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Tsunami and “natural rights” in property

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9 Responses

  1. Thanks once more for a wonderful post Andrew.

    With regard to écologie politique, this is certainly more than an intellectual movement, given the role of Die Grünen in Europe and Germany in particular. Some time ago, beginning in the early 1980s and perhaps best represented in the speeches and writings of Rudolf Bahro, there was a lively debate between the “realos” and the “fundis” in the Green movement that was not too different in many respects between the “debate” in this country in the nascent Green movement between the “social ecologists” led by their mentor Murray Bookchin, and the “deep ecologists,” perhaps best exemplified in the “ecosophy” of Arne Naess (indeed, he’s considered the founder of ‘deep ecology’), one of the early sources of inspiration for the deep ecologists. One element of this debate was the extent to which the Greens, as a social movement, should focus their political energy on electoral politics (including engage in coaltions with the SPD) or continue their role as a prefigurative social movement on the terrain of civil society engaged in both a Gandhian-like “constructive program” on the one hand, and periodic forms of “civil [i.e., nonviolent] resistance” on the other. In both Germany and this country, the “realo” perspective has, seemingly, become the dominant strategy. Personally, I think this hurt the Greens as a social movement (which doesn’t mean they should have ignored electoral politics, only that their energies should not have been canalized in same), for the utopian (in a non-pejorative sense) dimensions of the movement withered, the focus on power politics prematurely ending the attempts to construct other “forms of politics” (metaphorically akin to the Gramscian ‘war of position’) or the battle for cultural hegemony, as it were.

    In short, while it may be true that écologie politique “is too bloodless and rational to epitomize the deeper lessons of the March events,” I doubt the various worldviews and philosophies that inspire “deep ecology” and fundi perspectives could be described as same, particularly insofar as they often draw upon Eastern traditions like Daoism and Buddhism, the former in particular providing an exemplary non-anthropocentric view of topics such as “property,” “power,” the natural world and so on. In other words, I don’t think it’s the case that “we need to cultivate a bit of anthropomorphism – the idea that human agency has some echoes in nonhuman nature,” rather, we should refrain from anthropomorphizing nature and see the degree to which we are responsible for the “damage” that nature is said to cause through “natural disasasters.” I made this point in a comment to a wonderful lecture by Dean Jim Chen on “Disasters and Its Dimensions…” (available for viewing at the Jurisdynamics blog), the adjective being wholly misplaced and thus misleading. First, I cited Amartya Sen’s seminal work on famines, which has gone a long way toward helping us see precisely how these are NOT “natural” but very much the result of human actions (‘inaction’ here being species of and parasitic on action). Secondly, by way of avoiding the more controversial or at least complicating metaphysical and epistemic premises of Eastern worldviews, I mentioned Sartre’s intriguing remarks on the subject, which speak to the the integral interdependence of the “social” and the “natural”–as “my environment:”

    “I wish to arrive on my bicycle as quickly as possible at the next town. This project involves my personal ends, the appreciation of my place and of the distance from my place to the town, and the free adaptation of means (efforts) to the end pursued. But I have a flat tire, the sun is too hot, the wind is blowing against me, etc., all phenomena which I had not forseen: these are the environment. Of course they manifest themselves in and through my principal project; it is through the project that the wind can appear as a head wind or as a ‘good’ wind, through the project that the sun is revealed as a propitious or an inconvenient warmth.”

    Elsewhere, and more to the point, Sartre writes that “It is necessary…to recognize that destruction is an essentially human thing and that IT IS man who destroys his cities through the agency of earthquakes or directly, who destroys his ships through the agency of cyclones or directly.” Again, it is through man that “fragility comes into being,” “it is man who renders cities destructible….”

    Sartre’s take on matters here, which puts a premium on human responsibility (e.g., we allow people to build in flood plains, along coastlines…) combined with a more ecological approach generally, would be a promising direction for a different sort of living in man-built environments that are sensitive to our natural environment and their ecologies.

    With regard to “property,” I’m rather fond of the Gandhian notion of “trusteeship,” a few comments on the relevant literature found here:

    In a dialogue with Indian socialists, Gandhi expanded on the egalitarian thrust of this idea and highlighted its “anti-capitalist” orientation as well as its compatibility with State regulation. (Gandhi’s views here have often been mischaracterized by more doctrinnaire Marxists who did not understand his reasons for cultivating friendships with some prominent Indian capitalists during his various satyagraha campaigns; nor did they take a liking, until many years later, to his focus on ‘village democracy’ and ‘agrarian justice’).

    Incidentally, you might find Chris Bertram’s discussion at Crooked Timber of the various self-described “left” currents in Europe of interest, the “eco-left” the most appealing among the available options:

  2. Many thanks for you insightful articles. It is much appreciated.

    Warm regards,


  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks, Mauritz and Patrick. Patrick, André Gorz, who was sort of the founding father of écologie politique in France, was indeed a friend of Sartre, and of Illich as well. In France and elsewhere, his work has been picked up by those who oppose making economic growth the goal of policy, a movement now split into camps calling themseves décroissancistes (de-growthers) or objecteurs de croissance (objectors to growth). Sas’s book is closer to the latter. On the other hand, Die Grünen, and especially Daniel Cohn-Bendit, are proponents of “green growth.” Whatever you call it, objections to growth aren’t purely “left,” even though most people of that view probably come historically from the left. (I’m of course not using American standards, by which even Larry Summers and Cass Sunstein are on the left.) There are many Marxist critiques of de-growth, and in fact a working paper of my own criticizing growth (to be revised this summer) was heavily slammed from the left in private communications from a well-known décroissanciste. There are also some right-wing writers in France and Germany who are attempting to co-opt de-growth, e.g., to justify inequality, to keep out immigrants, etc. The American ecological economist Herman Daly, who promotes “zero-growth,” is also anti-immigration. He, and some Anglo-Saxon de-growth proponents (e.g., Bill McKibbin, and Tim Jackson’s otherwise good book), are a bit too optimistic about capitalism, IMHO. I’m hoping to be able to publish about these nuances in English, eventually; in the meantime I have a Japanese book coming out this fall about how de-growth might be relevant to Japan, provided it’s implemented in conjunction with certain other, more affirmative policies (de-growth being inherently negative), as well as improvements to democracy. My editor and I both think the March events (or 3/11, as it’s being called here) made this more relevant to Japan than it already was. But it will take at least 20 years to build the institutional infrastructure; and for the US it would be far, far longer.

    As I mention in the post, foolish human actions, such as building below the mark of a prior tsunami, certainly contributed to the loss of life here. But I’m not sure that it’s correct to say that “destruction is an essentially human thing.” There are many plants and animals who lose their lives and habitats from earthquakes and tsunami, too, and most likely that happened during earthquakes and tsunami even before there was a human-influenced environment. For that matter, think of the dinosaurs and many other pre-human extinctions. If, for the sake of argument, one takes a “deep ecology” POV, then it seems that the loss of life or family should be experienced as “destruction” and tragedy for those animals, too; or else if we abstract it to being “part of the natural cycle” for them, we can do the same for humans. In any case, I don’t think one is necessarily driven to “deep ecology” in order to come up with a politics and economy that approach what I talk about at the end of the piece.

    And I’m not sure Sen’s famine analysis is at all pertinent. His main point, about poverty and famines being created by entitlement issues, doesn’t really match with the tsunami, as far as I can tell. At least in the ria communities, although people with higher income tended to live at higher elevations, most businesses and civic offices were within the inundated areas. The tsunami struck in mid-afternoon on a work day. Our cousin, a dentist who lived at a higher elevation in Ofunato, survived only because of an impluse to return home for lip gloss minutes before the quake hit. Her clinic was entirely washed away. Satoh-san, the Onagawa factory owner mentioned in a footnote in the post, saved his workers while he and his family died. Moreover, there are many tales of mayors perishing, because they were trying to get citizens to safety. So while houses of wealthier and more prominent people maybe had a better chance of staying intact, the families who lived in them did not. (I don’t know about the plains areas; possibly some wealthier people had ocean-view homes, or some of the farmers in Wakabayashi-ku and similar areas might have been well-off.) In any case, those whose homes were habitable were at a disadvantage for getting food relief in the weeks after the tsunami — preference was given to those in shelters. And while there were and continue to be some problems, in large measure the distribution infrastructure recovered much more quickly than expected. So only a lot of contortions, if even that, could get Sen to fit.

  4. Andrew,

    The mention of Sen was simply by way of re-thinking the category of “natural disasters:” I wasn’t trying to tie it specifically to the recent tsunami in Japan although the larger point applies there as well.

    Yes, I know about Gorz and Sartre (and Illich): indeed, it’s been rather downhill in French philosophical and intellectual circles since that period…(I confess to a nostalgia for those days in any case).

    I wrote a manuscript a couple of decades ago addressing many of the topics raised here (as part of analysis of the debate I mentioned) but we can talk about this stuff again at some later point. The “deep ecologists” are naive about capitalist economics, and that aspect of their worldviews does not interest me (here I’d cite someone like Paul Burkett as closer to the truth), rather, it’s the spiritual praxis and openness to religious worldviews generally that I find appealing, as did the later Rudolf Bahro (I’ve been posting about his first book at Ratio Juris and will later treat his unique ecological and spiritual approach as seen in his subsequent books). Robert Paehlke took several of the early popular “ecological” thinkers (e.g., the Ehrlichs and Hardin) to task some time ago (and more recently, Robyn Eckersley) and there’s been a stubborn reactionary current in the environmental movement for some time now (not unlike the manner in which Nazi ideologists adopted and distorted ecological ideas and ‘nature philosophy’).

    As to economic growth, it’s always struck me as silly to pose the question in terms of either growth or no-growth simpliciter, it being rather a question of what kind of growth (after all, and thinking analogically, the obverse of growth in the natural world is decline and death), and the indices used to capture that (presuming we may come up with some) are yet to be formulated in economics (we’re getting closer to same with ‘quality of life’ indices)

    Loss of life is of course always regrettable, but here I see value in the Daodejing’s “straw dogs” passage about such things in the natural world.

    I’ll let you know when I write about these things in more depth in the hope they appear at least a tad bit more plausible than they do in a blog comment!

  5. JD says:

    My precautionary principle: if you start messing with the economy, you might accidentally reverse a couple of centuries of economic growth, leading to mass starvation.

  6. Fortunately, we have a couple of centuries of “messing with the economy” to convincingly demonstrate your fantasied “precautionary principle” is absolute nonsense. In any case, we have plenty of empirical data on the political economy of hunger and starvation (including famines) which inform us of both their causes and the available means to keep such causes from arising, to forestall such causes, and in those cases where that has not occurred, to mitigate if not end the effects of what has already been set in motion. (In the modern world, cases of “mass starvation” are morally, politically, and economically inexcusable.)

  7. Your account was very moving. It is still hard for us in the West to fully fathom the degree of destruction but we all know it will take years for normalcy to be achieved. Pace yourselves!

  8. Great post and an amazing account of the extent of the damage and plight of the people. Just one thing to add.

    I’m sitting outside of my usual Starbucks in Chiba with some Japanese friends. I asked them about what you wrote about Tokyo Governor, Ishihara’s remark that “the quake was a tenbatsu – punishment from heaven – for Japan’s greed.” You mentioned Harry Harootunian’s analysis that “Ishihara’s remark was a shrewd way to blame average Japanese for their moral failings, while exonerating the political class from blame for the disaster.”

    When I told this to my Japanese friends, they said that he was actually blaming the politicians and DIET for their greed, but it got misinterpreted. But this, too, is politics where there should be none. In any case, the guy is an idiot. I’d like to say that it’s hard to believe he’s still in power, but given the underlying –but largely unspoken– belief of the right-wing agenda here, it’s no surprise.

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    Thanks very much for your comment, Mike. As for Ishihara, though, it wasn’t right-wing sentiment but the abysmal quality of the competing candidates that assured his re-election. More worrying is the way his son is being pushed into the limelight as an opposition spokesperson in the Diet. Ishihara Jr.’s face is on posters even all the way up north in Morioka, far from his home district. He’s being groomed for national office, no doubt eventually as a PM after Jimintou (LDP) regain power.

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