right just a monolith of commonality and indifference.   Purely Bush league.

My area of expertise is resource management.  The prevailing paradigm is that of sustainability.  So far, so good.  But the intellectual orthodoxy for sustainability has but one branch: it is small scale, local (except for supra-national, government and non-government institutions),  moralist, regulatory, dependent upon theoretical constructs (like the precautionary principle and the ecological footprint), imbedded with myths and rituals (Silent Spring, Earth Day) and stuck in the reactionary politics of 1960s activism. 

I spent the best part of 20 years as an apostolate perfecting the dogma of soft-green environmental ideology.  In the mid-1990s I began to respond to the growing disconnect I observed between the academic study of sustainability and the real world of environmental problems and issues.  After an extended period of engagement with NGOs, businesses and government agencies in the implementation of environmental solutions, I realized that an alternative approach was needed: one that did not take as axiomatic all of the cherished constructs that environmentalist dogma used to justify its persistence with 1960s advocacy of awareness, more governance and increased economic intervention.

After much reading and reflection, I found there was a sound philosophical and ideological basis for an alternative perspective within the sustainability paradigm.  A perspective based on individual responsibility, capacity building and the dynamics of change.

In my innocence and belief in academic freedom, I believed an alternative perspective would be both welcomed and respected.  To my dismay, it has been neither.

I recently gave a talk to the Senior Alumni at my university.  It was entitled 'Global Warming and other Eco-myths'.  A reporter from the university paper covered the talk and it made the cover story.  Nothing unusual about that, except for the reaction my talk and the paper's coverage provoked.  Senior professors wrote despairing of the paper for giving me the time of day.  How can they be a real newspaper and give press to an "ideologue"?  At the very least, the paper should publish text "correcting" what I had said.  Two other letters were published; a whole host were received but not published as they reflected a similar intolerance for diversity.

It seems diversity in academia only extends in one direction.  I could be a radical Marxist and wear revolutionary insignia when I lecture and no-one would say a word.  In my department and on environmentalism, I wear a tie and slews of colleagues feel compelled to make remarks and snarky comments. Complain to the chair you say: often it was the chair who was making the comments (no, not the present incumbent, he is an honorable man).

I could be a Marxist and demonize Big Oil, advocate the need for UN intervention on food, security and environmental justice and rail against the perceived inequalities of capitalism, and no one would try to revoke my course, query my selection of course texts or question the merit of student theses.  But I am not.  So instead, I question the merits of NGO activism, government regulation, the political framing of issues, the politicization of science and the paucity of science underlying environmental dogma.  I focus on the facilitation of individual empowerment, on social equity and on leadership.  I do so, all from the perspective of dynamist ideology.  And, sadly, I have had to endure attempts to revoke one of my courses, questions to the chair expressing reservations about the appropriateness of one of my texts (Lomborg's Skeptical Environmentalist) and more than once, students taking what they have learnt from my courses have been actively dissuaded from using that knowledge in other courses on campus.

Am I paranoid? No, there is a climate that is not encouraging and conducive to alternative perspectives both on this campus and within academia generally.  I am not the first to experience this, nor sadly, do I expect to be the last.

Do I irritate people?  When I first started in academia I lacked a lot of social graces and I know I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.  That in itself is not unusual: many academics lack social skills and are self-centered.  I have spent a lot of effort avoiding conflict, indeed avoiding those it appears I irritate.  But it doesn't change things.

So why the cold climate? Intolerance.  We speak a good game. And after all academia is constructed upon intellectual freedom and it is enshrined within the tenure system.  But within that pretence is an unspoken premise that if one is to be a radical; it had better be along pre-approved lines and within safe parameters.  Don't bite the hand that feeds your discipline, make sure you keep up the grant/grad student/publish/grant cycle and definitely don't stop long enough to reflect, comment and select an alternative perspective, media for expression and popularize that perspective with the students.

I hope this article offends you and you take umbrage with the scenario I have painted.  It won't remove nor devalue the personal hurts I have experienced over the past 10 to 15 years, but your offence will indicate that you disagree and will not allow such intolerance within your sphere of influence.  Show me that the concept of open mindedness is alive and well in academia.  Go ahead; prove me wrong with your actions.  Maybe today, even read the National Post and not just the Globe and Mail.  Be really daring and read my blog (privately and not so that anyone knows).  Iconoclast.