Beyond the Fish Tank
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Beyond the Fish Tank

John Foster considers the illuminating thought-experiment and homely but compelling analogy in Dougald Hine's book 'At Work in the Ruins: Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics, and All the Other Emergencies'.

At Work in the Ruins - Chelsea Green UK
Finding Our Place in the Time of Science, Climate Change, Pandemics and All the Other Emergencies
The book this piece considers
At Work in the Ruins
Nadine Storey reviews of Dougald Hine’s book latest book ‘At Work in the Ruins’.
Green Read of the same book by Nadine Storey

The twin polarities between which this new book moves are, on the one hand, an illuminating thought-experiment, and on the other a homely but compelling analogy. Despite the rather awkwardly not-quite-jocular sub-title under which it labours, the exploration thus shaped is extremely thought-provoking. It poses a question which the climate and environmental movement, as leading edge of humanity’s deep instinct for self-preservation, ignores at its peril: what do we do when the recognised ways of addressing our predicament in fact serve to reinforce it – or, more bluntly, when the offered routes out of insanity are themselves insane?

The thought-experiment seeks to make a point which I have found myself making on occasion, though never through such a sharply-articulated scenario: the point that there would be something very seriously amiss with our present way of living in the ‘advanced’ West and North, even were it run wholly on renewables. Hine motivates that reflection in a slightly different but related way. Imagine, he suggests, that the IPCC calls an embarrassed press conference to announce that they have discovered a fundamental error infecting all their calculations. The spokesperson will understandably explain this in remorselessly technical detail, but

“the upshot is clear enough: it turns out that we can burn as much coal and oil as we want, send up all those greenhouse gases, and the atmosphere will take care of it after all!” (p.40).

This is not, he emphasises, intended to sketch a plausible possibility – climate science being far too well established – but precisely to test our intuitions about the attitudes and evaluations which we currently premise on the threat which that science tells us is posed by global heating. Specifically, he asks, what about the Athabasca tar sands? – where

“within a few years, we’ve taken an area of old-growth forest the size of a small country, and turned whole swathes of it into Mordor. You can see the scars from space” (ibid.)

His answer, surely persuasive, is that we would and should find our ability to treat living nature in this way not just repellent but profoundly disturbing, even were it to transpire that the oil squeezed from that ravaged Albertan landscape had no adverse implications whatsoever for climatic stability.

Nor, it becomes clear from what he goes on to say, would this recoil be a matter principally of registering all the ecosystems trashed and wild creatures made homeless – or, not if those consequences were to be thought of in terms of any sacrifice of existence value or infringement of supposed rights in nature. Our having come to think ourselves entitled to rip out primordial forest on that scale represents a human disaster, a vivid demonstration and reinforcement of something gone drastically wrong with human beingon the planet, quite aside from impacts on non-humans and whatever the surrounding profile of justification or excuse. As he presents the issue, his thought-experiment reveals that we have landed in our present plight

“because of an approach to the world, a way of seeing and treating everything, that would always have brought us to such a pass, even if the climate system had been less sensitive to our industrial emissions” (p.42).

In characterising this dislocated and dislocating approach, Hine does not explicitly diagnose insanity. He has, however, a striking image for modernity’s loss of touch with the reality of its human-natural situation, a condition in which (just insofar as it is a loss of touch with reality) insanity is plainly incipient. This is the homely analogy which I mentioned at the outset. It is what, prompted by a friend’s thoughts on the experience of keeping cold water fish, he dubs the ‘fish tank world’. A surprising amount of work, his friend observes, is involved in keeping a handful of such fish alive in their tank:

“the rituals of cleaning and water change, the electric filter with its own maintenance cycle, the whole chemistry kit that goes into testing and adjusting half a dozen key indicators of the condition of the water. All this to do a small part of ‘what a river or a lake does for free and with ease’” (p.147)

Hine then finds this image of busy yet somehow fundamentally misguided solicitude coming uncomfortably to mind when he listens to discussions among well-meaning people cognisant of our planetary predicament and hoping to do something about it:

“Take the language of ‘ecosystem services’, the primary way in which it is proposed to bring our dependence on living systems into view by putting numbers to it: this is an attempt to capture the freedom and ease of a living river…yet ‘capture’ is the operative word. When we start out describing the living world as if it were a technological and economic system, this ends in the attempt to make the world into such a system: a planetary fish tank in which human ingenuity, beefed up with AI number crunching, maintains a liveable ecological and social environment through constant monitoring and control” (ibid.).

Now of course, as the analogy is also meant to bring out strongly by contrast, the Earth is not a fish tank, and being unable reliably to see this is a dangerous form of derangement – precisely, an incipient insanity. It is especially dangerous because, while the project of making the Earth into such a controlled arena, deploying along the way systems thinking often presented as a source of hope, is really “a road to hell”, he takes that project to be “the default future, seen as both necessary and desirable by those we have been calling ‘the adults in the room’” (p.152). But by the same token, and here making plain its essential congruence with the ‘resources’ model,

“the fish-tank mindset is only an extension of a logic that goes deep into the history of modernity, an approach to the world as a mechanism to be optimised for particular human ends” (ibid).

And this brings us to the major theme running through the book – Hine’s concern with the role, promises and perils of science in this whole context.

His motivation for writing the book at all, so he tells us at the beginning, was recognising that after fifteen years of talking to a wide range of audiences in order to raise awareness about climate change, he suddenly realised that the words which he had been using were failing him. This, he now sees, was because to talk about climate change – and indeed, to take climate change as the principal ‘environmental’ issue needing to be talked about – is to enter into a conversation framed by science: the concept itself is of a set of processes which can be neither objectively identified nor described in detail except by the natural sciences. Many issues then arise as it were downstream of the science: those about what to dowith the information which it provides must call in engineers, economists, psychologists and a raft of others, not least the politicians who are now being so relentlessly urged by activists’ placards and Ms Thunberg’s speeches to ‘Unite Behind the Science’. As that slogan makes plain, however, the scientific framing of all this is just being taken for granted. But

“there are also questions that lie upstream of the work of science and take us beyond the frame it draws. These are not about what needs doing and how, but about how we got here in the first place, the nature and implications of the trouble we are in” (p.16).

These will be, in his terms, attempts to step back critically from the prevailing fish-tank world-model and challenge both its necessity and its desirability. But science cannot deal with such doubts, indeed it cannot even raise them, because they put in question the grounding assumptions on which science itself operates, and those assumptions – this was the insight which came to silence him – already firmly commit us to the fish tank model, so that “any conversation about climate change that stays within the frame of science will lead towards this future” (p.152). And what all this means is that, insofar as any such dialogue purports to offer escape routes from insanity, they will have an essentially insane world-model coded into them.

An account of why a scientific framing of our plight commits us to the fish-tank model would be a cameo history of modernity. While again Hine doesn’t offer this explicitly, it is strongly implicit in much of what he does say about the relations between human judgement and what he calls ‘calculative reason’, and about the lapsing of alternative narratives and visions of nature. Science, as understood since the Scientific Revolution, deals only in the measurable, and in this project has depended on forms of instrumentation, from Galileo’s telescope onwards, facilitating objective standards of calibration on which all observers can readily agree. But technologies for the standardisation of measurement slid inevitably, in the socio-economic conditions of early capitalism, into standardised technologies for intervention, and then for control: for only the measurable is controllable impersonally, that is mechanically, in a mode appropriate to industrialising development. The apparent success of that development in bringing to bear new forms of directed power to reduce (at least in the historically short-term) the dependence of human well-being on chance and accident, together with a disposition as religion declined to think of our fate as really in our own hands, and always accompanied by new advances in science itself, then led as the nineteenth century proceeded to a burgeoning scientism – the belief that everything real can at least in principle be the object of scientific knowledge. But if science can deal with everything, everything becomes both measurable and in principle controllable, while science becomes our only way of asking or answering ‘serious’ questions. We then cannot question the assumption that everything is measurable since science can only talk about what is measurable. Hence the scientism of taking the real to consist only in what science can talk about secures itself against ‘realistic’ challenge, and the fish-tank Earth-model closes round us.

Hine is good on what was in effect the replay of this logic represented by the history of the environmental movement. Arising in the 1960s and 1970s, modern environmentalism was powerfully catalysed by popular scientific writings, such as the marine biologist Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, about ecosystem damage from various forms of pollution. But it also drew on a heritage going back through Morris and Ruskin to the great Romantics, to challenge the core assumptions of the by-then-established industrial society which was doing the polluting. With the Brundtland Report and the emergence of the international framework stemming from the Rio Earth Summit, however,

“the mainstream environmental movement turned away from asking questions of the surrounding culture and towards a technocratic relationship with science. This coincided with the rise of climate change in the environmental debate…[a topic] particularly amenable to quantitative evaluation…the environmental movement became increasingly cut off from its roots, no longer able to speak to a deeper understanding of the nature and implications of the crisis that had called it into being” (pp.48-9).

There followed thirty years of ‘sustainable development’ discourse during which the glaciers went on shrinking while the indicators supplied by scientific climate modelling got remorselessly worse and the undertakings to do anything much about it grew ever more glibly dishonest. But when the urgency of Extinction Rebellion and the school strikers at last revolted against this complacency, their core demand to ‘tell the truth’ was still a call to acknowledge the real state of those indicators: not, that is, a breakout from the scientific framing leading us into world-fish-tank management, but a cry of rage at the framing’s not having been taken more seriously. Meanwhile even the arguments over Deep Adaptation to supposedly inevitable catastrophe, a pitch (or posture) about which Hine is mildly but refreshingly ironic, were turning on more-or-less contentious interpretations of the science. His thought-experimental question – ‘Would we want to live like this even if the climate science had got it wrong?’ – was simply no longer being asked in any form.

Then came Covid,  on which these reflections give him an interesting perspective, sharpened by his having had family in Britain but himself living during the relevant period in Sweden – which, it will be recalled, did not lock its citizens down. Covid brought with it what looked at first blush like a widespread hearkening to medical and epidemiological science in the public  interest, with governments across the world introducing stringent restrictions on movement and social mixing in attempts to contain the pandemic. Many at the time, including some Green House colleagues (see here), hoped that this might bode well for a comparably well-informed and thoroughgoing response to the climate emergency, despite the evident differences between the two cases in both immediacy of threat and level of majority public apprehension. Hine, however, points out (albeit unfashionably) that in a civilisation where hospitalisation and medical supervision have become the standard conditions under which to die, what really drove governments was fear that health services might collapse under the numerical weight of anticipated fatalities. When we were all (except in Sweden) placed under house arrest, that is, it was not principally to save lives. (Most who died were elderly, the median age in Britain having been 82, and so would have had to die from something soon anyway – a consideration which in our thanatophobic society cannot help sounding callous, but having proper regard to which is actually deeply humane.) Rather, lockdowns were intended to keep important institutional machinery of the fish tank from being overwhelmed; ‘following the science’ turned out to mean trying to ensure that arrangements inextricably implicated in the assumptions of scientism remained functional. And so, he fears, it will be with climate if governments do start, however belatedly, to act; whatever efforts get made will be all about maintaining in operation as much as we can of a world which we are losing the language for asking whether we actually want.

So how do we break away from the fish-tank model as world-paradigm? An important resource would seem to be re-acquiring the skills in key areas of life – education, food production, health care, dying…– which have been lost, both collectively and individually,  through that learned general helplessness and subjection to experts which the counter-cultural guru Ivan Illich was calling out fifty years ago. Hine notes this possibility approvingly, but he is also keenly aware that before such pragmatic options can take significant hold, we need to get away from the fish tank conceptually – to free ourselves from the embedded scientism which keeps it dominant in our minds and imaginations. The trouble is that he wants to undermine a culture of scientism by appealing to alleged insights from older and alternative cultures, and this is where the book is at its least satisfactory. But it is still very interestingly unsatisfactory, and given the vital importance of the issues it is worth, even in a review, stepping some way back from the book itself to consider how and why.

Hine’s background is as co-instigator with Paul Kingsnorth of the admirable Dark Mountain project, which started out from the question “What if we stopped pretending?” and sought to embody the answering recognition that the end of the world as we have known it need not mean the end of the world. That work of honesty and redirection has evolved over a decade into what its website now describes as “a cultural movement: a rooted and branching network of creative activity…walking away from the stories that our societies like to tell themselves…we are making art that doesn’t take the centrality of humans for granted”.2And it is this decentring aspiration – or, the aspiration as it presents itself in this form – which lies at the root of the difficulty. The key feature of contemporary insanity is its occlusion, at all levels from the global to the individual, of wholesale human nature-dependence by a hubristic taking of humans as given and autonomously central vis-à-vis the natural world or their own embodiment. Hine’s fish-tank analogy supplies a particularly vivid image for this dislocation of our sense of reality at the global level. Escape from the compulsions of that world-model, if it is to be possible, must then evidently involve some ‘decentring’ of humanity.  But seeking to do that within what remains, however narrated, nature observed, is to offer just the kind of route out of insanity which we have already noted to be self-defeating – one reinforcing the very insanity from which we want to escape.

The point is that nature observed can never put humans anywhere else but at the epistemic centre – as an observer must be central to any observation, which can only be from a perspective. Nature observed scientifically, in our modern understanding of science, will then tend in the way I have sketched towards a centrality also of manipulation and aspiring control – towards the Anthropocene, in fact, which is really what Hine’s fish-tank world stands for: humans coming more and more to organise, or attempt to organise, terrestrial nature around themselves, within a nature-at-large beyond their (current) reach which is thought of as prior to and independent of human mind and will. But it is the nature observedparadigm itself which subtends these centralities – the two-dimensional positing of observer over against object or objects of observation. Nor is this altered if we trace a contingent natural history for the observer, as ‘just another species’ under Darwinian emergence from among the observed objects – for it will still be as observer that we do this. And nor does it make any essential difference if we insist on an interactive rather than a spectatorial epistemic engagement with the world, for interaction presupposes nature attended to – it is a cardinal principle of any action to have an eye to what you are doing. All this remains firmly within what I have called the two-dimensional framework. So while we think of nature as something existing externally in itself and confronting our human attention, we cannot really decentre ourselves in relation to it; nor therefore, since we cannot uninventmodern science, can we robustly inhibit the slide towards the fish-tank or Anthropocenic model.

Hine wants to decentre his way out of the fish tank by ‘getting upstream’ of the scientific outlook which generates it, that is by returning science to its proper position as a way of knowing a lot of useful things but not everything, and in particular not everything about how humans stand to nature. He hopes to do that, as I have mentioned, by canvassing the heuristic revival of alternative, non-scientific narratives of nature observed. The sort of thing he means can fairly be suggested from a recent Dark Mountain call:

“we invite submissions of non-fiction, fiction, artwork, poems…ceremonies, making and practice, based on the Earth-centric elements explored in our home territories: from Kinship with Beasts to Honouring the Ancestors, including our archaic and mythic relationships with wild winds, water, plants and fungi, and each other.” – Dark Mountain Project

It also appears in a report of a workshop held in the same spirit:

“we shared stories about the creatures we had encountered and the rivers we honoured, the winds we named, the plants we connected with, and the mythic layers of the earth beneath our feet…an intentional strengthening of the web of connections between people and places, the ancestors and the more-than-human world.”  – Dark Mountain Project

The idea, evidently, is that these various recourses offer tools for thinking about our relation to the natural which do not make the assumptions of modern science, and thus might enable us to raise and consider the questions about how we want to live which the pervading scientism of modernity prevents our asking.

But in fact, one can’t get away from human centrality or even from science just by invoking different traditions of observation or engagement. For suppose we take these mythopoeic modes as alternative ways, borrowed from other cultural traditions, of representing the nature about which in modernity we rely on science to tell us the truth. (After all, to take something as a representation is implicitly to bring it up against what one takes it to be a representation of, even where its mode of representation may be abstract, when we still ask and try to formulate what it is getting at.) But in that case, we haven’t really moved upstream from science at all, we are merely engaged in lending picturesque colouring or anthropological interest to what it tells us. If, however, we enter fully into these alternative modes, and take what we observe from within them (‘ancestors’, river beings and all the rest) to be real, then equally we are not ‘getting upstream’ of science but abandoning it – since ‘getting upstream’ can’t mean shifting to a differentstream, and must in this context involve hanging onto what science can tell us about reality (including for instance about the very wide domain of natural causality and the consequent highly probable absence of river beings), even while abandoning the supposition that only what it can tell us about is real. There is no escape from scientism in ditching science, any more than one could escape from one’s sexist outlook by forswearing sex.

There is a third and far more promising possibility, which is that we meet such stories, rituals and so forth as wearing human creativity on their faces, in a way that it is characteristic of objectively-measuring, detachedly-observational science not to do. Thus encountered, they may help us to stop pretending that we can achieve the impossible by decentring ourselves from within the human standpoint, but instead to recognise that standpoint of human centrality as itself life-responsible in the way of all genuine creativity – a way which at the same time essentially decentres it. For genuine creators know intuitively that what they articulate does not finally belong to them, but to the life working through them. In the spirit of that recognition, one might replace nature observedwith a sense of nature created: nature as the human life-world, which our life-form ongoingly sets forth, realises and inhabits as the bat does its world of reverberated sound, or the fish its world of seamless fluidity. How, after all, should it not be thus? – how should humans be the only animal species not to have an Umwelt, a lifeworld correlated seamlessly to their life form? (The major distinction, of course, is that ours cannot be situated by reference to anything beyond it, as we take the bat’s echolocative world to be by reference to ours – so we have to take the world of nature as both objectively there and our lifeworld, or as what Kant called empirically real while transcendentally ideal. And this is the only sense of ourselves as ‘just one species among others’ which we do not effectively disavow at the moment of so conceptualising ourselves.)

But then, taking our stories as poetic or symbolic expressions of human life-responsibility in this fashion – as ways of revealing a nature not observationally external to human cognition, but rather constituting the human life-world, and so, in deep paradox, both projected and discovered by us – we have still to make sense of that revelation in its bearing on the world as scientific knowledge gives it to us, if we are to think of it as taking us ‘upstream’ from science . Doing so demands a different kind of work from that of imaginative narration, or from the assembling of prompts for such narration from various alternative cultural forms, however vibrantly stimulating or indigenously worthy they may be. Hine’s instinct for where renewed creative life-energy to dislodge scientism must come from feels broadly right, that is, but he has left out what has been since before Aristotle the only reliable means of getting conceptually upstream of science’s assumptions about reality: he has left out the metaphysics.

Metaphysics means fundamental thinking about the nature of the ultimately real, including critique of the assumptions which science has to make about that reality in order to be able to function. While a necessary intellectual condition of re-awakening human life-responsibility from its scientistic paralysis, however, it is very far indeed from being a sufficient one. For one thing, metaphysics as such can hardly hope for widespread attention, even in the revived ad hoccommunities of the imagination which Hine projects as his sites for ongoing retrieval. In pursuing such thinking, one must look at most to the chance of being read and understood by one or two potentially charismatic prospective leaders of the required transformative action. But what serious metaphysical work addressed to our present plight must feed in through such adventitious and unplannable channels is surely this: conceptual warrant for the recognition that humans are not finally to be found over against an objective physical world, as observers and would-be manipulators – even though that understanding will do as a working model for our practical relation to the things about which science can genuinely tell us. Beyond that paradigm, we are ourselves uniquely-endowed manifestations of life’s inherently creative advance, and as such deeply implicated in the constitution of what we encounter as nature, as well as in dependence on the life-affordances which we thus frame. We desperately need to recover the idea of the world we inhabit as a human world, a world of real values and significances of which science is one expression; and we need to recover it in such a way as to put at the centre, not humanity but the deeper, species-transcendent, biosphere-pervading life which humanity expresses in its unique, species-specific life-form, and only lives meaningfully by serving.

And then, as I have argued elsewhere, we are going to need a robustly therapeutic politics – a politics for assisted emergence from insanity – to answer to that recognition. It would have to envisage the inevitable and by no means wholly unwelcome cumulative breakdown of the civilisation which has been built on denying our creative relation to the world. It would also have to commit itself to the unflinching demonstration of life-responsibility in the practical commandeering of power, by a revolutionary vanguard taking its acting from human wholeness and creativity as its full legitimation.

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Because Hine’s thinking goes only as far as it does, stopping short with essentially socio-cultural reconstruction work among the ruins, his book does not itself get near to broaching the idea of such a politics, and so does not succeed in charting a credible route out of the fish tank world. But it has the very great merit of making these difficult issues much harder to ignore.