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Dueling Elites, Catastrophic Visions, Part II

In a previous column, I noted the increasing reliance of certain elites on catastrophic visions to try to reconstruct the world in ways they view as desirable. In one example, the catastrophic vision is that of ubiquitous and unpredictable terrorism; in the other, global climate change as planetary disaster.

That similar tactics should be adopted simultaneously by different elites is an interesting enough phenomenon to warrant further exploration.

To begin with, it is apparent that the underlying perturbations are indeed serious. Terrorism and the complexity of increasingly conflict among different cultural and religious traditions are certainly problematic, as are the implications of global climate change and other environmental perturbations. Indeed, it is precisely because such issues are so foundational and complex that transparent, multicultural, open and sophisticated dialogs about options, costs, benefits, distributional effects of alternatives, and related policy issues are important.

Ironically, it is perhaps the increasing diversity of the world that has increased the utility of responsive catastrophic visions, an ironic antithesis to a thesis of technology mediated radical democratization of discourse. For transparency and multiculturalism are clearly not what catastrophic visions promulgated by these elites are all about. The British, for example, have long been exposed to the risks of terrorism, first from the IRA, and now from Islamic radicals.

But their commonsense response stands in marked contrast to that engineered by the American Administration, which has fostered a highly emotional environment of fear characterized by simplistic, almost paranoid, rhetoric. For Brits, terrorism is a manageable challenge; for Americans, a constant reminder of vulnerability, uncertainty and looming catastrophe.

Similarly, climate change is being repositioned from a difficult and complex challenge to a looming planetary disaster, with all other values now paling in comparison. So, for example, Vice President Gore recently stated that global warming was "infinitely" worse than Iraq, while UK environment secretary David Miliband suggests issuing all British adults with annual carbon allowances.

Indeed, the UK government has formed a study group to report back on the idea; Nature (442:340) reports that researchers favor such quotas as "a sensible way to extend emissions trading to the personal level." The connection between social engineering and environmental disaster as lever could scarcely be clearer.

Similarly, a recent report in Science notes the reluctance of some climate scientists to consider geoengineering solutions to global climate change not because they don't work, but because they don't require social engineering (314:401-403). As one European climate scientist complains, "You're papering over the problem [by even considering geoengineering options] so people can keep inflicting damage on the climate system without having to give up fossil fuels."

Why such visions? For one thing, elites generally benefit from stability; moreover, in this case the relevant elites are heavily invested in particular worldviews. Their challenge is thus to impose stability and their teleology on an increasingly fractious, complex, information-rich, networked, and multicultural world. Mere communication, even propaganda, is increasingly inadequate in such an environment; indeed, even the Big Lie technique loses efficacy (although it is still tried by aficionados; consider the Administration's efforts to link Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s regime).

Under such circumstances, when the global information structure itself creates a radical heterogeneity, those who do not ideologically agree must be coerced, and only catastrophic visions are adequate to force homogeneity. Modern technology has created radical ontological diversity, and those who wish ideological hegemony over political discourse, be they neoCons or global warming activists, must generate eschatological, indeed apocalyptic, constructs if they hope to overcome it. The more diverse the dialog, the more catastrophic the necessary vision must be. Terrorism and environmental perturbations are real; the catastrophic constructions based on them are weapons of hegemonic cultural imperialism.

For the point is not that the underlying phenomena are not serious, complex challenges requiring sophisticated understanding and responses. Indeed, it is precisely because they are that their conversion into necessarily oversimplified catastrophic visions by elites blinded by their own teleologies is so dangerous. For this process is not about actually responding to the challenges, but about short-circuiting democratic and open dialog for the purposes of ensuring the dominance of particular worldviews. What is at risk is not just the opportunity for rational and robust policy alternatives, but the democratic and transparent governance processes which an increasingly complex world demands for stability, resiliency and understanding.

Behind these catastrophic visions lies not salvation from disaster, but the medieval reassertion of the validity of ideological authority over secular values and the free individual of the democratic polity.


Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.

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