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Political Postmodernism

Have the environmental/sustainability movements allowed themselves to be segmented and made a part of the postmodern political chessboard, moved by others for their own purposes?

After the railroad, discussed in the last column, came another “long wave” of technological, institutional, political, cultural, and economic change, this one powered by the automobile, fossil fuel production and distribution infrastructures, and institutional innovations such as mass credit.

Mass production and consumption societies in turn generated mass culture; mass culture plus mass marketing plus political control plus secret police created modern ideological totalitarianism. And ideological totalitarianism learned new tricks, among them the “Big Lie” - a totalitarian state imposing a false narrative on a subject population through absolute control of the media, and prevention of any counter-narrative. The Nazis were good at it; the Stalinist Soviet Union made it an art form (deliberate Ukrainian famine? Millions dead? What famine?).

But those systems worked because of the overwhelming control of the state, and virtually no one has that type of control anymore (except perhaps anachronistic North Korea, at hideous cost).

And yet how is it that so many Americans remain convinced that Saddam Hussein was working with Islamic radicals, when all the evidence indicates he wasn't? How is it that obviously false claims in presidential elections (“Obama is a Muslim”) are never effectively rejected? It's always been true that a good lie can get around the world before the truth can put its boots on. But now we're arguably in a new domain, demarcated by a brilliant insight of modern political operatives, inadequately summarized as the observation that “facts don't matter anymore."

Create enough separate cultural domains, and deepen the divides between them sufficiently - generally by using catastrophic imagery, multiple reinforcing narratives, and demonization of out-groups - and it's possible to solidify worldviews to the point where, in a sufficiently complex world, they are resistant to change by factual argument.

That's because there are always enough facts for at least some counterargument, and people are notoriously reluctant to change their worldviews absent overwhelming challenge. In other words, in the postmodern political world, information density plus manipulation equals creation of communities of belief; string together enough communities of belief and you create political domination (a.k.a. your “base”).

Of course, this only works so long as the dynamics of the underlying system play the game. In the U. S., an ideological agenda, combined with the sophisticated and pragmatic application of social psychology and cultural anthropology, buttressed by massive amounts of detailed data on political and cultural divides and strong pre-existing religious fundamentalist beliefs, enabled the Rovean Administration to create and maintain such communities. Invade Iraq, however, and the complex internal dynamics of Islam (poorly understood in the West), and complicated history of the Middle East, lead to policy disaster. The mistake the neocons and the Administration made was believing that, because they could manufacture different realities in a system they were intimately familiar with, they could manipulate all systems similarly.

This leads to a question relevant to the environmental/sustainability movements: have they allowed themselves to be segmented, characterized, and made a part of the postmodern political chessboard, moved by others for their own purposes?

At least to some extent, yes; does anyone doubt that there are communities of people who have been taught to equate environmentalism with an anti-technology, anti-capitalism, anti-business, redistributive agenda? Aren't environmental and sustainability issues generally associated with the Democratic Party? Oh, sure, many environmental groups work hard to avoid such pigeon-holing, and certainly until fairly recently environmental quality has been a bi-partisan priority - but in postmodern politics, those truths will always be inadequate to challenge manufactured myth, at least in core communities.

And activists have certainly behaved in ways that facilitate such categorization. It is unfortunately also true that, in an information dense environment where it's increasingly hard to get heard, it has been tempting for environmentalists and sustainability advocates to play a variant of the Big Lie game themselves. Some environmentalists have been quite happy, for example, to scare people with “frankenfood” campaigns which, although brilliant in marketing terms, are as bogus as anything dreamed up by Mr. Cheney (GMO environmental effects deserve investigation; equating GMOs with unsafe food is pure bait-and-switch).

The operational implications of accelerating information density and complexity are unclear: the masters of postmodern politics did not establish a Bush dynasty, but leave instead a train wreck, indicating that no one has gotten the hang of the new world information order yet. But for the environmental and sustainability communities, torn between factual exposition and ideological fervor, this postmodern political era is not just a highly complex practical conundrum, but an ethical challenge. Initial returns are mixed.

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