Virginia Postrel on the Allure of Having Friends and Enemies

Austin Bramwell

I am a freelance opinion-monger living in New York City.

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32 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    The platform stands potent and erect over the deep, a steel hymn to man’s mastery over nature. In the face of so mighty an image, arguments against drilling for oil are beside the point. You can’t counter glamour with statistics, after all.

    One of the best Ayn Rand pastiches I’ve ever seen, and unintentional no less.Report

  2. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Postrel was much better when she edited Reason.*

    (* — This is an in joke. Drink!)Report

  3. Timo says:

    Compared to oil-fired power plants, both wind turbines and oil platforms look sleek. Postrel´s point stands.Report

  4. North says:

    Nuclear plants; the thrum, the lack of clouds of emissions, the wide open green spaces around em, the irrational self contradictory ululating squall of incoherent environmentalists who hate em.Report

  5. MFarmer says:

    There is something to the contrast in the environmental vision/image and the reality/practicality of our energy needs. Writing about this same type of contrast in colonialism, Paul Johnson stated:

    “Colonialism was a highly visual phenomenon. It abounded in flags, exotic uniforms, slendid ceremonies, Durbars, sunset-guns, trade exhibitions at Olympia and the Grand Palais, postage stamps, and, above all, coloured maps. It was, in essence, a cartographic entity, to be perceived most clearly and powerfully from the pages of an atlas. Seen from maps, colonialism appeared to have changed the world. Seen on the ground, it appeared a more meretricious phenomenom, which could and did change little.”

    Yes, although many things are marketed in our society, much of it is hype with lttle substance. The cold, hard need for immediate energy makes a lot of green hoopla appear hyped and a diversion from real, immediate solutions. This doesn’t mean that a steady, diligent, smart pursuit of creative, clean energy sources is not necessary, but if the hype prevails, capital will be diverted prematurely into wasteful, green illusions. Johnson’s main point about colonialism is that it was inefficient and costly and the same desired civilized progress would have come about anyway, and with much less expense and waste and better results.Report

  6. Rowzdower says:

    I don’t think the NIMBYism of the Kennedies has much to say about the broad aesthetic appeal of wind power to people that don’t live underneath wind farms.

    “One could write just as rapturously of them as Postrel writes of wind turbines.”

    Well, one COULD, but Postrel is talking about what people actually do. It’s pretty uncommon to see paeans to coal plants and oil rigs.Report

    • Austin Bramwell in reply to Rowzdower says:

      It’s uncommon to see paeans to coal plants, oil rigs _or_ wind turbines. Postrel has an obvious incentive to oversell the attractiveness of wind turbine images. But, as my oil rig comparison shows, it’s ridiculously easy for even an mediocre writer to take an image and draw out its supposedly seductive qualities. In the end, it is quite unlikely that images of wind turbines or oil rigs are — as Postrel argues — leaving reason somehow paralyzed.Report

  7. Hyena says:

    I think she’s right, just from personal experience. Wind turbines have a sort of beauty that attracts environmentalists with a technological bent. They’re like the MacBooks of energy generation: simple, powerful and stark white. They’re quasi-natural objects, power generation as earth art, as if Robert Smithson and Steve Jobs had sat down to landscape. A wind farm creates a transformative landscape hovering between nature and technology, wildness and utilization.

    Oil platforms and power plants are different. They’re self-contained structures, they create a contrast between civilization and nature, there is no unification of the two. No grand Heideggerian synthesis of world and earth.

    Note also that the places which object do so because they do not want their landscape transformed. People who live on Nantucket are decamping to an idealized New England, Walden Pond with electricity and boutiques, whose relationship with nature is utterly different and wholly nostalgic, driven largely by our relationship with an idealized past. Wind turbines would alter that dramatically; most importantly, they would render it obsolete aesthetically and morally.Report

    • greginak in reply to Hyena says:

      Just noting the wind turbines look cool really isn’t Postrel’s point. Lots of things look cool, so what. She is suggesting quite a bit more, that because wind turbines and high speed rail looks cool is the reason why people want them. I read her article, she has nothing to back that up. Its possible to for something to make rational sense and look cool. She compared wind turbines and high speed rail to Mac products, suggesting that its all about style. While Mac stuff has a pile of style lots of people would say they are also great machines that are far better then PC’s (fwiw, i’m not one of those people). Postrel is trying to find a way to argue against enviro measures without actually, you know, talking about the environment or the actual tech involved. Its a shit load easier to criticize ideas if you don’t actually have to learn anything about them and substitute a self-evidently superficial analysis.Report

      • tom van dyke in reply to greginak says:

        This has been Postrel’s theme for awhile, that “futuristic” carries a psychological impact for the modernist the way seeing a minaret says something to a Muslim beyond mere words. [Modernity is about the mastery of nature, and of human nature itself through “education.” But that’s the deep end of the pool.]

        Further, Postrel’s riff that our consumer choices say something about us as persons. We make statements. A Prius.

        We happen to own a Prius, because we got a good deal and it’s really a helluva car. But many folks have put down payments on Leafs or Chevy Volts with no actual knowledge whether they’re any good or not.

        And I happen to agree with Postrel’s indictment of billion-dollar rail projects as eco-moral vanity, since in the US, they tend to have low ridership and do not pay for themselves.

        Even the Bay Area’s BART, one of the few systems that makes any sense because of SF’s critical-mass population density, doesn’t pay for itself. Although the subsidy to BART can pretty much be justified metrically if you add a little quality-of-life pixie dust, Los Angeles’ and Seattle’s systems, are I think, metrically provable as a waste of damn money. They are poetry, symbolism; not hard-headed technocracy.

        Mr./Ms. Hyena writes:

        They’re quasi-natural objects, power generation as earth art…

        Exactamundo. This is the sort of poetry-semiotics that Postrel’s after, and I think rail systems ala BART, in contradistinction to smelly automobiles and freeways, fits the aesthetic bill equally as well.

        Seriously, I dig our Prius. It looks cool, it gets great mileage, it’s comfortable and well-built, and best of all, we got a killer deal when Hertz dumped a bunch on the market during The Great Toyota Panic of 2010.

        The wife drives it, of course [I got a RAV]. But if I did drive the Prius, there’d be a “Miss Me Yet?” or an Eat More Meat sticker on the back, rest assured. Making my consumer statement, ala Postrel, or at least not letting the Prius make one for me.

        And whenever I have business in SF, I fly into the far friendlier and cheaper Oakland airport and take the bus-and-BART to SF. Fortunately, my business is on Market St., or else I’d be taking a cab from SFO.Report

        • greginak in reply to tom van dyke says:

          So mass transit systems are often money losers. How does that compare to the road system, do they lose money?

          Modernity has been the in thing for over a century at least. Its not much of an observation. Cars, planes, trains, ships, rockets, weapons especially fighter planes, and most forms of modern tech ( “better living through chemistry”, etc) have benefited from the cool + modern thing for their entire existence. So why is this a problem when discussing high speed trains and wind power? Why is not a problem for all those other things?

          If yo utake posterl’s take arugment as good, which you do and i don’t, then you need to extend the analysis to all parties. What does a Hummer ( the vehicle not a blow job) say about a person? What does advocating things that cause excessive polution say about a person?

          So why have other countries invested so heavily in various types of alternative energy or mass transit. Does Postrel explain all the worlds choices? Really this is just way of dismissing things she and you don’t like without actually discussing the actual tech and its pluses and minuses. Although i will give you credit for bringing up far more details regarding usage and cost then Postrel did.Report

          • tom van dyke in reply to greginak says:

            Clarity, greginak. I’m explaining Postrel’s POV as I’ve understood her over the years. I think she’s on to something. That’s why I told the Prius story.

            I like the BART. I think the Bay Area is better for it, even though it loses money.

            Other rapid transit, not so much, and I’m the last one to get into wonkage. But since even BART loses money, I argue that the other billion-dollar rapid transit schemes are poetry, not efficiency.

            I think I’m conveying Postrel’s point faithfully, having read her for awhile now. I’m not a Postrelite, although I must admit I favor “dynamism” over classical philosophy, and I’m more classical than modern. I think she’s OK.Report

            • Brother gregniak, I did hint at what “modernity” might mean infra. It’s not about some opposition to technological progress. I’m no Luddite, except that this bony old computer serves my/our need to communicate just fine. I would not want to do this via Twitter.

              I’m very happy that technological progress enables us to speak of the important things across the miles.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to tom van dyke says:

          BART actually opened an SFO station, at long last. But we used to do the same thing as you on our Bay Area to LA trips (the Oakland to Burbank flight was ideal). I wish I could get flights into BUR from Detroit, but no deal.Report

      • Hyena in reply to greginak says:

        I didn’t say “cool”, I actually wrote a short blurb. If I had been more specific, it could hang as a sign next to a wind farm, explaining to passersby why the MOMA had purchased this particular piece.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    Oil refineries are oddly beautiful at night.Report