Betting on Environmental Utopia: Palo Alto vs. Urbana
Reading Group Meeting #3
Wednesday, November 30
- How does the reading help us explore the historical climate in the 1970/80s, and allow us to examine the ways in which a discourse became extremely polarized?
- How can we use it to discuss our current fractured and polarized climate? In what ways have conversations remained the same, and in what ways have they changed/gotten worse? A lot of the conversations—e.g., Reagan saying ‘Make America great again’ or his anti-regulatory stance—are extremely familiar.
- To what extent does he give equal time to each of the key players? How does the author use biographical information? How can histories of science use biography as a means to explore the intricacies of these debates?
- The author frames the discussion as pessimism versus optimism. To what extent do these terms work? Does the author complicate those terms enough? To what extent is “optimism” linked to technocratic norms? To what extent is pessimism framed as a negative quality?
- To what extent are the sides of this debate defined by American political culture? How can we trace the connections between environmental policy and liberal/conservative viewpoints? To what extent do these debates exist outside of policy?
- As we move into an era in which people increasingly question the advantages of humans shaping their environment, to what extent is utopia possible when that control no longer seems desirable? To what extent does utopia require a positive view of control?
- How can we contextualize these debates? How, for example, can we look at The Population Bomb as part of a larger neo-Malthusian argument? These two views are not the poles, but rather there are visions to the extreme on either side—how can we compare them to neo-Imperial or natal control (e.g., Chinese single child policy) arguments?
- How are these two thinkers crossing disciplinary boundaries? Simon was critiqued for his role in advertising and mass media, but how did that allow him to think about issues in new ways? Ehrlich was a biologist, not an expert on environmental studies. To what extent do these two voices come to the fore simply because they’re speaking louder than almost anyone else, even through they are trained in different disciplines?
- How do we measure the consequences of broad actions, like resource extractions? This book focuses on the issue of running out of resources, but how do we look at the side effects of extracting said resources? For example, the titular bet is about the price of cooper—a side issue, at best, for both Ehrlich and Simon’s argument. How do so many arguments about big issues like environmental concerns end up being measured through abstracted side issues, like the price of metals?
- How can we bring in the idea of “kingdom of necessity” versus “kingdom of freedom”? If utopia is about transcending limits, how do environmental concerns complicate that? To what extent does this view imply that we need to jump through a dystopian era of limits to reach an eventual utopia? (How can we compare this to examples like the Soviet Union, which promoted an idea of a vanguard movement?)
- How can we trace this history as a history of institutions? Simon moves between a series of conservative and libertarian foundations (Cato, Heritage). What about the role of educational institutions (Stanford and UIUC)? How do these institutions, or networks of communication like publishing houses, affect how information (on things like the environment) spread?
- What role does geography play in this? To what extent can we understand this as a history of the coasts versus interior?
- How can we look seriously at the criticism of environmentalism? To what extent can we lay the blame for amplifying the discourse personally at Ehrlich’s feet? To what extent does Ehrlich’s failure result from his tone? He had arguably the biggest stage any environmentalist has ever had, but used it to create a narrative that was overblown. To what extent have many critiques of environmentalism as an elitist movement been derived from the attacks on Ehrlich?
- How can the humanities help future public intellectuals from making the mistakes of Ehrlich? To what extent were Ehrlich’s mistakes a result of his inability to properly situate his research?
- How does Sabin link this one conversation into a longer historical frame? How can we use that longer frame to imagine the ways in which the debate may go forward? How can we use it as a primer for how to frame these debates in the future?