Questions about the viability of the suggestions in The Big Rethink campaign
The February issue of the AR was, in my view, nothing short of ground-breaking. Peter Buchanan’s second offering on The Big Rethink was both radical and brave: radical to advance the sacrilege that perhaps it all started to go wrong with the advent of the Renaissance − man becoming the measure and so forth; and brave to enter into ‘the unknown’ in search of the answers that we all seek.
Citing the cosmos and Gaia among other things in his elucidation of an alternative to the reductive mechanistic paradigm may elicit ridicule, but in doing so, Buchanan shows the kind of intellectual bravery that is all too often noticeable by its absence. So it comes as a genuine shock to read Rupert Sheldrake (Broader View, AR Feb), which appears to go even further by beginning to suggest that Nietzsche was wrong when he said ‘God is Dead’ and that modern society’s zealous adoption and implementation of this maxim is largely responsible for its current predicament.
“This is the kind of editorial content that leaves one open mouthed”
Many of your readers will find this uncomfortable reading. This is the kind of editorial content that leaves one open mouthed. As regards the practicalities of an alternative paradigm however, I found the central editorial proposition − that modern science in the form of the internet and smart grids will save us where fossil fuel-driven industrialised technology has all but destroyed us − to be, well, a little weak. Is this really tenable?
Take, for instance, the hydrogen fuel cell (which Peter Buchanan cites while describing Rifkin’s concept of energy-producing buildings), an amazing piece of technology that gives us electricity with only water as a by-product. The fuel cell is perhaps the perfect example of modern technology as panacea, but we must be careful to keep in sight the realities associated with it.
Firstly, the embodied energy associated with not only the production of a single unit, but the development of the technology as a whole. Then there is the fact that fuel cells don’t make energy out of nothing, but merely convert renewable energy into electricity. In the simplest sense, this leaves the users of fuel-cell technology at the mercy (or otherwise) of the natural rhythms of the planet, the internalising into human society of which, Buchanan (and presumably Rifkin) astutely identify as being vital to any future paradigm of human existence.
Living in accordance with the earth’s natural rhythms will mean that we all have to consume less, it will probably mean the death of music, fashion, TV and modern culture as we know it, no bad thing perhaps but the profundity of the change needs to be fully considered. The knowledge economy which is dependent on the outsourcing of industrial and manufacturing processes to developing countries, is also incompatible with the new paradigm that we need.
Are we not in danger of replacing one reductive paradigm for another? The supplement on schools (Typology Quarterly, February) is instructive in this regard. Self-learning is all very well, but human culture depends on knowledge being properly passed on from one generation to the next, it always has done and always will do, surely? So perhaps Aldo Rossi was on to something when he proposed a school design that was not revolutionary but revelatory, drawing on old and even timeless notions of institution and culture and seeking to ‘un-earth’ a lost humanity rather than waste time and energy attempting to find it somewhere new.
Rossi acknowledged that people like old buildings and he understood the poverty of Modernism enunciated by the likes of Venturi and Scott Brown, the poverty of a culture that discounts pre-industrial history and seeks to re-make society in the absence of its lessons, only to re-adopt those lessons as the ‘Modernist project’ encounters failure after failure. Unnecessarily reinventing the wheel each time presents just the kind of inefficiency which has fuelled the fire of our corrosive industrialised capitalism, and is something we must be sure to avoid in future.
Michael Badu, London