How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef

A confession: I visited the Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago and it was the most stunning experience of my life. The beauty, intricacy, diversity, were amazing. The experience of immersion in this underwater world was and is vivid – literally alive. But I felt profoundly uneasy participating iin the industrial system that got me there – plane flight, chain hotel, large, fast motor boat. In order to appreciate the beauty of what we’re destroying we need to destroy it a little bit more, it seems.
Environmental writer Chris Turner addresses this dilemma head on in a marvellous piece for Canada’s Walrus Magazine, The Age of Breathing Underwater.

Justice cannot be done to the piece here – you need to read it for yourself. He focuses on the work of Australian coral expert Dr Charlie Veron, author of A Reef in Time, who, as Turner tells it, fights to save the Reef, even as he affirms it cannot now be saved. Ocean acidification has gone too far already. What lies in the human heart on the far side of hope is the subject, then, of Turner’s article.
If you’ve read more than one post on this website you’ll be expecting an anaylsis of the social structures that condition such thinking in terms of a model of society called Grid-Group Cultural theory. It’s true there is ample scope for this. For example, when Veron likens ocean acidification to a loaded gun with ‘a hair trigger and devastating firepower’, he’s indulging in classic Egalitarian-speak which ought to call into question his construction of the facts (by etymology if not by modern definition facts are always constructions: facere = to make). This is not at all to deny that acidification is taking place, but to scrutinise the human meanings we assign to it. But this time I want to do something a little different. This time I want to write in terms of deviance (in doing this I’m using terms established by sociologist Robert K Merton, and I should point out before we get any further that Turner’s article doesn’t refer to these at all).

If it is the case that we are implicated in a system that is destroying the Great Barrier Reef to the extent that within 50 years it will effectively have ceased to exist, my question is: how can we yet deviate from that system?

I use the concept of deviance advisedly. In my trip to far North Queensland, there were very few opportunities to deviate from the path already laid out. You want to get there? ‘Realistically’, the only way is to fly (read – it’s a long way and your work environment doesn’t give you enough time or money to do it another way. If you can fly, you will). You want something other than a chain hotel? In effect there are only two options: chain hotel or sub-chain hotel (read- you want to stay with relatives or friendly natives or something? Get real). You want something other than the fuel guzzling motor launch? Well, sure, take the sail boat option if you like, but the reef is so far off shore you’ll only make it to the inner reef, not the outer reef, and which is ‘better’, you ask? Listen – there’s a clue in the name.

So to do something different from what’s on offer, with reef tourism as with the rest of life, is to participate in social deviance of the kind Robert K Merton was writing about in the late 1930s and summarised in his article ‘Social Structure and Anomie’ (1938)

The main distinction Merton made was between conformity and everything else. The former, conformity, he identified as an acceptance of both the ‘culturally defined goals’ and the ‘institutional means’ of society and claimed this was the state of most of the population. But he saw the latter, deviance, as coming in four different flavours.

The first is rebellion. This is what Charlie Veron has been up to with Greenpeace. It’s an explicit rejection/replacement both of the goals of society and the accepted means to attain them. The watchword of such rebellion is that of Gramsci, who placed on the masthead of L’ordine nuevo, the Turin newspaper he edited, ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. (see Anne Showstack Sassoon 2000 Gramsci and Contemporary Politics. London: Routledge, p. 136)

The second is retreat. This is an acceptance of cultural goals, matched with a lack of the means to achieve them. It’s epitomised by the ‘pony-tailed dude’ Chris Turner met at a barbecue at Crystal Waters Eco village: ‘It’s gone, mate. Might as well start getting used to the idea.’

The third is ritualism, which accepts the means and norms of society, but pays no attention to goals or aims. Under these conditions, otherwise substantive actions become empty rituals. Turner gives two examples of this: first he cites The Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management, which, he claims, ‘emerged in 2008 and quickly vanished in the churning media sea of burst housing bubbles and flailing banks.’ The second example he gives is the Greenpeace protest again – he sees it as ritualistic because he doubts it’s going to get anything done. He calls it
“a textbook Holocene protest. And that’s the problem. It’s a symbolic act, staged with no intent other than to be photographed, disseminated, blipped to newspapers and websites around the world. Which publications may or may not publish it; which have over the years published a sufficient number of similar scenes of unfurled banners bearing strident messages composed in the imperative mood to render this one commonplace.”

The fourth type of deviance touched on by Turner’s article is innovation. The classic expression of this is the claim of inventor Buckminster Fuller who is widely believed to have said that you don’t change the world by opposing it but by creating new ways of doing things that render the old ways obsolete. This is Turner’s preferred approach. He gives two examples: one is a factory in Canberra producing steel roofs for shopping centres which have the solar cells ready painted-on. This will no doubt help to mitigate greenhouse emissions. The other is an innovative way of thinking about and ‘re-framing’ the destruction of the reef: Resilience.
“With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

So far so good. A few comments:
I applaud Turner’s adoption of a ‘resilience’ frame of thought for considering the demise of the Barrier Reef, but I think he could go further. Merton’s scheme of deviance offers a wider repertoire of protest than might otherwise be on offer, and in promoting innovation while disparaging ritualism, rebellion and retreat, Turner is effectively avoiding resilience in his repertoire of solutions. There could well be a time and a place for these alternative forms of deviance. Innovation alone, whether in technology or in thinking, is unlikely to be a panacea.

The article is a good example of the uncritical adoption of Merton’s insight that ritual tends towards an ’empty’ ritualism. It was in contradiction of this assumption that Mary Douglas invented her Grid-Group typology. In Chapter 1 of Natural Symbols she denied that ritual was necessarily a hollow shell, and her scheme gave a positive role for ritual as an aspect of meaning-making.

The two schemes, Merton’s and Douglas’s can easily be mapped onto one another, and in this case, ritualism and Hierarchy are part and parcel of one another. To the extent that this reconciliation of the two conceptual schemes is possible, it may be that for Hierarchy, the distinction others see between ritual and empty ritual, or ritualism, is entirely invisible.

3 thoughts on “How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s