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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 97-98

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Rousseau, Not Calvin

William Ophuls

The environmentalist case is not as defunct as Mark Sagoff would have us believe. Even if we succeed in substituting commodities and driving down prices forever--a heroic assumption--what about vanishing rainforests, dying coral reefs, accelerating species extinction, and a changing cost (not the commodity price) of our economic and technological prowess?

More important, the ecological case transcends particular environmental facts. Ecology, both as science and as perspective on human affairs, challenges the modern urge to "dominate" nature, arguing that this overweening ambition is simply not attainable--much less at a price that is socially and politically acceptable.1

Part of the problem is what Thomas Homer-Dixon calls "the ingenuity gap."2 As the systems on which we rely get bigger and more complex--that is, further away from "the natural scheme of things"--we necessarily become more vulnerable to accident and breakdown (not to mention deliberate destruction). Hence we confront an escalating demand on our technological and organizational capacities. Homer-Dixon wonders, as do I, if our supply of ingenuity will always be sufficient.

Nor does the problem end there. As has been known since ancient times, complex societies tend toward overdevelopment and decay.3 The inner dynamic underlying this fatal tendency has been elucidated by Joseph Tainter, who asserts and then documents, with myriad examples, "an immutable fact of societal evolution": since "more complex societies are more costly to maintain than simpler ones," it follows that "the marginal product of increasing complexity" must decline over time, eventually becoming zero or even minus.4 In other words, at some point during the course of institutional and socioeconomic development, the costs of increased complexity begin to equal or even exceed benefits; but human beings do not seem to know when to stop, so they push development to the point where an overly complex system starts to break down. According to Tainter, it is this dynamic, rather than the many other reasons adduced to explain decline and fall, that has changed the collapse of all previous complex societies.

In short, the future of our technologically prodigious, but ecologically profligate, way of life is by no means assured, and my argument follows from this fact. That said, let me respond to Sagoff's other comments.

First, as should be apparent from the above, my description of the city as an ecological parasite does not spring from theological premises--that is, from a belief that we dare not meddle with Creation. What I am saying instead is that our meddling has costs and consequences that affect everything (including, ultimately, our political arrangements).

Second, while not denying that the ecological case has profound spiritual implications (it does), I do not believe that Calvin (or any other form of religious government) is the answer. This goes double for secular religions like Maoism. In fact, to refer to Sagoff's closing sentence, my concern is precisely that societies threatened with disruption will look to some messiah for salvation. Better to forestall this outcome by choosing Rousseau now, lest we get Calvin, or worse, later.

Third, the problem with latter-day liberalism is that it long ago betrayed its original vision, which was indeed humane and liberating (albeit incomplete). To use the language of the Founders, liberty has become license. Hence Madison's vaunted political institutions no longer preserve life, liberty, and estate in the Lockean sense but, rather, find their raison d'etre in stoking Rousseau's "impulse of appetite"--an impulse that enslaves us psychologically and, what is worse, politically (by enthralling us to a corporate-government complex that controls the means of gratification). In effect, or so I have argued, Hobbes has all but supplanted Locke.5 I doubt that this is what Madison had in mind, so invoking his vision of limited government to defend the corrupt (and increasingly despotic) status quo is not persuasive.

Lastly, Sagoff and I agree on one thing: public morals today are pretty bad--no, make that abysmal. Because it seems unlikely that laissez-faire will improve them, we...


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