The irony of the "Four Cultures"

October 06, 2010 | By TIMOTHY SANDEFUR

Author: Timothy Sandefur

My colleague Daniel Himebaugh makes some great points about the paper “The Four Cultures,” but there’s a deeper irony at work in the authors’ decision to borrow the language of the late, great C.P. Snow.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture, originally delivered in 1959, sparked controversy because it threw down the gauntlet to writers and artists who took an overly romantic view of the pre-Industrial era, and who attacked science for its alleged soullessness and materialism. Snow singled out writers like D.H. Lawrence and Henry David Thoreau, and the “literary culture” in general, for their hostility to technological innovation and their simplistic illusions about the pleasantness of life before nasty machines and factories. As Snow observed, there was something profoundly cruel about this attitude:

Industrialization is the only hope for the poor. I use the word ‘hope’ in a crude and prosaic sense.  I have not much use for the moral sensibility of anyone who is too refined to use it so.  It is all very well for us, sitting pretty, to think that material standards of living don’t matter all that much.  It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialization—do a modern Walden, if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion.  But I don’t respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose.  In fact, we know what their choice would be.  For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the chance, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them.

Fashionable hostility to industrialization and technology, Snow argued, was a luxury only the relatively wealthy peoples of the world could afford.

At that time, hostility to technological innovation was generally characterized as “conservative.” Snow, like his friend and ally Jacob Bronowski, was a Labour party man. But in the decade that followed, the left found itself gripped by an anti-technology movement if its own: the New Left, whose leaders were more inspired by Rousseau than by Marx, and who opposed free markets and scientific innovation because it was supposedly dehumanizing–the same argument Snow’s conservative opponents had put forward.

Today, as Virginia Postrel observed in The Future And Its Enemies, there are plenty of anti-technology intellectuals on the right (so called “crunchy cons”), but the real home of the Thoreauvian anti-technology Romanticism is among the radical environmental left. It’s there you find people like Kirkpatrick Sale, or James Cameron, to name only a couple.

The “Four Cultures” doesn’t seem to take the same Romantic view–but then, it’s studiously vague about the philosophical aspects of its call to action–and absolutely silent about the effects that such a call to action would have on the world’s poor: the same people who, fifty years after Snow’s lectures, still fly from the fields and into the factories as fast as possible.

It must be constantly borne in mind–and an economist would bear it in mind–that restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions will have real consequences in decreasing industrial and agricultural productivity. In simple terms: less food, fewer medicines, rarer economic opportunities. Those consequences are harshest for the world’s poor. And it’s right for countries on the brink of industrialization to prioritize raising their standard of living above some environmental concerns. There are trade-offs in all human endeavors, and here the trade-off is a matter of life or death for millions worldwide. This does not mean that environmental pollution should be taken lightly. Far from it. But it means that, as Snow urged us half a century ago, we must avoid the easy myopia that would disregard the urgent need for industrialization in the third world.