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The Idols of Environmentalism

Do environmentalists conspire against their own interests? First in a two-part series.

by Curtis White

Published in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Art by Robert and Shana Parkeharrison

For part two of this two-part series, see The Ecology of Work.

ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves. This delusional strategy is embedded in the Kyoto agreement, which is little more than a complex scheme to create a giant international market in pollution. Even Kyoto, of which we speak longingly—“Oh, if only we would join it!”—is not an answer to our problem but a capitulation to it, so concerned is it to protect what it calls “economic growth and development.” Kyoto is just a form of whistling past the graveyard. And it is not just international corporations who do this whistling; we all have our own little stake in the world capitalism has made and so we all do the whistling.

The problem for even the best-intentioned environmental activism is that it imagines that it can confront a problem external to itself. Confront the bulldozers. Confront the chainsaws. Confront Monsanto. Fight the power. What the environmental movement is not very good at is acknowledging that something in the very fabric of our daily life is deeply anti-nature as well as anti-human. It inhabits not just bad-guy CEOs at Monsanto and Weyerhaeuser but nearly every working American, environmentalists included.

It is true that there are CEO-types, few in number, who are indifferent to everything except money, who are cruel and greedy, and so the North Atlantic gets stripped of cod and any number of other species taken incidentally in what is the factory trawler’s wet version of a scorched-earth policy. Or some junk bond maven buys up a section of old-growth redwoods and “harvests” it without hesitation when his fund is in sudden need of “liquidity.” Nevertheless, all that we perceive to be the destructiveness of corporate culture in relation to nature is not the consequence of its power, or its capacity for dominating nature (“taming,” as it was once put, as if what we were dealing with was the lion act at the circus). Believing in powerful corporate evildoers as the primary source of our problems forces us to think in cartoons.

Besides, corporations are really powerless to be anything other than what they are. I suspect that, far from being perverse merchants of greed hellbent on destruction, these corporate entities are as bewildered as we are. Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty.

THE IDEA THAT WE HAVE powerful corporate villains to thank for the sorry state of the natural world is what Francis Bacon called an “idol of the tribe.” According to Bacon, an idol is a truth based on insufficient evidence but maintained by constant affirmation within the tribe of believers. In spite of this insufficiency, idols do not fall easily or often. Tribes are capable of exerting will based on principles, but they are capable only with the greatest difficulty of willing the destruction of their own principles. It’s as if they feel that it is better to stagger from frustration to frustration than to return honestly to the question, does what we believe actually make sense? The idea of fallen idols always suggests tragic disillusionment, but this is in fact a good thing. If they don’t fall, there is no hope for discovering the real problems and the best and truest response to them. All environmentalists understand that the global crisis we are experiencing requires urgent action, but not everyone understands that if our activism is driven by idols we can exhaust ourselves with effort while having very little effect on the crisis. Most frighteningly, it is even possible that our efforts can sustain the crisis. The question the environmental tribe must ask is, do our mistaken assumptions actually cause us to conspire against our own interests?

The belief that corporate power is the unique source of our problems is not the only idol we are subject to. There is an idol even in the language we use to account for our problems. Our primary dependence on the scientific language of “environment,” “ecology,” “diversity,” “habitat,” and “ecosystem” is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the very kind of rationality that serves not only the Sierra Club but corporate capitalism as well. For instance:

“You can pump this many tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without disturbing the major climatic systems.”

“This much contiguous habitat is necessary to sustain a population allowing for a survivable gene pool for this species.”

“We’ll keep a list, a running tally of endangered species (as we’ll call these animals), and we’ll monitor their numbers, and when that number hits a specified threshold we’ll say they are ‘healthy,’ or we’ll say they are ‘extinct.’ All this is to be done by bureaucratic fiat.”

I am not speaking here of all the notorious problems associated with proving scientifically the significance of environmental destruction. My concern is with the wisdom of using as our primary weapon the rhetoric and logic of the very entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place. Perhaps we support legalistic responses to problems, with all their technoscientific descriptors, out of a sense that this is the best we can do for the moment. But the danger is always that eventually we come to believe this language and its mindset ourselves. This mindset is generally called “quantitative reasoning,” and it is second nature to Anglo-Americans. Corporate execs are perfectly comfortable with it, and corporate philanthropists give their dough to environmental organizations that speak it. Unfortunately, it also has the consequence of turning environmentalists into quislings, collaborators, and virtuous practitioners of a cost-benefit logic figured in songbirds.

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

We use our most basic vocabulary, words like “ecosystem,” with a complete innocence, as if we couldn’t imagine that there might be something perilous in it. What if such language were actually the announcement of the defeat of what we claim to want? That’s the worm at the heart of the rose of the “ecologist.” It is something that environmentalism has never come to terms with because the very advocates for environmental health are most comfortable with the logic of science, never mind what else that logic may be doing for the military and industry. Would people and foundations be as willing to send contributions to The Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club if the leading logic of the organization were not “ecosystems” but “respect for life” or “reverence for creation”? Such notions are, for many of us, compromised by associations with the Catholic Church and evangelicalism, and they don’t loosen the purse strings of philanthropy. “Let’s keep a nice, clean scientific edge between us and religion,” we protest. In the end, environmental science criticizes not only corporate destructiveness but (as it has always done) more spiritual notions of nature as well.

Environmentalism seems to conclude that the best thing it can do for nature is make a case for it, as if it were always making a summative argument before a jury with the backing of the best science. Good children of the Enlightenment, we keep expecting Reason to prevail (and in a perverse and destructive way, it does prevail). It is the language of “system” (nature as a kind of complicated machine) that allows most of us to feel comfortable with working for or giving money to environmental organizations. We even seem to think that the natural system should work in consort with our economic system. Why, we argue, that rainforest might contain the cure for cancer. By which we also mean that it could provide profitable products for the pharmaceutical industry and local economies. (God help the doomed indigenous culture once the West decides that it has an economy that needs assistance.) Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may have distressing things to say about global warming, but subconsciously it is an extended apology for scientific rationality, the free market, and our utterly corrupted democracy. Gore doesn’t have to defend these things directly; he merely has to pretend that nothing else exists. Even the awe of Immanuel Kant’s famous “starry skies above” is lost to modern environmentalism, so obsessed is it with what data, graphs, and a good PowerPoint presentation can show.

In short, there would be nothing inappropriate or undesirable were we to understand our relation to nature in spiritual terms or poetic terms or, with Emerson and Thoreau, in good old American transcendental terms, but there is no broadly shared language in which to do this. So we are forced to resort to what is in fact a lower common denominator: the languages of science and bureaucracy. These languages have broad legitimacy in our culture, a legitimacy they possess largely because of the thoroughness with which they discredited Christian religious discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But many babies went out with the bath water of Christian dogma and superstition. One of those was morality. Even now, science can’t say why we ought not to harm the environment except to say that we shouldn’t be self-destructive. Another of these lost spiritual children was our very relation as human beings to the mystery of Being as such. As the philosopher G. W. Leibniz famously wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For St. Thomas Aquinas, this was the fundamental religious question. In the place of a relation to the world that was founded on this mystery, we have a relation that is objective and data driven. We no longer have a forest; we have “board feet.” We no longer have a landscape, a world that is our own; we have “valuable natural resources.” Even avowed Christians have been slow to recall this spiritualized relationship to the world. For example, only recently have American evangelicals begun thinking of the environment in terms of what they call “creation care.” We don’t have to be born again to agree with evangelicals that one of the most powerful arguments missing from the environmentalist’s case is reverence for what simply is. One of the heroes of Goethe’s Faust was a character called Care (Sorge), who showed to Faust the unscrupulousness of his actions and led him to salvation. Environmentalism has made a Faustian pact with quantitative reasoning; science has given it power but it cannot provide deliverance. If environmentalism truly wishes, as it claims, to want to “save” something—the planet, a species, itself—it needs to rediscover a common language of Care.

THE LESSONS OF OUR IDOLS come to this: you cannot defeat something that you imagine to be an external threat to you when it is in fact internal to you, when its life is your life. And even if it were external to you, you cannot defeat an enemy by thinking in the terms it chooses, and by doing only those things that not only don’t harm it but with which it is perfectly comfortable. The truth is, our idols are actually a great convenience to us. It is convenient that we can imagine a power beyond us because that means we don’t have to spend much time examining our own lives. And it is very convenient that we can hand the hard work of resistance over to scientists, our designated national problem solvers.

We cannot march forth, confront, and definitively defeat the Monsantos of the world, especially not with science (which, it should go without saying, Monsanto has plenty of). We can, however, look at ourselves and see all of the ways that we conspire against what we imagine to be our own most urgent interests. Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs. We are willingly part of a world designed for the convenience of what Shakespeare called “the visible God”: money. When I say we have jobs, I mean that we find in them our home, our sense of being grounded in the world, grounded in a vast social and economic order. It is a spectacularly complex, even breathtaking, order, and it has two enormous and related problems. First, it seems to be largely responsible for the destruction of the natural world. Second, it has the strong tendency to reduce the human beings inhabiting it to two functions, working and consuming. It tends to hollow us out. It creates a hole in our sense of ourselves and of this country, and it leaves us with few alternatives but to try to fill that hole with money and the things money buys. We are not free to dismiss money because we fear that we’d disappear, we’d be nothing at all without it. Money is, in the words of Buddhist writer David Loy, “the flight from emptiness that makes life empty.”

Needless to say, many people with environmental sympathies will easily agree with what I’ve just said and imagine that in fact they do what they can to resist work and consumption, to resist the world as arranged for the convenience of money. But here again I suspect we are kidding ourselves. Rather than taking the risk of challenging the roles money and work play in all of our lives by actually taking the responsibility for reordering our lives, the most prominent strategy of environmentalists seems to be to “give back” to nature through the bequests, the annuities, the Working Assets credit cards and long distance telephone schemes, and the socially responsible mutual funds advertised in Sierra and proliferating across the environmental movement. Such giving may make us feel better, but it will never be enough. Face it, we all have a bit of the robber baron turned philanthropist in us. We’re willing to be generous in order to “save the world” but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system. It’s not even clear that this philanthropy is a pure expression of generosity since the bequest and annuity programs are carefully measured to provide attractive tax benefits and appealing rates of return.

Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.

For part two of this two-part series, see The Ecology of Work.

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In the next issue of Orion, Curtis White describes an environmentalism built around changing the nature of work.

Curtis White's essays have appeared in Harper's Magazine, the Village Voice, and In These Times. He is the author of The Middle Mind, Requiem, and earlier this year, The Spirit of Disobedience. He teaches at Illinois State University.

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