Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The Idols of Environmentalism - by Curtis White

This thought-provoking and closely-argued article first appeared in Orion magazine Mar/Apr 2007 (part 1 and part 2) and has been republished elsewhere. Curtis White, a professor at Illinois State, is the author of The Middle Mind (2003), America's Magic Mountain (2004), and The Spirit of Disobedience (2006). Excerpts:

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"....

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....

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: 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....

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.

Part 2

Environmentalists see the asphalting of the country as a sin against the world of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the human world. I would go so far as to say that there is no solution for environmental destruction that isn't first a healing of the damage that has been done to the human community. As I argued in the first part of this essay, the damage to the human world has been done through work, through our jobs, and through the world of money. We are not the creators of our own world; we merely perform functions in a system into which we were born. The most destructive aspect of our jobs is that in them we are mere "functionaries," to borrow Josef Pieper's term. Just as important, we have a function outside of work: consumption. Money in hand, we go into the market to buy the goods we no longer know how to make (we don't even know how to grow and preserve our own food) and services we no longer know how to perform (frame a house? might as well ask us to design a spaceship). Challenging our place in this system as mere isolated functions (whether as workers or consumers) is a daunting task, especially for environmentalists, who tend to think that human problems are the concern of somebody else (labor unions, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). We're about the "Earth first"....

Responding to environmental destruction requires not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but "self-overcoming," a transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we're planning on "giving back" to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that "there is no wealth but life," as John Ruskin put it. That is the full dimension and the full difficulty of our problem. Unfortunately, on these shores the suggestion that there is something fundamentally destructive in work, money, and capitalism leads quickly to emotional denials....

Capitalism as a system of ever-accelerating production and consumption is, as we environmentalists continually insist, not sustainable. That is, it is a system intent on its own death.... Ever the optimistic gambler with other people's money, the capitalist is willing to wager that, while there may be costs to pay, he won't have to pay them. Animals, plants, impoverished people near and far may have to pay, but he bets that he won't. If called upon to defend his actions, he will of course argue that he has a constitutionally protected right to property and the pursuit of his own happiness. This is his "freedom." At that point, we have the unfortunate habit of shutting up when we ought to reply, "Yes, but yours is a freedom without conscience."

Being willing to say such things about capitalism does not mean that one has a special access to the Truth, but it also doesn't mean that one is a mere ideologue, or that most dismissible of things, a communist. It merely requires honesty about what looks us right in the face. It requires intellectual conscience. For instance, as a matter of conscience we should be willing to say that the so-called greening of corporate America is not as much about the desire to protect nature as it is about the desire to protect capitalism itself. Environmentalists are, on the whole, educated and successful people, many of whom have prospered within corporate capitalism. They're not against it. They simply seek to establish a balance between the needs of the economy (as they blandly put it) and the needs of the natural world. For both capitalism and environmentalism, there is a hard division between land set aside for nature and land devoted to production. Environmentalists consider the preservation of a forest a victory, but part of the point of that victory is (usually) that humans can't live in this forest. Private interests have been bought out. The forest is now "set aside." We could draw a national map that showed those spaces that we imagine conform to a fantasy of natural innocence (wilderness, forests, preserves, parks) and those spaces given over to the principles of extraction, exploitation, and profit....

We say, "I was only doing my job" at the paper mill, the industrial incinerator, the logging camp, the coal-fired power plant, on the farm, on the stock exchange, or simply in front of the PC in the corporate carrel. The division of labor not only has the consequence of making labor maximally productive, it also hides from workers the real consequences of their work. People outside of such social and economic organizations might hunt in nature, fish, gather, harvest, use nature to their own ends in countless ways, but they would never knowingly destroy it, not because they are by nature good and benevolent, but because destruction is not necessary, it's a lot of hard work, and it's self-evidently self-defeating. For example, the near extinction of the buffalo was not driven by the thought "Well, if I shoot one I might as well shoot them all," or game sport gone mad, or sheer maliciousness toward the animal. Ultimately, it was driven by the market for buffalo hides in that far-off place that was never once home to a buffalo, New York City. The extermination of the buffalo was driven by the same logic that drives the clearcutting of forests and the construction of high-pollution coal-fired power plants today: entrepreneurial freedom, the desire for profit, and "jobs for working people."

If all this is so, it is only possible to conclude from our behavior for the last two hundred years that ours is not a human society; that it is a society outside of the human in some terrible sense.... And so, in our no-longer-human state, it became perfectly natural for us to destroy nature (which should sound to you just as perverse as the situation really is). Alienation in work means that instead of knowing something about a lot of things concerned with human fundamentals like food, housing, clothing, and the wise and creative use of our free time, we know one small thing....

Aldous Huxley provided a very different and a very human account of work in The Perennial Philosophy. He called it "right livelihood" (a concept he borrowed from Buddhism). For Huxley, work should serve other people, provide learning experiences that deepen the worker, and do as little harm as possible. (You will note that there is nothing in this description about a competitive compensation and benefits package.) But what percentage of American jobs conforms to this description? ... Our culture's assumption that there is virtue in work flatters us into thinking that we're doing something noble ("supporting our families," "putting food on the table," "making sacrifices") when we are really only allowing ourselves to be treated like automatons. We all have our place, our "job," and it is an ever less human place. We are diligent, disciplined, and responsible, but because of these virtues we are also thoughtless.

To end the reign of work as something for "functionaries," and to end the destruction that results from that fractured form of work, we have two options. First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as a functioning economic system. Books on peak oil, sinking water tables, and the impending doom of global warming are abundant and convincing. Huge human populations, especially in the East and Africa, are at risk of mass starvation, civil war, and the disastrous loss of human habitat due to rising ocean levels and desertification. Capitalism will have no choice but to retreat from responsibility for these crises even though they are part of the true costs of doing business. Unfortunately, simply waiting for catastrophe doesn't ensure that anything good will follow from it, as Darfur has illustrated. It's true that there will be opportunities to create locally based and sustainable communities, but it's also true that fascism, barbarism, and regression are possible.

So a second option is in order. We can start providing for a different world of work now, before the catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive, that deepens the worker, that encourages her creativity. Such a transformation requires a willingness to take a collective risk, a kind of risk very different from capitalist risk taking. The kind of risk I'm suggesting is no small matter. It means leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as life. For John Ruskin, humans should make "good and beautiful things" because those things will re-create us as good and beautiful in their turn. To make cheap and ugly and destructive things will kill us, as indeed we are being killed through poverty, through war, through the cheapening of our public and private lives, and through the destruction of the natural world.

Of course, many will argue that leaving capitalism behind is not "realistic." "Oh, certainly," we're assured, "there are inequalities in capitalism, but on the whole it provides for everyone's prosperity, it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Why, you'll kill the goose that lays the golden egg! ... Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with rogue corporations, a few "bad apples" as President Bush likes to say, and not with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably) frightening for most people. Nevertheless, our loyalty to capitalism makes us fools....

I am inevitably asked at this point in my argument just what exactly it is that I am proposing that people do. What would I put in capitalism's place? In reply, I am always tempted to quote Voltaire's response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. "What!" he said, "A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!" Unlike Voltaire, I would also suggest that what has the best chance of defeating the "beast" is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science's contempt for religion and the spiritual.

This is the unfortunate legacy of science's two-century-old confrontation with what it has always called "religious dogma and superstition." But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid. Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay "My Religion," faith is not about obedience to church dogma, and it is not about "submission to established authority." A people's religion is "the principle by which they live."

The establishment of those principles by which we might live would begin with three questions. First, what does it mean to be a human being? Second, what is my relation to other human beings? And third, what is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing? If the answer to these questions is that the purpose of being human is "the pursuit of happiness" (understood as success, which is understood as the accumulation of money); and if our relation to others is a relation to mere things (with nothing to offer but their labor); and if our relation to the world is only to "resources" (that we should exploit for profit); then we should be very comfortable with the world we have. If it goes to perdition at least we can say that we acted in good faith.

But if, on the other hand, we answer that there should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human, more justice in our relation to others, and more reverence for Being, then we must either live in bad faith with capitalism or begin describing a future whose fundamental values and whose daily activities are radically different from what we currently endure.

The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are. Such a "religion" would entail a refusal to play through to the bloody end the social and economic roles into which we happen to have been born. What lies beyond the environmental movement is not only the overcoming of capitalism but self-overcoming. We take some justifiable pride in the idea that we are environmentalists, but even that identity must be transcended. A "beyond environmentalism" movement would be a sort of Party of Life....

The principle by which the West has lived for the last two centuries has been "It's okay to use violence if you can gain something by it." Violence against the poor, violence against the vulnerable, violence against those who possess something you want, and violence against the natural world. That is capitalism as a religious principle.... Our problem is not that we are ignoring what science has to tell us about environmental destruction. Our problem is that we are spiritually impoverished. Bankrupt, if you will.

Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this work will not be new but recovered from our own rich traditions. It will be useful knowledge that we will have to remember. Fishing as a family and community tradition, not the business of factory trawlers. Agriculture as a local and seasonal activity, not a carbon-based scheme of synthetic production and international shipping. Home- and community-building as common skills and not merely the contracted specialization of construction companies and urban planners. Even "intellectual workers" (professors and scholars) have something to relearn: their own honored place in the middle of the community and not in isolated, jargon-ridden professional enclaves.

Such knowledge was once the heart of our lives, and not that long ago. Before 1945, survival meant that most families would have all of these skills to some degree. These families were certainly materially poorer and perhaps more naïve, but they were richer in human relations, less bored, less depressed, less isolated, less addicted to food and drugs, physically healthier, and they had the rich human pleasure of knowing how to make things. It's clear that we haven't forgotten these skills and their pleasures entirely, but their presence for us is strange and a little unreal. What used to be life is now "fine living": an array of expensive hobbies for the affluent that are taught through magazines, cable and PBS programs, and local guilds dedicated to gardening, basket weaving, cooking, home remodeling, quilting, and woodworking. Although we rarely recognize it in this way, through these "hobbies" we express a desire for a world that is now lost to us.

My argument is not, I assure you, a longing look back to the wonderful world of pre-war rural America. But it is to say that in the course of the last century of global capital triumphant we have been further isolated from what Ruskin called "valuable human things." In exchange, we have been offered only the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor, and the GPS device that can locate you but only at the cost of being located in a place that is not worth knowing and certainly not worth caring about. The turn away from this ugly, destructive, and unequal world is not something that can be accomplished by boycotting corporations when they're bad or through the powerful work of the most concerned scientists. It will not be delivered with glossy brochures by the President's Council on Sustainable Development, and it will certainly not be sold to you by Martha Stewart. A return to the valuable human things of the beautiful and the useful will only be accomplished, if it is ever to be accomplished, by the humans among us.

1 comment:

Miss Eagle said...

Thank you so much for your essay, Curtis. Down here in the Great South Land of Oz we are currently being hit over the head with the strident and panic-inducing voice of Climate Code Red by David Spratt and Philip Sutton. See

I have a friend involved in a local environmental group and the tenor - at least transmitted through my friend - is highly evangelical and full of must do's in spite of the fact that my friend doesn't garden - but is about to start - and I have had to give her advice about catching the train which departs only a block away from her house!

Anyway, all this troubled me as I believed that the human community was not being sufficiently considered as we were being hit over the head with the dominant voices of rationalism via science and economics (Australia is discussing an emissions trading scheme). As well, I believed that the Person who created the planet wasn't getting a look in either. So I have got myself off and joined my first environmental group, a new multi-faith organisation starting up in Melbourne known as Green Faith (unconnected to an organisation with a similar name in the USA).

So here was I with a troubled spirit about all this and in great debate with my friend. Then I heard a speaker last weekend who put it all in perspective for me and who has given direction to my thoughts and words to my mouth.

I went to hear Professor Lindsay Falvey, formerly Chair of Agriculture at the University of Melbourne who has done a lot of work in Asia. He is also a Buddhist. In a nutshell, he said "Too much Scientia (knowledge). Not enough Sapientia (wisdom)." In short, we are ignoring the folk wisdom of human communities and the ancient wisdoms of the faiths. He also went on to say, which is echoed in your essay, that we have to be clear about our motives. He asked why it was that when we fix things we frequently leave an even bigger mess? It is because we have not sorted ourselves out. We are not clear about our motivations some of which are driven by typical human responses such as food, fear of death, reproduction, fighting and so on.

So following on from Lindsay I now have your thoughts Curtis. Food for my spirit - which I have to say is no longer troubled but clear about its point of view. I will be forwarding this post on to my focus groups within Green Faith and a few other people besides.

For people to implement what you advise - and I think it will be an up hill battle to have people recognise the validity of your argument - will not be easy and perhaps only a relative few will take the straight and narrow path of understanding themselves and so their community and so their environment. But I do believe this is the Middle Way.

One point you made that particularly pleased me - because I have never heard anyone else make a similar comment - is about the conservation of nature devoid of human communities within. For many years, I lived close by in the foothills of the World Heritage listed rainforest in North Queensland. The management of that in the zone at the top of my road was abysmal. I formed the view that locking up the forest was as bad as chopping it down: each was at the extreme of a pendulum swing. What the locking up proved as surely as the chopping it down, was that we - as human beings and human communities - are incapable of co-existing with the forests and finding sustainability for ourselves and sustainability for the forests. So for me the conservation in lock up style of environmental assets is not a cause for celebration. It is an admission of our own abject failure.

Curtis, if you go to this URL you will find Lindsay Falvey's books listed. Some are for purchase at a modest price and some are downloadable.

Blessings and bliss