Oh Me of Little Faith

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April 2012 | Jon Christensen,

I shudder to think Shellenberger and Nordhaus have come to this: calling for a new theology of modernization. The troubling history of modernization gives us every reason to be deeply suspicious of anyone who suggests we should simply take it on faith. Perhaps modernization has been, on balance, good for humanity, but we should not forget its dark side.

I shudder to think Shellenberger and Nordhaus have come to this: calling for a new theology of modernization. Haven't we learned that the condition of modernity is precisely one of uncertainty and instability in the face of constant change? All that is solid melts into air. And now, somehow, we should make the cause of this condition something that we must take on faith?
 

Perhaps Shellenberger and Nordhaus mean to say that we should have faith in modernity, the condition of wary skepticism, rather than modernization, the cause of this perpetual unease. But they are smart fellows, and very good writers to boot, so I take them at their word.

I might be able to find my way to a theology of modernity, though it is something of a faithless condition, a bit like having a theology of agnosticism, but even more unsettling, I'm afraid. But modernization is not something I think we should take on faith.

The troubling history of modernization gives us every reason to be deeply suspicious of anyone who suggests we should simply take it on faith. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus acknowledge, the history of modernization is one of creation and destruction, and, of course, winners and losers, though they don't emphasize the latter. I worry that their embrace of modernization encourages historical amnesia. One need only look back over the 19th and 20th centuries and the beginning of the 21st to be chastened by the scale of violence and destruction unleashed under the flag of modernization. The toll of modernization has been heavy, indeed, not just for other species but for human beings, and particularly harsh in very specific times and places. For better and for worse, sometimes for much worse, modernization has been extremely uneven.

On the whole, one may agree with Shellenberger and Nordhaus that modernization has been, on balance, good for humanity, and I do tend to agree by and large, but we should not forget its dark side. Indeed, the fundamental condition of modernity may well be this very state of never being able to forget that modernization is not something we can or ever should put our faith in, because modernization can pull the rug out from under you at any time, in very specific ways, whether it's putting a highway through your neighborhood, turning your rainforest into a palm plantation, or smart bombing your capital from unmanned drones.

It's a bit odd that Shellenberger and Nordhaus should try to enlist Bruno Latour in the service of their proposed theology of modernization. Latour famously titled one of his books We Have Never Been Modern, suggesting that the foundational philosophical move of modernity -- separating culture from nature -- was never sound and is still unfounded. That Shellenberger and Nordhaus would try to suggest that this critique of modernity should now be a foundational pillar of support for a theology of modernization strikes me as incredibly wrong headed. But I suspect Shellenberger and Nordhaus are probably up to some subtle intellectual jujitsu here.

It's a very modernist move, trying to channel the force of a critique of modernity into a reform agenda that demands support for modernization, and has the balls to call it, no doubt ironically, worthy of a quasi-religious faith. There is much to admire in the move and their motivation. But it's also quintessentially modern to be very wary of such moves.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus, of course, are masters of this martial art, handily identifying the seams of contradictions in our modern, public, political discourse and turning them into productive debates. And I admire their bravado and finesse. But to whole-heartedly embrace modernization at this late date is to turn a tin ear to the important, deeply ironic, historical and cultural connotations of the term -- which suggest that some people and places are still not fully modern, but should be, and will be, by God, even if they have to be dragged into the future, kicking and screaming, dead or alive.

I know Shellenberger and Nordhaus are not deaf to these echoes of modernization. And I understand they have a more immediate quarrel with a romantic, backward looking nostalgic form of privileged, particularly American brand of environmentalism that has long claimed to be at odds with the project of modernization while never ceasing to harvest its benefits. But the implications of their faithful and potentially fateful embrace of modernization should give us pause.

Modernization is the vocabulary of power. Modernization is a totalizing agenda. It knows what's good for you and everyone and everything else on the planet.

Modernity is the condition of skepticism. Modernity is seen through the fragments of what the power of modernization has wrought. It wonders warily what comes next.

Though it may be little solace, modernity may be the best intellectual resource we have to deal with modernization and ensure that it does not become a religion.

Jon Christensen is a historian of science and the environment and executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.


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