This is part one of a series on the subject looking at the relationship between ideology and pragmatism through issues related to three ideological systems: Environmentalism, Libertarianism and Socialism.
Let me start with defining what ideology is the way I understand it and as I will use it in these posts.
The dictionary definition that captures the meaning best is “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program“
For me it also has a generally negative overtone. There is a very thin line in my interpretation between ideological, doctrinaire and dogmatic. I do, of course, have very personal reasons; I grew up in a profoundly ideological environment. Communism was at its worst under Stalin when it was both doctrinaire and dogmatic, but it never ceased to be intensely ideological. It has always been driven by “the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute the sociopolitical program” called communism. Everything was measured against the ideology, not reality. It should be understandable why the word has mostly negative connotations for me.
Being ideological implies the primacy of the idea when it is confronted with reality. The problems with ideologues is that in their striving for the purity and ultimate expression of the idea, they fail to consider the effects, consequences and limitations of the actions inspired by those ideas.
Ideology is theoretical; Ideology is polarizing; Ideology is rigid, its answers are black and white, true or false. Ideology is an impediment to creativity as it measures itself against itself, not against a range of available options.
Strategy and tactics are both directed toward the promotion and perpetuation of the idea, not toward finding the best possible outcome and especially not if that outcome is in conflict with the tenets of the ideology.
Ideologues are like the Church ladies at my door on a mission, trying to convince themselves about the validity of their faith through converting me to it. Ideology is bad because it tends to get in the way of a reasonable compromise. While ideology has its role in defining the idea and its philosophical and moral principles and in energizing its supporters into action, we have to understand its limitations.
In the end, ideology is closer to faith than what its name implies, the ‘science of ideas’
Having all that said about ideology, we also have to acknowledge that pragmatism is both point and meaningless without some guiding principles. We can also see ideology as a coherent set of principles.
Ideology should be the backbone of pragmatism; pragmatism should be the reality check on ideological absolutes.
The problem with the world we live in is that its issues are defined in terms of political ideologies while its answers are provided mostly through political opportunism. Let me illustrate.
A few years ago, the “cause du jour” in my neighbourhood was the opposition to the Melanchton ‘Mega’ quarry. The signs grabbed my attention, especially the expression ‘Mega’. It is so ominous. Mega is bad. Big is dangerous. Mega must be bad. So I looked into it. What I found was mostly propaganda.
Check it out for yourself, watch the video on the top right of the page. I am not going to argue the points made, pointing out the stupidities on every page and the pathetic manipulation in every picture. The short version is that it will destroy lives, property, our food supply and the water table and fuzzy little baby owls. The planet will be irreparably damaged for some disgusting dirty PROFIT!! (Everybody vomit!) It is pure propaganda, but then we still have to think about the issue itself. Is it a good idea, should we have such a quarry? What are the arguments for and against? What are the costs and the benefits? How about risks? Would the risks justify the costs of getting the same stuff from a much larger distance? These are pragmatic questions and we could have many more, but I have not even seen traces of them anywhere near the debate.
Shortly after my discovery of the issue, some friends came to visit us. They live 25km away from the proposed site – in the other direction. No truck would ever come within 20 km of their place, yet they were vehemently opposed to it. I asked them why, but I did not get any better answer than the primitive propaganda of the web site. I also got an attitude in the replies even though I was not looking for a debate, just some intelligent reasoning to justify the opposition. Toronto is a big city, we need the stuff and we have to get it somewhere. If it is not taken out of mother earth here, then it has to be taken from somewhere else. Wherever we go, there will be top soil with something growing on it and a water table right under. The brunt of his opposition was simply “Not In My BackYard.” (even though it wasn’t really in his backyard)
My guest was an engineer, so I asked him that as an engineer, what kind of conditions would need to be met to address his concerns. He does not have any, he said, he would oppose it under any condition. But we need the stuff, I said. I don’t care he answered. He categorically refused to provide any answer. Not just a pragmatic one but any. Not even a science fiction phantasy. We ended the conversation there, but I am still wondering how can we live in a world, how can we make decisions about our existence if some of us categorically refuse to discuss rationally practical problems requiring pragmatic answers.
He could have told me that he would need brand new roads (or entirely separate ones); he could have said that he wanted to have trucks with airtight seals over their cargo or an underground train system to haul away the aggregate. A billion dollar insurance for unforeseen groundwater contamination or a 5 km radius 1 km deep trench of waterproof seal around the proposed site. Whatever! Anything! Once we have a concrete suggestion, we can have a conversation. We can speculate about the cost, I can propose more reasonable alternatives, we can discuss costs, benefits and risks, but it is impossible to truly engage an ideologue because engagement feels like capitulation to them.
The same scenario plays out in any environmental debate. I am sorry, did I say debate? Well, this one wasn’t exactly a debate. Just like the ones that Al Gore, David Suzuki or Josh Fox engage in. Which is still better than Michael Mann suing Mark Steyn for making fun of him. Environmentalists do not debate because they do not have arguments, only tenets of faith.
There are many pragmatic environmentalists. They are mostly scientists who can speak for their field and some renegades such as Patrick Moore and Bjorn Lomborg. They are the ones most despised by the environmentalist ideologues.
I could show examples from several other areas of environmentalism where ideology driven activists are causing tremendous amount of harm simply through their refusal to engage in reasonable conversation.
It is the same story with nuclear energy, fossil fuels, bioengineering, food security, climate alarmism, transportation, urban planning, sustainability or whatever else you can think of.
A purely ideological approach to anything precludes honest debate.
… but this is not its greatest problem. Whether we like it or not, we always have a debate of a sort. Eventually, we have to make decisions, we have to say yay or nay, we have to make choices between human needs and environmental concerns. If we do not have a reasonable debate, we have to resort to political pressure, threats and coercion, propaganda, corruption, political deal making and opportunism. The ideologues can play this game much better than the pragmatists. Ideology is politics in its purest form but politics is also dirty and when there is a conflict of interest there is always another side, the side of those who benefit from providing the services that are in the centre of the conflict.
One of my readers appears to be an activist against the Melanchton Mega Quary, he has a blog here in WordPress doing a pretty good job exposing the political machinations of the industry. If we cannot have an honest debate, we can only have a dirty political fight with business interest on one side, radical environmentalists on the other. Ideology creates a world where there are only villains on both sides. I blame mostly the environmentalists as I see in most cases the other side far more reasonable.
There is an excellent timeline of the events on Wikipedia. It is mentioned in several places, that the industry was aware of the risk, but they did another kind of risk analysis as well weighing the cost/risk of a tsunami and the near certainty of being attacked and sued by the environmentalists the moment they suggest some improvements to the design of the plant. Suggesting improvements is an admission of vulnerability which in turn invites vicious attacks from the radicals. The company made the wrong choice, but if it was not for their fear of a law suit, there is a chance that they would have fixed the problem before the tsunami hit. They submitted a report to Japan’s nuclear safety agency predicting the possibility of a tsunami and its implications to the Nuclear plant four days before the accident happened.
Political answers come with all the known limitations of political answers to anything: rigidity, stupidity, control and a complete lack of imagination.
Remember the 1990 Hagersville tire fire? Millions of tires burned for weeks before the fire was finally controlled, it was considered to be an ecological disaster. I was wondering when it happened why are we piling all these tires in one place? Why are they not recycled or ground up and buried in a landfill?
As it turns out, nobody could figure out what to do with them so it was just piling up until it caught fire one day. The owner of the site was still waiting for an answer from the government to allow him to set up some sort of recycling operation.
A few years later I came across a fascinatingly simple common sense way to recycle used tires.
“Ground tire rubber can be blended with asphalt to beneficially modify the properties of the asphalt in highway construction. Size-reduced scrap tire rubber can be used either as part of the asphalt rubber binder (also known as asphalt rubber), seal coat, cap seal spray or joint and crack sealant, or as an aggregate substitution (rubber modified asphalt concrete).”
It would be a reasonable assumption that the idea did not come from environmentalists. If you google used tire recycling, you would find great many government programs. The pragmatic approach could be best illustrated by this study and there are more ideas on this wiki page.
We have many other environmental ‘problems’ that only exist because politics and radical ideology turned them into problems.
Now I could start talking about Agenda 21, the neo-Malthusian and deeply anti-human hidden agenda of the movement, but my aim is not to debate or expose the environmental movement.
I only wanted to show that the ideological approach to any issue is counterproductive and it is far more likely to produce problems than solutions.
The only approach that produces positive results is principled pragmatism.