The crisis of the contemporary subject is inextricably linked to our disconnection with the natural environment. As recently as 1900 we were still predominantly an agrarian species, with only sixteen cities in the world having a population in excess of one million. There are now four hundred cities with one million occupants and over 60% of the world’s population inhabits cities. Recently, China’s former Minister of Civil Affairs, Doje Cering (2000), announced that it would build four hundred cities from scratch to accommodate its increasingly urbanised population.
An increasingly urbanised population is not the problem in and of itself. At the ideological centre of our environmental crisis is anthropocentrism. For an age so self-analytical we are apparently unaware of causality, the consequences of our actions, and the illusions we construct to deny them. It is these illusions that mask the unsustainable and hermetic lifestyles we create for ourselves in cities. Children grow up unaware of the waste cycle and the connection between their individual actions and the environment: the faucet and water scarcity, the light switch and climate change, the waste basket and diminishing natural resources, the cistern and water purity.
The following is in large part concerned with environmental policy. I shall attempt to identify when environmental policy becomes a lie; when it resembles the conditions that Friedrich Nietzsche described when he spoke of civilisation itself as a pretentious lie in The Birth of Tragedy (1872). To achieve this, I will demonstrate how the contemporary subject’s interface with its natural and built environments is based on four fundamental errors; the same four errors of knowledge that Nietzsche articulates in The Gay Science:
We Always See Ourselves Only Incompletely
Although not considered an environmental philosopher, Nietzsche was an influential thinker at the birth of the modern environmental movement that arose, not coincidentally, at the time of the great urbanisations of Western civilisation. The Gay Science is primarily concerned with anthropocentrism. The four errors of knowledge explored in Book III apply to the contemporary subject perhaps more acutely than to that in Nietzsche’s own time, giving credence to his claim that he was ‘born posthumously.’
Nietzsche’s first great error of knowledge is that man sees himself only incompletely. This error has multiple impacts on our engagement with the environment. One such impact is highlighted by Nietzsche when he asks: ‘To what extent can truth endure incorporation?’ (1882: 171) because the incorporation of selective truths by hegemonic ideologies is one reason for the contemporary subject’s incomplete and fragmented sense of self and contributes to the illusions regarding unsustainable behaviour that is perceived as normal. For instance, President George Bush declared in the week following the September 2001 attacks on the eastcoast that the American public had a civic responsibility to consume. This perception of consumption as a universal norm to restore balance after disruption is an example of how we incorporate a hegemonic truth when the evidence would suggest that there is no causal relationship between that truth and societal well-being.
Most significantly, Nietzsche’s first error of knowledge is manifested in the fact that a limited awareness of the human potential for innovation, to see ourselves incompletely, leads to a narrow public policy response to environmental issues. When modern environmental discourse emerged in the 1960s with Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring, the immediate public policy response, which is still maintained today in most Western jurisdictions, was to address the growing community outrage towards environmental degradation by grafting an environmental response upon conventional neoclassical economics. However, it was this emphasis on economic policy and the gross domestic product (GDP) which, although evident throughout the twentieth century, became a fetish in the shadows of Hiroshima and led to the Frankensteinian agricultural science of DDT that Carlson alerted the world to in Silent Spring.
This public policy cycle in response to the environmental crisis, and our refusal to acknowledge our innovative potential, remains evident today in the political popularity of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) which asserts that sustainability can be achieved through the balancing of environmental and social outcomes with the economy. TBL is a term that gained currency with John Elkington’s Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business (1998). In terms of environmental policy, it has become synonymous with sustainability. However, TBL is not sustainability, but rather a methodology that purports to encourage the uptake of sustainable business principles.
Faithfulness to pre-existing economic paradigms on which to graft environmental public policies is maintained today. It is, as Nietzsche asserted in The Gay Science, that humankind ‘[o]bstinately… clings to something that he has come to see through; but he calls it “faithfulness” ’ (1882: 212). Indeed, if the current trend continues, China will become the largest economy on the planet by 2040. The main barrier to China achieving this outcome is its poor environmental record and the degraded state of its natural resources due to over-consumption in pursuit of rapid economic growth. To address this, China has recently announced its intention to develop the criteria and indices for a ‘Green GDP’ where the cost of environmental damage and unrenewable resource consumption by economic activities will be captured by GDP calculations.
Nietzsche’s first error of knowledge would suggest that Green GDP is yet another attempt to incorporate a new systemisation of a pre-existing flawed paradigm. The TBL and the Green GDP are reconstituted neoclassical economics, each emphasising the scientific or artistic aspects of the discipline depending on its agenda. The problem for Nietzsche would be that none of these methodologies represent human understanding of our relationship with the natural environment. Our frameworks of knowledge, such as public policy platforms, are what Murakami would call an ‘understanding [that is] the sum of our misunderstandings’ (1999: 145-146) because they best fit when we are confronted by a dilemma we cannot solve. Our frameworks for knowledge are ‘the difference between what I knew and what I didn’t know.’
These reflections occur in his novel Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) when the character of Sumire muses on the art of writing and the experience of her unrequited love for an older woman, Miu. Sumire finds success in her writing by approaching her subject with an almost Socratic irony because ‘if I think… I know that guy… I’ve got him down, I run the risk of being betrayed’. The remainder of the novel explores her application of that principle to her relationship with Miu.
With this first error of knowledge, Nietzsche is not suggesting that we are capable of seeing ourselves completely, only that our incomplete concept of self leads to a narrowing of the human response to our condition. The current expression of environmental policy through the prism of neoclassical economics limits the framework in which sustainability can operate. For instance, Hope for the Future: The Western Australian State Sustainability Strategy (2003) is a 153-page policy document and includes a section on ‘sustainability through culture and the arts.’ This approach is also consistent with my attribution of Nietzsche’s first error because, from a policy perspective, a framework about everything is actually about nothing at all. A whole-of-society response to our environmental crisis effectively maintains the status quo and does not challenge the hegemonic neoclassical economics stranglehold on public policy. Murakami, in Sputnik Sweetheart and elsewhere, offers insights into this error and how we are betrayed by our tendency to look at new dilemmas through established paradigms. These compromises between what we know and do not know fail not only to address the environmental crisis but even to represent our experience of the natural environment. Murakami demonstrates this experience compellingly in his novels where understanding emerges not from a logocentric accretion of misunderstandings but through a reconceiving of our frameworks for knowledge.
We Endow Ourselves with Fictitious Attributes
The TBL is an example of how governments in the last decade have resorted to adaptive management strategies to produce public policy and deliver services. These strategies are based on the neoclassical drive to balance all policy outcomes with the economic imperative. There are two examples that have emerged from China which demonstrate that with adaptive management strategies governments commit Nietzsche’s second error of knowledge.
Nietzsche accuses us of endowing ourselves with fictitious attributes when we consider our needs to be the cause of action when they are, in fact, the effect, when ‘need is considered the cause of why something came to be; but in truth it is often merely an effect of what has come to be … Before the effect one believes in different causes than one does afterward’ (1882: 207 & 217).
Built environments, or more specifically urban planning policies that create such conditions as suburban sprawl, are leading to an increasingly digitalised human condition. The reason that media reporting, or lack thereof, of planning disasters such as the four hundred artificially built cities proposed for China, does not evoke the community outrage that perhaps it should is because they are interpreted as a necessary evil to satisfy the legitimate needs of our increasingly urbanised world. However, I would disagree. It is, in fact, a manifestation of Nietzsche’s second error of knowledge. These planning policies are being created not to satisfy our needs; they are the effect of a global urbanising fetish that is neither necessary nor inter-generationally sustainable.
Another aspect of how we endow ourselves with fictitious attributes is demonstrated by policies that would superficially appear to be in the environment’s best interest, for example, China’s one-child policy. According to Nietzsche, ‘the most perfidious way of harming a cause consists of defending it deliberately with faulty arguments’ (1882: 205). If environmental objectives are pursued by policies that encroach upon people’s private choices, the consequent loss of freedom must count as a loss to well-being. They therefore become both unsustainable and detrimental to the credibility of the cause of sustainability because in the public’s perception they are associated with a faulty policy that legislates the abuse of their liberty. According to Amartya Sen, ‘something of importance is sacrificed – rather than sustained – through these policies’ (2004: 11).
Man, according to Nietzsche, ‘is a thinker; that means he knows how to make things simpler than they are’ (1882: 205). Adaptive management strategies simplify the complex dilemmas of our environmental crisis. The reform that these strategies deliver has fictitious attributes for it is antidotal rather than corrective. Adaptation is a fraudulent political response: providing employment for indigenous Amazonians in the agricultural industry which displaced them and razed the rainforest of their ancestral homeland is antidotal reform of the lowest order.
In fact, the term ‘adaptation’ is not even accurate, for what we are in fact doing is transforming our human and eco-systems. Adaptation is to suggest that we are being innovative when confronted with external challenges, but our environmental crisis is one of our own political making and the transformation of human societies in response is reactive not proactive. Even this misuse of language emphasizes Nietzsche’s second error of knowledge: the disconnection between our cultural drives and their consequence, mistaking cause for effect.
Rather than search for the balance between drives, as is the pursuit of the TBL and many scientific methodologies, postmodern literature often celebrates this inherent disconnection between our cultural drives. It is here that postmodern poiesis occurs. According to Plato in the Symposium (205b), ‘Every cause for that which springs from non-being into being is poiesis.’ In postmodern art, poiesis becomes the cause for that which springs from strange places into being, constructing new mindscapes for the conception of knowledge and reality as they have never been conceived before.
For both Nietzsche and the postmodern writer, cause and effect is a relationship under suspicion. The contemporary subject’s self-perception as disconnected from the biosphere that sustains it is an example of how this relationship has been questioned in the last century. We have increasingly come to experience the world around us as a space of properties, rather than affects, and thus representation of this subjectivity becomes a process of digitalising being as a collection of points where each successive point cannot necessarily claim to be attributable, or related, to the previous one. This is the challenge of postmodern poiesis in the ‘smooth space’ of literature because literature is, as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari assert, more a space of affects than one of ‘measures and properties’ (1980: 479).
The character in Murakami’s fiction is a product of this poiesis, a succession of selves disconnected through the competing drives of desire, loss, and so forth. Above all else, the literature of Murakami is a literature of change; change that is continuous and cumulative, always challenging the narrative of cause and effect, forever, in Deleuzian terms, ‘deterritorialising’ and ‘reterritorialising’ mindscapes.
Toru, a character in Norwegian Wood (1987), is significant then for he is surrounded by people who experience extreme disruption and disconnection yet he is unable to change. His experience at the sanatorium where he visits Naoko leads to the following vision:
Toru is informed by this vision of nature similar to the Haida above. He identifies with the willow and its function which is to sway, to complete an integrated, connected circuit with the wind. When he returns from the mountain retreat to the city of Tokyo, he is faced with a choice between his past and his future: the competing drives of the order of what we know and the chaos of what we do not know. The birds, or more precisely their weight, represent the stability of the order as opposed to the chaos of the wind. Toru chooses this uncertain future ultimately because he acknowledges that it is the only way to facilitate change in his life. It is for this reason that the novel takes its title from the Beatles’ song Norwegian Wood (‘this bird has flown’).
Poiesis in postmodern literature recognises the Haida proverb ‘we are our own filter’ because the cause of that which springs from non-being into being is influenced by what we bring to the experience of poiesis as witness. The reader identifies with the authenticity of Murakami’s characters because the change they undergo is precipitated by confronting the disconnection between our drives.
This provides a compelling insight into why adaptive management strategies have failed not only to deliver environmental outcomes, but also to resonate with the community. Murakami recognises that we cannot balance what is disconnected, but we can advance one outcome through adopting change in other drives just as Toru surrendered his past to realise his future. We have not truly engaged the sustainability policy debate while we continue to maintain a TBL balance between the competing drives of the social, economic and environmental. Our focus, like the protagonists of Murakami’s literature, must be on creating outcomes in one drive through adopting change in the others. To overcome Nietzsche’s second error of knowledge as it manifests in our engagement with the environment, to recognise need as effect rather than cause, is to not submit the environment to the economic imperative by appealing to a fictitious ideal such as balance but to produce environmental outcomes through economic and social change.
We Place Ourselves in a False Order of Rank in Relation to Animals and Nature
The contemporary subject commits the third of Nietzsche’s errors of knowledge in that he ‘places himself in a false order of rank in relation to animals and nature’ (1882: 174). In The Anti-Christ, Nietzsche declares that ‘man is absolutely not the crown of creation: every creature stands beside him at the same stage of perfection … And even in asserting that we assert too much: man is, relatively speaking, the most unsuccessful animal, the sickliest, the one most dangerously strayed from its instincts’ (1895:136).
Nietzsche’s concept of the will-to-power is the embodiment of the chaotic forces evident in nature and, for him, any discussion of the natural environment as a machine ‘does it far too much honour’ because ‘it is certainly not constructed for one purpose’ (1882:167). For Nietzsche, man perceives nature as a function of ‘laws’ rather than ‘necessities’ (1882: 168). The danger of this perception is exposed in the early environmental movement of the 1960s discussed above. Carlson’s Silent Spring provided evidence that a mechanistic approach to the environment instead of a holistic one, particularly in the use of chemical and biological agents, can result in catastrophe.
For contemporary humanity, or at least the 60% who inhabit built environments, the natural environment is something that happens ‘over there.’ We have replaced ecosystems with ‘the economy’ as the provider of environmental services. Water use, waste removal and fossil fuel consumption are considered a government service, a right that is the consequence of our taxes. The lessons of Silent Spring have not been learnt: that there are complex forces, necessities, at work in nature beyond the comprehension of humanity; that a realignment of our perceived rank in relation to the natural environment is required.
Throughout history, art has played a crucial role in articulating the human condition – ideally without reducing the complexity and quality of our understanding of it. The natural environment has always been at the interface between humanity and artistic discourse, ever since the first blot of ochre was splashed against a cave wall by firelight. Central to our environmental crisis is a disconnection from this history and the experience of the natural environment as a foray into the psychological unknown. The hegemony of logocentric science and neoclassical economics has reduced (digitalised) our experience of the natural environment to a legislative system that we dominate through abstract laws such as market-based instruments and manipulate with the introduction of chemicals such as DDT. Carlson revealed the horror of what can happen when we dangerously stray from our instincts.
What instincts then can reclaim our place beside nature at the same stage of perfection? Murakami asserts that imagination is this powerful and liberating instinct, a bulwark against the debilitating and soul-destroying intolerance of hegemonic systems. As discussed above, the act of poiesis reconceives our frameworks for knowledge because the imagination defies and denies systemisation. When the imagination is used to filter information, it focuses on the interconnectedness and narratives at work rather than attempts to make sense of the individual datum in isolation. Established media, the chief source of information in Western society, operate purely through the neo-rational devices of the latter. Without context – narrative and interconnectedness – information has no points of reference, or, rather, it has only one, its point within the hegemonic system. It does not inspire our imagination to reconceive it, take ‘lines of flight,’ but rather diminishes the power of the information, making us by extension disempowered.
Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (2003) is a novel that identifies the role of imagination in reconceiving knowledge. Murakami does not compromise quality and complexity by appealing to a unifying system: ‘It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just as Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibility’ (2003: 141).
This is another function of postmodern poiesis; the responsibility which accompanies the bringing forth from non-being into being of imaginative contemplation. In policy domains I have noticed how these changes in mindscapes and the way we frame knowledge have brought innovation to the methods with which we approach the policy task. This reconceiving of knowledge is present in emerging policy disciplines such as strategic foresighting, sometimes called futures thinking, where the policy practitioner is asked to conceive of a variety of futures and construct policy responses to each of those futures that are identified as potential, possible, plausible, probable and preferable respectively.
Imagination, like Nietzsche’s conception of nature, is a realm of necessity, not a legislative domain of strict rules. Laws have the capacity to delay responsibility by deference to the system in which they operate; with necessity, there is no such recourse. Through imagination we become responsible for our condition and we can overcome Nietzsche’s third error and restore our rank beside nature at the same stage of perfection.
We Have Invented New Tables of Goods and Have Accepted Them as Eternal and Unconditional
It is the fourth and final of Nietzsche’s errors of knowledge that is fundamental to an understanding of the other three: that man has invented ‘new tables of goods and has accepted them… as eternal and unconditional’ (1882: 174).
Economic growth is such a pillar of conventional public policy that it is acknowledged as an eternal and unconditional good. The TBL is an example of a methodology conceived through faithful confidence in this orthodoxy. It is the pretentious lie of the triple bottom line, that the economic is not privileged over the social or environmental, which provokes community outrage towards environmental initiatives that are implemented by TBL-inspired policies. When urban sprawl digitalises what remains of our rural landscape, when in pursuit of growth we have destroyed the last remnant of indigenous culture within a fifty-kilometre radius of our cities, how meaningful is the term triple bottom line then? When the single economic bottom line has eclipsed the other two?
Nietzsche’s final error returns him full-circle to the first, specifically the incorporation of truth and the perception of what is normal. For when economic growth is perceived as a universal good, then the preservation of that growth is accepted as normal and the subsequent generations’ capacity to question that truth is inhibited. Our unsustainable population growth is an obvious example of how this error of knowledge is manifested.
We have had 100,000 years of human existence, however it was only in approximately 1840 that the world’s population reached one billion and it took another century, about 1930, to reach two billion. In the last seventy years it has multiplied by a factor of 3.25 to almost 6.5 billion. Nothing in the finite world can grow that fast forever. However, since this rate is perceived as normal there is an economic imperative to preserve it. It is what E.J. Mishan called the ‘mass flight from reality into statistics’ (1967: 8). This global fetish with economic growth and the quantifiable in economics has been characterised as ‘physics envy.’
When a truth such as population increase (or the earlier example of consumption) is incorporated, it is done so into a pre-existing perceived good which is idealised as an eternal and unconditional benefit for the human condition such as neoclassical economics, logocentric science, and nationalism. The accumulation of these ‘truths’ to support what Nietzsche terms an ‘invented table of goods’ (or a system of ideology) rarely resonates with our individual perception of the world which is often fragmented. Hence, community outrage and public protest occur as an expression of this difference, this gulf, between the flux of our individual experience and the unity of the prescribed goods of the hegemony.
This difference is explored in Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), a dual-narrative novel which traces the journeys of an agent who is a calculator in a huge conglomerate called ‘System’ and a man who reads dreams using the skulls of unicorns in a library trapped within the walls of a town at the end of the world. The force of systemisation and absolutism is represented by the INKlings of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, whose menacing dark shapes are omnipresent but just beyond cognition, while the equal and opposite force of individualism is embodied in the Gatekeeper who is modeled on the Green Man of Old-English mythology, as was the Green Knight in the anonymous Middle-English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The Dreamreader’s malaise, which he experiences as a literal separation from his sentient shadow, is due to his realisation that human subjectivity requires both forces, the immanent and the incorporation of the immanent into a system. Without a system, life has the quality of a dream where there is no sun, no Apollonian illusion, and hence no shadow. Similarly, in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland, immanence is characterised as the shuffling of data, each experience a datum that has no meaning to the individual, only to the System. Both the Dreamreader and the Calculator are ciphers who unlock the interdependence of the individual within the system and vice-versa.
The other aspect of Nietzsche’s fourth error that manifests in our engagement with the environment is his assertion that ‘What are man’s truths ultimately? Merely his irrefutable errors’ (1882: 219). This confusion of irrefutable errors with truths can be seen in the distracting theses of environmental sceptics such as Denmark’s Bjorn Lomborg (2001). Among Lomborg’s many claims is that, since current climate change modelling cannot disprove that climate change is within natural historical parameters, it therefore follows that it is within natural historical parameters. He raises the disprovable to the level of truth in direct violation of the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development’s precautionary principle that ‘If there are threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to prevent environmental degradation.’
According to Nietzsche our concept of self is similarly flawed, and established merely through the accretion of ‘irrefutable errors.’ If identity is a succession of selves, as has been suggested by Hume, Nietzsche and deconstructive postmodernism, can there be a fixed point of reference to legitimise these claims? Is there anything that can redeem our experience of disconnection and competing drives which, in turn, lead to the contemporary subject’s fragmented sense of self (and, by extension, culminates in social and political responses that are equally fragmented)?
As discussed, the postmodern poiesis that operates in Murakami generates characters that ‘deterritorialise’ and ‘reterritorialise’ the mindscapes they inhabit. Thus identity is often represented as displaced and discontinuous. For Murakami, this experience is inextricably linked, as it was originally for the Scottish empiricist David Hume, to the belief that the world of noumena (things-in-themselves) is beyond the comprehension of the human senses: ‘There’s got to be millions of trees in the world and millions of birds and millions of rainfalls. But I couldn’t even figure one out, and I’d probably die that way’ (Murakami, 1985: 220).
The ineffability of the natural environment is what allows Murakami to employ it as an analogy of the psychological unknown of his characters. However, as stated, the literature of Murakami is a literature of change and for transformation to occur there must be a narrative that unites the character’s encounter with the unknown. The author must be able to demonstrate how the self succeeds, no matter how discontinuously. For Murakami, memory operates as this nexus. His assertion is that, without the structure of memory, we are a bundle of constituent moments, hopelessly unstable quantum particles in flux. This explains why the loss of the Dreamreader’s shadow corresponds with the loss of his memory. Memory creates the Apollonian illusion of a complete and continuous sense of identity – it is a narrative that links the succession of the self into a definable whole and redeems our sense of belonging. In response to his Shadow’s insistence that ‘the Town will swallow you, mind and all,’ the Dreamreader expresses his inability to make rational judgments in a reality bereft of memory’s consoling narrative: ‘But how can we be absolutely right? What could their being absolutely wrong mean? And without memory to measure things against, how could I ever know?’ (Murakami, 1985: 248)
The link between the novel’s two narratives is the Professor’s research:
“Wait a minute. That would mean two different cognitive systems coexisted in the same person.”
“You catch on quick”, said the old man. “It confirms what I saw in you. Yes, Cognitive System A would be on permanent hold, while the other would go on changing”… A’, A’’, A’’’. (Murakami, 1985: 257-258)
The proliferation of information is the new machine of forgetting. Dominant ideologies defuse resistance by generating a superfluity of information in order to raise the ‘irrefutable’ to truth, reduce community activism, and delay public policy action. How do we defeat the Bjorn Lomborgs of this world? Murakami demonstrates how memory can assist us to construct narratives from a superfluity of information and experience. Culturally, we also have this opportunity by accessing the wealth of narratives that have been sustained through generations. Indigenous cultures have established the durability of these narratives that have maintained a delicate symbiosis between humanity and the natural environment for millennia. The Haida insists that the natural environment informs them of who they are. The inference then is that we change with the land around us and no table of goods is ever eternal or unconditional, but seasonal and situational.
Nietzsche asserted that ‘we have arranged a world in which we can live’ (1882: 177) and we do this by reducing the complexity of the world around us into frameworks of knowledge that are comprehensible and in which we recognise the human condition. However, as Nietzsche (1882) realises, that alone does not prove them in as much as the conditions of life might include error. If environmental public policy is to succeed, it will need do so in a way that reconceives knowledge and avoids the four errors that have dominated thought and reduced the capacity for environmental sustainability throughout Western civilisation.
The fiction of Murakami, too, would have us seek alternative ways of knowing by engaging with the natural environment, not as ‘something over there,’ but rather by attaining environmental outcomes through change not balance; employing imagination in producing public policy; exploring the tension between individual and system; and accessing cultural and indigenous memory. This re-evaluation of values is a reconceiving of knowledge in response to the Nietzschean insights of The Gay Science. It may also end in error, but that is the risk of innovation.
As a perspectivist, Nietzsche claimed that all stories are valid, but that some stories are more valid than others. This is true of sustainability. All versions are valid, including the TBL, but some are more robust, more practical, more applicable, and more articulate – hence better – than others. Perspectivism is not the theory that every opinion is as good as the next, but that every opinion is as intellectually rigorous as its author. The framework that I have extracted from the intellectual rigour and imagination of Murakami is just another story by which to read our engagement with the natural environment, but if applied perhaps it is the version where the crisis is averted and everyone lives unerringly ever after
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