26 July 2006


The folks at Gristmill are usually sweethearted environmentalists. Their philosophical skills, however, need a lot of sharpening. Here is a piece I wrote for them, somewhat edited of course, about the definition of the word "environmentalism."

"Environmentalism," as a term denoting a species of environmental caring, is not about what's "good for the environment." This would seem to run contrary to what is obvious. Let's pursue it further. My objection to the "what's good for the enviroment" definition of "environmentalism" is that no "environmentalist" can defend "what's good for the environment" alone. Rather, all of humanity must confront the destructive nature of humanity's relationship to its environment. A good place to start this confrontation would be Leakey and Lewin's The Sixth Extinction. Leakey and Lewin present a simple thesis: humanity, as it has behaved so far, is a serious threat to planetary biodiversity. Biodiversity, simply put, is the diversity of species that make up the environment; it is the substance of what is "good for the environment."

One could easily argue, then, since human beings have been (so far) so thoroughly destructive of the environment, that "what would really be good for the environment" would be the complete extinction of the human species, after which "the environment" could recover the biodiversity that humans have stolen from it, in a few million years. This philosophy, which we could call "human extinctionism," would be a philosophy of "what's good for the environment."

The fictional character "Crake" in Margaret Atwood's science-fiction novel Oryx and Crake thought this way. Crake regarded the world as so horribly screwed-up by human beings that the whole lot of them needed to be wiped out and replaced by a genetically-engineered "human" species without humanity's faults. Of course, the world of Oryx and Crake was (will be?) screwed up in a really catastrophic way, especially as regards global warming.

So this is how we could actually address the question of "what's good for the environment." What's good for the environment is what resists the human invasion and destruction of the habitats of thousands of other species, and thus only one species (you and I) really has to go out of business to save the millions of other species currently being threatened by human invasion and predation upon Earth's habitats. But no human environmentalist thinks this way. I certainly don't.

Perhaps there are "ecocentric" environmentalists who imagine themselves as putting nonhuman interests above those of humanity. Either they are in denial about the monstrous nature of humanity in regard to any terrestrial "nonhuman interests" that would be out there, or they merely love nature for its pleasurable aspects, as the middle class loves its pets. Neither position amounts to a consistent philosophy.

Rather, "environmentalism" is about the individual human being's attempt to understand her immersion in an "environment." In light of this process of attempted understanding, there are three definitions of "environmentalism" which make sense today. None of them is about "what's good for the environment." They run as follows:

1. "Environmentalism," according to this first definition,is a form of ethical egoism that thinks about its relationship to the "environment." Ethical egoism, as philosophers will say, is basically the belief that "what's good is what's good for me. Arguably, in today's economic/ political climate of neoliberal globalization, everyone is a sovereign individual. As Margaret Thatcher argued, "there is no society, only individuals." So there is no "we" to care for "the environment," only sovereign individuals living within an environment. In this version of "environmentalism," everyone's duty is to themselves; thus the environment must be exploited (by each of us, separately) as efficiently as possible so as to get the most out of it. What else could be good for me? If the environment, however, were to collapse, leading to mass dieoff, as a result of the sum of individual "strategies" pursued thusly, then we, each of us individually, should make sure this happens after (and not before) we die. If there is no "me," in the world of ethical egoism, the problem of pursuing "the good" disappears. (The elimination of the "me," things having come to their bad end, can doubtless be pursued through mass suicide a la People's Temple cult in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Drinking cyanide-laced Koolaid will eliminate each of our "mes" effectively.)

2. "Environmentalism," according to a second definition, is an existential reaction to the capitalist system's physical destruction of global planetary ecosystems. In this version, we can do nought other than participate in capitalism; all other possibilities are to be dismissed as "utopian" or "crazy" or "dangerous" or "totalitarian" or "beyond the realm of possibility." (At the same time, of course, we are hooked on the capitalist system's cornucopia of consumer products as it presents itself to our high-limit credit cards).

Capitalism, as the neoKeynesians will remind us, must grow or die. If the investor class in a capitalist system, the class allegedly responsible for the "innovative spark of entrepreneurship," is to make a profit, either of two things must happen. They are: a) the economic pie must grow, or b) the capitalist class must hog for itself an ever-larger share of that economic pie. There are limits to both approaches, both of which are being pursued vigorously in this era of capitalist development. The strategy of a) is limited by the ecological limits of planet Earth -- the Earth's treasuries can only be taken so thoroughly and so quickly, before the natural regeneration of ecological wealth becomes mass dieoff. The strategy of b) is limited by the amount of impoverishment the working class can stand before it fails to perform its work-tasks altogether. Judging by the enormous growth in the Earth's slums and the exponentially-increasing ecological threats to civilization, both capitalist strategies a) and b) have revealed the beginning of the end of capitalism in the flesh.

At any rate, according to this second definition of "environmentalism," capitalism will eventually die, and take the environmental diversity of our youth down with it. But we, for existential reasons, must pretend otherwise. Because we (in this definition's version of "we")are the professional class most privy to the secret of the corporate, capitalist, destruction of the enviroment (while at the same time being salaried professionals in corporate employ), we must keep our jobs while "doing something (ineffectual) for the environment." We must behave at all times in this role as if we can have capitalism, capitalist growth, and environmental sustainability (aka "sustainable development") all at once.

And so our prescribed path is that of conscientious yuppies who religiously adhere to the advice in the "50 things you can do to save the Earth" book. We know that what we are doing is insufficient because it will not stop the system (whose benefits we reap) from destroying itself and taking a big chunk of Earth's ecosystemic integrity with it. Yet we trudge on anyway, as if each of us were like the doctor protagonist in Albert Camus' novel The Plague who cannot stop the plague but must practice medicine anyway.

3. "Environmentalism," according to a third definition, is about saving civilization by creating a new, global sustainable society that will not create environmental catastrophes because it is based on principles of "ecological production." This is a definition of environmentalism that has been explored philosophically by Joel Kovel, Enrique Leff, Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen, Teresa Brennan, John Bellamy Foster, Saral Sarkar, Vandana Shiva, Paul Prew, and many others. Of course, philosophy won't do the trick all by itself; what is needed is a revolution of sorts, a great civilizational turn-around from escalating environmental catastrophe to direct, universal participation in ecological consciousness and to a phase-out of the high-impact consumer society that is causing catastrophe.

"Ecological production" means, literally, that when we produce a thing we produce, not a commodity, but a series of ecological relationships. The most effective presentation of this philosophy of "environmentalism" has been in agriculture, in concepts such as "permaculture" and "agroecology." However, if we were to create a global sustainable society, we would have to apply the principles of permaculture or agroecology to everything we do. The "we" of this philosophy of "environmentalism" is the human race as a whole. The point of this form of "environmentalism" is not to do anything "good for the environment," but rather to save civilization from its worst aspects.

"Environmentalists," according to this third definition, do not think the way they do because they are primarily worried about how others will regard them; au contraire, they worry first about the proper relationships to have (to nature, and to each other) before considering their statuses within an alienated society.


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