Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Axis of Suffering Worship

Just in case my religious friends don't get the suspicion that I only use this term to knock religion, today's Rocky Mountain News has an example of secular representatives of the Axis:

Colorado's miners have struggled long and hard for the right to organize and have safe working conditions.

Many have paid with their lives in this struggle.

Some were the victims of the poor safety standards that used to characterize the industry, while others died in bloody confrontations when mine owners were quick to hire private armies to confront troublesome workers.

As a liberal European journalist, I was familiar with these stories and also knew about how Europe's miners faced similar battles to improve their working lives. These struggles meant that miners have always had a special status for us left-wingers. They were a superior breed who fought for themselves and the rights of all workers.

However in my more recent journalism, I have discovered there is a new threat to miners, their families and their wider communities.

This threat is not from cigar-sucking, champagne-swilling robber barons. Mining is now one of the most regulated businesses in the world. Banks will not lend to, insurance companies will not cover and governments will not give licenses to companies that want to open unsafe or polluting mines.

Instead I have discovered that the biggest threat to miners and their families comes from upper-class Western environmentalists.

The discovery has been particularly shocking because at heart I have always been an environmentalist. I want to protect the planet for future generations. I want to ensure that industry cleans up its messes and does more good than harm.

My admiration for environmentalists started to decline when I was lucky enough to be posted to Romania as a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times. There I covered a campaign by Western environmentalists against a proposed mine at Rosia Montana in the Transylvania region of the country.

It was the usual story. The environmentalists told how Gabriel Resources, a Canadian mining company, was going to pollute the environment and forcibly resettle locals before destroying a pristine wilderness.

But when I went to see the village for myself I found that almost everything the environmentalists were saying about the project was misleading, exaggerated or quite simply false.

Rosia Montana was already a heavily polluted village because of the 2,000 years of mining in the area. The mining company actually planned to clean up the existing mess.

And the locals, rather than being forcibly resettled as the environmentalists claimed, were queuing up to sell their decrepit houses to the company which was paying well over the market rate.

It was surprising that environmentalists would lie, but the most shocking part was yet to come. As I spoke to the Western environmentalists it quickly emerged that they wanted to stop the mine because they felt that development and prosperity will ruin the rural "idyllic" lifestyle of these happy peasants.

This "lifestyle" includes 70 percent unemployment, two-thirds of the people having no running water and using an outhouse in winters where the temperature can plummet to 20 degrees below zero centigrade.

One environmentalist (foreign of course) tried to persuade me that villagers actually preferred riding a horse and cart to driving a car.

Of course the Rosia Montana villagers wanted a modern life - just like the rest of us. They wanted indoor bathrooms and the good schools and medical care that the large investment would bring.

When I left the Financial Times, the plight of these villagers never really left me. I have come across a lot of tragedies and hard-luck stories as a journalist, but I had never covered a situation where the solution to poverty is being opposed by educated Westerners who think that people really are "poor but happy."

I'm starting to come around to the idea that nothing good comes from universities. This also seems to be a perfect example of the "lovely society" syndrome. The environmentalists should coin a new motto: "The world is my theme-park".


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

In his consulting work, my brother came across an environmentalist lawsuit against a mining company because the water leaking out of the mine contained arsenic.

So it did, but less than the natural water going into the mine.

I once asked Dr. Albert Kobayashi, the world expert on silverswords, whether the would describe himself as an environmentalist or an ecologist.

Ecologist, he said. What's the difference, I asked.

'Ecologists know what they're talking about.'

I have no special animus against universities, but Dr. Kobayashi's day job was evaluating radio emissions for the FCC.

September 23, 2006 12:26 PM  
Blogger Bret said...

In the robotics world, a great deal of good research comes from universities.

September 23, 2006 11:19 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

DDT, population control, instinctive anti-war sentiments , a lot of modern feminism, tranzi dreams, modern family law, anti-Walmart etc, etc---all are inspired in good part by fear and even disgust with the little people masquerading as compassion and a feudal desire to keep control over them by insisting that they conform to romantic stereotypes and slapping them down hard when they don’t. By now it should be obvious that the word liberal describes a prude who subscribes to class theory from above. Decades ago, when I was working for the Inuit, I came across a fellow activist who insisted that all economic development in the Arctic should be based upon fur and wood--no metal whatsoever as it would warp the wholesome mind set of the natives, who were by then wallowing in alcohol, unemployment and social pathology.

We are all pretty good around here at analysing this phenomenon from a political and historical perspective, but where does it come from psychologically? It's a little rich to argue like neo-marxists that these people are all consciously lying to keep their investments strong or to preserve the purity of the country club. It's a lot more ingrained and frightening than that.

David has sentenced us to read Cryptonomicon for his literary group-grope. I found it tough going, but there are some real nuggets. Please believe me that I have no wish to hijack this thread to tout for religion, but what do you all think of this quote as an insight into the question of whether there are potential dangers to those who argue the case for radical individual freedom, both politically and epistomologically? If the church metaphor puts you off, think of the case for tradition as authority instead:

The hero returns to his home from an extended trip overseas with a new partner who replaces the one who left him after about ten years. This is Silicon Valley territory and everyone is ultra-modern and cool. All the neighbours shun them except one couple who are quite friendly and welcoming and who admits they are secret churchgoers. The hero, a software geek par excellence reflects as follows:

Randy hadn't the faintest idea what these people thought of him and what he had done, but he could sense right away that, essentially that was not the issue because even if they thought he had done something evil, they at least had a framework, a sort of procedure manual, for dealing with transgressions. To translate it into UNIX system administration terms (Randy's fundamental metaphor for just about everything), the postmodern, politically correct atheists were like people who had suddenly found themselves in charge of a big and unfathomly complex computer system (viz. society) with no documentation or instructions of any kind, and so whose only way to keep the thing running was to invent and enforce certain rules with a kind of neo-Puritanical rigor, because they were at a loss to deal with any deviations from what they saw as the norm. Whereas people who were wired into a church were like UNIX system administrators who, while they might not understand everything, at least at some documentation, some FAQs and How-tos and README files, providing some guidance on what to do when things gone out of whack. They were, in other words, capable of displaying adaptability.

September 24, 2006 3:51 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter, don't tell me you want to play pop-psychology? You'll be a full fledged Duckian before long.

I really think that aesthetics has a lot to do with it. Aesthetics applied to society, or social aesthetics, if you will. It's the romantic impulse. I think it has a lot to do with recapturing a sense of childlike wonder about the world. Mostly eveyone loses this ability around early adolescence, joins the world of social competitiveness and anxiety, and becomes disenchanted with the world and society. The world becomes an ugly place.

Bin Laden's disgust with western ways was not merely an Islamist critique. His family was in the construction business, and he hated the modern city with its high rise buildings. He was anti-uban and anti-modernist. The destruction of the WTC was an aesthetic as well as a political statement for him.

September 24, 2006 6:28 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. Let me puzzle over that for a bit.

Meantime, is the impulse we are talking about the same as or opposite to the habit of college men of doing good works in the slums 90 years ago?

Nostalgie de la boue?

September 24, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnet;

I suspect my own experiences in having to deal with large, complex, almost undocumented systems has contributed as much to my conservatism as reading Hayek. It reifies the Law of Unintended Consequences in a brutal way. It also makes the observant realize just how little of the new is actually present in even cutting edge systems. It's the difference between a Roman centurion with a truncheon and modern riot police with their plexiglass shields and high tech rubber batons.

September 24, 2006 12:36 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


You are in a very different world than me, but I think I recognise a parallel in law. You go through a couple of decades believing you are throwing off the dusty dross of archaic precedent in the name of freedom and social justice, etc, and then suddenly you wake up some day to realize you are a prisoner in a highly-structured postmodern boomer paradigm that is every bit as removed fron ordinary life as the crustiest early 19th century judge.

The other day I was in the courthouse talking with a colleague who I quite like but who works for Legal Aid and is decidedly progressive. We were discussing what lawyers like best to discuss--judges--and she talked about how fearful she was of a certain judge we both respected but who she thought was "too Christian". (Trust me, the "too" was superfluous). I just assumed she meant that he talked about duty, but we had little time and this wasn't The Daily Duck, so I skipped the defence of the judge and put to her that the philosophy she promoted in court every day was no closer to what people on the street thought was just and fair than the most uncompromising Christian. She at least had the good grace to pause and reflect.

September 24, 2006 3:46 PM  

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