This blog was originally posted on Identity Campaigning.
There’s a whiff of social engineering to identity campaigning, says Justin Rowlatt, BBC’s ‘ethical man’ on last night’s Analysis.
The piece opens with Soli from Futerra recounting her ‘magic wand’ experiment: she asked a group of environmentalists how many of them would magic away climate change if people were left unchanged after its disappearance. Apparently, precious few people showed any enthusiasm for her offers of magic.
The experiment is taken as evidence that environmentalists are more interested in social engineering than in addressing environmental challenges. The environmental challenges are simply a cover for the social engineering.
What isn’t, apparently, investigated is whether Soli’s audience were really wedded to using climate change as leverage for mass “social engineering”, or whether it was because they realised that their new fairy would have to produce a load more magic wands for all those other problems, and keep on producing them ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
The charge of social engineering is now one that contributors to this site are well-rehearsed in rebutting. It has been thoroughly explored in other posts – here, for example.
(Our response in a nutshell: what you call social engineering, we call cultural influence. Are we ”engineered” by ad men and politicians? Maybe. They are certainly, by their own admission, shaping culture in a way that has profound effects on our identity – and therefore, by extension, on our motivation to engage ethical problems like climate change or developing world poverty. If you think we are socially engineered by them, then maybe you’re right to call any approach to redress the balance “social engineering”, too: but don’t tar what we’re doing with the ‘social engineering’ brush unless you’re prepared to tar most other public discourse in the same way. Whether we are all participating in a struggle for dominant values, or for the upper hand in a grand “social engineering” project, we are all implicated in that debate – one that is as old as civilisation.)
But at his most dangerous, Rowlatt goes further.
He comes very close to dismissing any approach to tackling environmental problems that looks beyond the technofix (to the more systemic social and cultural drivers of environmental problems) as evidence of evangelicals for a new religion whipping up, and then preying on, people’s fear of an (environmental) apocalypse. It’s a theme that Justin’s producer, Helen Grady, also takes up enthusiastically here.
I don’t deny that this is a theme that does percolate through some environmentalism. (It’s one that identity campaigning goes to lengths to highlight as unhelpful – see for example, the discussion of the use of fear in Meeting Environmental Challenges).
But to imply that this is the necessary alternative to focussing our efforts exclusively on the technological responses to climate change is dangerous. It leads to the off-hand condemnation of anyone who begins to highlight the social and environmental impacts of a society dominated by consumerism, or the demonstrable social and environmental benefits of a closer relationship to nature, as necessarily motivated by pseudo-religious zealotry.
And that’s just disingenuous.