Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thoughts on the environment

Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique.
- Charles Peguy

Thinking about pollution as a public health problem and selective conservation of the natural world, for the sake of present and future generations, are in no way new endeavors. They arose toward the end of the 19th century, led by a variety of people who never dreamed of reading humanity out of nature or expressing hostility toward scientific understanding of nature, then emerging from its infancy. One of the best-known representatives of this movement - which predates the modern environmentalist movement by almost a century - was Teddy Roosevelt, who experienced raw nature first-hand, exploited it by hunting, wrote about it - and then created parks so others could taste the same experience. He was our first, and so far only, "environmental" president. There was nothing coffee-table-ish or armchair about his views, and he made his forays in the wilderness before cell phones, waterproof matches and tents, and other hi-tech paraphernalia were available. Today's environmentalist movement has moved far that orientation, representing a very different and basically mistaken view of nature and of humanity's relation to it. Environmentalism is a movement, not a science. The science is ecology, as practiced by ecologists. That hasn't prevented a long-standing and pervasive confusion between the two.

Born during the period that saw the breakdown of liberalism and its turn towards punitive and backward-looking guilt, the environmentalist movement started as a piece of counterculture and absorbed the older conservation and public health movements, usurping popular acceptance of the latter for its own ends. These ends are motivated by a hatred of technology, science, and modern civilization and bring in train all the classical fallacies of Romanticism: pre-existent "natural harmony," "noble savages," and the evil corruption of civilized humanity. Only once American civilization had reached a certain level of material development could such thinking take hold among more than a tiny number of the unbalanced. It's had a longer run in Europe, where it arose in the late 18th century in reaction to the rise of modern science, industry, and commercial society. The Germans gave a special twist to this thinking, one that merged nature-mysticism with reverence for the Volk and pre-industrial life.

The environmentalist movement has raided non-Western cultures and creatively invented bogus quotes about their attitudes toward the natural world. As shown by Dan Botkin and others, almost all of the supposed wisdom the movement peddles about natural "harmony" and "balance" comes from pre-modern and pre-scientific thinking within Western history, precisely the thinking that has been abandoned by modern science. (It wouldn't be modern or scientific otherwise.) The "pre-existent harmony" or "balance of nature" metaphor is the most common of these fallacies. Such discoveries as organic evolution and chaos (in the technical sense of the word) have forced ecologists to give up "equilibrium" pictures of ecosystems and face the reality of their ceaseless and usually messy change. Ecosystems come and go, start from a little, grow into a lot, mature into a period of glory - then fall apart and are replaced by something else. For example, it's precisely because the chaotic atmosphere and oceans have only a limited "invariant" structure that pinning down what "climate" means is so hard. So it has been throughout the 3.5 billion-year history of life on Earth; human activity just adds some more twists to the mix of permanent chaos.

But the "harmony," "balance," and "equilibrium" metaphors have, since the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, taken on a life of their own, now divorced from scientific thought and philosophical criticism. They continued to be sustained by religious feeling and the rise of counter-Enlightenment Romanticism. It helps that the core of Western religious thought since the rise of Christianity has been the template of Paradise-Fall-Redemption, with perhaps an apocalypse in there somewhere. The relationship of environmentalism to this paradigm and the related concept of Original Sin is too obvious to require comment. So is the environmentalist hope that humanity's supposed trashing of the planet demonstrates that humans are still at the center of things, if only in a negative way. High German Romantic thought of the 19th century (with echoes and variations from the American Transcendentalists) recommended withdrawal from both human society and the five senses as a preliminary to communing inwardly with Nature - not the thing you can perceive, but a "telephone from the beyond," as Nietzsche wittily
once put it.*

This is the paradigm of Thoreau's time living alone at Walden Pond, a Romantic exercise if there ever was one. He wasn't scientifically studying the ecosystem at Walden, getting his hands dirty. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was staring at his navel.** The root of environmentalism lies in a restless search for a new religion to replace older faiths no longer believable or relevant.

After the fallacy of pre-existent balance, the most powerful bad metaphor reigning over environmentalist thinking is its misplaced and often childish anthropomorphism and zoomorphism. Wild animals are not pets or farm animals, which are selectively plucked out of "wild" nature and bred by us to heighten characteristics that fit into human domestic and food needs. (After all, the wild ancestors of dogs could have been selectively bred to heighten other characteristics and turned into mean predators with no socially redeeming features.) Ecosystems and, indeed, the whole planet lack the integrated purposive and functional unity of individual animals and humans. It's a gross mistake to take metaphors like "Gaia" as more than fanciful poetic usages; the Earth doesn't think, feel, remember, or command anything.

But environmentalist literature and discourse are thoroughly polluted with such language and the concepts behind it. "Charismatic megafauna" (such as polar bears and baby seals) are projected as quasi-pets (instead of, respectively, hungry predators and their tasty, blubbery lunch). Gorgeous nature photography (itself a selective and superposed human art) is twisted into a "picture-window" or "don't-spoil-my-view" environmentalism that is really little more than middle- and upper-class kitsch. Debate about the human and non-human environments is mired in superstition and dishonesty if it assumes that nature would remain frozen were it not for our interference. It becomes enlightened and honest when the question shifts to, "Well, what do we want it to look like?" Not that we always get our wishes - but they're our wishes, not nature's. Nature has none.

If we're interested in a scientifically-informed view of nature and our relationship to it, we must abandon any notion of pre-existent "harmony" or "balance" that we are violating, restoring, or revering as an authoritative command. Nature commands nothing and speaks nothing. Or - better - it speaks many contradictory things: it's prodigious, wasteful, and hidden; beneficent and poisonous; abundant and barren; peaceful, aggressive, and indifferent - all at once. It is relentless change, on all scales of space and time, with incessant destruction, creation, and overturning. Any harmony or balance we bring to our relationship with nature is a balance or harmony strictly of our own devising. We're not even "managing" nature, except in a limited way. In limiting and modifying how we use nature, we really managing nothing but ourselves.

That is why environmentalism is not science, but a political and religious movement. It is why this movement so frequently turns tyrannical: there's nothing so satisfying to a fanatic than "managing" other people as a vehicle of righteousness. Perhaps this is the unwittingly ironic sense in which Job urges his friends to "speak with the Earth, and she will teach you." She will teach you all right: she'll teach you that she has no trite moral lessons to offer. Equilibrium, balance, and harmony are not the norm, but temporary and local. Indeed, at the center of Job's encounter with the divine is, not a garden or a zoo, but a whirlwind.

In absorbing and condescending to the older public health and conservation movements, the nearly forty years of modern environmentalism have done our society a large disservice. It is the most potent social force today in attracting the general public away from science. Scientists involved in ecology themselves often lead mentally conflicted lives, caught between knowing and believing. People now routinely use meaningless or wrongheaded concepts to misunderstand the world around them and how human activity affects it. Recycling is often more harmful than just throwing things out. No one has a "carbon footprint," unless they've rubbed graphite on the bottom of their shoes. The Earth's climate is not a greenhouse. Nuclear power plants are not bombs, any more than a coal-fired power plant is a firearm. Runaway metaphors and bad policies motivated by them are the fallacies of the Boomers - history's first mass over- and miseducated generation - and now constitute the brainwashing of the next generation. Led by their delusional gurus, currently starting with Al Gore, they have injected a potent revulsion against modern technological and progressive civilization into our politics. But that passion proves nothing about the rightness of their cause, which is essentially romantic, pessimistic, and reactionary.‡

POSTSCRIPT: For an example of what I'm talking about, consider M. Night Shyamalan's embarrassing new movie, The Happening, "the most morally abhorrent film ever made" - but still, important for laying bare the logic, which pervades conventional environmental politics in a watered-down form. Or just read this New Republic blog posting and skip the film itself :)

POST-POSTSCRIPT: Everyone interested in this problem, whatever their opinions, should read Wallace Kaufman's No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking. Published 14 years ago, it is more relevant than ever, and a blog posting cannot do it justice. In related vein, consider as well the two books by Alston Chase, In a Dark Wood and Playing God in Yellowstone.
* While not able to speak English, Nietzsche could read it and counted an edition of Emerson's works as one of his prized possessions; he annotated it, heavily in places. His famous Übermensch, or Overman, probably owes something to Emerson's Oversoul. I don't know if Nietzsche read any Thoreau.

** That said, I like Walden Pond as it is now and try to swim it at least once every summer. There's been no attempt to "freeze" it in some mythical past, and it is accessible by car. It was pretty accessible in Thoreau's day, and he was never more than an hour walk from the center of Concord and medical and food supplies. Thoreau even took his laundry home to his mother for washing periodically. The old railroad line, already in existence when Thoreau spent his two years there, still runs right past the pond, behind some trees. Even more than in Thoreau's day, the setting now is as much a product of human artifice as it is of nature and a perfect example of the older conservation movement - but not of modern environmentalism.

† Thoreau himself said it: a man feels a disturbance in his bowels - and he sets off on a crusade to save humanity.

†† Using "progressive" again in the right sense.

‡ The absolute weirdness of our political vocabulary strikes me more and more. Opponents of environmentalism are usually called "conservative" - are they, really? And is environmentalism really "liberal" and "progressive"?

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