Friday, February 3, 2012

679. The Last Interview With David Orton

David Orton: 1934-2011

David Orton was a proponent of Deep Ecology who practiced what he preached.  I came to contact with him through our shared interested in Deep Ecological Socialism in his last year of life.  I regret not having known him earlier and communicated with him more.  Helga Hoffmann-Orton, David's companion and collaborator, brought to my attention an hour long interview that Silver Donald Cameron of The Green Interview had conducted with David a month before his death. The following portion of the interview is posted with permission from Mr. Cameron. For the full text or video of the interview click here. What appears inside parenthesis is the time segment of each response. 

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By Silver Donald Cameron, The Green Interview, April 2011

CAMERON: You have some doubts about the Green Party, although you have run for them.

ORTON: (42:39) Many, many doubts.

CAMERON: Because essentially that’s a shallow ecology?

ORTON: Yes, that’s right. I was inside for about a year, in the shadow cabinet and all the rest of it, and there were some good people there. But what I found was that you can't compromise in terms of working on a position, unless you share basic values. Like if your basic value is to get elected and get into the bourgeois parliament and hold forth there and you think that positions on population or economic redistribution or whatever it is are going to terrify the electorate and prevent them from voting for you, how can you make an alliance with somebody like myself? And there were a few other people like myself, Sharon Labchuk being one of them.

So I came to see that, that you can't really work together. I can work with people like Billy MacDonald or Ian Whyte or Sharon because one of the things I learned coming out of the Marxist-Leninist movement is there it's organizationally driven, sort of from on top. Something is decided and then people implement it. And I saw in the environmental movement, you have to have some basic values but then a single spark makes a prairie fire. Each person has to be autonomous and you can't boss people around or tell them what to do. So you exchange, on the basis of people who are co-workers. So when I was in the party, I don't want to speak negatively in that way, but you know, you had a brilliant person who was the leader—a microbiologist, very charismatic and with a critique of the culture which really interested me. But essentially people who were lackeys gravitated around him. He didn't want to hear criticism, he just wanted to hold forth.

That's one of the things which really bothers me about communism and socialism, like how it's been like that. Even today, with the eco-socialists, they're very intolerant of different ideas. A lot of the stuff I write, they're so willing to just dump on you, whereas it seems to me that a socialist society or a communist society ideally should be a different form of society. It should be democratic and people should be able to give their ideas. I know that Helga's often said to me that if I was in the former Soviet Union I'd have a really hard time. It doesn't mean my basic sentiment is not there. I'm on that side of the left-right spectrum, not the capitalist side. But the main spectrum is the relationship to the natural world and the other one is secondary to that.

CAMERON: Yes. And a communist would not see that. They would generally see it the other way around.

You mentioned population a moment ago. It seems to me that this is the elephant in the room, that so many people are unwilling to speak of, although you're pretty clear about that. Tell me about your view on population.
ORTON: (46:17) In many ways I don't think it's really a developed view. What I seem to do is repeat the position and platform of deep ecology, saying there has to be substantial population reductions both for non- humankind and also for humankind. I like sometimes to just tweak people. Naess liked to do that because he was sort of playful. Maybe [the population] shouldn't be no more than a billion people.

Now how to do that. Obviously there is potential there for fascism and that's why the left always jumps all over the deep ecology side on that. But I haven't really written a lot on that, although I just brought that out. I know, some folks say they like it that I always raise the population issue—but I haven't really wanted to get into it too much, because what happens is you are always clobbered as being a Malthusian. It doesn't matter what you say, you're a Malthusian. It's a dismissal. I bring it up, I think it's important to do that, because people don't do that, but I wouldn't say I've written extensively on it.

CAMERON: You haven't, but you also haven't flinched from pointing out that there is an implication here.

ORTON: (47:56) It would be wrong not to do that because I don't know how it is going to happen. When you think about pre-industrial society, and then today and then what the future is, it's like choking in our own excrement.
CAMERON: Well you also said, just now, a reduction in the non-human population, as well as the human

ORTON: (48:23) Yeah sure, because every time humans expand, other life-forms retreat. You know, you drive into Halifax, which I recently did for the first time in a long, long time because of the medical thing, and you see all those houses and apartments creeping out. It's like getting smothered. It's sort of obvious that's what it is.

CAMERON: But that's the reaction of the human population, but you also said non-human.

ORTON: (48:52) But like, in the sense that non-humans have to give way.
CAMERON: Okay. A reduction in the human population in order to make space for other species.

ORTON: (49:02) Yes. Naess wasn't anti-human, but it was both sides. It's a better life for humans, and also a life—if you like—for non-human life-forms.
CAMERON: Has anybody really tackled this issue?

ORTON: (49:22) Well, quite a few people write on it, on the Internet.

CAMERON: I remember Paul Ehrlich writing The Population Bomb years and years and years ago, and flagging the concern about it. I think everybody recognizes that we've had this incredible growth in human population; at the same time we've had a great growth in human expectations, so the demands are not only multiplied, they’re exponential, in terms of the demands on the rest of the world. And that obviously can't continue. But what we haven't heard is much thought about what we're actually going to do about that. Which leads me to think that what we are going to do about it is nothing. And that means it will be done for us. Is there any other way out of that?

ORTON: (50:13) Well, I wish there was. Naess used to speak about vital needs. It's an interesting concept. But vital just becomes defined by PR. You probably listen to that CBC program [The Current] with Anna Maria Tremonti. They have that guy every Monday—I forget his name—talking about the latest developments in communication technology, and what the wonders of the most current things are, and all the rest of it. Billy says to me that things have so changed for the young people. You can't really get their attention. They have all this gear with them. So the question of vital needs—an ecological society means much more social control. I don't think you can impose something. I don't believe in fascism or authoritarianism or anything like that. I do believe that you have to change consciousness, but it means much more social control. Eliminating the advertising industry is going to be one of [the issues]. I always felt that the idiocy was showing up in Suzuki's program on The Nature of Things and then they have the breaks to sell some more stuff. And you know he doesn't agree with it, but he can only get on TV if he goes along with it. That's the thing.

CAMERON: Well I've often said that regulation is the bastard companion of environmentalism. Sometimes it gets to be quite stupid. We wind up working for certain kinds of changes and then when you get them they aren't implemented in a way that makes a whole lot of sense, or that really reflects the issue as you saw it in the first place.

ORTON: (52:27) Well, you see that with the wind turbines or biofuels. Just imagine having wheat for biofuels, how stupid can you get? But people don't understand and they're just trying to cater to what they see as a possible environmental challenge.

CAMERON: Yes, and I guess, from a deep ecology point of view, you're not asking the question, “Do you need that much electricity and what do you need it for?”
ORTON: (52:58) That’s right. To bring in things like that, whether it's community-owned wind turbines or whatever, you have to change your lifestyle and reduce. But people want it all. And then they end up destroying more and more of the natural world.

CAMERON: One other question that came up in something of yours that I read was a comment that there is a skepticism about spiritual questions in the green movement. And you obviously disagreed with that.

ORTON: (53:32) Yeah, that's right. You could also say that about the left movement, too. It's funny, if you're a leftist, remember we could stand on the table and sing, “The Red Flag” and all those other Spanish revolutionary songs, and in that sense it's a spiritual thing, you know, when you really admire people who sacrifice themselves, and fight and die in Spain. No, that’s right. One of the things with me, is I try to write on that sort of thing, and part of that Left Biocentric Primer is a question of coming into a spiritual relationship with the natural world. The closest to it would be animism or pantheism. It's nothing otherworldly, there's no God above or anything like that. It's inner-worldly. That's the way I see it.

CAMERON: That's kind of the starting point for deep ecology, isn't it? I think I actually have the platform here. The first item in the Deep Ecology Platform is, “The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human life on earth have value in themselves. These are independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes.” Well, that's really a statement of values and spiritual apprehension, right? That's the very first thing there.

ORTON: (55:12) That's right. I guess what's been interesting is to see the development among religions trying to deal with this—various religions trying to redefine themselves because religion is important culturally in how people deal with the world. Of course there's a lot of atrocities, but it often provides an ethical basis for people. There's been quite a lot of effort on that direction.
One of the things we did a few years ago, there's a good book by Bron Taylor called The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature—a two volume thing and it's basically concerned with this issue—we had quite a big discussion on left [biocentrists] about the spiritual basis of left biocentrism. I think it was a thousand word article. So that was quite a good discussion. At the same time, people like Stan Rowe have an Earth Manifesto and they are very close to me, but basically they are science-based, and they feel that on a science basis you can show how nature is primary and humans are secondary. So it's a little bit of a disagreement.

CAMERON: They don't feel the need, therefore, for a spiritual component to the whole thing because they don't need it in a sense, intellectually.

ORTON: (56:52) They came up as scientists. Stan Rowe worked in forestry. I don't remember the other guy. They both had science qualifications. When we had that discussion they sort of distanced themselves. But I'd say most other people believe that there is a spiritual component, same as I do.
In the Green Party, you don't have that kind of discussion, really. You might have Elizabeth May hanging a cross around her neck, and going to theology school after she doesn't win in the next election possibly. But that's the limit of it.
CAMERON: On the left, I kind of understand it a bit because there was such a great effort in the early days of Marx and Engels to be scientific and therefore not to be spiritual. And that's kind of rubbed its way off down the ages as though the two were absolutely at odds with one another, which they aren't necessarily.

ORTON: (58:40) I always refer to the phrase “rural idiocy.”

CAMERON: Yes. That's right. They were going to help us escape from rural idiocy.

ORTON: (58:57) I still like the thesis of Feuerbach: Philosophers only interpret the world, the point, however, is to change it.

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