In May this year (before the world changed) Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University wrote in the Financial Times on the topic of rising food prices, globalisation, and poverty. In this article he criticises defenders of sustainable agriculture, repeatedly using the “romanticism” in a negative fashion. The hardnosed worldview represented in the article is one where you have facts and functionality on one side, and myth and romanticism on the other. Professor Collier appears to belong to the facts and functionality camp. Yet, for all his horror of romanticism, he must actually be a kind-hearted and deeply caring person: he passionately wields his intellectual might in the struggle against poverty and suffering in Africa.
Professor Collier is not alone in his scorn for the romantic. Another Oxford academic from the facts and functionality school is the famous physicist Professor Heinz Doppelganger-Fisch. On their wedding anniversary Frau Doppelganger-Fisch waits expectantly for the Professor to return home from a day haranguing students. A tear trickles down Frau Doppelganger-Fisch’s cheek when she sees that the Professor has brought no flowers. “Flowers?” he storms. “Flowers? Romantic twaddle. Why, dear, would you wish to have samples of the genus rosa placed in a glass or porcelain vessel, standing upon the kitchen table? Have you no more profitable way to spend your time, than allowing certain spectra of light to pass from the surface of those vegetal species into your ocular organ?”
“I’ve cooked something special for you. Your favourite wűrst and sauerkraut.”
“Pah!” retorted the Professor. “Romantic humbug. I have my protein slices, vitamin pills, roughage pellets, and tablets containing minerals and trace elements. A glass of water shall suffice for me. Come, come, my dear, eating is a bodily function. Why render it inefficient by engaging in the phantasmagorical witchcraft and alchemy of the kitchen?”
“And what, after all, is a wedding anniversary? It is nothing but fanciful romanticism. Should I attach import to the passing of a number of days equal to an integer multiple of 365 since the day of our wedding? Why not celebrate the wedding anniversary every 248.73 days? Or indeed at varying intervals determined randomly? I do wish that you would rather devote your energies to studies of science and the manufacture of steel.”
What do Professors Collier and Doppelganger-Fisch mean with their bilious dismissal of romanticism?
Romanticism is standing up for things like organic farms, simple living, cycling, beautiful views, conservation of species, preservation of cultural artefacts. The world and our society still hold many such treasures, but they are threatened on all sides. Those treasures are antithetical to economists, since they have characteristics which are not measurable and do not fit into the grossly simplistic behavioural and social models of which the maximisation of utility is a corner stone.
So these romantic appendages of society are smashed down by economists just like the Taliban smash centuries-old statues of Buddha. Or like councils smashing ancient town centres in the 1960s and replacing them with prefabricated ugliness. It is an endless battle to protect the beautiful from the philistine and the utilitarian.
Functionalitarians have a theory, and they are so confident about that theory that they consider themselves omniscient for practical purposes. They do not consider that their theory may be flawed, that those things categorised as romantic may indeed have some significance. They dismiss the idea that sometime in the future even economists might ascribe a cost to their irreversible destruction.
Functionalitarians say: Why watch out for global warming? We’ll adapt. We’ll find new technologies. Who cares for tropical forests and colourful insects and polar bears and hedgerows full of the songs of warblers and finches? Romantic folly. We can build machines to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. We can educate and entertain the children with play-stations.
Romanticists, in contrast, are honest enough to recognise that they don’t know everything. They have a gut feeling that something is important, but cannot articulate why. And, to be safe rather than sorry, they protect those beautiful treasures, partly because their destruction could come back to haunt us in ways we do not know today.
In fact, romanticism is a hardnosed backstop which might save us from self-destruction.
Later that evening Professor Doppelganger-Fisch looked out of the kitchen window over Christ Church meadow. He watched the construction teams still at work, converting this once romantic stretch of water-meadow into the Christ Church Industrial Park. The river Cherwell had been channelled through a neat and tidy culvert, and the wetland drained. The Professor approved of the huge, flat, slab of concrete which had replaced all those romantic weeds. This firm foundation was the basis of jobs and labour, of supply meeting demand, of the production of goods, of processing of commodities into technological forms.
The sight of progress softened him. “Darling, if you wish, we might indeed nip out to Christ Church Cathedral Shopping Mall for a celebratory drink.”