The hedgehog and the fox

The Greek poet Archilochus noted that thinkers were of not one but two varieties. There were the hedgehogs that had one single large idea, and the foxes who, in contrast, had not one but many little obsessions. The former had a set of foundational principles by which they saw, measured and asserted the coherence of their world.

The foxes were each a bundle of many parts, of conflicting ideas of what the great Isaiah Berlin would call the “many little things”. The contrast could not be greater or the difference more stark.
The hedgehogs are all about a vision, a core set of beliefs. The parts all add up to one single whole. The fox is all about parts and cannot be boxed into one hole.
The hedgehog sets about to achieve what is crying to be done. The fox is all about being many things at once.
For one there is the single shaft of sunlight and for the other many colours as the light exits a prism. One hue or many? One road or many paths? Is there one great seminal issue at a time that the world has to confront or be done in? Or are there many?
Over the last century, and more so since the turn of the Sixties, those concerned about the earth’s ecological web, the structures and functions of nature, have locked horns on such lines. The divisions are not so simple as between the hedgehogs and the foxes.
Hedgehogs often differ on whence the threat is most acute. Overpopulation or the energy crisis; global climate change or the wipeout of species. Each issue has found a hedgehog to sound the trumpet, to rouse all to action. Each issue has been focus of concern and thought, action and reaction. It is the hedgehogs who sound alarm bells, rally the silent, and give voice to new concerns of an age.
But hedgehogs of whatever colour or, should we say, spines are clear on which drumbeat they march to. If they give up their one cause then not just one issue but all is lost. They must march on lest others lose focus.
The foxes are a different story. Here, one issue merges with another. Where hedgehogs stay with one link, they want to tackle the entire chain. Not all at once, but something amounting to that.
The drive to stop a large dam leads on to the question of displacement and to the larger developmental model itself. Pollution from an oil spill must be plugged but is of little use unless the energy regime itself is not under the scanner. Saving species is vital but not at the cost of the dispossessed of the earth.
“We are not of the Left or the Right”, the German Red turned Green Rudolf Bahro famously said in the 1980s. “We”, he said confidently, “are out in front”. It was industrial society per se that was at fault in exploiting humans and destroying the fabric of nature. There was need to rethink the model of industry as progress itself. Nothing less would suffice.
The German Greens, as they grew in numbers, were not so far in front. They may have begun as foxes but they matured into hedgehogs. For all the changes they brought about to moderate public policy, they were hedgehogs of a party political variety that made the deals essential to be in office.
So, the species do metamorphose after all. Time tide and age do matter. Some rare men or women are given to be both. Wangari Matthai of Kenya started out as leader of a green movement, endowing women with dignity even as they reforested the land. She ended up a minister with a wider agenda. As she says in her inspirational book, Unbowed, the journey continues, only the sign posts change.
Anil Agarwal, the late environmentalist of the poor of India, was another such figure. It is difficult to box him for he had both a central idea and several facets to his life, ideas and work. With his colleagues he put water harvesting on the public agenda a decade ago.
Twenty years ago he helped pull together many strands to give a citizens’ view of a “Green India” that ought to be. In our parlance, he gave the spoke to the wheel that made many foxes into a force led by a hedgehog.
Which one is better? Foxes find the linkages between society and nature, the doings of men and women and the ways the land and waterscape is remade and torn asunder. By following the many hues they represent the connections of the parts.
Hedgehogs can be obsessively single minded. Writing of the struggle of the socialists in the Thirties, the English poet W.H. Auden lauded them for believing in “today the struggle”. Such single-mindedness can have its advantages.
At a time when the relations of technology, society and nature are going through seismic shifts, there is some merit in seeing both the single-minded and the multi-hued as equally vital. Like the yin and yang in Chinese philosophy, they can check and balance each other. After all, the earth and all of us would be worse off without both in harness.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian. He recently co-edited the book Environmental History: As If Nature Existed

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