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Monday, December 5, 2016

Both City Lights and Stars

The tradeoff between living comfortably, making the best use of human abilities, and being close to nature is inevitable.

One of my favorite songs, “Lights And Cars” by Enter The Haggis – which, in my view, deserves to be much more popular than it is – has the following words in it:

I slide my finger through the dust 
That colonized this place that I once loved 
From the inside I could see the stars 
That I left behind for city lights and cars

In a way, the whole recent history of humanity since electric lighting arrived has been one of leaving stars for city lights. And early on, this exodus from nature has captured the attention of first the Romantic philosophers and artists and then the modern-day environmentalists.

But unlike people craving the world that is gone, I am not going to bemoan modernity. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the big picture the craving for the past illustrates. As I argued elsewhere, major modern ideologies, including leftism and nostalgic conservatism (of which environmentalism is a weird mixture), are at bottom political instances of three fundamental human intellectual responses to the imperfect world described by Branislaw Malinowski: magic, religion, and science.

The Three Responses

Magic involves denying that there are (certain) fundamental imperfections in the world and searching for ways to completely overcome them through spells, alchemy, central planning schemes, bans, etc. Religion identifies certain enduring elements of the world (family, tribe, country, ritual, Nature, etc.) and attributes to them inherent value because they are the transcendent things in the chaotic world. Science, however, accepts the basic facts about the world (like the impossibility of a permanent engine or the intrinsic nature of basic human differences) and attempts to make the most use out of the world’s regularities.

The decreased access to starlight in exchange for enormously better living conditions is an example of a basic imperfection of the world based on the laws of physics and basic psychology and sociology. Electric light washes out starlight, most human activities require light, light deters crime, stars are very far away, and when many sources of light are concentrated in space, they will make stars almost invisible.

The tradeoff between living comfortably, making the best use of human abilities, and being close to nature is inevitable.As per the three basic attitudes to the imperfect world, there are three potential types of responses to this fact: the magical one, the religious one, and the scientific one. The magical one denies that modern conveniences (especially being able to enjoy the incredible diversity that cities provide) require viewing stars less than we otherwise could. The religious answer says that we should return to living in small, largely autarchic communities no matter what because being closer to nature is in a sense valuable for its own sake.

The scientific reaction (which is responsible for the incredible progress we have had), on the other hand, recognizes that the tradeoff between living comfortably, making the best use of human abilities, and being close to nature is inevitable, and tries to mitigate it through technological improvement. Much of that improvement is already happening. In the developed countries, anthropogenic landscapes are retreating because modern agriculture requires less and less land use. At some point in the future, especially if government planners allow this through reforming zoning regulations, people will only need to go several kilometers outside their cities to enjoy the stars, as I can already do in Aix-en-Provence where I live.

It is worth mentioning another basic fact about human psychology. As with all good things, the enjoyability of beauty is limited. If you are surrounded by beauty all the time, at some point you cease to notice it. Thus, contra people like Roger Scruton, the value of beauty is not absolute. One can add that various kinds of beauty can be in conflict. For instance, container ports may be relatively ugly but the idea of the extended cooperation that makes them possible is intellectually beautiful.

We cannot make people appreciate container ports by showing them well-made footage of those ports, for example, as we can do with a beautiful lake or animal. Even if we add David Attenborough’s voice to it. That is why it is much easier to promote downsizing global technological capitalism rather than unleashing it. Perhaps the only thing that can really be done proactively is to change the approach to education from the one where students are taught the key conclusions of modern sciences, including human and social sciences, directly, to one where they are taught how those conclusions were reached.

This first appeared at Medium.

  • Daniil Gorbatenko is a free-market economist living in Aix-en-Provence, France. He obtained his PhD in economics from Aix-Marseille University in 2018